How to Turn a Leader Into a Storyteller

600-How-to-turn-a-leader-into-a-storytellerCompanies are run by CEOs, right? Well yes, but I think there’s a case for changing their title to CSO – Chief Storytelling Officer!

Think of Steve Jobs, Richard Branson or Anita Roddick. As the public faces of their businesses, we’ve all seen them champion their cause, represent their brand, and continually relate and reinforce their company's ‘story’ – often using ‘mini-stories’ drawn from their personal vault.

Of course, not every leader is naturally evangelical, but all leaders can develop the art of storytelling as a way to engage their audience. We know that stories connect with people on a deeper, emotional level, and this is critical for influencing the behaviour of others.

But storytelling isn’t easy. Like anything else, it’s a skill you need to work on and develop over time.

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on the most common meaning of story – the anecdote. Every leader (indeed every individual) has a number of these in his/her locker, but the best storytellers have the ability to use the right one at the right time in order to make the maximum impact.

Here are a few tips for putting your stories to good use

Explain something big through something small

Most leaders have a ‘big message’ to convey, which is often the primary purpose behind their organisation, stated in their mission statement.

But to help people connect such ‘big language’ to their own everyday lives, it’s useful to focus on a small example or experience.

Let’s say your Big Message is that we should stop imposing our superior thinking on developing countries, and encourage indigenous people to come up with their own (often better) ideas.

To make this point, you could relate the story of Richard Turere’s ‘lion lights,’ a wonderful tale of invention in the face of adversity.

At the age of 12, this Kenyan boy – a keen electronics student – created an ingenious system of moving lights, to be used as an effective security measure for scaring off lions who were attacking his family’s livestock.

Richard shared his experience on the TED stage and his system has been adopted elsewhere in Kenya.

It’s a lovely story. It helps us ‘get’ the Big Message and, because we warm to the boy, we also warm to the idea. The trick is to find small stories that connect to a bigger point.

Add some texture

When relating a story, you’ve obviously got to deliver the basic framework of who, when, where, what and how. But if it’s just the bare framework, and you use big abstract language, it gets a bit boring to listen to! You need to put a bit of detail in there.

For example, if you’re talking about a successful pitch you made a few years ago, take us into the boardroom on that day.

Talk about how the atmosphere was decidedly icy when you walked in, as if there’d been an argument amongst the panel.

Explain how you set up your presentation in an awkward silence, but that this changed suddenly when the CEO noticed a badge on your lapel.

CEO: “What’s that?”

Me: “Oh, it’s the Autism Society – I have a boy with autism and I’m on the local fundraising committee.”

CEO: “I know how you feel, our daughter has mild autism. How do you cope?”

And on it went… 10 minutes of this while you chatted and bonded. The CEO not only hired you but he also contributed funds to the Autism Society.

Again, rather like the previous tip, there are some bigger lessons to be learned from that small (tight) description.

For example, there’s an argument for not totally separating your personal and professional life, as many people do.

If you go in all slick and corporate, they’ll see you as a sales person and keep the shutters up. In this case, the turning point was a small private issue that humanised the seller, established a shared experience and lowered the barriers.

This story is also an example of ‘required detail.' The atmosphere, the lapel badge, and the turning point around autism were all CRITICAL parts of the story.

They add texture and they help us (the listener) understand what it was like to be in that situation. When storytellers do this well, they effectively re-create the experience for the audience.

Use humour

Judicious use of humour is a great way to win over an audience. I say judicious because if it’s a weak joke, or a gentle poke at the audience, it can misfire badly.

Far better to poke fun at yourself, and perhaps relate an experience where you messed up or embarrassed yourself. This effectively lowers your status, humanises you, and warms you to the audience. But of course you’re a leader, so you have to re-establish your status with some profound insights, or an inspiring story.

Watch how Brene Brown starts this TEDx talk with a bit of humble self-deprecation. It loosens up the audience and prepares them for what follows.

Sir Ken Robinson does the same here, and ex-US Vice President Al Gore spends the first 5 minutes of this talk explaining how he came down to earth after an unsuccessful presidential campaign (“I looked in the rear view mirror of my hired Ford Taurus – no motorcade!”).

Humour is a wonderful way to manage your status as a speaker and form a closer connection with your audience.


You don’t become an expert storyteller overnight. It takes time and practice.

Seize every opportunity to develop your craft and test-drive your stories on friends over dinner or at networking events.

Seek out feedback (ideally from your peers), accept it, and act upon it.

Build up your repertoire and develop your ability to weave these stories into presentations and conversations.

You’ll find people will engage with you more readily, smile more often, and spread the word about you as a voice worth listening to.

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