Updated: May 12
It’s no wonder storytelling is making a comeback in the workplace.
During the decades dominated by traditional management, formal, number-based communication superseded communication expressing emotions and feelings. Similarly, written communication supplanted verbal conversations. Overlooking these most basic needs certainly contributed to the sorry state of workers engagement in organizations today.
As organizations struggle to re-humanize, telling stories emerged as a powerful and versatile leadership skill.
As organizations struggle to re-humanize, telling stories emerged as a powerful and versatile leadership skill that proved effective in a variety of situations, such as conveying a vision, inspiring, influencing, persuading, overcoming conflicts, or simply introducing yourself, among many others.
Let’s have a look at what makes a great story. Although some leaders are natural storytellers, most take some time to design and practice their stories.
Flesh out characters whom the audience will develop empathy with.
Great stories usually share these characteristics:
What’s the point of the story? Inspire, motivate, challenge, trigger action, persuade… A well articulated purpose is instrumental to provide sense and meaning to the audience.
Know your audience
Who are they? Are they more analytical or emotional? Are they friendly to the idea? What are their expectations? Are they looking for information, or are they ready to make a decision? Are they open to being challenged? Imagine how they would react to the story.
Develop a plot with a challenge, suspense, climax, resolution, and solution.
Facts + Emotions
Mix facts and numbers with feelings and perceptions. Images and emotions are 22 times more memorable than raw facts and text.
Flesh out characters whom the audience can relate to, develops empathy with. Concepts, principles, models and so on are not characters. Characters are people.
Classical narrative arc
To give your story some more zest, use metaphors and don't forget that we have five senses.
But it’s not enough to have a great story to tell. In storytelling, delivering the story is just as important as designing the story.
Use body language
Observe, listen and probe to keep in tune with your audience
Keep it short – Beginner storytellers tend to cram too much detail in the story. Don’t underestimate the audience’s ability to fill in the blanks. Leave some space for imagination.
In the light of these storytelling good practices, take a few seconds to look back at people you’ve met who demonstrated great communication or leadership skills. Whatever feats they accomplished, I bet that they were, knowingly or not, telling stories.
Download this handy storytelling checklist along with our top storytelling references:
More often than not, you’re going to develop a story around existing content that is not in a story form. Redesigning your message as a story can make all the difference.
Redesigning your message as a story can make all the difference.
As an example, here is a simple storytelling experience I’ve been through. A manager came to me to help him run a workshop to co-create a vision with his teams. He wanted to present high-level guidelines at the beginning of the workshop as a foundation to create the vision. The guidelines took the form of a few PowerPoint slides describing four guidelines and an organizational model, with facts and numbers. There were no reasons, no people, no narrative, and no emotions in the presentation. It was informative and looked good visually, but it was also dry and not engaging.
I asked him if he could explain how he reached these guidelines by starting three years back and taking the perspective of one of his employees. As he explained from the point of view of an employee, I asked him which emotions the employee felt as it unfolded, what challenges they met. Then I asked the same for three years in the future.
Together we checked all the boxes for designing a good story. Notice how I started with the characters. This is often the easiest way to embark in a story. As a result, the visioning workshop started on a much stronger and inspiring note than it would have with the original approach.
People often express some fears about telling stories in the workplace. Most are unfounded but there are sometimes reasons to proceed with caution.
Storytelling is an innate skill
Although some people have a head start, storytelling can be learned. No need to take creative writing or acting classes. A healthy dose of practice and experimenting will do it.
Storytelling is for big occasions
Looking up storytelling online will produce many great examples that take place in renowned venues such as TED talks and top-level conferences. However, believing that storytelling is reserved for such grandiose occurrences cannot be farther from the truth. Stories can and should be part of everyday workplace conversations. As you practice telling stories, you’ll notice that your storytelling skill will progressively and unconsciously infiltrate your regular conversations and meetings.
Stories can and should be part of everyday workplace conversations.
Likewise, Stories don’t have to be elaborate. Most stories are very short, and some can be told in as little as 30 seconds.
Storytelling won’t fit in our work culture
This is where you should proceed with caution. Stories have different intensities. Some can easily fit in more traditional settings such as a management meeting. Some would fall flat in the same management meeting. In my experience, there’s always place for a little story, but you must know your audience. Start small.
For those who are still skeptical, neuroscience provides very compelling scientific evidence for the effectiveness of storytelling. Chemicals are released in the brain when we’re told a story. Cortisol helps imprint memories, dopamine keeps us engaged, and oxytocin boosts empathy.
Experiment with storytelling !
You can read and talk about storytelling all you want, but you’ve got to practice it to get better and unleash its power.
Identify a situation where you could benefit from telling a story. It could be a presentation, a workshop, a committee where you want to persuade others, a 1-to-1 meeting, and so on.
Refer to the checklist above to prepare. Practice a few times to make sure you have the key points and narrative in mind. Keep it natural; don’t overprepare. Approach it as an experiment; don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
After the experiment, take a few minutes to debrief: What went well? What could you improve? Are there other opportunities to tell stories? Can someone help you (just to get feedback for example) or can you help someone else with storytelling?
Repeat. After a while, it will come effortlessly.
Bruno Collet advises and coaches leaders to develop the individual and organizational capability to anticipate and react to changes better and faster. In one word: Agility. His approach relies on action-learning with concrete practices, skills and behaviors. Bruno Collet executed top-level missions with several organizations internationally. He is also a recognized speaker, author and is accredited ICAgile instructor. Bruno Collet holds an MBA, MSc., as well as several certifications such as PMP, PMI-ACP, ICP-LEA (Leading with Agility), ICP-ORG (Adaptive Organization), ICP-ENT (Enterprise Coaching) and ICP-AHR (Agile Human Resources).