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Using the Power of Story to Engage and Lead

by Olivia Henson

Do you still have a copy of your favourite childhood book?


Most children have a favourite book, or story they carry with them for life. When I was really small, around six, I loved Enid Blyton’s “The Enchanted Wood” and then when I was twelve, our school book was “The Hobbit”, by J.R.R. Tolkien – still so popular today. I still feel inspired when I pick up my well-thumbed copy of Tolkien’s classic, not to mention “Lord of the Rings”!

Don't under-estimate the power of story-telling in the workplace!

In the world of so-call rational business, we under-estimate the power of story-telling to inspire others, sell ideas and to change mindsets. Everyone has the same set of core emotions, so tapping into these can be extremely useful for getting a message across.

We developed our own business after being asked to “intervene” to help “fix employee issues” and to develop values that employees would accept. (I personally think values are brought to a company by employees, so screening for “square pegs in round holes” takes place during the recruitment process.)

We heard stories of companies struggling to motivate employees; with leadership teams who failed to communicate key messages; companies hiring the wrong “fit” in their desperation for attracting talent; high turnover, and high sickness absence. The stories we heard were tragic explanations for poor leadership behaviour, or at worst, companies taking a victim stance, and not being accountable for the outcomes of actions.

We’ve changed some of those stories and have supported leaders to connect with their intuitive, emotional side, in addition to their deliberate, rational side. You can only change behaviour for the greater good through an emotional connection. Stories engage and inspire, and are more likely to be remembered and shared. I’ve known leaders to spend time creating stories to create can do and have done mindsets. They know that if they communicate effectively, their story then becomes the story of their employees or customers.

Tips & ideas to help you create your story

Use the following tips and ideas to create a more impactful story.

  • Be clear about the intent behind the story. Are you taming the grapevine; seeking to lead teams into the future; sparking action or aiming to promote collaboration?
  • Stories are memorable, and get passed on by word of mouth. They bring people together, so share stories of how colleagues have delivered and have gone above and beyond, for customers and each other. Success breeds success!
  • Teaching stories help to make sense of new skills in meaningful ways. Convey the ‘why’ as well as ‘what’ and ‘how’.
  • Keep a scrapbook of great examples you see in employees. These can be memorable moments, or meaningful events; either big or small. Remember places or specific events too.
  • If you can use examples outside the sphere of work, it will help to widen thinking. Use metaphors, but only those that people can relate to.

Questions to take away to sense-check your story

  1. What/who do you want to influence and why? Ask yourself why three times to get to the crux of the intent.
  2. What statistics, facts and data do you need to bring your story to life?
  3. How will you set out your story; can you describe a beginning, middle and an end?
  4. Have you chosen the right narrative for the reason behind your story?
  5. Is your story relevant?
  6. Is it compelling enough for others to talk about it?

Work through these and check in with a colleague for the appropriateness and also to conduct a trial delivery. If you have your own tips or questions to add, please feel free to add them below!

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