Why Leaders Are Great Storytellers

Tap into the enduring power of storytelling to get your message across.

learn more about Denise Brosseau

By Denise Brosseau

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People of all ages, backgrounds and traditions respond to great stories. That's the secret behind the enduring power of myths, legends and scriptures. We see ourselves in stories. We empathize with the heroes and enjoy rooting against the villains. We learn to believe when we observe others' successes, and we overcome doubt when we watch others conquer their obstacles.

Stories are the way we learn.

As you think about your own experiences, those of your team, and those of the people who lives you have influenced, think about what stories you could share that will engage and empower and enrich the lives of others. Great storytellers simplify complex information, engage with metaphors, channel universal wisdom, help us understand the potential impact of our efforts, are willing to be vulnerable and adhere to journalistic principles.

Uncomplexify. Avinash Kaushik, author, speaker and digital marketing evangelist at Google credits his success (which includes more than 200,000 followers on Google+) to his ability to simplify (or as he calls it "uncomplexify") highly complex information on topics like web analytics and digital marketing into very simple, clear language. He writes in his blog, "Occam's Razor," which has more than 100,000 followers, at the fifth grade level (and even uses a web tool to double check), yet it attracts Fortune 10 chief marketing officers and beginners alike. He recommends others to follow his lead. Uncomplexifying is not the same as dumbing down - it is simply making the information you are sharing easier for your followers to understand.
Ask yourself: How can you simplify your own message?

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Engage with metaphors. Robin Chase, the cofounder and former chief executive officer of Zipcar, has built a global following based on her ideas on sustainability and reducing carbon dioxide emissions through peer-to-peer networks. She told me, "I constantly pay attention to whether what I'm saying makes sense or not. I'm listening as well as I'm telling. I am a collector of metaphors, always looking for what makes sense for people. I am constantly seeking what resonates with people in terms of the story I'm telling." For example, in a Huffington Post blog post entitled "Fossil Fuel is the New Slavery: Morally and Economically Corrupt," Chase uses a metaphor (slavery) that not only captures people's attention but gets them to reexamine their preconceived notions.

Ask yourself: What metaphors best explain and engage others with your ideas?

Channel universal wisdom. Chip Conley, the founder and former chief executive of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, grew his company into the second-largest boutique hotel group in America. Along the way he wrote four books about his experiences. He told me, "When I woke up early to write, I often felt that something was coming through me. I believe that being a thought leader is, in some ways, learning how to be a vessel for the great, channeled wisdom that's out there. That somehow it needs to channel through you." He experiences this even more often when he's speaking than when he's writing.

Ask yourself: How can you channel the work's wisdom to your audiences?

Help others see the impact. Every year I attend a fundraiser for my favorite local organization, Fresh Lifelines for Youth, which helps kids stay out of jail by offering them legal education, leadership training and one-on-one mentoring. At every event, chief executive officer Christa Gannon and her team do an excellent job telling stories of the kids who escaped gangs, went back to school, and turned their lives around as a result of participating in FLY's programs. By the end of the breakfast, every attendee pulls out a checkbook - and a big pile of Kleenex. FLY knows that to engage attendees to donate, they need to see a real kid, not a faceless stranger; they need to know that they are having an impact on real lives. If the personal connection is not possible, stories are the next best thing.

Ask yourself: Who are the people whose lives you're impacting? How can you engage by telling their stories?

Be willing to be vulnerable. In 2011, I was invited to speak about women's entrepreneurship at a major women's conference. I was on the stage with two business-owners turned coauthors and a famous swimsuit-model turned successful entrepreneur. I had lots of great resources to share but as I listened to the other speakers I realized that if I wanted to stand out, I needed to rethink my content-rich presentation style. With no planning and practice, I shared a very personal story about a time when my father became very ill, my mother diagnosed with breast cancer and my best friend's husband got a brain tumor. At the end of that talk, a surprising thing happened. The audience members didn't go talk to the swimsuit model or the famous authors. They stood in line to talk to me. In that moment, I realized that our personal stories allow people to connect with us as they recognize themselves in our struggle and journeys. The more we are willing to be vulnerable, the more we connect.

Ask yourself: Are you willing to be vulnerable and share your lessons learned?

Practice journalistic principles. In his book Mediactive, former journalist Dan Gillmor offers a list of principles for thought leaders who contribute to the "emerging ecosystem of knowledge and ideas." These include thoroughness, accuracy, fairness, independence and transparency. While most of these are self-explanatory, I would add that transparency is especially important, requiring us to cite or at least credit those whose creativity and innovation have informed our own and delineate what part of our work is original versus what is based on the work of others. Don't hesitate to give credit where credit is due and take credit when you deserve it.

Ask yourself: Are you practicing journalistic principles?

This article is an edited excerpt reprinted with permission from the publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley brand, from Ready to be a Thought Leader? by Denise Brosseau.

Denise Brosseau

Denise Brosseau is the founder and chief executive officer of Thought Leadership Lab whose clients include leaders from Apple, Genentech and Morgan Stanley. She is author of Ready to be a Thought Leader? published January 2014 by Jossey-Bass. Denise has an MBA from Stanford and in 2012 she was honored by the White House as a Champion of Change. 

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