The Power of Stories

Lincoln_Memorial_I_Have_a_Dream_Marker_2413 As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, it is an opportune time to look at how storytelling influences action.  As leaders, our ability to tell a story and to relate that story to our listeners can move mountains.

It is important to have a vision.  It is important to have a point-of-view.  But if you are unable to communicate that vision or point-of-view or the need for change, then your impact is lost. Effective leaders turn to story telling – not as in “once upon a time” but rather by setting the stage with “this could be you”.


Metaphors, stories, similes, and fables – they all serve to communicate a point by creating a vision within one’s mind.   Influential narratives tap into one or more of our human emotions.  The more connected a story is with its audience, the more impact the story will have in communicating its message, moral, or lesson.


Stories that are aligned with our collective human experiences tend to hit their mark.  Think about the stories that resonate with you.  You can see yourself as a part of this story – either as the main character or a close observer.  Stories that hit the mark include the listener in the “play”.

Ever read any of Patrick Lencioni’s books?  His lessons are conveyed through fables.  He brings the reader into the story by weaving behaviors with concepts.  We know people like this.  We work with people like this.  We observe people like this.  We identify with the story being told and the lessons being taught.  The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is a great example of this technique.

As I introduce my clients to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI), I share an experience where a team member and I were not seeing “eye to eye” on a long-ago collaborative effort.  (For those of you who may not have been exposed to this tool, the MBTI identifies one’s preferences on 4 different scales:  how we gather data, organize information, make decisions, and the source from where we get our energy.)

She was looking at the project in one way – while I was seeing something different.  The more we worked “together”, the greater our frustrations with each other grew.  During this same time, we both attended a leadership workshop where we were introduced to the MBTI.

Based on our learnings, my colleague and I found that we were total opposites with regard to our types.  No wonder we were having such difficulties working together!  Once we realized this was our issue – and once we realized how each of us contributed to the project – we were then able to blend our different styles and produce a piece of work that exceeded our individual expectations.

Now, I could stand in front of the room and reel off a list of the benefits of the MBTI, but this story reaches into each audience member and reminds them of a time when they might have had conflict with a fellow team member.  My story becomes their story as they replace the players and the situation with their own self and their conflict.  As the door opens for shared emotion, the mind readies to receive the information one is communicating.


You can communicate facts and theories ad nauseum.  But most minds will easily recall those facts and theories when they are part of a memorable story.

Tania Luna’s TED talk, “How a penny made me feel like a millionaire”, is a shining example of how story paints a picture for the listener.  As she describes her challenging upbringing, she could have easily recounted the facts:  a victim of Chernobyl, emigration to the United States, living in a homeless shelter, married to a husband who suffered an equally challenging upbringing.  Instead, her story (in which she shared all of these facts) describes seeing the world as one of hope – with gratitude – where a homeless shelter is a hotel, a piece of Bazooka bubble gum transforms, and a shoebox can be home to a treasure trove of protectors.  It is a memorable story indeed.

Nonthreatening by design

Stories serve as a comparative platform.  Leaders wishing to influence behavior use stories to describe a similar circumstance and the consequence of desirable (or undesirable) outcomes.  Can the telling of a story reward positive behavior and correct negative behavior?

Forbes contributor, Dan Schawbel, in his article, “How to Use Storytelling as a Leadership Tool” writes,

“You can’t … successfully order people to ‘follow the rules’ because nobody reads the rulebook. But people will read a good story about a guy who broke the rules and got fired, or a woman who followed the rules and got a raise. And that would be more effective than reading the rulebook anyway.”

I use the Simmons Personal Survey with many of my clients.  As the client and I discuss his/her results, I often use a story designed to communicate a specific message in a nonthreatening manner.  Case in point

Some survey respondents have an extremely high self-esteem score.  While there is no wrong score on the survey, symptoms of this high score in action might be that the individual deflects feedback.  And as we know, accepting feedback is the primary pathway for prompting improvement. 

In the past, I have experienced respondents who deflect feedback during my review of this very score.  When I warn the individual that others with this high self-esteem score tend to deflect feedback, the response is most often “Yes, I know – but not me.”  We then have a good chuckle when I point out that the individual has just then deflected the feedback. 

As I share this story during my survey debriefs, both the respondent and I smile, but the point is made – in a nonthreatening way.

How good are you at storytelling?  And how do you get better?

share your story in wood typeSome may think that storytellers are impromptu wordsmiths whose mental and verbal capabilities allow them to conjure these stories from thin air at a moment’s notice.  However, a truly good story is one that is slaved over – word for word – and practiced – over and over – until it is spoken with ease. An artful communicator’s “spontaneity” is actually the result of hours of preparation.  That is the first lesson in storytelling.

In The Story Factor:  Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion through the Art of Storytelling, Annette Simmons lists six types of stories one will need to influence others.

  • Who I Am – This is the first place to begin gaining trust.   Openness about your vulnerabillities bridges the gap between unknown to known and the unconnected to the connected.
  • Why I Am Here – Remember Theodore Roosevelt’s words,

“Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

  • The Vision – The opportunity is to communicate a vision so others may clearly see and connect to the intended outcome.

“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • Teaching – Effective teaching stories get to the how AND the why.  Knowing the why provides the listener with a way to apply the new learning in a broader manner.
  • Values-in-Action – What are the behaviors that exhibit the values?  The values stories are compelling – clear illustration of right versus wrong.
  • I Know What You Are Thinking – These stories acknowledge the “elephant in the room”.  The storyteller’s opportunity is to address that elephant so the issue may “lumber out”, and the air is then cleared for absorbing what is to come.

As you craft these six, and other, stories, also think about the nonverbal portion of the delivery.   It is more than just the stories’ words that hit their mark.  Effective storytelling incorporates appropriate tone, inflection, gesturing, and timing.

“When you speak, words are less than 15 percent of what listeners ‘hear’.”

– Annette Simmons

We all benefit from storytelling.  We are mesmerized when a great storyteller says, “I want to tell you a story.”  Therefore, the purpose of this article is to spur your thought processes regarding this art. With preparation and practice, we can connect, inspire, influence and persuade as we draw a picture in our listeners’ minds.

What are your go-to stories?  What is their reach?  And where do you go to search for your content?  I would enjoy hearing about your experiences.

Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.”

– Robert McKee



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