Using Storytelling to Effectively Communicate
Gabrielle Dolan, an expert on authentic leadership and storytelling and author of Stories for Work, sat down with Sara Moulton, Editor of HQ Asia, for a discussion on how established and emerging leaders can create impact with stories
A good story
When Gabrielle Dolan begins explaining the makeup of a story, she starts by sharing a quote by Aristotle: “A whole [story] is that which has a beginning, middle and end.” What do good stories do? They appeal to emotion, include sensory details, are authentic, and are purposeful. Dolan explains that a purposeful story, a good story, has a clear message. This is essential: for a story to resonate with the audience, leaders need to have an authentic story with a clear message and a clear purpose.
To be sure that your story resonates with your team, your peers, your audience, you must be prepared to be vulnerable, says Dolan. The stories you tell do not need to be about life-making or life-breaking experiences.
“The most powerful stories to share are often the day-to-day ones. Life is rich in stories -- you just have to identify them,” she explains.
Why stories matter for leaders
Dolan recommends that leaders reflect on their core role. As a leader, two core responsibilities are communicating clearly and influencing people. One way to do this is with logic; however, logic alone often does not work.
However, logic paired with a relevant story means a memorable experience for your audience. The key is including a story. You want your audience to understand and make connections, and one way to do that is through weaving stories into your presentations or discussions. Dolan notes that this is an opportunity that many leaders pass over. “Too many leaders in business believe that having an important message to share, such as the new strategy or a technical change, is reason enough to listen. But storytelling is deeply rooted in making an emotional connection with another person.”
Dolan shares the example of a leader, Anne, who was in charge of rolling out new corporate values at a national bank. One of the values is “doing the right thing.” Dolan began by asking the leader what that value meant to her, and what story came to mind. Anne told Dolan the story of her father:
My Dad was a professional swimmer when he was young and at 16 years old, he was in the backstroke finals to make it to the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games team for Australia.
Dad flew out of the blocks and was out in front of all his competitors and as he approached his turn at the 50 metres, he missed the wall …Knowing he hadn’t made the touch, he swam back, touched the wall and kept racing.
Dad came in 7th that day and missed out on making the Olympic squad. After finishing the judges told him that they hadn't seen the missed touch (it was well before technology recorded this) and if he had kept going, he would have come first and broken a World record.
Dad would always tell my sister and I that he has never regretted that split moment decision and even though the judges didn’t see the missed touch, he knew he had missed it and he knew it was the right thing to do. For me doing the right thing is a lifelong lesson shown to me by my Dad and the integrity he showed that day...we will know we are doing the right thing when we go back and touch that wall.
Dolan asked Anne to share her father’s story with her colleagues. When someone on Anne’s team needed to make a decision, they kept the values in mind and asked, “Do we need to go back and touch the wall?”
If you are an established leader who wants to be more impactful, Dolan recommends starting by accepting that personal stories are powerful. Accept that you can be vulnerable and professional. Accept that you can share a story about failure and still be professional. “Failures and lessons learnt can be the most powerful. Clients especially like to hear how you have failed in the past and what you have learned,” says Dolan. Lastly, if you expect your team to tell stories, then recognise that this starts with role modelling from the top. For CEOs and senior leaders, you must role model storytelling if you want to get buy-in from your team and the company’s employees.
If you are an emerging leader asking How does this apply to me? Well in many ways, you are ahead of the game. Dolan’s advice is to “have the courage to share vulnerabilities from the very beginning of your career. Storytelling is not just with the people you lead -- it is with your peers, it belongs in conversations with your boss and skip-level boss, it is for job interviews.”
How to get started
Dolan shares the four main story archetypes that you can use:
- Triumph. These are stories of achievement. When telling these stories, Dolan recommends focusing on how much the experience means and why the achievement was significant to you.
- Tragedy. These stories can be about tragic circumstances or stories of regret. Dolan notes that you get to decide what to share and whom you share it with. Remember that you are in charge and in control of how much you share.
- Tension. These stories are about conflict driven by your values, loyalties, or obligations. Dolan recommends looking for the day-to-day too. She also recommends not focusing on just the decision you had to make-- focus on the inner struggle and the tensions caused.
- Transition. These stories are about key transitions in life. Dolan notes that taking the audience through your thoughts and feelings in the moments of the transition is very powerful. Be careful to not just go through the logistics of the event -- that is not a story.
For a story to work, it needs to be authentic and purposeful. Before sharing your story, ask yourself:
- Why am I sharing this particular story? What does it prove? How does it relate to my current business situation?
- Is my story completely true? Am I sharing what really happened
Start small by including an anecdote in your next team meeting or in a catch-up. Just remember to connect the message and the story. “Anyone who works in business must sit up and take note of these findings, especially that it’s emotion, not logical information, that helps us to remember messages,” explains Dolan.