Great leaders understand the power of storytelling


Published on: December 2012

Written by: Scott Weighart

Every few months, we hold a Speak Like a CEO Boot Camp—a two-day event geared to helping leaders improve their powerful presentation skills.  It’s always satisfying to hear how much people enjoy learning to use our tools, but I’ve found that our segment on Storytelling for Leaders is often the area that executives find to be transformational.

At one recent boot camp, a compliance executive shared a riveting personal story with his small group.  During the first Gulf War, he had to drive from one base to another on a desert road in the middle of the night.  Unfortunately, he managed to get off the road… and he kept going.  “If I keep going, maybe I’ll recognize something,” he thought.  But he soon realized that one sand dune looked pretty much like the next one.

He stopped his truck and pulled over… and freaked out.  He imagined all of the ways in which he might die.  Maybe a sniper would spot him, or he would stumble on a mine.  Or perhaps he would die in a less dramatic way: He had no food or water, and the temperatures would skyrocket the next morning.  Maybe he just wouldn’t find his way back.

It was a beautiful, starlit desert night.  He had an idea.  Maybe he could navigate his way back by the stars!  But then he realized he had no clue as to how to do that.  It was comically absurd.

In great dismay, he sat down on his back bumper and lowered his head.  And there he saw his answer.  Do you know what it was?  His own tire tracks!  He turned around and followed his tracks for several miles and finally found the road.  He was saved.

As soon as the story ended, his fellow Boot Camp attendees raved about his storytelling skills.  He was stunned.  Amazingly, he had never told anyone the story—hadn’t thought about it until Suzanne, our CEO, read a list of memory prompts that brought this remarkable story to mind.

Then someone shouted out, “Hey!  That’s a great compliance story!”  That was even more of a revelation.  The story could be used as a metaphor for what happens when things go wrong with compliance: You go off of a path, and you get in trouble… and the farther off you are, the deeper the trouble… but retracing your steps can save you.

Compliance executives have a tough job.  They often see no way around citing rules and regulations in a dry presentation, while their audience suffers through it.  On that day, this executive suddenly could see how he could tell a story to engage the emotions of his audience while making a powerful, relevant point that they would remember for a long time.

Great leaders have learned somewhere along the way that they need to be storytellers. Your annual report is a story. Your business successes are a story. Lessons about failure are also stories that help your important audiences understand why they must do more than just show up. The best stories touch people’s hearts and ignite their energy to act. 

I urge you to go down that road and learn how to tell powerful stories.   The irony of taking the time to look back is that what you remember will drive you forward more quickly.  Like the soldier who veered off that road, the tracks from your history can ultimately lead you where you want to go.

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