How to Use Storytelling as Management Tool
We all love a good story. When we hear one — not only can we relive it and relate to it — we also remember it and retell it for years to come. There is no better way to communicate with people from different backgrounds than telling an engaging story.
Believe it or not, leaders have been using storytelling as a handy tool for leading others since the beginning of time. Tribal leaders use stories to gain loyalty and legitimize their reign. The elders use stories to help the group make sense of the unknown, strengthen people’s group identities and record histories. Religion leaders use stories to express their beliefs and educate followers. Military leaders use stories to reduce fear and boost morale.
We are in an age where we are constantly experiencing an overflow of information, especially in the workplace. Everyone has to keep switching between requirements and information concerning tasks, goals and strategies at the individual, team and organizational levels; it’s hard to remember everything.
In order to gain buy-ins from employees, it’s important for them to not only remember, but truly understand the message.
That’s where storytelling can play a helpful role.
Storytelling in organizations is “a key part of members’ sense-making and a means to allow them to supplement individual memories with institutional memory”; it is used to find, elaborate and fit the patterns of organization processes and relationships (Boje, 1991a).
Storytelling communicates values, complex organization dynamics and character traits that grab hold of the listener’s attention and imagination, and it helps them make sense of the focal events involved in the story. People who are more skilled as storytellers and story interpreters are found to be more effective communicators (Boje, 1991b).
In a less formal study, Professor Jennifer Aaker from Stanford found that only five percent of students remembered a statistic, but 63 percent remembered a story. Moreover, research reveals that stories can arouse sensory centers in our brains as if we are experiencing the story while the other person is telling it. That’s why a good story can stir up our emotions, attracts our attention, remains memorable, and most importantly, makes complicated concepts easily understandable.
Improving storytelling abilities requires practice. Here are some tips on creating and telling a good story:
1. Paint word pictures
Image-based rhetoric can be very powerful in communication (Carton, 2017). To tell a vivid story to the mind’s eye, you can try to describe background details, expressions and body language of the character and make the character’s surroundings visible.
Describe your story with detail and passion. Pretend to be the character as the one who tells it.
But also keep in mind that details shouldn’t be excessive because they can distract listeners from important messages carried in the story (e.g., Denning, 2004).
2. Plot Your Story Carefully
Stories are attractive for people of all ages; they should begin with a hook, have logical sequences of events, maybe twists, along with a climax and resolution.
3. Identify Your Audience
We’ve talked about the importance of identifying your audience when persuading others. As a special form of persuasion technique, storytelling should be tailored to your audience. Prepare a story that speaks to the motivations, values and emotions of your audience. Tell the story based on the characteristics and responsiveness of the listeners.
4. The Way Stories are Told:
The effects of storytelling can also be affected by how you tell it. Here are some tips:
- Voice: Speak faster or slower to match the mood of the story. Use alternate voice pitches and tones to match the different characters. If you can, change voices for different characters. Practice raising and lowering your voice for dramatic effect.
- Phrasing: Include direct quotes and use their language to make your characters more authentic and more interesting. Avoid textbook jargon.
- Mood: Use body language to express the mood of the story. Be happy for a happy character; put on a serious face for a sober moment. Move around to express action and draw your audience into your action. Don’t be overdramatic or too rigid.
- Other details: Pay attention to speech rhythms, tone, pitch, variations of pace and eye contact. Use subtle mannerisms based on the needs of your story, such as physical jerks, twitches, fleeting grins, frowns and starts.
With good preparation and a lot of practice, you will find storytelling a great tool for leadership and daily work. Soon people will be reliving and retelling yours for years to come.
Boje, D.M. (1991a). The storytelling organization: A study of storytelling performance in an office supply firm. Administrative Science Quarterly, 36, 106-126
Boje, D. M. (1991b). Learning storytelling: Storytelling to learn management skills. Journal of Management Education, 15, 279-294.
Carton, A. M., & Lucas, B. J. (2018). How can leaders overcome the blurry vision bias? Identifying an antidote to the paradox of vision communication. Academy of Management Journal, 61, 2106-2129.
Carton, A. M. (2018). “I’m not mopping the floors, I’m putting a man on the moon”: How NASA leaders enhanced the meaningfulness of work by changing the meaning of work. Administrative Science Quarterly, 63, 323-369.
Denning, S. (2004). Telling tales. Harvard Business Review, 82, 122-129.
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