Tell a Story: Stop Spewing Data

By |2022-06-02T21:57:03+00:00May 20th, 2020|0 Comments

Let’s talk about storytelling and why it’s important for leaders, especially in this pandemic crisis.

In an earlier article blog, I shared Accenture’s tips for what to do in this COVID time. Telling a story was one of the consulting firm’s top ten tips.

“Tell a story. Don’t spew data. People are wired to find meaning and respond best to stories and analogies during times of great stress and ambiguity. What people want as human beings is the larger story, the insights.”

That advice is based on workforce research spanning 15, 600 + global workers in 10 countries and 15 industries. The study highlighted three key areas that workers need from their leaders:


Stories help leaders meet those basic needs. Stories create meaning, provide context, motivate, persuade, inspire.  Stories are a very powerful communication tool – essential for the leadership toolkit.

Let us look at the key traits of effective storytelling for leaders.

  • Be concise and to the point. Business narratives should be 3-5 minutes long.
  • Use the 30,30, 3 rule (30 seconds, 30 words, 3 sentences.)
  • Include a surprise. Surprises not only get your audience to sit up and pay attention, they make your story more memorable. Studies show surprise triggers the release of adrenaline in the brain that heightens memory formation.
  • Use metaphors and analogies. A well-chosen metaphor can add to the impact of a story, or replace a story entirely, because there are already entire stories attached to those few words in your audience’s brain, waiting for you to tap into.
  • Appeal to emotion. Studies show people make decisions largely based on emotional reasons, and then rationalize them afterwards so they feel logical. Great leaders know this intuitively, and aren’t afraid to lead with both sides of their brain.
  • Be strategic. Start your planning with this question – given X (current situation), what is the overall impression I want to create?

Remember that words only make up a tiny percentage of what is communicated, remembered and actioned – less than 10%, so make those words really matter!

Master the Business Narrative

Stephen Denning, author of The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling talks about eight leadership narratives:

1. Sparking Action
2. Communicating Who You Are
3. Communicating Who The Company is
4. Transmitting Values
5. Fostering Collaboration
6. Taming the Grapevine
7. Sharing Knowledge
8. Leading People into the Future

It seems to me that 1. 4. 5. 6. 7. and 8. are particularly relevant right now, depending on the mood of your workforce, phase of the pandemic and/or the life cycle of your business.

Here’s a quick overview of all six story types.

Sparking action – describes how a successful change was implemented in the past, but allows listeners to imagine how it might work in their situation.  Avoid excessive detail.  “just imagine”, “What if.”

Transmitting values – feels familiar to the audience and will prompt discussion about the issues raised by the value being promoted.  Use believable characters and situations and ensure the story is consistent with your actions.  “That’s so right!”  “Why don’t we do that all the time?”

Fostering collaboration – Recounts a situation that listeners have also experienced and prompts them to share their own stories about the topic.   Ensure that a set agenda that empowers the swapping of stories—and that you have an action plan ready to tap the energy unleashed by this narrative chain reaction.  “That reminds me of the time…” “I’ve got a story like that.’

Taming the grapevine ‐ Highlights through gentle humor some aspect of a rumor that reveals it to be untrue or unreasonable.  Avoids the temptation to be mean‐spirited.  “No kidding!”  “I’d never thought about it like that before.”

Sharing knowledge – Focuses on problems and shows, in some detail, how they were corrected, with an explanation of why the solution worked.  Solicit alternative – and possibly better – solutions.  “Wow!  We’d better watch out for that in the future.”

Leading people into the future – Evokes the future you want to create without providing excessive detail that will prove to be wrong.  Be sure of your storytelling skills.  “Where do we start?”  “Let’s do it!”

Denning advocates that leaders need to tell a story that evokes the future YOU want to create.  That could be a tough one when the future looks uncertain.

Here’s a powerful tip:

  • write a letter dated at the end of the coronavirus telling how the company/you not only survived but thrived

The bottom line. Workers want to know:

  • Where am I going?
  • Why am I going there?
  • Who is going with me?
  • How will I get there?
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About the Author:

Jane Jordan is an industry veteran whose passion is to help her clients become better –better communicators, better leaders and better executives. She has been doing this for 30 years. First by founding award-winning media training and consultancy firms, and now through international key-note speaking, executive training and, her particular expertise, crisis management. All of it based on leading theory but delivered with practicality and personality.
Jane may be reached at [email protected]

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