Five Characteristics of Great Storyteller Leaders

Here’s an all-too-common scenario at the start of one of our business storytelling training workshops. While the group is getting situated before the workshop begins, someone will quietly come up to me at the front of the room, pull me aside and confide, “I am really nervous about this workshop, because I am an awful storyteller.” After hearing them out, I will remind that that this is why they are here, participating in this storytelling training — i.e., to get better at storytelling, especially in a workplace situation or business setting.

But I will also comfort them by stating that they are probably a better storyteller than they think they are, because, like all of us, they have been telling stories and hearing stories all of their lives. In other words, this is not a completely new leadership communications skill they are learning. What’s more, I will stress to that individual (and everyone else participating in the business storytelling training workshop) that one doesn’t have to be the most dynamic, theatrical, life-of-the-party storyteller to tell the right story and make it a good one. If one is willing to think strategically about the stories they’re telling to make sure they’re relevant to an audience and their situation — and they’re willing to put some work in the plot of that story to make sure it flows well and drives towards a meaningful point — that is 80 to 90% of the heavy lifting in terms of making a story work.

With that said, if one is going to tell a story in a workplace or business setting, for two or three minutes, they should be a storyteller. They shouldn’t report the story or present the story. They should truly tell a story…and then get back to the presentation or the rest of the meeting.

Great storytellers are each as unique as the stories they tell. And while the strengths of one will most certainly be different than the strengths of another, great storytellers do share some common characteristics that they either consciously or subconsciously use when communicating and/or presenting.

Great storytellers engage and interact with their audience

They bridge the gap between “you” and “me” to make their audience feel one with them. They understand that storytelling is really a conversation; an exchange of meaning shared from one person to another. It is not a lecture, report, pitch, or a seemingly endless download of information. Rather, it is a shared experience among equals in which the audience is just as active a participant as the storyteller, even if the storyteller is doing most of the talking.

For a great example of this in action, watch Steve Jobs make a prank phone call with 4,000 people at an Apple Keynote.

Great business storytellers empower others and their thinking

Whenever we prepare for a communications situation, we (hopefully) think about things in advance; we draw our own conclusions. But instead of forcing those conclusions upon an audience, great storytellers pull the audience (pull, not push) towards the conclusion and empower, enable them to draw that conclusion on their own. That conclusions is remarkably similar (if not identical) to what the storyteller wants it to be; but it is now the audience’s conclusion as well. They feel a sense of ownership for that conclusion because they have, with the storyteller’s help, reached it themselves.

With your storytelling, you guide them down the path, you get that finish line in sight, but you have the faith to let the audience  walk over that line on their own to truly make your story, theirs. When you entrust them to take those last few steps by themselves, they will respect you for it and become that much more committed to embracing your conclusion and bringing your story. One of the best possible examples of this trait is Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the strategically lighter, purposefully not-heavy-handed approach he took in sharing his vision with millions and empowering them to embrace it as their own.

Great storyteller leaders are generous in spirit

They understand that storytelling is a gift. It is ego-less. It is not about personal acknowledgement or grandeur. Rather, it’s about giving something meaningful and special to someone else. In fact with great storytelling, the storyteller is not the hero; the audience is. You care more about the story and its inherent wisdom getting heard and absorbed than you care about recognition or praise for telling it. For as Harry Truman once said, “There is no limit to what you can accomplish as long as you don’t care who gets the credit for it.”

For as Harry Truman once said, “There is no limit to what you can accomplish as long as you don’t care who gets the credit for it.”

Great storyteller leaders are human, vulnerable, truthful and trustworthy

They are authentic and genuine, not being afraid to share their doubts, confusion, fears, insecurities, setbacks, or mistakes. They also invite people in and reveal parts of themselves in telling of their stories, and the audience feels closer to them as a result because they relate to the storyteller not just on a professional level, but also on a human one.

Great storyteller leaders make sure there is a point to the story they’re telling

They are strategic in their storytelling. Rather than telling any story at any time, they tell the right story at the right time, doing so with intent and purpose and desire to specifically shape the way their audience thinks, feels and, ultimately, acts. (For more insight on how to strategically engineer the stories you tell, click here.)

How You Can Become a Great Storyteller Leader

As you start to use storytelling more and more in your communications—and use it strategically—keep these five characteristics in mind. Infusing your leadership communications with storytelling may feel a bit strange at first, but the fact is you already know how to do this because you’ve been telling stories since you first started communicating. Perhaps you just haven’t taken that proclivity and applied it to the workplace…at least not yet.

Be aware that, like any other art, developing your storytelling skills will take time. One solution to shorten the path to becoming a great storyteller leader is to attend one of our storytelling workshops. These engaging, interactive and stimulating trainings combine subject matter presentation, video examples, group discussions, individual exercises and storytelling drills that let you put into practice what you learn so that you keep it in practice once the workshop is over.

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