Have you ever noticed how some people seem to have a great leadership story for any occasion: always armed with the right story to deliver the right message at the right time? A few people are born with that talent and the ability to mentally compose a story on the spot, but that is a very small portion of the population. The other 99.9% of us have to work at, building up (to eventually pull from) our business storytelling library by thinking strategically about the leadership stories we need, and then intentionally finding those stories, as well as opening up and letting those stories find us.
When you become more conscious of storytelling, you will quickly realize that there is a big beautiful river of stories flowing past you every day. In our Business Storytelling Training, I always encourage leaders to make sure they’ve got a net in that river to catch not only the business or leadership stories they need, but also the stories that resonate with them and for which they might find a need later-on. With this in mind, outlined below are some of the different tributaries you can fish in for leadership stories and, in doing so, build up your business storytelling library.
Pulling Leadership Stories from Your Life Experiences
Our lives are filled with stories about experiences that have, for whatever reason, stuck with us: experiences as kids, parents, athletes, coaches, students, adults, travelers, volunteers, citizens, etc. Some of those experiences and the stories we tell about them serve no other purpose than to entertain and engage others (e.g., “Did I ever tell you about learning to drive?”). But when you look at life experiences through a more strategic lens, you recognize that some of those experiences changed you in a meaningful way and enriched you with valuable life lessons. Those experiences and the stories you tell about them can become an ideal resource for your business storytelling library.
Thinking strategically about a life experience — and assessing the potential of that experience to become an appropriate leadership story — requires you to look at that experience more critically by asking the following questions:
- Is there a key message or lesson I can draw from that experience?
- What thoughts and feelings could that message or lesson foster in others?
- What action or change in behaviour could those thoughts and feelings inspire in others?
If you have answers to these three questions (especially the first one), then you now have a good leadership story for your business storytelling library. Then just be open to finding the right workplace audience who could benefit from hearing it: an audience you think needs to embrace the message of your story, as well as the shifts in thoughts, feelings and actions fostered by it.
Pulling Leadership Stories from Your Work Experiences
Our professional lives can be just as rich a resource for stories as our personal ones. We all started somewhere. We’ve all had professional triumphs, as well as failures. We’ve all had great bosses and, likely, some bad ones. And we’ve all had professional experiences that changed the way we thought about, felt about, and approached our work, as well as understand the higher purpose behind it. Many of those memorable experiences can become valuable leadership stories, used for a variety of situations, most notably when you’re mentoring or coaching others.
To determine if those professional experiences would make great leadership stories, ask yourself the same three critical questions outlined above. If you’ve got clear answers to those questions, you very likely have another story (or two or twelve) to add to your business storytelling library.
Pulling Leadership Stories from Media
And lastly, there’s the deep river of stories we come across every day in the media – stories in world news, local news, business news, sports news, magazines, television shows, commercials, movies, blogs, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. Many of these stories flow in one ear and right out the other. But every once in a while, you might see a story and associated message that you need, or a story that simply speaks to you in some way. If either is the case, then grab onto it.
I love social media for these purposes. Social media for me is likely curated storytelling. And every once in a while, I’ll see a story posted on social media that not only engages me, but also moves me, so much so that I grab that story and include it in my business storytelling library.
For example, there was an amazing video that popped up on my Facebook and LinkedIn feeds a few months ago, of a young boy struggling to break a board in karate class and finally succeeding in doing so. The first time I watched it, it made me cry. In fact, rewatching it just now, it still made me cry (I’m a sucker for these types of videos). But importantly, it also made me think, because there are so many wonderful leadership messages or lessons you could pull from this story, about…
- How you have to keep trying if at first you don’t succeed, and keep pushing yourself when things get tough.
- What you can accomplish and achieve when you’ve got the support of others who believe in you.
- How a great leader not only encourages, but also instructs.
Business Storytelling Can Take Many Forms
When you think about storytelling as “an exchange of meaning between people,” you come to recognize that it can take many different forms. It can certainly be a traditional narrative story, with a plot and characters, tension and resolution. That story may be about you and your own experience, but it could also be about someone else and their experience. Or it could be an analogous story pulled from history, sports, literature, cinema, theater, etc.
However, an exchange of meaning can also be a great quote, an arresting image, a metaphor, cartoon, news headline, video, infographic, etc. All of those things, short and long, big and small, can be ways for you to put an idea out into the room and connect others to it. So, as you build up leadership and business storytelling library, understand not only the different ponds you can fish in, but also the different pieces of storytelling you can catch while doing so.
The more stories you have in your library, the better able you will be to not only prepare for a communications situation and pick the right story for it, but also be in a communications situations, read your audience and think, “I know the perfect story to tell right now.” And then you mentally pull that story off the shelf; but to be clear it is a story that you identified, developed and placed on that shelf earlier. So open your eyes, your ears, and your minds to all these beautiful stories out there in the world, and grab hold of them. Your library, your storytelling, and your leadership will all be the more powerful for it.