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Why Leaders Should Tell Stories

Updated: Jan 11, 2021

Long before the first formal business was established... the six most powerful words in any language were ‘Let me tell you a story...'

Mathews & Wacker

Story telling is…

Professor Jay Conger, London Business School says that we need to be able to tell memorable stories to aid recall. As leaders we tend to talk a lot! Our followers (in fact all of us) have a delete button in our brains that we press all day long - we get rid of bits of data we don’t need. So as leaders we need to find ways to make our words stick and stories are great ways to do this.

Research into retention rates state:

· Share just statistics and there is a 5-10% retention

· Share statistics and a story – 25-30% retention

· Share a story – 65-75% retention

Conger says there are some distinguishing dimensions a good story should have:

· Only two or three characters

· A simple plot with a central message

· A memorable phrase repeated

· Visuals to recall core themes

· An emotional dimension

In a recent Harvard Business Review article ‘Finding the Right Words in a Crisis’ by Carmine Gallo she stated:

‘The human brain is also wired for storytelling. In his best-selling book Sapiens, historian Yuval Noah Harari argues that it was only through stories that our species was able to conquer the world. Our advanced language skills — specifically, our ability to connect with one another through narrative — allowed us to cooperate in ways other species could not.

Cooperation is essential in a crisis, so effective leaders need to be strong storytellers.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s Coronavirus Response Coordinator, is a case in point. She has built a reputation for using personal stories to connect with her audiences. On March 25 she told a heart-wrenching story to underscore the importance of social distancing.

Birx’s grandmother, Leah, was just 11 years old during the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed some 50 million people. Leah caught the flu and infected her mother, who had a comprised immune system and died from the disease. “[Leah] never forgot that she was the child who was in school who innocently brought that flu home,”Birx said. “My grandmother lived with that for 88 years. This is not a theoretical. This is a reality.”

Birx told the story to reinforce her key message: All Americans play a role in protecting one another. The message appears to be working. On April 8, she announced that expected deaths from Covid-19 had dropped from earlier forecasts because “Americans are…following through on these behavioral changes.”’

What stories could you share that might help others during this current crisis?


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