3 Science-Backed Ways Leaders Can Become Better Storytellers

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Authored by

NLI Staff
As organizations strive to become more human-centric, leaders will need to confront their own abilities to share organizational truths through storytelling.

Stories are an incredible tool. They have the power to move us, transfix us, transform us. They can compel us to change our views of the world and build bridges between cultures.

On the other hand, they can also upset us and bore us to tears. As organizations continue leaning into becoming more human — building cultures and talent strategies oriented around people, not technology — leaders will need to confront their own abilities to share organizational truths through story.

Below we’ve compiled three strategies, based on psychology and neuroscience research, to turn otherwise dull stories — the kinds found in emails, presentations, or all-hands meetings — into vivid and compelling ones.

1. Know your audience

So much of storytelling involves “reading the room.” You need to know what your audience cares about and what will feel true when packaged in a story. In other words, you need to empathize.

At NLI, our framework for helping leaders develop greater empathy is the SCARF® Model of social threat and reward. Each domain of the model — status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness — refers to a specific need people may have in social interactions. People who are high in autonomy, for instance, require feeling in control. People sensitive to fairness require a clear sense of justice or equity.

In team settings, you won’t necessarily be able to discern each person’s particular SCARF® profile, so instead try offering more general rewards — “positive SCARF® signals, as we often say — in how you deliver the story. For example, you might offer certainty rewards by prefacing the story with the fact that it’s short and will pertain to the agenda of the ensuing meeting, to assuage any concerns about going down a rabbit hole.

2. Get personal

Great stories often reveal something about the person telling the story. In other cases, they at least illuminate certain aspects of how the storyteller sees the world. It’s important for leaders to tap into that aspect of storytelling because it has a kind of leveling effect — stripping away, at least temporarily, the hierarchy and status that often divides organizations.

The research suggests this is good for inclusion. In our NeuroLeadership Journal paper “Take the Focus Off Difference,” we present research showing that teams thrive when people feel united around shared goals, and that celebrating each other’s differences may actually further divide teams. As organizations become more diverse, leaders will want to embrace that insight to create what psychologists call an “in-group,” where people feel like they belong to one unit, rather than fractured tribes.

The takeaway: Tell stories that include personal details. Show employees you are all on the same team.

3. Tie it all together

Stories are often meant to delight or entertain, but in an organizational setting the goal is typically larger than that: Leaders want to inspire people to take action. That means any story you tell should probably relate to a broader goal or mission of the team or company. People should understand why you’re telling this particular story, and not some other one.

Why does this matter? Because the brain prefers what cognitive scientists call “coherence.” When we build knowledge, our brain automatically tries to fit the new piece of information into the existing schemas, or network. Coherence is when those ideas fit together, similar to a jigsaw puzzle or a set of Russian nesting dolls. In a coherent system, each part fits within the whole, and we have an easier time activating the entire network when we recall a single component.

Leaders can give their audiences the gift of coherence by relating the topic of the story to a known business priority or challenge. There doesn’t have to be a big, heartfelt moral at the end, but each story should feel relevant to the audience. And that’s because each person will be trying to make sense of what they just heard.

Every leader should think of themselves as a storyteller. Essentially, that’s what it means to lead. Leaders are guides and visionaries. They see what others don’t. And while some use that vantage point to maintain distance from, the best leaders orient their teams so that everyone can see what matters most, together.

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