Leadership is a word that is thrown around quite a bit with little regard; however, true leaders have always been men and women that were effective at generating buy-in through communication, mainly using stories. Be it buy-in to an ideal, concept, or action. When looking back at history many of us can recall instantly recall some of our most notable leaders quotes be it Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” or F.D.R.’s famous quote “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” Effective leaders use communication to create hope and dreams, and they weave stories that will trigger a response in the targeted audience, humans think in stories, memories, and images. Great orators since the dawn of civilization have known that if you can create a story your audience can relate to they are more likely to buy-in to whatever the speaker is selling. “It is impossible even to think without a mental picture” (Aristotle). Every leader tells a story to generate buy-in by strategically designing, targeting, and delivering a story that projects a positive future (Walton, 2004).
While creating buy-in can often lead to very good things such as civil rights, great leaders have also manipulated the masses to commit horrible crimes. “Adolf Hitler’s strength as a leader is that he almost always works through the power of his persuasion; rarely does he command” (Hess, 1934). Hitler was a monster; however, he using the power of storytelling convinced a nation to follow him down some very dark roads, always promising for a better tomorrow over the next horizon. His interpersonal skills allowed him to rise from virtual obscurity to control an entire nation. Using his knowledge of human behavior and group processes, he was able to use his skills as a storyteller to appeal to the motives, attitudes, and feelings of the people. With his well practiced oral communication he was able to successfully influence large groups of people (Yukl, 2006).
Stories inspire action and give the listener a context for the message; they engage the listener and allow them to see themselves involved. People by their nature are storytellers, in my line of work (automotive sales) stories are what sells to the majority of buyers, and they are not looking for a car many are looking for an image, a lifestyle, or ego boost. Guiding the conversation a good salesperson can integrate the story of the car and the consumer until the consumer is convinced that they are sitting in absolute happiness on the test drive. “Telling a story, whether it be where the dealership came from, or what its purpose or vision is, can be a powerful and emotional hook for potential consumers that simply shouldn’t be ignored, especially as consumers have more options than ever before” (topdealerseo.com, 2008).
When I was on the sales floor I would start with a story right from my introduction to meeting customers on the lot, by starting with “Welcome to ABC Motors, my name is Michael what sales person are you here to see?” The customer (if they were not there to see someone) would look at me strangely, and generally state that they were not there to see someone. If they asked me why I asked, I would parlay right into my next part of their story, if they did not ask I would just jump into it anyways. “I asked because 75% of our business comes from our repeat and referral customers, and since we are not on commission, I always ask to make sure that if you have shopped with us before you will get back to your original sales person you know and trust.” Thanks to that line I could then roll right in to finding their wants and needs, building my story as a go, “this Ford Explorer will be great for family vacations” or “this Lincoln will be the most impressive car in the parking lot at your office.” Be it leading a customer down the path to a sale, or motivating a sales staff that is fighting for every deal, storytelling is the most effective way of relaying a message, and creating buy-in.
It is easy to see how leaders like Dr. King used stories to motivate and lead people, but how does a leader of a small business use stories? It is more common than many of of us realize, leadership experts have been teaching the art of storytelling to managers and business leaders for years. “When a manager or leader tries to communicate, whether in a one-on-one meeting or a formal speech to a large auditorium of people, they have two choices. Either they can lecture the audience with dry, dull data, or they can ensure their interest with a story whose characters and message come to life, right before their eyes. If you’re like most people, option two is probably more appealing” (Bates, 2005).
With new technology, the art of storytelling has changed only in the way stories can be told. With the internet, digital video, instant messages, and mobile technology leaders have more choices in how to communicate with their audience. Leaders today can use technology to help tell their story to a broader audience. By creating their own stories and legends to support values they want to share and develop within their organization. Steve Jobs co-found of Apple Computer used stories based on the conflict of “good and evil” in order to motivate his team, using the film ‘Star Wars’ as a frame of reference. IBM was the evil empire and they were a small rebel force seeking to bring freedom to the world of personal and business computing. He even was quoted as saying “If we do not succeed, IBM will be the master of the world. If we do not succeed in being competitive with superior products, with better performance than theirs, then they will take everything. They will have the largest monopoly of all time… other than us, no one can stop IBM” (Sadowsky, 2004).
Stories inspire, convince, educate, and motivate and these powerful tools for leaders can be used to promote the vision and mission of the organization. But a leader must also build in to his/her company a culture that values that are centrally relevant. A recent example of leadership through storytelling is the last presidential election here in the United States, all of the candidates used many different mediums to reach the voting population. From Ron Paul to John McCain. However, President Elect Obama had won the hearts and minds of many Americans by telling stories; and telling them in an effective manner. He told stories about his life, their lives, and how together they could create a better future. He did this using everything from television to myspace.com and he would tailor his stories to each audience. It is my belief that he will go down in history as one of the most effective presidents in the arena of connecting and communicating with the people. Some people see this cult like following that Obama has created and made parallels to Hitler and other dictators, and in many cases they are right. But Obama is simply using the most effective tools in order to lead and to win elections. “In reality, there’s nothing mysterious or devious or platitudinous or cult-like about what Obama is doing at all: he is using well-known principles of the language of leadership to reach people’s hearts and change people’s minds through the skillful use of narrative. His mastery of storytelling was on display at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Richmond, Virginia on February 9, where he wove four basic narratives into a speech that inspired widespread enthusiasm, and led to a decisive victory in the primary the following Tuesday. He began with the story of who he is, telling the story of the disadvantages he faced as a presidential candidate, turning handicaps into badges of honor. This story seamlessly merged into a story of who we are: we are a people who are tired of the divisive politics of the past. This story then slid into the story of who we are going to be: we are a people who are going to write a new chapter in the history of American politics and get beyond partisan politics with a different kind of president, i.e. Obama. This was interwoven with the story of who we have been: we are the party of Jefferson, Jackson, FDR, and JFK—a party that has successfully tackled great challenges, proud inheritors of a grand tradition” (Denning, 2008).
Countless leaders both currently and throughout history have understood the power that stories offer and have build their companies, governments, and success on such stories and legends. The symbolism in stories directly affects the mood, minds, and motivation of an entire organization. Mastering the art of storytelling is to master the true art of effective communication and leadership, be it a shift leader at a fast food restaurant, a CEO, or the next President of the United States.
Aristotle. (1930). On Memory and Reminiscence (350 B.C.). The works of Aristotle , 3 . (J. I. Beare, Trans.) Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Bates, S. (2005). Successful Leadership Through Storytelling. Article Archive .
Denning, S. (2008). Obama’s Storytelling: the Language of Leadership? by Stephen Denning. . Op-Ed News .
Hess, R. (1934, February 25). Der Eid auf Adolf Hitler. 10-14. (R. Bytwerk, Trans.) Munich, Germany: Zentralverlag der NSDAP.
Sadowsky, L. R. (2004). Stories and Storytelling: An Example of Best Practice of Leadership in a High-Tech Environment. Association of MBAs , 3-8.
topdealerseo.com. (2008, August 19). Topdealerseo.com. Retrieved December 13, 2008, from Topdealerseo.com: http://www.topdealerseo.com/storyteller-marketing-ses-san-jose-day-1/
Walton, M. S. (2004). Generating Buy-In: Mastering the Language of Leadership. New York: AMACOM.
Yukl, G. (2006). Leadership in Organizations (Six ed.). Albany: Pearson Prentice Hall.