Powerful Tips on Storytelling and Leadership
The art of storytelling is a leader's most powerful asset.
By Brett Bourbon, Ph.D.
Powerful stories fire our imaginations, move us to make courageous decisions and inspire
extraordinary success. They’re shared around campfires, read at bedtime, broadcast
through television and promulgated in boardrooms. Stories shape our work, our culture
and our lives. Here are four tips from storytelling expert and professor Brett Bourbon on how to harness the power of storytelling, in business and in life.
1. Powerful stories emphasize conflict to elicit care.
Powerful stories boil down to two things. First, some issue or character must be at
stake. A good storyteller takes the time to sketch out a conflict and define a problem.
This naturally leads to the second aspect — care.
Interestingly, the basic structure of a story is similar to the structure of an argument.
To understand a story (like understanding an argument), we have to understand the
conflicts that drive it. Often, we forget that we can’t care about a solution until
we care about the problem. Powerful storytellers emphasize conflict so that people
will care about what happens in a story.
2. Powerful storytelling establishes leadership.
Leaders establish what they stand for and who they are through the stories they tell
and through the stories told about them. These stories create a community around the
leader, who in turn uses additional stories to guide this community. Leaders can also
alienate the community they lead by the stories they tell and the stories they come
to symbolize. In leadership, stories always matter. (Be careful how you tweet!)
3. Stories are tools for analysis and strategy.
We also use stories to analyze and to strategize, even when we don't realize that's
what we're doing. When considering what other people do and why, we are often trying
to come up with a story that makes their actions intelligible. Stories are tools for
explanation. Consequently, leaders utilize them to help guide behavior, establish
goals and pursue strategies.
4. We are all storytellers.
Some people seem to be born storytellers, but everyone can improve. Not everyone can
necessarily invent creative stories, but they can use what they learn about stories
to think more clearly about how to explain things. We use and tell stories everyday;
we call it gossip.
If you think of gossip as bad storytelling, there are two weaknesses that can be corrected:
first, you must determine its source and second, its validity. In other words, you
need to determine who is responsible for saying it and if you should believe it.
This process involves becoming more self-aware, which in the end may not make you
a professional storyteller or a born marketer, but it will help you think more clearly
about yourself and your social world.
We understand ourselves and our communities through the stories we share, and to learn
more about those stories, to understand how they work and how we might use them to
help ourselves understand life — that’s a fundamental human skill at which we can
Brett Bourbon, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English at the University of Dallas and a consultant.
He is a faculty member and former Director of the Master of Leadership program.
Connect with Brett Bourbon on LinkedIn.