Tuesday, June 9, 2009

How Leaders Use Stories to Motivate

Audiencej0233034 The audience of 500 senior executives and middle managers listened as the CEO outlined the major change initiative. His grasp of the facts and details was amazing. But after 15 minutes of data, the audience drifted. The CEO lost them because he didn't realize that to reach the mind one must go through the heart. He didn't use the power of story to inspire, motivate, and encourage his leaders to commit to his message. (1, 2)

Do you? Do you employ the key elements of effective storytelling to ‘MOTORvate’ your team? Here are five techniques to help you inspire your team using stories:

1. Be authentic. Sharing who you are involves letting the audience experience your emotion. They will feel the emotion in your story when you do. This requires a degree of vulnerability that many leaders have a hard time exposing. If this is difficult for you, I encourage you to take small steps.

2. Keep them guessing. Professor Peter Gruber tells us “a great story is never fully predictable through foresight, but it is projectable through hindsight." It is how you reveal the nature of your characters, their difficulties, and how they overcome their obstacles that tantalize your audience.

3. Keep them engaged. Involve the audience by asking questions, adding humor, painting vivid pictures, and using the power of you. One of my favorites is to put the audience in my stories. It's as easy as saying "imagine you're walking down the street..." This technique turns an ‘I’ story into a “we’ story. The whole audience experiences the story with you.

4. Tap into your audiences’ prior experience. As one speech coach says, “There are 10 laws for effective speaking, the first seven are know thy audience.” The ability of the audience to connect emotionally to the story is directly related their prior knowledge and life experience. Use what you know about what they know to help them identify with the characters in your story.

5. Practice the paradox of presents. I strongly urge you to wing it when you present, but only after practicing obsessively. That's practicing the paradox of presents. You practice, drill, and rehearse until you know your story inside and out. Then as you start telling the story, you become present with the audience. Only with practice are you able to come across unrehearsed.

These are a few of the keys to telling effective stories. What other tips, tools, or techniques do you find effective in your storytelling?

Keep on stretching,


1. Jeremy Hsu; The Secrets of Storytelling, Scientific American Mind, August/September 2008, 46 - 51.

2. Peter Guber; The Four Truths of the Storyteller, Harvard Business Review, December 2007, 53 - 59.

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