Skip to Content

COMMUNICATION: Storytelling – The Secret to Great Communicators

Recently, we asked a group of people to participate in an ice-breaker exercise by sharing three things about themselves that others might not know.  These items are placed on a “bingo” card and during the ice-breaker people try to guess who fits each item.  When they get five in a row, they win Bingo.  Surprisingly, several people stated that they didn’t want to participate because they didn’t like sharing information about themselves.   As I thought about their response, I wondered if they had this same hesitancy about sharing stories, and whether that affected their ability to persuade others.

Several years ago, I uncovered some data about storytelling that’s important for any leader who is trying to persuade others.  Look at these statistics on the impact of each of these persuasive tools on the listener:

  Testimonials = 12%
Statistics = 18%
Examples = 23%
Stories = 47%
Stories are the most powerful persuasive tool, according to this data.  Why?  Because stories are how we learn best.  Stories are how we convey information in a way that entertains, enlightens, and informs. Stories appeal to both our limbic (emotional) and rational brain centers.   If we want to talk about the importance of performing to standard, we can show statistics or we can share the story of the USS Greeneville submarine captain who, in February 2001, failed to comply with the required standard of a 360-degree sweep with the periscope and as a result decided to surface the sub, overturning a Japanese fishing boat and killing nine on board.  We can talk about the importance of delegating to others, or we can share a story of when we delegated something ourselves and then started to take it back when it wasn’t done the way “we would do it.”   Even when I think about TV commercials, one of my favorites is the story told of the little Clydesdale horse that got rejected from the team until a Dalmatian helped him work out and get accepted a year later.  I don’t even drink Budweiser beer, but I love the story. 

So what is it in stories that we find so appealing?  The answer may lie in the way a good business story is constructed.  First, it starts with a description of the characters and the setting:

“The young woman raced to the bathroom so no one would see how upset she was.  As she washed the tears off her face, she heard herself saying, “I’d rather dig a ditch than work here one more day.”  At that moment she decided it was time to leave her job and start out on her own.”
Are you finding yourself interested in what’s going to happen here?  Can you identify with her feelings about her current job – the frustration and upset?  Good business stories present characters that we recognize in our own circumstances. 

apollo13The next element in good story telling is to have the character(s) face a challenge, whether one that is personal or as a group.  The challenge must be real and cause the character to question his or her decision. 


 “As she shared her decision with others, she assumed they would be as excited as she was.  Didn’t striking out on one’s own sound like an adventure worth exploring?   Every person but one said no.  In fact, it sounded more like, “You’re nuts to think that you’ll succeed as a woman-owned consulting business in Vermont.  You won’t last a year!”  Maybe she was making a huge mistake; after all there were bills to pay and what did she know about being a consultant.  Nothing in grad school had prepared her to be one.  She would be taking a huge risk.”

We can see the challenge she’s facing and, even though this was years ago, it’s still relevant today.  Every time we introduce change, there are usually more naysayers than change champions.  We begin to doubt ourselves, our capabilities and our resolve.  We second-guess our decision and question the risk-taking.

The story must then show how the character(s) overcomes the challenge, achieving a victory that the listener so desperately wants to here.  We are fascinated with “overcoming” stories – stories where a person had to stand against adversity and succeed.

“To convince herself she was starting her first day on her new job, she dressed up in a suit, heels and even pearls and marched into…. the spare bedroom.  No, it wouldn’t be easy to be on her own starting from scratch, but whatever was built would be her own – and the journey would be worth the effort.”

The real test of a good business story is the ability to add at the end – has this ever happened to you?  Have you ever taken a substantial risk and walked into the unknown because the journey itself would be worth the effort?  And then encourage the listener to take an action.  Perhaps during the holiday season, you might share a personal story of your own to encourage, inspire or challenge others.

I believe we all have amazing stories to share of the challenges we have faced, the days of overcoming frustration and disappointment on the job, the time when something exciting and unexpected occurred – even a good laugh at our own humanity.  Stories have always been our way of sharing history – whether in our families from generation to generation – or in our work.  They are the most powerful way to share vision and values, to capture imagination.  Don’t hide your stories; make them a powerful tool in your leadership toolbox.

P.S.  You probably figured out that the woman in the story was me.  I recently shared my story at the Albany Chamber Entrepreneur Boot Camp – to encourage those just starting out that the journey is as important as the ultimate success (click here to view pictures on our Facebook Page, don’t forget to become a fan!)



If you liked this, you may want to read these: 

The Blueprint for ‘Ah Ha’ Training

Building the Teaching Competency of Your Leaders





Who We Are

An innovative training and employee development firm located in southern Vermont since 1984, we specialize in helping organizations get the most out of their people by raising the bar, inspiring potential and partnering with organizations to build a people-centered, high-engagement culture.

Our Twitter Feed