Today’s Leaders Need to Be Great Storytellers

Mar 12, 2019 1:15 PM ET

Ken Chenault, the former CEO of American Express, often paraphrased Napoleon in saying that leaders need to define reality and give hope. Essentially, it is up to leaders to tell their people what is happening now and inspire them by outlining the opportunities that the future holds for them both individually and institutionally.

In sum, leaders need to tell a good story. An authentic, believable and realistic one. But, one filled with promise of a better day, and how we’re going to get there.

Accordingly, leaders need to know the basics of effective storytelling. And, while there is no magic formula for a good story, there are some principles that can be incorporated into every leader’s toolbox.

Some of my favorites:

  • Tell your story like you were telling it to a family member or friend. Too often, leaders get caught using corporate speak or four syllable words that confuse people and make issues more complex than they need to be. Keep it simple like you would around your dinner table.
  • Make your story about people. Because everybody has a story of their own, the stories that leaders tell should be about people, not about things. Leaders often get caught up in talking about an issue or cause by focusing on the system or the politics or the money instead of talking about the people impacted by the system and those who could be helped by additional resources.
  • Focus on conflicts and how they are resolved. Every good story needs an arc whether the story is focusing on a positive or negative narrative. Ensuring that the upbeat, positive story also contains some tension, and that the downbeat, negative story also contains some light, will help keep people engaged in your story and interested in your cause.
  • Be humble. Leaders don’t have all the answers, and being humble allows you to listen to other people’s stories without inserting your own bias and filters. Many leaders are used to being in charge of their messages, so it takes courage to step back and reflect on someone else’s struggles or victories without inserting your own.
  • Stories are more than words. In today’s media-saturated environment, a picture truly can say a thousand words and a video can tell a million. Without sacrificing the written word, try to incorporate visual images into your stories. They will go a long ways toward getting your point of view across – particularly on social media.

While I don’t claim to be a good storyteller, I do like reading stories in the form of contemporary fiction novels, listening to stories on the radio and podcasts, and watching stories on the screen or stage. So, I know what kind of story works for me.

Nonetheless, everybody loves a good story, and today’s most effective leaders need to be adept at great storytelling in order to break through the clutter and inspire others to give of their attention, time or money to a cause or other endeavor.

Portions of this blog post first appeared on Forbes.

If you have a comment or question, please follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and start a conversation there. Thanks for reading and sharing this blog posting with friends and colleagues.

CSR Now! Is a weekly blog by Timothy J. McClimon, president of the American Express Foundation, designed to get at what's happening in corporate social responsibility today -- from the point of view of a corporate practitioner.

Rohan Ramsay
American Express
+1 (212) 225-4623