Storytelling – a must-have leadership tool

Storytelling is a powerful tool that is increasingly used by successful companies and influential leaders. Whether it’s a company website, job advertisement, onboarding program, meeting, sales, or marketing strategy – stories are more effective in conveying messages than mere facts and numbers.

Estonians still have a natural tendency to talk about themselves less and modestly, but storytelling is the most effective way to convey information, experiences, values, teach, and inspire, connecting listeners to you and making them want to become a part of the story. Good leaders need to tell good stories!

Why tell stories?

Howard Gardner writes in his book “Leading Minds”: “A leader’s true impact depends on the story with which they identify themselves and how the employees in the organization embrace that story.” Gardner distinguishes “innovative leaders” who use stories to communicate certain topics and “visionary leaders” who create new stories to inspire change. Gardner says that both leaders use words to persuade others of their perspective, and that storytelling is the best way to effectively convey their thoughts.

One of the most famous storytellers is former top executive of coffee giant Starbucks, Howard Schultz. Having been born and raised in very limited circumstances and gotten far in his career, he was able to shape a perfect story for himself as a leader, as well as for the company where employees could believe anything is possible, if you work hard. It is believed that to this day all Starbucks employees know and can tell the story.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, on the other hand, is a skilled storyteller, who can add color and imagination to what Apple products can do for us. These dramatic life-saving stories, have helped multiply Apple’s revenue, when the passing of Steve Jobs could have had the oposite effect.

A story doesn’t always have to be purely about life itself, but well-told true stories are often memorable and engaging, adding humanity and closeness. Collectively, storytelling enhances understanding between the past and the present, improves collaboration, and provides a broader perspective.

Whether a story is entirely true or partially fictional, it is important that storytelling evokes emotions in addition to factual understanding. Emotions are the most powerful conveyors and consolidators of messages, helping to deeply understand people, organizations, and culture, and finding recognition and belonging within oneself.

How to create influential stories?

The most valuable stories in organizations are those that educate, inspire, motivate, and add meaning. Leaders’ stories are often based on personal experiences from the past, ideas, questions, and visions for the future. When creating your own story, you should reflect on your life and the events and experiences you have had – personal values, priorities, concerns, failures, realizations, interests, and ambitions shape your story.

The events themselves may be uninteresting, but by looking for connections and consequences, how coincidences and choices led to the next event or action, and by adding lessons, losses, and victories, the narrative becomes engaging and instructive. Twists, bumps, mistakes, and the learning that comes from them are essential parts of a good story.

Listeners are interested in different characters, ups and downs, how difficulties were overcome and the central character prevailed. How close was defeat and how was the seemingly impossible situation resolved? What did one learn about themselves and others? What is the deeper and true message of the story?

Difficulties, mistakes, losses and failures often create great stories – perhaps even the best ones! Seemingly impossible situations encourage the use of critical thinking, forcing listeners to think about solutions and ignite the problem-solving part of the mind. Such stories are interesting and memorable, but not only. Stories that display vulnerability enhance both the leader’s and the company’s credibility the most.

While good stories have twists and turns, they need to stay engaging throughout. Avoid pitfalls, like stories that are too long, fact-heavy, or solely self-promotional. The story must have a valuable message that resonates.

Storytelling in Estonia

Any leader can become a skillful storyteller, but Estonians still have a natural tendency to talk about themselves modestly. However, with the ever increasing influence of social media and the growing importance of employer branding, we have culturally taken a big step forward and storytelling is breaking ground.

The cream of Estonian storytellers operates as maybe expected in technology sector, where colorful startups have colorful leaders. Kristel Kruustük, the female founder of Testlio, is breaking gender stereotypes in the technology industry with her story, while Karoli Hindriks, the founder of Jobbatical, inspires openness and tolerance towards different cultures through the story of her past and her life experiences, but also through the perspective of her young daughter.

Setting the shining technology sector aside, the story of Toivo Tänavsuu, the founder of the cancer funding charity Kingitud Elu, and his mother who succumbed to the illness, is close to every Estonian’s heart. It was this deep personal experience that triggered the former journalist’s desire to give more days of life to those whose treatment is no longer funded by the state.

Storytelling was also in focus at this year’s Äripäev Leaders’ Conference. In response to internationally renowned storyteller and conference keynote speaker Steve Rawling’s question on how many leaders in the room believed their employees knew their company’s story, only a few hands were raised. At the same conference, Veiko Veskimäe, the co-owner and CEO of an innovative infrustructure firm Verston, who was awarded the prestigeous title of Estonia’s Best Leader at the event, admitted that having had a professional recruiter tell the company’s story had recently attracted the strongest talents in the market to their team.

The takeaway

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has said, “You can have the best technology and the best business model, but if your story is not great, they won’t matter. Noone will watch!”

Storytelling is here to stay, and good stories are an essential part of effective internal and external communication in companies. A good story and a skilled storyteller evoke emotions. Emotions engage the audience, and enagagement creates a desire to be part of that story.

A good story is…

Exciting: A good story is captivating and keeps the listener engaged until the end.

Believable: The story should bring the listener into your world, believing both the events and the characters.

Educational: Good stories generate deeper interest and provide new knowledge.

Relatable: Listeners find various personal connections between themselves and the storyteller.

Structured: A logical narrative structure helps highlight the most important lessons and messages.

Timely: Understand your audience, their information field, and use the right „language“.

Memorable: Use humor, be inspirational, or intriguing, but a good story should be memorable!