I recently met up with an old friend that I hadn’t seem for a couple of years. We spent five years working for the same organisation and for a good chunk of that time we saw each other on an almost daily basis. Despite the fact that I christened him with one of those nicknames that refuses to budge, we always got on well. He hadn’t changed all and it was good to see him brimming with enthusiasm about a forthcoming career move. In turn, I told him about my interest in leadership storytelling. He nodded. Then he frowned. I could almost see his question forming.

‘What exactly do you mean, story?’ he asked.

It’s a good question. So good in fact that I am going to break my answer into two parts.

  1. Why do leaders need stories?

Because conveying information in story form enables us to influence and persuade in ways that other forms of communication aren’t able to.

Psychologists have shown that this is because stories ‘transport’ us. The term transportation attempts to describe the way that stories cause an audience to see the scenes unfolding and begin to experience the story as if they were participating in it. When we become immersed in a story we temporarily leave the here and now.

Transportation is important because studies have shown that when we return from the story world, we are often changed. Psychologists Melanie Green Timothy Brock showed that transportation leads to the adoption of beliefs and to more positive evaluations of the characters in the story. They also showed that narratives and other forms of communication (rhetoric) are evaluated by separate mental processes.

We evaluate rhetoric (the boring parts) by a process known as ‘cognitive elaboration’ in which the claims or arguments are evaluated against knowledge and experience. In this mode, our minds adopt a sceptical and challenging approach and we set out to find weaknesses in the argument. Basically, rhetoric puts our minds into Prime Minister’s Question Time mode.

During transportation though, our minds become more trusting and adopt beliefs consistent with the story they have heard or read. Stories make us less adversarial, temporarily. This might be because stories increase our attention and focus, reducing the opportunity for the development of counterarguments. It might because transportation makes us feel that we have witnessed the events directly and personally. It might be because transportation makes us develop empathy for the characters. Perhaps all three mechanisms play a part.

Whatever the mechanism, transportation gives stories the power to influence and what leader doesn’t need a big dose of that?

  1. What are the ingredients that make a story transport us?

Writers and filmmakers have always been desperate to know the recipe for a good story. In the storytelling world people talk about Joseph Campbell and his ‘Heroes Journey’ the way that biologists talk about Darwin. Read it if want to write the next ‘Hunger Games’. But if you are a leader, seeking to influence and persuade, you will find it a bit overcooked. Fortunately, there are much simpler ways to bake a story.

The simplest definition of story I know is also one of my favourites. Annette Simmons says that a story is ‘truth reconstituted’. Those two words tell us a lot about stories. They tell us that stories are really just ways to describe what happens to us. Secondly, they emphasise the importance of authenticity. Without authenticity a story won’t smell right and audiences are quick to detect that.

But I think we need a bit more guidance about what makes a good story. After all, not everything that happens is worthy of an audience. Like Alfred Hitchcock said, ‘A good story is life with the boring bits taken out.’ But which bits should we keep?  

Author E.M. Forster can help us with that. He wrote, ‘”The king died and then the queen died”, that’s not a story. But, “The king died and the queen died of grief”, now that’s a story.’ Emotion then is the difference between non-story and story. A good story always introduces us to a character and his or her feelings, and reminds us of our own.

That’s almost everything we need to make a story, but there is one ingredient missing. That final ingredient is struggle. Without struggle, conflict or obstacles we lose interest in a story. In fact, the moment that the struggle is over is the moment that the story ends. The rest is just tidying up.

In summary then, it’s possible to make a story that transports an audience with less ingredients than it takes to make a muffin. All you will need is:

  1. A character
  2. A struggle
  3. A sprinkle of emotion
  4. Authenticity

Each leader and each organisation has enough stories to fill a shelf full of recipe books. Perhaps the hardest part is deciding which story to use.