The Power of Storytelling in Leadership Communications

February 2021
Share this article

One morning, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs strode into the employee breakroom wearing his signature black-turtleneck sweater. He grabbed a bagel, spread some cream cheese on it, took a bite and then paused. Facing the small group of employees sitting at the breakroom table, he asked, “Who’s the most powerful person in the world?” 

One employee said the name of a famous leader. Another cited one of the wealthiest people in the world. Jobs said, “You’re all wrong. The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda for an entire generation.” 

I recently came across this anecdote on a blog that archives stories about Steve Jobs. I can’t verify the bagel or whether Jobs was really wearing his signature black turtleneck that day, but those details helped paint the picture in my mind and grabbed my attention.

What we know for sure is that Jobs was exploring ways to break into the world of storytelling. He would go on to become the chairman and majority shareholder of Pixar Animation Studios, which has produced some of the most successful animated feature films of all time. 

Storytelling is a powerful medium that fosters connections among people and builds culture. As PR professionals, many of us are charged with creating the messages, plans and programs that build culture inside organizations. But how can we tell stories that connect with our internal and external audiences? It helps to first understand the origins and vital elements of storytelling. 

Origins of storytelling

Throughout human history, people have told stories to entertain and educate one another, to preserve cultural traditions and values, and to move others to act.

As far back as 1000 B.C., people told stories about myths and legends. In the year 200 B.C., people told persuasive biblical stories, morality tales and parables.

By the 17th century fairy tales had emerged, followed by newspaper articles in the 18th century, and visual storytelling through photographs in the 19th century. In the mid-1900s, we see the use of the master plot used in mainstream literature. This, followed by music videos in the 1980s, and the stories told through blogs, vlogs and social media today.

Elements of great stories

The stories we know and love share the common structure of a dramatic story arc. As summarized in Freytag’s Pyramid, devised by 19th-century German novelist and playwright Gustav Freytag, traditional dramatic structure begins with exposition, which introduces the story’s setting, characters, style and “inciting incident” — the event that sets the story’s main conflict in motion. The action then rises toward the climax of the story, followed by its resolution.  

Gagen MacDonald, a Chicago-based strategy-consulting firm, says that great stories go beyond stats, facts and data to touch employees’ emotions and tap a brand’s values, culture and vision. 

Storytelling within organizations

As communications professionals we help leaders build organizational culture and establish trust and transparency. As they set their vision, we work behind the scenes to craft messages and narratives designed to help employees understand how they can embody the organization’s values on a day-to-day basis. 

Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, warns that even when we have a strong strategic vision, it will be lost if we don’t connect that vision to the hearts and minds of the people who must carry it out, since “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” A strategy’s cultural foundation must be established first. Storytelling is a tool we can use to help our employees connect those dots. 

To help leaders within your organization effectively use storytelling, here are some tips to keep in mind: 

  • Know the audience. Work to understand who your organization serves and who you need to connect with. 
  • Maximize data. Make the most of your data whether that’s climate surveys, consumer reviews, complaint reviews or other means of understanding key audiences internally and externally. 
  • Be authentic. Tell the story using the leaders’ words. 
  • Tell people why/how. Communicate your organization’s values and explain the why. 
  • Humanize the story. Share relatable challenges and failures that foster trust and connection.

Take any opportunity you can to gather these themes, information and stories from your organization’s leaders. Listen to what’s happening in their lives. Discuss their values and priorities. Look for ways that their experiences help shape their values. 

Other possible stories to tell include those involving the fortitude, gratitude and innovation of your employees, and how they have overcome challenges. You might tell your founder’s story and how and why the organization was created. 

In her book, “Stories that Stick,” Kindra Hall offers other strategies you can start using right away, whether you’re helping plan an event or drafting a leader’s remarks: Tell the story through your consumer’s eyes. Tell the story of your organization’s value or purpose. Tell a story that paints and leaves a picture in your audience’s minds. 

Back in that breakroom at Apple, Steve Jobs told his employees that storytellers set the agenda for a generation. The same is true for leaders, who set courses for the organizations they run. As communications advisers, we can help leaders find and leverage their stories. It starts with building connections between the leadership you support and the people they serve.

Return to Current Issue The Art of Storytelling | February 2021
Share this article