Lori Silverman explains how leaders can use stories to create greater engagement with staff. She says that seeking different communication patterns enhances relationship building and reverses stress levels in some team members. Silverman demonstrates how executive storytelling can be used to establish direction and motivate teams.
Do the following points bother you as much as they gravely concern me?
Pre-pandemic, if a leader in the US had 16 employees, 12 would have identified this leader as the most stressful aspect of their job.1
Post-pandemic, feeling disrespected at work is one of the top three reasons why Americans quit their job in 2021.2
Based on UK and European surveys, we know an employee’s relationship with their manager overwhelmingly drives their interpersonal relationship satisfaction at work and is second only to mental health in determining their overall job satisfaction.5
All this means something is terribly wrong with how leaders interface with their staffs.
Enter Business Storytelling
Much has been written since 2000 about business storytelling practices. Over this same period, research on story use in business, how the brain functions, and how the brain receives/processes data has demonstrated that well-crafted stories are more effective than data, facts, and other narrative methods (like case studies) at building trust, forging relationships and engagement, sparking empathy and caring, shifting attitudes and intentions, aligning people’s thinking, increasing comprehension, and accelerating decision making. If you are a disbeliever, review Tables 1a and 1b, which share a sampling of business storytelling research.
Despite the evidence for their efficacy, however, business storytelling practices are still not prioritized as an organizational core competence. Most leadership development programs (including undergraduate/graduate business degrees) lack formalized courses. And leaders continue to be taught interpersonal approaches that fly in the face of the research.
When will we learn that the answer to what ails leaders is sitting in plain sight?
What Is Business Storytelling?
Author and storytelling coach Dr. Karen Dietz and I have identified three interrelated ways to define business storytelling:6
Taxonomy approach. A well-crafted story differs from more commonly used narrative forms, such as an anecdote, case study, description, example, news report, profile, scenario, testimonial, or vignette.7 Understanding this distinction is key to business storytelling effectiveness.
Components approach. A well-constructed story used in business (as opposed to one in the movies) has a beginning, a middle, and an end that includes conflict, characters, dialogue, contrast, drama/intrigue, sensory information, layers of meaning, a universal key point, and a call to action.
Experience approach.8 A well-crafted story is a packet of material delivered in a manner that the brain can quickly digest, comprehend, and create meaning from — and then do something as a result. As an act of communication, a story triggers our senses — including intuition.
The experience approach highlights the research, which confirms that stories spark a whole-brain, whole-body experience that produces specific outcome(s). As such, a story is a meaning-making device, causing the receiver to say, “I now know what I need to do.” Other narrative forms, facts, and data are sense-making mediums that trigger responses akin to, “Uh huh” or “Oh, that’s interesting.”
Sense-making does not produce action. Meaning-making is what deepens interpersonal connections — shifting thinking, feelings, attitudes, and behaviors.
Business Storytelling Practices Framework
In my book, Wake Me Up When the Data Is Over, in-depth interviews with more than 170 business leaders suggest that business storytelling has strategic, bottom-line importance. Their responses collectively reveal five story practices (see Figure 1).9
1. Finding Stories
Stories are abundant in organizations. They range from individual personal/professional experiences to organizational stories: the enterprise’s founding story, stories about the enterprise’s vision and what it stands for, stories about what people do and what customers experience, and so on. A leader’s task is to surface all kinds of stories, including their own. The “Story Prompts” section (see below) offers specific how-tos.
2. Digging into Stories
Hidden below a story’s surface narrative are the assumptions, models, expectations, and beliefs that guide people’s decisions and behaviors. Although the technique of one-on-one “Story Listening” (see below) appears simple, it is not. Indeed, it calls into question commonly held beliefs on what deep listening entails. Its use produces fast, long-lasting results that are often labeled remarkable.
Group applications can reveal hidden patterns and themes across scores of people (more on this below). Examples include mining stories from focus groups to gain input on an issue and digging into stories from upcoming retirees to glean undocumented tribal knowledge to manage “wicked” problems.
3. Selecting Stories
Who decides which stories get reinforced and which do not? Or which stories get buried? What role do stories lurking in the shadows play — those drawing attention to failures (e.g., lessons learned in projects) and near misses (e.g., security incidents)? Which stories get codified for historical purposes? Answers to these questions have ethical implications because they consciously and unconsciously shape a larger public and private narrative.
4. Crafting Stories
There is a science and an art to developing well-crafted stories, as evidenced by the three definitions of story. The “Leaders Foster Change Through Stories” section below provides steps leaders can use to capture and polish their stories. This article does not cover the specifics of story crafting; suffice it to say that differing lengths and mediums of the same story may be needed to address specific audiences.
5. Embodying Stories
Oral storytelling is the optimal conveyance method. It is preferable to video, digital, audio, and print due to the power of nonverbal communication and the interaction between teller and listener. Symbols (photographs, paintings, clothing, a skit, relics, and other tangible objects) also provide vehicles by which a story can travel and self-perpetuate (story trigger examples are offered below).
Fostering Connection & Belonging
There are several interconnected techniques to forge interpersonal and organizational bonds in a remote/hybrid world: story prompts, story listening, and story triggers.
Overlooked outside of the hiring process, when interviewees often are asked to share their personal stories, is the intentional use of story prompts to evoke stories from staff and in groups. Using prompts can induce the same magic as telling stories, but only if leaders listen appropriately.
Story prompts have two parts: the front end of the statement and the back end. The front starts with a phrase such as, “Tell me about …” (for alternatives, see Table 2). The word “about” is key. If left out, the prompt becomes a question in disguise (e.g., “Tell me how …” or “Tell me what …”). With certain individuals (e.g., highly educated staff), it can help to say, “Tell me a story about….”
Phrase the ending of a prompt so the person recollects one or two memories. Instead of saying, “Tell me about what happened in the project-review meeting yesterday,” rephrase it as, “Tell me about a situation from yesterday’s project-review meeting that concerns you the most.”
To vary it, include a sentence before the front end of the prompt that adds specificity. For example: “I understand you had an uncomfortable exchange in yesterday’s project-review meeting. Tell me about what happened.”
Questions do not provoke a story; they only elicit small snippets of filtered information.
Story Listening: Being in Service to the Storyteller
Before prompting a story, ensure there is time to listen to it in its entirety. Failing to do so is one way to induce the “employee dissatisfaction with management” issue described at the beginning of this article.
Active-listening techniques will not work. Why? Because they advocate interrupting the teller to ask questions, paraphrase, or empathize. Interrupting shifts control from the employee to the leader and circumvents the natural story flow. This robs employees of their voice.
The best listening technique is what Storytelling Coach Doug Lipman calls “listening delightedly.”11 Whether in person or via video:
Make eye contact (unless culturally unacceptable).
Display genuine interest via body language and facial expressions.
Appropriately express emotions (not using words!).
Use gestures to encourage more talking. If absolutely needed, say words like, “Go on,” “Tell me more,” or “Please continue.”
On the phone, do not mute yourself. Picture the person sitting with you as you listen.
The left-hand column in Table 3 describes actions to take after hearing a story.12 These steps protect the integrity of the situation and reveal deeper content: an employee’s motivations, point of view, values, and current reality. Avoid those in the right-hand column. They subtly undermine employees.
Leaders are often surprised at the outcome when they use this unique listening technique. Why? When telling a story, people relive the experience, including the emotions they originally felt. Honoring the story and these emotions, and then engaging the employee in meaning-making, accelerates the building of trust and psychological safety.
In addition to fostering connection and belonging, these techniques are useful in mentoring staff, handling difficult issues, soliciting input, and overcoming performance problems.
Imagine a 25-person IT department inheriting a dozen staff from another entity. The department currently works like a well-oiled machine — everyone’s daily behaviors seamlessly align to the enterprise’s core values. How can new staff rapidly assimilate?
This approach (which can be used for group learning and coaching, topic exploration, and/or team building) employs story prompts and listening while honoring team members’ tribal knowledge. Follow these steps:
Determine the meeting’s purpose and the number of story-sharing rounds. If there are four core values, there will be four story-sharing rounds.
Set aside ample time for paired story sharing and large-group debriefing after each round.
Craft story prompts in advance. For example, if the core value is “Be accountable for your actions,” the story prompt could be: “Tell me about a time when you took ownership of your job by doing the best you could in a difficult situation.”
Prior to the meeting, send out correspondence that provides an overview of the purpose of the meeting and the story-sharing process.
At the meeting, the leader models telling a story, using the first story prompt.
Pair people and take them one step at a time through one-on-one story sharing, and debriefing for one prompt as outlined in Table 3. Then, reverse teller and listener roles and repeat.
Conduct a large-group debriefing. Ask if one story deserves to be heard by everyone and have it told. Then talk about meanings gleaned and what was learned from all stories. Document this for distribution afterwards. Express appreciation throughout.
Repeat process for each story prompt.
One process variation is to substitute story prompts with story triggers. Have employees showcase an object (e.g., memorabilia or a gift) that provokes the memory of a story pertaining to the topic. For example, when the VP of a 300-person unit was dismissed for not aligning division strategies to the enterprise’s core mission, divisional leadership team members each brought an item of historical significance to a meeting and told a story about how it connected to the core mission. These stories sparked deeper meaning-making around the misalignment, serving as both closure and a new beginning.
Leaders Foster Change Through Stories
Having advised CEOs, front-line supervisors, and many positions in between on how to craft and tell their stories, I have identified three challenges. First, believing that personal stories add value at work. Second, identifying stories that are worth sharing. And third, determining when best to tell them.
Here are the steps I have used with leaders to successfully identify and hone stories for telling in an authentic manner:
Identify the overall theme. The theme is the meaning or lesson needed to spark action. For example, a CIO wanted to acknowledge that a major change would require ongoing, unpleasant behavior for employees.
Identify the story prompt. The prompt that resonated with this CIO was, “Tell me about a time you experienced an extremely uncomfortable work situation and took an action that paid off.”
Brainstorm possible stories and select the most compelling one.
Capture the raw story being told in its longest form via audio. Follow up with appreciation, reflective questions, and clarifying/information questions. The CIO told the story to me. I debriefed it with him and documented the additional information.
Structure and craft the first draft using the raw story transcript to maintain the spoken word and colloquialisms. Unless a leader is skilled in story crafting, it is best to enlist help with this. Crafting is an art and a science, and there are many story structures to choose from.
Polish the story based on the most important actionable key point that emerges from the story itself. For the CIO’s story, this was: “Take a risk and speak up.”
Have the leader practice the polished story out loud until it feels natural.
Story triggers are useful here, too, to aid employees in recalling/retelling the story. One CEO revealed an unexpected item (a whistle) when he told a previously unknown personal story from his early career to kick off a multiyear transformation.
The need to strengthen leader-employee interactions is urgent. Organizations have a choice — to strategically raise the prominence of business storytelling or assume leaders will stumble upon its usefulness. Leaders also have a choice — to ignore how the brain operates or intentionally incorporate story practices into their daily work. What choice will you make?
The author would like to thank Karen Dietz, PhD, for her assistance in developing the content in Table 1.
1Abbajay, Mary. “What to Do When You Have a Bad Boss.” Harvard Business Review, 7 September 2018.
2Parker, Kim, and Juliana Menasce Horowitz. “Majority of Workers Who Quit a Job in 2021 Cite Low Pay, No Opportunities for Advancement, Feeling Disrespected.” Pew Research Center, 9 March 2022.
3Fuller, Joseph, and William Kerr. “The Great Resignation Didn’t Start with the Pandemic.” Harvard Business Review, 23 March 2022.
4“Interactive Chart: How Historic Has the Resignation Been?” Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 9 March 2022.
5Allas, Tera, and Bill Schaninger. “The Boss Factor: Making the World a Better Place Through Workplace Relationships.” McKinsey Quarterly, 22 September 2020.
6Silverman, Lori, and Karen Dietz. “STOP Working Against Your Brain! How It Really Makes Decisions with Data.” Level Up with Lori, LinkedIn Live, 26 March 2020.
7Dietz, Karen, and Lori Silverman. Business Storytelling for Dummies. Wiley, 2013.
8Dietz, Karen. “Story Definitions: What Is Helpful, What Isn’t.” Slide deck, 2022. (Not publicly available.)
9Silverman, Lori. Wake Me Up When the Data Is Over. Wiley, 2006.
10Dietz and Silverman (see 7).
11Dietz and Silverman (see 7).
12Dietz and Silverman (see 7).
©2022 Lori Silverman. All rights reserved.