Tag Archives: storytelling

What stories are you telling?

Best of 2014, first published on October 20, 2014.
Over the year, we’ve discussed how important it is for leaders to create an emotional connection with their followers through effective storytelling.  Stories engage people’s hearts and can mobilize them to support change efforts, where pure logic falls short. — Anita Rios

“Stories are the single most powerful tool in a leader’s toolkit.” – Howard Gardner

This month we have been discussing ways of reinforcing the new normal after implementing a change. One important method is to focus on the stories you are telling about your organization, its values, and the new way of doing things.

According to Howard Gardner, when you tell a story, you are appealing to multiple intelligences to open up more parts of the brain, that allow people to better absorb information and retain it. You are also creating a pathway for people to connect emotionally with your organization and feel a part of the change. But if you’re not a natural storyteller, how do you get started?

  • First think about what you want to communicate.
  • Then, think about what you want your listeners to do as a result.
  • Then, work backward from that.

Sounds easy. Right?….. Wrong. Good storytelling is hard work, but can be a strategic activity for a leader and well worth the effort. It may help to begin collecting stories about what early successes have occurred with the change. Begin sharing those stories and highlight how the change has impacted students, employees, your institution, the larger society, and you.

grad manHere’s a story I’d like to share with you. I have worked in higher education for more than 28 years now and I stay in higher education, because I believe in its ability to transform lives. A couple of years ago, I met a student at one of our community colleges who was absolutely inspirational. He had attended his local college during his last two years of high school and was graduating from high school with his A.A. degree. At the ripe age of  18, he was able to enroll in a university as a junior, with two years of college completed and paid for. He told me how he enjoyed college, the campus environment and his professors who took time to mentor him. He shared how college had transformed his life, giving him options for his future. Yes, he was motivated, and an exemplary student, but without our community college in his rural area, he would have been marking time in his local high school. Providing post-secondary options for high school students is one of the ways my organization provides value to our students, our state, and our society.

People look for meaning in their work. Stories can inspire and engage people in the new way of doing things. And the sharing of stories can create collective meaning in an organization.

What stories are you telling?

Anita Rios


Create a compelling story

 “People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.” – John Kotter

As leaders, we can increase our effectiveness in communicating our organization’s vision and mission, by remembering that we must appeal to people’s emotions first. As John Kotter describes in his book, The Heart of Change, people choose to follow a leader or make a behavior change first based on what they feel, and then on what they think.  In fact, we know from recent neuroscience research that emotion is the fast lane to the brain.

wpid-whats-your-storyTo help people engage with your message and remember it, it needs to be combined with imagery and emotion.  As I’ve learned over time, the easiest and most effective way to create imagery and emotion is through stories. Stories engage people’s hearts and minds. Stories create emotional responses. And stories stick!

Last summer I bumped into someone who had attended a seminar I led about two years ago on Leading Change, she told me she still remembered the Whitewater Rafting story I told as a metaphor for Kotter’s 8-step change model. While, she didn’t remember all 8-steps of the model, the central idea for leading change stayed with her due to the story.  I was amazed!

To take this idea one step further, consider that storytelling can be a strategic activity for a leader. According to storytelling expert David Hutchens , you can create alignment, engagement, and action by telling four core stories about your organization or your part of it.

  • Who we are stories mobilize people around your identity and culture. Remind people “what it means to be us,” and create passion to move forward!
  • Vision stories paint a vivid picture of the future that you desire. When you present the vision as a story, it comes to live and invites people to engage.
  • Stories of Values in action. So your college or university values access and excellence? That’s fine. But to keep the words from ringing hollow, tie those values to credible stories. When brought to life with stories, your values become a differentiator.
  • Stories of Change and Learning are an often-neglected category of organizational story. It’s a risk to appear vulnerable. But if you wish to create a culture of learning and continual improvement, share these stories with a spirit of transparency, humility, and authenticity.

Storytelling is not an activity that comes naturally to me, so I’ve had to work hard to create stories that have the key messages I want to convey, along with emotional triggers that help people engage with the message. (An emotional trigger is any stimulus that activates an emotional response in the listener.)

As Hutchens says, “If you’re a leader, you’re the narrator.” What stories are you telling that communicate your vision and mission to those you lead?

Anita Rios