February 15, 2023

Leadership Storytelling: Evolving from team to culture

Learning to harness storytelling is one of the most powerful things leaders can do to start creating a shared culture in their teams and inspiring them to action.

Picture of By Stuart Paap

By Stuart Paap

Never Miss an Article or Podcast - Subscribe To Our Newsletter

You’re up at the front giving a presentation or hosting a meeting and gaze around the room (or down the zoom gallery):

  • you’re met with vacant stares,
  • side-conversations, or 
  • team members on their laptops and phones. 

If this sounds familiar to you, you’re probably also familiar with the lack of action that comes afterward – While your audience might be hearing the words you’re saying, they aren’t hearing the message.

Yet, effective leaders know good communication is often not about the message they’re delivering, but how the message lands, which often is a direct result of how it’s delivered.

Enter storytelling,

In a time of burnout after years of pandemic induced isolation, disconnected remote workers trying to connect over new channels, and millennials searching for purpose in their work, storytelling is becoming even more critical to capturing the attention of our teams and delivering powerful messages.

So why exactly is storytelling such an important leadership trait? How does it work and how can you use it to bring about alignment and real change in your own teams? Read on to find out.

Why stories matter

Cultures are founded on stories – stories that tell us who we are, the challenges we face and how we will defeat them together. 

Stories have always been part of the human experience. 

Every culture’s past is preserved in stories about who they are, and these same storytellers use stories to connect the past to the future. This is true for families, nations and yes, workplaces.

Stories work because of empathy – the ability for our listeners to feel the feelings themselves that we are conveying in our stories. In fact, studies of MRI’s have shown that listening to stories causes different parts of the brain to light up as the listener connects memories, feelings, sights and sounds to the story being told.

It goes even further though – once the listener is engaged in the storyteller’s message, their brain waves actually begin synchronizing. At that point, you can rest assured your message is landing and you and your listeners are on the same page.

How can organizations use stories?

Remember when I said stories tell cultures about who they are? 

The same thing happens in organizations.

If you’ve ever been part of a family owned and operated business, you no-doubt have heard the stories of how the organization came to be, the values that mattered to the founders and experienced the strong sense of collective ownership and stewardship that comes with that. The employees are often part of “the family.”

This is a prime example of how stories have created an organizational culture and really demonstrates the difference between reading about the mission and values for your company, and feeling them. It also perfectly shows why stories really matter to strong organizations:

  1. Stories create and shape shared culture
  2. Shared culture creates shared ownership
  3. Shared ownership creates responsibility and positive action

This can happen at the company level but also at the department level, and even the team level.

In fact, storytelling has been used to great effect in the medical industry for decades to bring together teams of medical experts during Grand Rounds and engage in learning about cutting edge issues through solving complex cases together. 

So how can leaders learn to tell compelling stories that drive this kind of connection and commitment?

How to tell a story

Being a leader means that whatever message you are delivering is going to be amplified by your status

That can be really good, or – if you’re delivering the wrong message, or delivering the right message the wrong way – it can be really bad.

Before you go out and start telling stories, there are a few important things you need to keep in mind.

Know your audience

Your team members all have their own experiences and values. In fact your team might be made up of microcultures from different offices, roles or work arrangements.

Take some time to get to know your team, ask simple questions to start and aggressively listen. That means spending time with them and actively focussing on everything they are saying. Finding ways to connect your experiences and build a foundation of empathy. 

Building relationships help you understand how to connect to them in your stories and how your messages will land with them.

Asian team creative business people laughing at a leader's storytelling

Find your purpose and shape your story

When you’re planning your story you need to think about  three key things:

  • What is the reason you’re communicating?
  • How do you want people to feel?
  • What does the future look like?

The answers to those questions feed into the structure of your story. 

Stories traditionally follow a three-act structure – we are wired to expect an introduction, a conflict and a resolution. The reason you’re communicating is the introduction, this presents a conflict that your listeners can connect with and then a vision of the future that can inspire change as a resolution.

The goal is to create an influential story that taps into your listeners’ empathy and creates a shared purpose and leaves them with meaningful actions they can take.

Business people listening to leadership's storytelling at break

Choose your words carefully

It’s important to plan out your stories, and carefully choose the words you will use. 

Remember, stories create empathy by connecting to listeners’ memories and experiences. 

The way you tell the story can make the difference between a filet mignon delicately balanced on a bed of pomme frites and layered with a creamy bearnaise sauce, and a tough steak and soggy mashed potatoes in a cardboard takeout box – same ingredients but very different results.

Adult woman leader on a virtual meeting with team using storytelling

The virtual circle time

Storytelling is an intentional act – you need to know your audience, your message and your delivery. But in the modern office, it’s been made even more challenging by changes in how we work and communicate.

Many years ago, a leader could simply call an all-team meeting and stand in front of, or sit with, their team and deliver a message. You could look around the room and see whether people were connecting, find the right people to call on to engage the group and easily engage in relationship building social banter before and after the meeting.

Now, things have changed. Your team might be partially in the room, partially on a computer somewhere else, or even fully remote. It adds a real layer of challenge when you can’t feel the room.

The good news is, even in the era of human-like AI like ChatGPT, the fundamentals to connecting with people are the same. Building culture through shared experiences is a human touch that won’t be replaced anytime soon – you just need to figure out how to harness it in a world of technology.

The most important thing

One of the biggest mistakes leaders of remote workers make is failing to connect outside of meeting times. Just like your in-person staff, it’s critical to spend time with them building relationships.

If you want your team to trust and invest in you, you need to show you’re invested in them by taking time to get to know each other.

Take the time to call them and find out about their lives. Go deeper than “how is your day going?” and get to know what they did in their off-time, what things are happening in their lives and what they’re looking forward to. You’ll likely find loads of intersections and these shared experiences will help build rapport.

You can do this with the wider team too – join a call early or plan in a few minutes to just chat before you kick off the zoom meeting.

Online meeting, businessman inside office storytelling remotely online with colleagues

Bring everyone together

Think way back to your childhood, gathering around the kindergarten teacher or librarian on a rug for story time. If you can remember that feeling, or have your own young children, you can likely remember the little heads tilted towards the reader, absolutely engaged in every word.

There are a few things you can do to bring everyone into your virtual story time: 

1. Check in with everyone before you start.

Make sure they can hear you and see you. Don’t just ask one person to confirm, ask the question to the group as a whole – this signals to them you are about to begin and that they should be listening to you.

2.  Make cameras “on” your culture.

Some people don’t like being on camera, get worried about their appearance and stress over whether people are looking at them. It’s important to create a safe space and culture of having cameras on so you can see their expressions and how they react to your story. Start with your camera, and make sure all of your leadership team is doing the same. From there you can work on the holdouts. 

3. Get the right gear.

There’s nothing worse than joining a meeting remotely that’s being held in a big room without the proper gear. You can’t see anyone, you can’t hear the presenter and you likely end up feeling totally disconnected.

If you’re leading hybrid meetings, meeting room cameras and microphones are a game changer. Meeting room cameras from companies like Owl Labs, Logitech and Microsoft offer features like 360 degree cameras and directional microphones that pick up all the speakers in the room. These often have features that can follow and focus on the speaker while still showing everyone in the room and it really makes a difference in feeling like you are part of the meeting when you’re remote.

4. Help them connect to the team

Long periods of remote work can leave people feeling isolated. As a leader, it’s your job to help them feel connected to you and the rest of the team.

You can start your call with a personal story as an icebreaker to get the conversation started. From there, consider inviting one of your remote team members to share something about their own life or day so they can get involved in the group discussion.

How to lead with more stories

Leadership is all about building shared identity and commitment to drive towards an ultimate strategy. 

Storytelling is one of the best tools leaders can use to connect with their teams and deliver powerful messages that unite and motivate them. 

You can start using storytelling now to start shaping the culture by following these steps:

  • Get to know your team and start building rapport
  • Figure out the story you want to tell – why you need to tell it, how should they feel and how it will end
  • Choose your words carefully so your message lands
  • Bring everyone together – even if they’re remote – by keeping cameras on and using conference camera technology to invite people to the virtual story circle

 Looking for more information on how to harness the power of storytelling? 

Read: The Power of Storytelling: Selling the Future of Medicine

Watch: TED | How your brain responds to stories – and why they’re crucial for leaders | Karen Eber | TEDxPurdue

Do: Connect through empathy and create culture through shared experiences.

Contact: Get in touch below and ask to take our exclusive influence styles assessment.

Additional Reading: