The Power of Storytelling

Source: Institute for Digital Transformation 

Author: Cherri Holland

Storytelling has become synonymous with great leadership and is an effective way to captivate and engage an audience. Storytelling can make complex topics more accessible and can help build positive connections both inside and outside your organisation.

In a world of big data and robots interacting with machines, what is the relevance of good, old-fashioned storytelling?

A recent example springs to mind from work done with Library services. (Who knew that librarians are assessed according to how many new library cards they issue i.e. ‘sell’?) Instead of simply reporting stats to the local authority each month, librarians realized the power of a story about a mum leaving prison who went straight to her local library to join as a direct result of librarian visits to the prison. Imagine the impact not only on her life and that of her children, but her extended family as well.

Many ask the following questions about storytelling:

  1. Why use stories – why/how do they work?
  2. What are ‘stories’? (The essential elements)
  3. What situations suit stories – when can they be used?
  4. What types of stories are there?
  5. How can YOU use storytelling?

1. Why Use Stories – Why/How Do They Work?

Assuming you want information you present to be remembered and absorbed, the key points are:

  • How much neural (brain) response there is to the information when it is presented. Are there connections all over the brain, or only in one small area? The more the better.
  • Is the area stimulated by the information already myelinated i.e. has that part of the brain already had past thought traffic? If so, the information will stick more strongly, for longer.

Stories score higher on both these aspects than disconnected bits of information, stimulating a more active brain response resulting in more involvement and therefore, engagement.

Add emotion, and you have the ingredient that drives attention and even action. Many in the Health & Safety field know the difference in effect between lecturing about policy compliance and relaying a (preferably true) story about a devastating accident.

2. What Are ‘Stories’? (The Essential Elements That Comprise a ‘Story’)

Some define stories narrowly. According to Jean Storlie, “I am getting a little frustrated with the loose way that people define their communications as storytelling. Story depicts what happened through people, place, and plot and brings emotional context into the portrayal of what happened. (There is) conflict and resolution in the storyline…..”

Call me loose: here are the simple elements in my kind of story (which includes Storlie’s ‘stories’ as a subset. This list also includes the types of stories described by Bronwyn Fryer in a great article worth reading.

  • Setting
  • Storyline
  • Characters
  • Message – moral

Setting: “It was a balmy Sunday afternoon…………” Storyline – obvious. Characters don’t have to be human; can be animals or imaginary creatures. Message: every story must have a moral for it to qualify, in my book.

One of my favorites is Dr Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. In change leadership, isn’t it so true that people often resist change (imposed on them), then get used to, and can even enjoy, the green eggs and ham.

A simple story that still qualifies using the above list is this (abridged):

Unhappy customer marches up to the front desk in a busy cinema cafe and demands: “Who’s in charge here?”

Service person replies: “You are sir. What would you like?”

Less than 30 words – all 4 elements. (Apparently a true story).

I frequently use the Alcoa story relayed by Joshua Kerievsky – in just a few minutes, the audience gets a powerful message about leadership with a strong moral compass. It speaks volumes about the difference between Wall Street and High Street.

3. What Situations Suit Stories – When Can They Be Used?

Stories can be effective in any or all of the following situations…….To:

  • get people onside in support of a cause or recommendation
  • change thinking and behaviour
  • educate – learn a new concept or skill
  • inform (although stories are really for when you need to influence a response rather than do an information dump)
  • sell (although be aware that an audience being ‘sold to’ will have defensive filters due to centuries of snake-oil sales practices)
  • get voted into power – many of us have stories about that one!

4. What Types Of Stories Are There?

Here is a list of categories that may stimulate your imagination for how to use stories in your own situation. Two broad categories are PROSE and POETRY. Most of us use the prose format in business, but I have used poems when teaching. In prose, there is fact or fiction (and there could be a combination of these), with some well-known examples below.


– case studies: NASA story about high performance teams or F1 pit crew practices to get a car back to the race track in seconds.

– anecdotes: personal (when something happens to you personally) or third party (e.g. the customer service story above). I have used the former when getting a business owner to explain to staff WHY he/she started the business. This can be very inspiring.


– classic ‘story’ – fantasy or documentary format

A classic fictional story is “The Ill-Informed Walrus”. Worth a read!

An example of fantasy is a story created by tech clients I worked with when they were teaching new software. They created a tale about a fantasy creature guiding the user through a dark, scary forest to a safe, scenic area. They not only had the courage to use it in their training session at work but loved the response they received and claimed the user learning was far better than with previous releases. Documentary format refers to a story such as one with two characters: one shows how to do something and the other how not to do it.

Contrast “Who Moved My Cheese” (fiction) and “Fish!” from Pike Fish Place Co. in Seattle (fact). Both are stories using the above criteria and both work to change the way people think, feel and act.

5. How Can YOU Use Storytelling?

Here are some basic steps:

Choose your message

Identify the audience

Choose fact or fiction, prose or poetry that works for the specific audience

Choose delivery method: F2F, meeting, web etc

Test it!

Use it

Assess the impact (change where needed)

A final word of caution: you cannot dig yourself out of a credibility hole with a clever story. Human beings have a built in “BS” detector. Instead, work hard at building credibility with audiences on whose support you rely for success in all the old fashioned ways….spending time getting to know what is important to them, valuing them, sharing concerns and finding solutions together. When you have credibility as a person, then when you tell a story, it will really ‘hit home’.


 “Difference between a case study and a story?” by Jean Storlie, MS, RD, President, Storlietelling LLC October 22, 2014.

 “Storytelling that moves people” by Bronwyn Fryer, HBR, June 2003

 “A super customer service story.”

 Joshua Kerievsky at Agile, Kiev 2016.

 “The Ill-Informed Walrus”

Cherri Holland is a performance and change specialist who works with leaders transforming their organisations in response to market pressures, technology change or both. Long influenced by leaders running successful staff-driven businesses, she combines this partnership-approach to enterprise with the neuroscience of super-performance.

Having worked with clients at all levels across most sectors in nine countries, Cherri has validated these high-performance approaches in diverse cultures and types of enterprise.

Described as commercially-savvy, engaging and inspirational, her clients have consistently said their high expectations of change outcomes have been exceeded.

She uses organisation purpose as a vehicle for collaboration and human ingenuity to co-create programmes that outperform those traditionally imposed by ‘experts’.

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