For some time now, storytelling has been considered a powerful leadership tool. When storytelling is promoted in a professional setting, the main benefit attributed to it is its potential to give an audience information in a quick and memorable way. As studies by neuroscientist Paul Zak have shown, stories give audiences “a better understanding of the key points a speaker wants to make and allow for better recall of those points weeks later.”
However, storytelling has the potential to have an even greater impact. Since COVID, we’ve seen a growing appetite for personal storytelling and for taking a human-centric approach to organizational structures. While the popularity of Brene Brown’s leadership text Boldly testifies: the human bond is an essential ingredient for personal and professional development. Brown explains, “Connection is why we’re here…it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.
It’s a culture of storytelling that can drive this type of connection that focuses on purpose and meaning. The three books in this must-have list below are for leaders who want to understand the full potential of creating a culture of storytelling. While these books are obviously not business storytelling books, if you read them you will come away with a solid understanding of why storytelling is a game-changer for any organization looking to empower its employees to connect, to express themselves and think creatively.
In this article, you’ll find three books that show how stories not only allow us to share information in memorable ways, but also create meaningful connections. Read together, these titles form a foundation for understanding how stories help us see ourselves more clearly, connect with others authentically, and convey information in meaningful and memorable ways.
These books may not be available at your local bookstore, but they are all available on the second-hand market. If you are interested in the power of leadership storytelling and creating a storytelling culture in your organization, add these to your must-read list today.
Career guidance: a narrative approach by Larry Cochran (Editions SAGE, 1997)
Academic publication by Larry Cochran Career guidance: a narrative approach opened doors to thinking about how the stories we tell about ourselves shape our career choices. This book effectively linked the power of storytelling to the business world. Understanding how stories help us see and know each other will enable you to tell stories that create connection and cohesion at work.
Cochran’s theory moved the field of career counseling beyond assessments and personality tests, prompting people to dig deeper to understand themselves through storytelling. With narrative-building tools, Cochran argues, people are able to investigate and understand the hidden web of influences that shape them into the people they become. Without these narratives, we too often rely on clichés or what we have already heard from others to make sense of our own trajectories. Stories can help us reflect on and understand our own intrapersonal choices. Although aimed at a guidance counselor audience, the frameworks are applicable to other areas of business leadership and intrapersonal awareness.
Why did I choose this path when I spent years studying something else? As a new manager, how should my team be prepared to work with me? What is one thing I want everyone to know about me, personally and professionally? These types of questions are the ones everyone around us wants to know, but no one asks. Being able to write a story about your own professional journey – and help other members of your team do so as well – will help kick-start the process of connecting with each other and building cohesion within any team.
Try that: Use the IRS storytelling tool to create a story to answer the question: What is an experience you have had (not necessarily related to your career) that influenced the way you think about your job?
Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence by Roger Schank (Northwestern University Press, 1995)
With OpenAI releasing their new chatbot that can answer almost any question, artificial intelligence technology is once again in the headlines. This revolutionary tool is probably indebted to one of the pioneers of AI research, Roger Schank. Although he might seem like an unlikely source to turn to when learning how to tell stories, in 1995 he wrote a pioneering text titled Tell me a story: narration and intelligence. In this book, Dr. Schank explores how stories reflect our collective intelligence and how they influence how we interact with others.
While arguing that artificial intelligence must be based on real human intelligence, Schank reveals how humans are wired to connect and store information in stories. For example, humans “index” stories to create relationships. When you hear a story about someone making an embarrassing mistake on their first day at a new job, you link to your own similarly indexed stories, which contain similar material even if they’re not exactly the same. Key ideas about embarrassing mistakes, the first day at work, the desire to make a good impression, may remind you of your first day of high school or the time you witnessed a co-worker’s misstep during orientation. These indexed connections create empathy and strengthen relationships.
Dr. Schank’s knowledge of human relationships, interaction and collective intelligence is remarkable and helps business leaders understand why being able to tell effective stories is so important to create cohesive organizations and bonds between colleagues. . In addition to Cochran’s research, Schank demonstrates not only how stories help us understand ourselves, but also relate to others, helping us to understand each other, persuade, and make decisions together.
Try that: As a team building exercise, play “Story Bingo”. Create bingo cards with numbered boxes – one box for each team member. Each person will be assigned a number. In random order, each person will share a personal story that they have prepared in advance. If the story reminds you of your own similar experience, you can cover the number square belonging to that team member. It’s also a great exercise for practicing aggressive listening. The first person to cover all the boxes wins.
How to be interesting: 10 simple steps by Jessica Hagy (Workman Publishing, 2013)
In the book how to be interesting, award-winning artist and writer Jessica Hagy reveals the power of simple lines, circles and legends to convey an abundance of meaning. This book compels the reader to have fun, to be creative and to express their ideas visually. While adding a drawing to your conversation is a deceptively simple communication strategy, the impact can be huge. A simple hand-drawn Venn diagram becomes an invitation to join the conversation, stimulating new ideas and questions.
With a concrete illustration of your idea, you invite your listeners to use their brains more. Not only are they picking up on your words and your tone of voice, they are now using the part of the brain that processes visual information. Just as our brains are wired to tell stories, neuroscientists have discovered that humans can process entire images and their meanings in as little as 13 milliseconds.
Simple stories and visuals are “sticky”. We remember them. With the right story and visuals, business leaders can convey memorable information and meaning to their audience in moments.
Try that: Draw a visual representation of your company culture. Here are some examples to get your juices flowing.
With the insights found in these three texts, you’ll learn why storytelling is an incredible tool for enabling your team to connect, express themselves, and think creatively. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Go deeper into leadership storytelling through practice and read other storytelling books, such as those in this reading list for innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders.