Storytelling: The CEO X factor

Congratulations! You’ve just been promoted to or have accepted a job offer as chief executive officer (CEO) of an organization. During your first 100 days, expectations of your performance will be high. One of your top priorities will be to assess the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, successes, challenges, and opportunities. One of your initial responsibilities is clearly communicating a compelling vision for the company’s future. How do you engage your employees in a dialogue around the direction you’d like to go and the culture you feel is fundamental to success? One effective solution is to master the art of storytelling.

Reason alone does not inspire

While data points, graphs, spreadsheets, and slide decks may be in your wheelhouse, droning on about your vision using these tactics is the fastest way to transform a boardroom into a “bored room.” Statistics show that only fourteen percent of the workforce retains and understands their company’s vision and strategy.1 Storytelling is one of the most effective ways to connect with employees at all levels within your organization and is an excellent approach to conveying your vision and aligning people behind it.

Some of the most successful organizations, including Apple, Microsoft, NASA, Nike, and Starbucks, use storytelling as a tool to introduce new products, set goals, lead change, reach out to the public, and create a mystique around their brands. Storytelling is effective because it kindles passion.

Strengths of storytelling

The best stories address difficult challenges that may be on the horizon, but also highlight the opportunities these challenges present and the prosperity of the future. Employees relate well with narratives that describe the good and bad of new initiatives, because of the honest nature of the approach. When employees related with your story, they can more easily connect with you as a person and believe in you as a leader. Storytelling also increases the likelihood that people not only listen, but become engaged and inspired. Moreover, well-told stories simplify complexities and make them easier for employees to remember and pass on. Most importantly, stories help create a community and build a company’s culture.

Elements of a great story

The following elements help leaders create a compelling story:

  • The hook: “Let me tell you a story…” “Imagine this…” “Picture our company as…” The hook ignites people’s imaginations, draws them in, and gets their creative juices flowing.
  • Metaphors and analogies: Metaphors and analogies compare two things in order to explain or entertain. As a CEO, you want to explain and entertain. Using metaphors can help you make the complex simple and the controversial acceptable. They can help you ease into topics in a personal and memorable way.
  • Emotion: Steve Jobs lured John Sculley from Pepsi-Cola to run Apple by posing the following question: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do want a chance to change the world?”1 Challenging people or tapping into their emotions in other ways creates a hard to resist call to action.
  • Relevance: Telling a story relevant to your organization’s current challenges and one that is understandable and relatable to employees is crucial. You want your audience to digest and feel compelled to retell your story so the call to action spreads faster.
  • Drama: An element of drama can also help to make an impact with your audience. Just as Steve Jobs cleverly used the emotions of others to his advantage, he was also a master of surprise. He created a spectacle as he told his stories, using effects like lighting and sound at key moments in the narrative. For elaborate story presentations, you could consider using these tactics as well. For on-the-fly storytelling, gestures that elicit surprise can also be captivating. Watch your audience closely to see how your story is affecting them. Don’t be afraid to turn up the volume with surprise.

Storytelling is a vehicle CEOs can use to make connections with their employees. Stories create new possibilities by shifting the business conversation away from metrics and facts and toward personal experiences that engage people at every level, not only with their minds, but with their emotions, values, and imaginations—the true drivers of change. Executive leaders interested in honing storytelling skills can start by picking up a book on the subject. Many CEOs also take classes in storytelling or improvisation.

For more information on this topic, or to learn how Baker Tilly specialists can help, contact our team.

1Schoer, Allen. “Mastering the three “I’s” of storytelling.” The Washington Post, July 22, 2012.