Jim Kouzes: Why You Should Hone Your Storytelling Skills

Part 3 of 4

About Our Guest: Jim Kouzes is the Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership at Santa Clara University and coauthor with Barry Posner of the internationally award-winning and bestselling book, The Leadership Challenge, with more than 2 million copies sold. Jim and Barry have co-authored more than 30 other books, including The Truth About Leadership, Credibility, Encouraging the Heart, and A Leader’s Legacy. The Wall Street Journal named Jim as one of the ten best executive educators in the U.S., and in 2010 he was presented the Thought Leader Award by the Instructional Systems Association and in 2010 through 2012 recognized as one of HR Magazine’s Top 20 Most Influential International Thinkers.     – Doctor Duncan

Most good leaders seem to be good storytellers. Can you share a story that illustrates the value of telling stories?

Stories are a powerful tool for teaching people about what’s important and what’s not, what works and what doesn’t, what is and what could be. Through stories, leaders pass on lessons about shared values and get others to work together.

When he was program director of knowledge management for the World Bank, management author Steve Denning learned firsthand how stories can change the course of an organization. After trying all the more traditional ways of getting people to change their behavior, Steve found that simple stories were the most effective means of communicating the essential messages within the organization.

Jim KouzesNothing else worked,” Steve said. “Charts left listeners bemused. Prose remained unread. Dialogue was just too laborious and slow. Time after time, when faced with the task of persuading a group of managers or frontline staff in a large organization to get enthusiastic about a major change, I found that storytelling was the only thing that worked.”

How does storytelling affect the “stickiness” of information—in other words, making it memorable?

In a business climate obsessed with PowerPoint presentations, complex graphs and charts, and lengthy reports, storytelling may seem to some like a soft way of getting hard stuff done. It’s anything but that. Steve’s experience with storytelling is, in fact, supported by the data.

Research shows that when leaders want to communicate standards, stories are a much more effective means of communication than are corporate policy statements, data about performance, and even a story plus the data. Information is more quickly and accurately remembered when it is first presented in the form of an example or story.

You’re suggesting that a relevant and well-told story is preferable to charts and graphs?

That’s certainly been Phillip Kane’s experience. Storytelling has been a part of his life since he was a kid. His dad was a great storyteller, and he used stories especially effectively to teach lessons. Phillip has carried the family tradition into his business life at Goodyear.

When Phillip was named to head up a large team with previously poor engagement scores for communication, he needed to find a way to be more proactive about connecting with employees. So he began writing to the team every Friday, telling them stories in “The Week,” essentially a newsletter in the form of stories with life lessons in them. He carried the practice with him when he was appointed president of Wingfoot Commercial Tire Systems, a 2,500-person wholly owned subsidiary of Goodyear.

Storytelling, Phillip says, accomplishes two things. It offers a framework for relating to the message—something that people encounter in their own lives that can bridge to the main point. It also offers him the chance to lead through an example rather than to come across simply as preaching.

Any other benefits?

Telling stories forces you to pay close attention to what your constituents are doing. Peers generally make better role models for what to do at work than famous people or ones several levels up in the hierarchy. When others hear or read a story about someone with whom they can identify, they are much more likely to see themselves doing the same thing. People seldom tire of hearing stories about themselves and the people they know. These stories get repeated, and the lessons of the stories get spread far and wide.

Stories by their nature are public forms of communication.

Storytelling is how people pass along lessons from generation to generation, culture to culture. Stories aren’t meant to be secret; they’re meant to be told.

Emory University psychology professor Drew Westen argues that “the stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred.”

Coming up:

Part 4: Why Leadership Skills Are Vital for Entrepreneurs

Follow on Twitter @DoctorDuncan



Rodger Dean Duncan

Rodger Dean Duncan is bestselling author of CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP and a regular contributor to Forbes and Fast Company magazines. He is widely known for his expertise in the strategic management of change, for organizations and for individuals. In 1972 he founded Duncan Worldwide to train and develop leaders. His clients have included some of the top companies in the world, as well as cabinet officers in two White House administrations.
Rodger Dean Duncan

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