The Art of Storytelling for Leaders

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 26th January 2016

You might never have considered the concept of storytelling in a professional context before. But stories aren’t just for bedtime, and strong narratives can be a potent tool in inspiring colleagues and team members towards organisational goals.

The Power of Storytelling

Stories have the power to create emotional resonance and enthusiasm. Examples are around us every day: from ordinary people moved to travel to war zones to help the victims of conflict, to passionate advocates of the NHS inspired to protest against cuts, people are motivated to take action by narratives of suffering or hope.


 We are, as a species, hard-wired to respond emotionally to stories. They have always been a significant form of communication within and between communities, and most have passed down stories between generations for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Even today, stories are a large part of our lives, if not through passing them on by word of mouth, then through film, television and books.

As a leader, this gives you a way to unleash a vast reserve of innovation and drive, enough to power your organisation to a whole new level. You just need to work out how to unlock it, in order to truly engage your employees.

Storytelling is something many organisations and leaders fundamentally misunderstand. If you tend toward the ‘theory X’ end of the spectrum, focused on results, process and data, and are at heart a ‘manager’ rather than a leader, it’s likely that what you are seeking from your people is compliance and particular standards of performance. That’s all well and good, but I don’t know anyone who gets passionate and inspired by compliance. At least, I hope I don’t.

In the same vein, if your organisation seeks to elicit peak performance through rewards and sanctions, this is likely to generate behaviours driven by desire or guilt, not the kind of performance that results from real passion.

So, what’s your story? What is it, specifically, that you want people to be passionate about? And what is going to motivate them to go that ‘extra mile’ we hear so much about?

A good story has a punchline, with emotive ‘peaks’. Think of it like a song; a great song has a theme, a chorus, and an interesting bridge. It seeks to maintain the listener’s interest throughout, while inspiring them to remember and repeat the key parts.

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Taking inspiration from famous speeches

Let’s take a look at what makes two of the most famous speeches so compelling.

Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech

-Delivered August 28, 1963, Washington, D.C.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day, on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

And it continues, ending with these famous lines:

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

While this is just a small extract from a much longer speech (some 1500 words long and lasting many minutes), it shows the emotive power of language and style of delivery.

One of the things that makes this speech so memorable is its style of delivery. The speaker was at the centre of the struggle he refers to, and this is reflected in the spirit he demonstrates. He doesn’t simply speak the words, but almost sings them in the style typical of black American preachers (which King was). Had it been delivered by an elderly, softly spoken white man, its power would have been greatly diminished. Stories have the greatest potential for rousing an audience when told from the perspective of a protagonist, rather than simply a narrator.

The other major factor in the power of the speech is the rhetorical devices used to create a strong motif. It relies on anaphora (repeating the beginning of a sentence) to create a punchy, memorable structure. With the words “I have a dream” at the beginning of so many of the speech’s lines, how could anyone forget its title?

Winston Churchill’s ‘we will fight them’ address

-Delivered to Parliament on 4th June 1940

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

This is the most evocative part of a longer speech, and a story that still resonates for the people of Britain. As with the Martin Luther King speech, the speaker demonstrates that he is part of the struggle, not looking in from the outside. The key is to make it real and personal. Find the emotional core to your story and make it clear, ensuring your audience is in no doubt that you believe every word you are saying, and that it’s about “us”, not “you”.

Like the King speech, Churchill also uses heavy repetition to make a memorable impact on the audience. With the words “we shall” appearing 10 times in this short extract, it’s no wonder that the audience felt confident and empowered by the end.

In terms of the focus of your story, one thing both of these speeches demonstrate is that it is not facts and figures that stir the heart, but conjuring up inspiring imagery that is part of a magnificent vision. You can bring the detail into day-to-day operations, but keep your story focused on the bigger picture.

Some modern examples

A more detailed and emotionally complex speech that demonstrates these points forcibly was given in 2011, by General Mark Welsh (Chief of Staff), to trainees at the US Air Force Academy. It is friendly, insightful, emotional, challenging and devastating in equal measure, and shows the power of making a story personal. Like the stories of Lincoln and King, it makes deft use of light and shade to create pivotal moments, using the power of pause and silence to increase the emotional impact of a critical point in the story.

At around 50 minutes, this is the longest story here, but the General holds his audience with its power and humanity, and with the clearly deep feelings it generates in him. I urge you to watch it and to learn from it.

The victory speech given by President Barack Obama in 2008 shares many of these structural elements.

Of course, it helps that both General Welsh and President Obama are superb storytellers, comfortable in front of a crowd and able to command a stage. They are both able to deliver their stories without cards, notes or prompts.

More modern examples come in the form of the numerous TED Talks that have revolutionised public speaking in recent years. In this article, Carmine Gallo examines the principles behind the most popular TED talks (many of which have been viewed more than 15 million times) to identify the features that keep us coming back for more.

But while these are skills any leader needs to master, there is much more to it than simple technique. Both of them seek to connect with each member of their audience, and to make them believe that the story is for them and about them. Both are calls to arms and to action. Both challenge the listener to step up and step forward. Both seek to inspire hope of a better tomorrow. As a leader, these are important lessons in defining, delivering and reinforcing your story.

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