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Storytelling is quaint, isn’t it?  It’s anachronistic in today’s fast-paced digital world.  It’s what marketing people do, not C-suite leaders.  It’s too childish and Hans Christian Andersen to have a place in today’s business world, surely?

All of these opinions, which the Space2BE team frequently hear, fail to recognise the power of incorporating storytelling into public speaking. They are doubting something that 18,000 business professionals, across 150 countries, said they believed would be a foundational skill for CEOs and leaders in the next decade, when interviewed for a McKinsey & Company study, published in 2022.

Senior partner at McKinsey, Caroline Dewar, told Forbes “Storytelling in an essential skill, setting best CEOs apart from the rest.”  She adds, “Storytelling applies to leaders in any field. It’s core to the leadership role now.”

Questions for consideration; are you doing it?  and, if not, why do you really need to get started quickly?

Why successful business brains view storytelling as so important.

If you are inspired in your own management role by some of the most successful business leaders on the planet, you will probably be interested to hear what Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos think of business storytelling.

Jobs once asked his team to name the most powerful person in the world, before stating, “The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller.  The storyteller sets the vision, value, and agenda for an entire generation.”

Bezos’s opinion is that “You can have the best technology, you can have the best business model, but if the storytelling isn’t amazing, it won’t matter.”

If we look deeper behind the statements, we can see how these views are tied into strategic business thinking.  As management guru Peter Drucker says, a strategic vision can only be implemented successfully, if it wins over hearts and minds – those of the people who must implement it.  

If we then consider the famous words of Drucker, that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, we can really start to see the role of storytelling within business.

The power of leadership storytelling

This is partly because, as human beings, we have grown up with storytelling – something that has been within our cultures for many thousands of years.  Storytelling is a powerful medium that has long fostered connections between people and built shared identities, cultures, and beliefs.  If we consider the role of medieval morality plays, the storytelling tool was used to build principles, ethics and values and deliver lessons, in a mode that was, however, entertaining and absorbing, with the moral messaging almost being subliminal.  The same mechanisms can be used in any type of business, with dramatic results.

There is a reason that Kindra Hall’s book on this topic is entitled ‘Stories that Stick’.  When a story contains a strong narrative, it sticks with us and is held in our memory.  Stories beat PowerPoint presentations, graphs, and Excel spreadsheets all hands down.  Video may be dubbed the marketing medium of preference but consider why it is so necessary to have captions that describe the action being viewed.  Why, at the same time, is there such a boom in demand for podcasts?  It’s all about the storytelling.

The science behind business storytelling 

There’s strong science behind this.  On hearing a well-delivered, engaging story, our brain releases oxytocin – the ‘love’ neurochemical. This leads us to feel more empathy and become more trusting and open.  We make a psychological connection to the storyteller and their message, and their words stick with us.  They have painted a picture that we recall and can draw upon, when we need to reference the learning attached to the story.

If you wish to have more structure behind this, consider Schwandt and Marquardt’s four-point organisational learning model of 2000, in the way that J. Kori Whitener has done. This model gave great weight to the meaning and memory subsystem, one of four that assist the way in which learning can be promoted within an organisation.  Storytelling feeds the meaning and memory subsystem and allows story messages to be embedded within it.  Using this information, employees can then create the map that enables them to negotiate the “cultural terrain” of the organisation, because they understand what the organisation stands for and what is expected of them, within the overall structure.

What does business storytelling achieve?

In a nutshell, storytelling is about helping managers, teams and workers make sense of their business environment and what the organisation is seeking to achieve.  It is, therefore, a hugely powerful leadership tool and one that is crucial for any leader seeking to lead a programme of change and especially cultural change.  Stories, delivered by a leader who has developed the soft skill of storytelling, can shape, change, and manage perceptions within their workforce and mobilise that workforce in such a way that sees everyone pulling in the same direction, sharing the same values, and seeking to achieve the same vision.

Storytelling is a powerful means through which to articulate a vision and encourage employees to throw themselves into a shared mission.  It can inform, inspire, and educate those who need to be led into the desired strategic corridors in which they are required to perform.  It can optimise performance within these and help build a glue between teams. It wins hearts and minds.   It should be a cornerstone of corporate culture.

Reasons for leaders to become skilled in storytelling.

Paul Smith, author of ‘Lead with a Story’ has talked of five top reasons for deploying storytelling within an organisation, with these being:

  • to inspire
  • to set the vision
  • to teach important lessons
  • to define the company culture and corporate values
  • to explain who we are as a business and where we are going.

However, he has identified no fewer than 21 leadership challenges that can be assisted by strong storytelling, including leading change, managing diversity and inclusion, providing constructive feedback and rekindling passion within an organisation.

Jeff Gothelf, writing in HBR, describes advantages for the leader at a personal level too. He says, “telling a compelling story is how you build credibility for yourself and your ideas. It’s how you inspire an audience and lead an organisation.”

Concurring, Harvard University Professor, Howard Gardner, says, “Stories constitute the most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.”

How leaders can perfect the art of storytelling 

So how do you go about it?

Many leaders never get started with storytelling because they believe they have no stories to tell.  That is simply not true; you just need to know where to look.

The starting point should be the past. Delve into the company’s history and heritage, to look at its original vision and what it took to get the company started.  It is said that the very best CEOs look backwards to move forwards.  They discover the central idea that was the company’s original ethos and then expand on it and give it 21st century dimensions.

Using the company heritage as a storyboard, it is easy to answer questions such as ‘what do we stand for?’, “where are we now? and ‘where are we going?’

But storytelling can revolve around anything – personal reflections, case studies of customers or employees, data that is brought to life through narrative, descriptions of everyday situations in the business and highlighting how a problem has been solved.  Focusing stories on problems that existed, but have been resolved, is very powerful, communicating the actions and behaviours that can really make a difference.  Stories can involve metaphors and analogies.  Including an element of surprise or a ‘wow’ can really make them stand out and ensure the underlying message behind them becomes super-powered.

The leader’s role in storytelling and the emotional input required.

Some of the highest impact stories occur when the leader opens and displays some personal vulnerability, talking openly about their own doubts, fears and challenges.  This helps them appear more genuine and human, removes them from their ‘ivory tower’ in the view of workers, and can build empathy.  

If we look at the definition of storytelling it is “the strategic sequencing of facts and emotions” and that is all you need to do, when constructing your story, pulling in the right facts, and putting them in an emotional and relatable context.  Remember that it is the emotional part that is so engaging.  Any story should be delivered with passion and energy but also in the ‘true voice’ of the leader, so there is authenticity behind it.

The leader very much enters the spotlight during this process, but this can help build a competitive advantage, enabling them to drive the organisation forward and, as importantly, retain talent.  By projecting an authentic self behind each story, a leader can build trust and win hearts and minds.

Storytelling’s role within transformational leadership and cultural change

This is all fundamental to Schein’s theories of culture, where he stated that culture springs from three sources – the beliefs, values, and assumptions of the founder: the learning experience of the group members and the beliefs and values of new members.  By using stories, a leader can align these sources and help create the culture that can help deliver the strategic vision.

Transformational leadership is all about communicating the vision and having it translated in the right way, which is what an astute business storyteller can do.  Leaders should be honing this soft skill themselves but also helping managers to, in turn, become better storytellers.  In times of rapid change, this can be essential, helping to act as a means of controlling the agenda and conveying that the challenges are being met, when there is uncertainty and fear within teams.

By opening up internal communications pathways in this manner, internal silos and barriers between teams can be removed – as long as there is consistency in the storytelling message and the same values and goals are being conveyed each time.   As Carmine Gallo says, “CEO storytellers motivate people to do more than they thought possible but only where stories are shared constantly and consistently throughout the organisation.”

The benefits of embedding storytelling within all teams

McKinsey & Company has discovered that senior leadership teams which align on their change story, and then share it with their organisation, can increase the odds of their transformational success six times over.

The cultural change team at Space2BE points to the fact that McKinsey talks of the need to instil a “change narrative” within a broader group of leaders within the organisation, in such a way as to create a “band and choir”, which can communicate and amplify the change story at scale and help build a consensus on the priorities running through the organisation.

Remember that here is a reason why some of the best storytellers are leading brands, such as Apple, General Electric, Nike, and Dove.  Their storytelling CEOs cut through the communications noise and deliver clarity, no matter what the uncertainties of the global market or the issues within the business.


Knowing your audience and creating humanised, powerful stories that are relevant to it, which you then deliver in an authentic manner, are actions foundational to your business success.  Gain confidence with this skill, train in it, if you need to develop this talent, and appreciate where the boundary of ‘oversharing’ lies.  The team at Space2BE can help both build your confidence and your business storytelling strategies.

Elicit feedback from each storytelling session and assess what stuck with your audience.  Use this information to help you with your next story delivery and your success in storytelling should achieve an upward trajectory.  

Encourage staff to include stories at every level, whether pitching for sales or handling job interviews and you will discover the power of one shared story too.  At that stage, you should discover that, as one expert commentator has said, storytelling really does act as a dynamic stimulus for enhanced collaboration and vibrant innovation within your business.

To talk to us about business storytelling in more depth, contact us on 0208 720 6991.