Transformational leadership: The power of storytelling

How do you get buy-in for change? Improve your storytelling skills with these 6 strategies
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Storytelling tips for leaders

IT leaders know that no transformation effort can ever succeed without buy-in and support from both business leaders and users in your organization. But how do you get that buy-in for change? With the power of storytelling. 

The best technology stories focus on people - customers and employees. “I work with a lot of companies doing transformative change, and a lot of it is driven by technology,” says Jeff Skipper, a certified change management professional and consultant whose client list includes IBM, AT&T, Goldman Sachs, and other high-profile enterprises. “What’s very common is, ‘Here’s what we’re doing. Here’s the technology. Isn’t it wonderful?’”

But outside of the world of IT, few people are inspired by technology in itself. “People are more interested in purpose,” Skipper says. “So if you can put it into a story that resonates with them, the acceptance level is much greater. You really need to capture hearts and minds.”

[ Not all stories are a traditional narrative. Learn about a pie chart that helped one CIO solve a tough communication problem, via our interview with Martha Heller, president of Heller Search Associates. ]

Here’s his advice for turning a technological transformation into a story that will bring your constituents on board. Thinking more broadly, these tips also apply to introducing many types of change to a constituency inside or outside your organization:

1. If you’re not a good storyteller, get some help

Most IT professionals aren’t great at narrative, Skipper says. If that describes you, don’t go it alone. Find someone within your organization who is good at telling stories. “You often know who they are already from casual conversations,” he says. If no one comes to mind, consider asking for help from your organization’s marketing or public relations team since storytelling is part of their skill set. Strong storytellers can coach you on how to shape your narrative and deliver it.

2. Talk to the people who talk to customers

“The story you want to tell is about the customer,” Skipper says. So get input from people who interact with your company’s customers and know their concerns. Use that information to change the description of a benefit into a customer-centered story.

For example, let’s say that you’re a healthcare organization making a transformative improvement that will drastically shorten delivery times. Instead of saying it that way, Skipper advises, tell the story of a prototypical patient. “Paula comes in to one of our locations needing something that for her is quite urgent. Right now, it takes us 24 hours to deliver the medicine or device she needs, and we may do our best to make her comfortable in the meantime. But imagine we can now have the product delivered to her home within an hour. Imagine the look on her face when she gets home and sees that package.”

3. Take a similar approach with employees

Although most transformative changes indirectly affect customers, some really are invisible from the customer’s point of view. For instance, imagine the increasingly popular trend to offer employees unlimited vacation time. Instead of talking about the benefits, tell the story of an employee who has a 25th anniversary coming up. “You can now take all the time you feel you need to celebrate,” Skipper says. 

4. Don’t skip the pain points

“People will look at it and say, ‘This is the sunshine story, but what’s the flip side?’”

Don’t make your narrative all about the positives, or you risk losing your audience, Skipper warns. “People will look at it and say, ‘This is the sunshine story, but what’s the flip side?’” And of course, there is a flip side: Every transformative change brings some pain and inconvenience. Be sure to cover those pain points and have your story illustrate how to deal with them.

It’s also a good idea to throw in an element of the unexpected if you can. “Don’t make it like watching a TV show where the plot is so obvious you can predict the whole thing,” Skipper says. You’ll risk boring – and losing – your audience.

5. Consider diversity

It’s important to keep diversity in mind when putting together your storyline. Particularly if you have multiple characters, be mindful of creating a story that looks like America. Otherwise, “You could have a beautifully crafted story and someone could pick it apart,” Skipper says.

6. Do a pilot test

Once you have your story worked out, do a test run before you tell it to your whole organization. Reach out to people on the front lines of your organization, Skipper advises, and recruit a group you can trust to give you truly honest feedback. “Like anything else, you want to pilot it before you take it on stage.” 

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Snohomish, Washington.