5 secrets of master storytellers

Great leaders tell great stories. Use these principles of strong storytelling to improve your narrative efforts
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In this era of disruption and change, effective communication from the top of the IT organization is more important than ever. One of the most enduring and valuable tools for transporting your ideas in your is an ancient one: the story. 

“Tell me a fact, and I will learn,” says a Native American proverb. “Tell me a truth, and I will believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever.” 

"When people remember the story, they remember the point – and they remember you."

The best IT leaders understand the value of narratives and make storytelling a core skill. “They use storytelling to connect with hearts and minds, inspire, and translate what can be highly technical into the consumable and approachable,” says Sarah Woods, senior vice president of global consulting at Bates Communications, where she advises senior executives on leadership, communication, and strategy execution. “They know that when people remember the story, they remember the point – and they remember you.” 

In his book, The Storyteller’s Secret, Carmine Gallo argues that the great ideas that catch on are those that wrapped in stories designed to inform, engage, and inspire. Indeed, what many of the most successful leaders have in common, from Richard Branson and Sheryl Sandberg to Pope Francis and Bono, is mastery of narrative communication. 

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Good storytelling is certainly an art form, but there is a science to it. A growing body of neuroscience research illustrates the power of storytelling in motivating human beings to act. And while some individuals may be born storytellers, IT leaders can use several common principles of good storytelling to improve narrative efforts. 

1. Master storytellers keep it clear and concise

They tell one – and only one – story at a time and they make just one point per story, says Woods. Perhaps most importantly, they get to the point. Stories should never exceed three minutes; in fact, a one-minute anecdote with the right structure can even more powerful.

The best narrators “shrink-wrap the front end of the story,” Woods says. “[They] compress the background and set up. The audience doesn’t need to know a lot of the background to understand a good story. Good storytellers get there fast.” That doesn’t mean they sacrifice the illustrative details that draw the listener in—the smell of the coffee, the fact that the sun was setting—they simply do so in a short, descriptive way.

2. Master storytellers understand narrative structure

 While the details may change, basic storytelling hinges on the “obstacle”-“overcoming the obstacle”-“lesson learned” structure. Tension and conflict are what engage the audience’s attention, creating a build-up to the turning point and resolution, says Woods. The narrative then ends with the lesson learned, with the storyteller making sure to translate that lesson into a relevant message for the audience. 

3. Master storytellers engage the eyes, too 

“It’s vital [to give] people a visual image of what you are saying so they can picture it in their mind,” says Mark Bonchek, founder of digital transformation consultancy Shift Thinking. “Anything that enables someone to see what you are saying makes it far more effective.”

Bonchek often uses metaphors in his own storytelling; when he speaks on stage and compares shifting one’s thinking to jumping to a new trapeze bar, he uses his arms and body to mimic the leap from one imaginary trapeze bar to the next to cement the image in the audience’s mind.

4. Master storytellers get personal

The best storytellers, Gallo explains in his book, are able to inspire. If you think about the most memorable and moving stories you’ve heard – at a conference, watching a TED Talk, or simply listening to a friend – chances are they were emotionally driven. Effective stories are personal, says Woods, and the most effective stories are often painfully so – involving a personal failure, challenge, or struggle. They are situations that others can connect to and see themselves in – which is why they are so compelling. Which isn’t to say they can’t be funny.

“Helping to find humor in overcoming a personal failure is an art and really demonstrates humility and resilience and helps others feel like they can overcome challenge too,” says Woods. “Don’t be afraid to use emotion. And don’t make the mistake of telling the story in the third person. Tell it in the first person – that is how people believe you.”

5. A master storyteller is never the hero

The takeaway is the most critical part of the story. But if the narrator comes off as too heroic, they may lose the audience. “In storytelling, what you are really trying to demonstrate is leader as a learner, not leader as hero,” says Woods. “The worst stories are the ones of your own success. If you are the hero of your own story, don’t tell it – no matter how humble you sound.”

Instead, focus on what you learned – from some person or experience – and the value of that lesson to the larger audience.

[ Leaders, do you want to give your team a greater sense of urgency? Get our free resource: Fast Start Guide: Creating a sense of urgency, with John Kotter. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.


Loved your piece, I found your final section on never being the hero very interesting. It makes sense though as a storyteller you want your audience to be able to relate with you, if you're the hero you lose that personability. I believe it is essential to have a great story that is compelling and establishes an emotional connection with your audience. This article I found shares 3 must-have sales storytelling skills --> [https://info.arielgroup.com/blog/3-must-have-sales-storytelling-skills]. Do you recommend sharing a personal story, client story, product story, or organizational story?

What... no example story?