Friday, November 21, 2014

Leaders Guide to Storytelling

Storytelling is a powerful catalyst for learning, and likely has been since humans developed language. Telling and hearing stories enables members to reflect on their own, and others’ experiences and abstract knowledge. It is an effective way for catalyzing learning in any organization.

As leaders we learn from experiences, or to put it in a different way, what we learn is experiences. David Kolb, an educational theorist, said “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, 1984). The best way to convey what we learn is through stories of our experiences. Stories contain many different lessons and are educational for people who were not present for the experience.

If you think about it, how many times have you been in a situation where the rules you learned in class or training applied exactly? Probably never! If you think back to situations you have been in you realize that you found the answers for yourself and did not rely on the "rules", or you remembered a story someone shared with you about a similar experience and applied the methods learned from that story to your current situation.

In order to understand anything, we must find the closest item in memory to which it relates. One thing we do when we hear and understand a story is to make a connection to another experience we have had, or know someone else had. Stories help us recognize patterns.

We index our own stories, and stories we have heard from others, based on how we understand them. When we find a belief in a connected story, no further processing needs to be done (Schank,1995).  We rarely look to understand a story from more than one perspective, which explains why people understand stories differently. Leaders in complex, dynamic, and ambiguous situations make rapid decisions by recognizing how each situation they encounter fits the patterns they have learned (Silk, 2014). The pattern-matching part of their decisions is fast and automatic. It was how they used their intuition to quickly identify an option that was likely to succeed (Klein, 1998). For example, stories based on deployment experiences will convey important lessons to the cadets. In the future, the patterns from these stories will possibly match a situation they are in and they will quickly identify a course of action that is likely to succeed.

Becoming effective storytellers

“Stories illustrate points better than simply stating the points themselves because, if the story is good enough, you usually don’t have to state your point at all; the hearer thinks about what you said and figures out the point independently. The more work your hearer does, the more he or she will get out of the story.” (Schank, 1995)

Stories can bring leadership to life. But to tell a good story takes preparation. The essence of a story is actually what is held in memory, not the words of the story itself (Schank, 1995 ) A story has the richness of details, has a point, provides insights, and has emotional impact. A story is not just a chronology of events; it is the story of the storyteller taking action. The storyteller should keep their first person point of view, sharing what they saw, heard, felt, etc. For example, if the story is about solving a problem, it should provide the details of how the problem was solved. It should be told from the storyteller’s viewpoint so the audience can live the experience with them. Another example; If the story is about an experience as part of an organization or a team, the storyteller should include the behaviors and characteristics of the team and what the team members were doing from the storyteller’s perspective. The audience will pick up the values, behaviors, and characteristics that were part of that team.  Stories can share lessons learned but the storyteller should let the listeners take away the lessons they learned not what the storyteller has learned.

We can learn from the stories of others but only if what we hear relates to something we already knew. We want the listeners to live the story with us, so knowing the audience and the types of experiences they have had, and are familiar with, is an important part of preparation. With good preparation, storytelling can be an effective tool in the classroom.


Silk, J. (2014, January 14). Casting Knowledge: Building an online community of practice with Leadercast. Center for Collaborative Action Research.


Jonathan is an experienced leader and coach with a proven record of leading and developing others to perform at higher levels and improve their overall effectiveness. He has a passion for learning and developing others to improve as leaders. Jonathan brings lessons from over 25 years of experience leading in U.S. Army Infantry, Cavalry, and Armor units in a wide range of assignments, to include leading soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Korea. He is a decorated veteran and a recipient of the General Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award. Jonathan served as a faculty member at the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY before transitioning from the Army in 2015. He is a certified Executive Coach and operates his own leadership coaching business. Check out his website here:

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