“You haven’t defined what story is,” said the voice of experience that afternoon, September 16, 2022. “That’s odd,” I thought. “What am I missing?”

We were discussing my first leadership storytelling report, Master Storytelling For Impactful Leadership, intended to explain the “what?” and “why?” of leadership storytelling. In the report, I describe the three-arc structure and highlight what I understand to be the important elements needed to create an effective story and emphasize the neuroscience aspects. “Where is she going with this?” I wondered.

Not Everything Is A Story

I was speaking with the highly experienced storytelling expert, Lori Silverman, who explained that story is a meaning-making device, not a sense-making device. Sense-making is “Oh yeah, I got it.” Meaning-making is “I got it. But now I’m motivated to do something as a result.” Meaning-making is what deepens interpersonal connections — shifting thinking, feelings, attitudes, and behaviors. It is what makes people act. Lori had a point. I got it. Stories in a business context must have meaning to create action. We must understand the “story” in “leadership storytelling,” because not everything is a story. And as I have often experienced myself, leaders think that they are telling stories, but they’re not.

We are all made of stories

A Story Must Be Intentional And Create Meaning For The Listener

Many leaders share anecdotes of positive client relationships or career highlights that, while interesting, do not inspire their audience. There is no universal key point or message, no call to action or meaning for the listener. There is no intent to persuade or influence the listener to decide to do something as a result of hearing what they said. Yet these are the core reasons why leaders tell stories: to inspire, to influence, to persuade.

At its most fundamental level, a story is about unexpected change — a significant emotional event. If what you’re saying does not involve unexpected change, then it is not a story. When the brain detects change, there is a surge of neural activity. Unexpected change leads to both threat and opportunity. When unexpected change happens, our brains are at their most alert — trying to work out what the change is and how we need to respond. Change makes us curious. A story of change therefore makes us curious. A good storyteller creates a moment of unexpected change to stimulate our curiosity. But even that is not enough.

If you want to lead people through story, then you must create faith in you as a leader. When you ask people to follow you as a leader, they seek faith in who you are and what you’re about, in your goals and in the stories you tell. Faith needs a story to sustain it — a meaningful story that inspires belief in you and renews hope that your ideas offer what you promise. Storytelling expert Annette Simmons says: “Genuine influence goes deeper than getting people to do what you want them to do. Storytelling is inspiring your listeners to reach the same conclusions you have reached and to decide for themselves to believe what you say and do what you want them to do. They make your story their story. You tap into their faith. You create meaning for them.”

Leaders Must Understand The Three Ways That Stories Are Defined In Business

According to Lori Silverman and Karen Dietz, there are three interrelated ways to define storytelling in business: 1) the taxonomy approach — what makes a well-crafted story different from other narrative forms; 2) the component approach — the structure and the ingredients that must be included; and 3) the experience approach — what the interaction is between the teller and the listener and what the story invokes for the listener.

  1. Taxonomy approach. A well-crafted story differs from more commonly used narrative forms, such as an anecdote, case study, description, example, news report, profile, scenario, testimonial, or vignette. Understanding this distinction (meaning-making and a call to action) is key to business storytelling effectiveness.
  2. Component approach. A well-constructed story used in business (as opposed to one in the movies) has a beginning, a middle, and an end that includes conflict, characters, dialogue, contrast, drama/intrigue, sensory information, layers of meaning, a universal key point, and a call to action. Intrigue is about creating suspense and excitement. It’s about holding back on the detail to absorb the listener in what you are saying. Lori Silverman advises that dialogue is a huge component. Dialogue creates familiarity. You must include what people are thinking and saying. If you take out dialogue, you don’t have a story — you have a case study. Contrast is a critical component because it is a memory mnemonic for the brain. Contrast is good versus bad, light versus dark, or day versus night. Lori Silverman states, “We need all of these components to create a story. The brain research is unequivocal.”
  3. Experience approach. A well-crafted story is a packet of material delivered in a manner that the brain can quickly digest, comprehend, and create meaning from — and then do something as a result. As an act of communication, a story triggers our senses — including intuition. Story is not a one-way street (telling) but an interactive event. Stories simultaneously impact people emotionally, intellectually, physically, and spiritually.

That’s a comprehensive definition of story, but in essence, story is about meaning-making, in a dialog between the storytelling leader and the listener. Story is where the leader inspires and motivates those they wish to lead, to a better future that is mutually beneficial.

And storytelling is an art. It is science, it’s a skill, it’s a mindset, and it’s a philosophy for leading, through connecting with people with empathy and emotion.