Select Page


How Effective Leaders Tell Compelling Stories
By Dave G Jensen

The CEO marched to the podium. The applause faded. The audience of 500 senior executives and middle managers listened as the CEO outlined the major change initiative. His grasp of the facts and details was amazing. Unfortunately, after 10 minutes of data, the audience drifted. The CEO lost them because he didn’t know that broadcasting is not communicating. He didn’t realize that to reach the mind one must go through the heart. He didn’t appreciate the power of story to inspire, motivate, and encourage his leaders to commit to his message.

Do you? Do you employ the five key elements of effective storytelling to move your team?

The elements of effective storytelling were recently reviewed in Scientific American Mind and The Harvard Business Review (1, 2). The authors remind us that stories have a unique power to persuade and motivate because they appeal to our capacity for empathy. Here are several techniques to help you motivate your team using the power of story:

Tap into your audiences’ prior experience. A study by psychologist Melanie Green showed that prior knowledge and life experience affected the ability of the audience to connect emotionally to the story. Familiarity helps the audience identify with the characters in your story. As my old speech coach use to say, “there are 10 laws for effective speaking, the first seven are: know thy audience!”

  1. Be authentic. Sharing who you are involves letting the audience experience your emotion. They will feel the emotion in your story when you do. This requires a degree of vulnerability that many leaders have a hard time exposing. I encourage you to try.
  2. Keep them guessing. Professor Peter Gruber tells us “a great story is never fully predictable through foresight, but it is projectable through hindsight.” It is how you reveal the nature of your characters, their difficulties, and how they overcome their obstacles that tantalize your audience.

  3. Keep them engaged. Involve the audience by asking questions, adding humor, painting vivid pictures, and using the power of you. One of my favorites is to put the audience in my stories. It’s as easy as saying “imagine you’re walking down the street.” You turn an ‘I’ story into a “we’ story. The whole audience experiences your story together.

  4. Practice the paradox of presents. I strongly urge you to wing it when you present, but only after obsessively practicing. That’s practicing the paradox of presents. You practice, drill, and rehearse until you know your story inside and out. Then, as you start telling the story, you become fully present with the audience. Only after lots of practice are you able to come across unrehearsed.

I encourage you to use these five keys of effective storytelling. How surprised will you be that you can inspire and motivate your team through the power of story?


1Jeremy Hsu; The Secrets of Storytelling, Scientific American Mind, August/September 2008, 46 — 51.

2Peter Guber; The Four Truths of the Storyteller, Harvard Business Review, December 2007, 53 — 59.

Dave Jensen helps leaders manage ambiguity, gain buy-in to any change, improve decision-making, and achieve difficult goals in today’s complex, competitive, and conflicting environment. For a FREE Chapter of his forthcoming book, The Executive’s Paradox – How to Stretch When You’re Pulled by Opposing Demands, or to receive his highly researched, yet practical leadership tips once a month, sign up for his free eZine (Dave’s Raves), visit

Recommended PM App

Recommended PM App