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Leadership storytelling – a critical skill for building trust and engagement

Telling a compelling story is how leaders build credibility for themselves and their ideas - whether they want to win over a colleague, a team, or an entire conference audience.

Stories are a universal language that everyone can understand, they stimulate imagination and create a sense of community among listeners and tellers alike. According to neuroscience, stories engage more regions of the brain than data, and therefore have more power to create an emotional response and human connection.

Connecting with the audience

Leadership storytelling can be described as a strategic sequencing of facts and emotions. It allows leaders to become more powerful, because it helps them to lead authentically and motivate those around them. However, for storytelling to be effective, leaders need to show the audience that they understand the challenges, context and culture of their situation, and to tell the right story at the right time, to create a connection and build trust. Knowing the audience helps to identify the relevant stories and choose the best way to tell the story, so it triggers the intended reaction.

In order to trigger and keep their audience’s attention, leaders need to know them well enough to be able to identify relevant stories and tell them in a way that will evoke the anticipated response. To better understand what the audience is curious about, what worries them, and what motivates them, a series of quick, informal conversations is often the most effective way that can guide any future leadership narratives. Looking at own memories and personal experiences is a good way to illustrate a message, but it’s essential to understand that focus should be on the listener - they are the hero of the story, not the narrator. It is the leader’s role to guide them through the story, instead of putting themselves in a position of the hero.

Telling a powerful story

Stories help solidify abstract concepts and simplify complex messages. But not all stories are created equal and to determine what kind of story needs to be told, leaders need to first define how they want the audience to feel or react. By visualising a story, leaders can allow the audience to create an emotional connection that can impact their thinking and to present alternative scenarios and perspectives that the audience wouldn’t consider otherwise.

The best storytellers draw the audience immediately into the action, capture their attention and set the tone for a unique experience. Great leaders know their first and final words and can deliver them without hesitation, taking advantage of the impact of a powerful opening and conclusion. Silence can also be a powerful storytelling tool, as it draws emphasis to what was just said or what is about to come, allowing others to contribute their own interpretations.

A leader without the skill to tell a great story is missing the opportunity to persuade and motivate others. Leadership storytelling is a flexible tool that allows to convey lessons, instil organisational values, and acknowledge team contributions, and it can make or break any initiative. At Acumen, we pride ourselves in offering development that gives managers practical tools to help solve real-life challenges. We offer an extensive menu of courses, workshops and coaching programmes, ranging from communication skills through to executive leadership development. In most cases, we design the interventions specifically for each client, but we also offer a wide range of off-the-shelf programmes for those who prefer this approach. For more information about our programmes please contact Simon at


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