Inspiring Through Stories

Inspiring Through Stories“The adventures first,” said the Gryphon in an impatient tone, “explanations take such a dreadful time.”  – Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

Think about the people who have most inspired you. What was it that stimulated your enthusiasm, your passion, your connection to their message?  Chances are it was a story that made a connection for you. I watched recently with amazement at the connection between an 80-year-old man and a 12-year-old boy as the older man told his story of life in Europe during World War II. The boy went on to characterize that man as a hero.

Personal stories about families ravaged by natural disasters always bring more funds to international aid agencies.  And the people and organizations who help those families are lionized.

The CNN Heroes stories tell about the lives of normal people who do extraordinary things for others. And it is one of the network’s most-loved features.

Stories are powerful. They have the energy to inspire and to compel to action. Yet, as the Gryphon in Alice in Wonderland notes, explanations are so much more often what we choose to relate in place of ‘adventure’.  How can you as a leader bring the full power of stories into your repertoire of leadership strengths?  Here are some starting points:

Set your goal and study the storytellers

Observing great storytellers offers lessons in their unique power. Think about songwriters like Bruce Springsteen or Andrew Lloyd Webber. They could transport you to worlds that they saw. Think about Walt Disney, who could make fantasy feel real. Think about Mark Twain, who could turn the mundane interactions in life into universal wisdom. Think about Aesop and Rudyard Kipling, whose fables created memorable lessons for all of us. The best storytellers understand first what they want to accomplish, and they fit their stories to that end. They are not afraid to learn from, borrow from, mimic, or even plagiarize those who have done so well in the past what they want to do today.

Focus on identification

A few years ago I heard a speaker begin a speech about his experience climbing Mt. Everest. I almost tuned out, flipping back to my cell phone to check for messages. How in the world could I identify with the extreme rigor of such a feat?  But he defined the mountain’s cold and wind in a way a Wisconsinite could actually feel.  He described fear as he heard an approaching avalanche in a way that a tornado-accustomed Midwesterner could identify. He talked about putting one foot in front of another, as if in a fever and without real volition. Who hadn’t been in that space?  In those short minutes, that man managed to join my experience and his in a way that created common understanding. Great storytellers know their audiences and what will resonate with them.

Create a picture

What stories offer is, as the Gryphon expressed, adventure. You want to take your listeners on a journey with you. You want them to see the world through your eyes. Your aim is to create a common adventure. No data or description in the world can do that as well as painting a picture in words. That picture needs to call on all the senses. In the childhood story of Little Black Sambo, four tigers chase each other around a tree so fiercely and fast that they turn into butter.  As you hear this story, you can feel the vortex of wind they create. You hear the roars. You see the blur of their stripes. You touch the puddle that once was tigers, and dipping your finger to your mouth, you taste with amazement the yellow butter they became. You are transported to the very picture of the moment described by the author.

Work on simplicity and punch lines

Long stories are just long stories. If your story wanders, you lose your advantage. Hone your stories to something digestible in the short attention span of today’s audiences. We’ve all listened to lengthy reminiscences and come away with no sense of a real life lived. Instead, find the kernel first. What is the nugget you want to convey?  What will make it come to life?  And what is the context you need to create to make it powerful?

Remove the flourishes

Numbers may be impressive, but if they don’t build to the objective, take them out. If you think a further explanation is necessary, think again. If you have to define something before you use it, try a different story. And be careful of exaggeration; a little, if understood clearly as exaggeration, may create vivid pictures. But undue exaggeration diminishes the value of a story.


Honing your storytelling skills can distinguish you as an inspiring and approachable leader. Author Tahir Shah reminds us, “Stories are a communal currency of humanity.”


Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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