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Tell Me A Story: Narrative Rules For Leadership Through Storytelling

09/18/2017 18:12 EDT | Updated 09/25/2017 11:32 EDT

Sandy Coletta knows the power of storytelling in effective leadership.

It started with losing her lizard.

Sandy Coletta’s pet bearded dragon, or pogona, had escaped from its cage. As president of Kent Hospital in Rhode Island, Coletta says she wrote in the newsletter for 2,000 employees about how she felt losing her pet and her efforts to find it. There was, of course, a moral to the story— about adaptability and looking for solutions to a problem.

The emails poured in, employees at the hospital stopped her in the hall to chat and a worker bought her a cage—one that would fit a raccoon.

“It really struck me that in the C-suite roles, you are distant and people are afraid to talk to you. But in the daily newsletter a few times a week I would talk about issues with my children and sometimes be funny, reflective or provide a personal example,” says Coletta, the author of The Owl Approach to Storytelling: Lead With Your Life. “It was an amazing way to break down the barriers between staff and leadership.”

Not a natural storyteller, Coletta says early in her career public speaking terrified her. That was until a mentor advised her to talk to the audience instead of speaking to them. Beginning in 1983 in the healthcare industry as a hospital internal auditor, Coletta became president of Kent in 2008, then in 2014, she took on the role Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of a health care system overseeing the operations of four hospitals.

In her years of managing and leading teams and multiple staffs, Coletta says that storytelling has played a crucial role, and can be a tool for powerful leadership for anyone.

“Storytelling has become a top-of-mind issue in recent times, as technology has democratized the power to share our stories with the world. The fact that it continues to be a pressing issue in today’s age of collaborative commerce is no surprise. What is, however, is the attention it is finally getting as a business competency that drives emotional engagement and resulting enhanced business performance,” writes Billee Howard, founder and Chief Engagement Officer of Brandthropologie, in Forbes.

Marketing and branding have used stories as a way to engage consumers, but expanding storytelling into an inclusive management style has grown recently. For good reason.

“Storytelling is a technique you can use in leadership, but you have to understand you are a part of the organization, not separate from it,” Coletta says. The story is not all about you.

Gloria Feldt, co-founder and president of Take The Lead, espouses the power of storytelling in the 9 Leadership Power Tools she created. “Tell Your Story,” is Power Tool # 9. According to Feldt, “Your story is your truth. Your truth is your power. Telling your story authentically helps you lead (not follow) your dreams and have an unlimited life.”

Jane Praeger, principal at Ovid Inc., and faculty member in Columbia University’s M.S. programs in Strategic Communications and Communications Practice, teaches strategic storytelling. She tells New York Women in Communications, that “stories create ‘stickiness.’”

She continues, “With all the competing information and media channels, communicators are challenged to find ways to connect and be more memorable with their audiences. Stories do just that. Retention of information increases as the audience is drawn into the narrative. Jane advises her students and clients to root their story in a specific time and place and set the context by answering the ‘5Ws’ at the outset — who, what, where, why and when. The story must also include an event that ‘upsets the apple cart’ and changes the way the main character or characters see the world and therefore behave.”

The stories need to be geared to the audience or team and “would not be about what I did this weekend,” Coletta says. “You don’t write about your trip to the Bahamas when your employees can’t go on a trip to the Bahamas.”

That is the “who” in the storytelling and the key to why Coletta calls her method the owl approach.

“Storytelling used as a tool in business and leadership is about building a frelati0onship with your staff. The more they know you, they can care about you,they can trust you and if I made a mistake, they knew I would listen.”

Vala Afshar, Chief Digital Evangelist for Salesforce, writes in Huffington Post, “The power of storytelling can make or break the success of your organization. In today’s rapidly changing landscape, it is an imperative for success and a key element for any transformation. Nothing can be transformed without effective storytelling. Stories inspire us and catalyze us to act. Stories can create an emotional connection, generate the next big idea, reshape our most vital systems, or according to Saul Kaplan, as Founder and Chief Catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory, stories can change the world.”

Storytelling can come naturally to many, but it is also a tool that can be learned.

Carmine Gallo, author of The Storyteller’s Secret: From TED Speakers to Business Legends, Why Some Ideas Catch On and Others Don’t,  tells  Wharton, “When it comes to individual storytelling, one of my biggest suggestions — and this is a hard hurdle for people to get across — is, if you have had times of struggle and triumph over adversity in your life, the best thing to do if you really want to engage people, is to share those stories.”

The crucial connection to authentic storytelling as a leader is possible when following some key guidelines, Coletta says, and ones that she describes and demonstrates in her book. Here are her recommendations:

Use humor, but do not tell a joke. Note everyone is going to  love it, but do not try for a joke with a punch line. Instead, use an anecdote that shows surprise or discovery in hindsight.

Calibrate the frequency. Daily stories would be too much. There has to be a connection between the story and a moral. See how often you should employ this tool with your team. You will know by the feedback you receive.

Don’t be preachy. If the tone is didactic, people will not listen. Yes,have a moral, but have it be more about the story itself than the moral lesson.

No stories at the expense of others.  Do not ridicule anyone, discriminate, name-call and definitely do not tell sexual stories.

You decide the platform. Whether or not you use a newsletter, staff emails, meetings or at a conference as a forum, you decide when and how to deliver the story.

It must be true. If it is inauthentic, that will be obvious.

Get permission. If the story you tell features a family member, coworker or employee, be sure you get the buy-in of the people in the story. And never use a story to air “dirty laundry” or seek vengeance.

Your story needs a beginning middle and an end. And the conclusion needs to have a moral lesson or a reason for telling it that can be applied directly to your team—whether it is about the product, the service, the process, the system or correcting a mistake.

“You have to know how to find the story, how to find the moral and have a message,” Coletta advises. “And it cannot be snarky.”

This post originally ran in Take The Lead.