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Photo: iStock

Opinion | Why storytelling is a key leadership skill in the age of tech disruptions

Stories have the power to move you, help you frame ideas and get you to take action

These are just words. What have you actually done? Tell me that."

My colleague was the head of manufacturing, critiquing the presentation of a senior manager who reported to him.

The senior manager turned red and said, “Sir, data is on the next slide".

“Then come to that. I don’t want to listen to stories."

The presentation continued. I could feel the manager’s discomfort as each number was scrutinized and questioned.

Fifteen minutes later when the manager left the room, the head of manufacturing told me, “He keeps telling stories. I don’t trust him at all. All I want to see are the numbers." Over a cup of tea, he continued. “I don’t care about ‘English’. What I care about is numbers. They tell the truth."

This discomfort with stories is not unfamiliar, but it’s not always that numbers tell the whole truth. As a doctoral student, I learnt how each person could construct a different story around the same data set. Suddenly all those numbers, once invincible, began to look like supporting actors to someone’s imagination.

Cut to today, when storytelling is suddenly the toast of the town. People proudly advertise their storytelling skills on social media profiles. Entrepreneurs, particularly those who work in marketing fields, routinely describe themselves as storytellers. There are online courses and in-person workshops where you can learn to be a good storyteller. This is new, and it is a shift in how organizations have viewed stories.

The power of stories

Truth is, stories are all powerful. Advertising agencies, marketers and politicians have known this all along. Stories can move you in ways that no logical arguments or data tables can. They have the power to frame your ideas and get you to take action.

Take the recent Delhi elections, for instance. As much as it was a fight between two political parties, it was a fight between two compelling stories. One story was about the concern that the country was in danger because of the ill-intentions of those outside the country (and even some inside). If you were a loyal citizen, you should worry about that and vote accordingly. If you believe it, that’s pretty powerful stuff.

The second story was that this was the first time since independence that a government had worked tirelessly to provide its people the basics—power, electricity, education, healthcare. And they had made great progress. Regardless of your ideology, if you wanted to see continued progress in the quality of your life, you would vote them back to power. Again, very compelling.

Note that stories do not have to be completely true to be effective. They just need to connect with you, and make you think. Once you believe in a story, it shifts your view of what is happening in the world, what is important, and what you need to do.

Many thinkers are suggesting that storytelling is a key 21st century leadership skill. Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, in a recent talk at the University of Virginia in the US, explained how in an age of great technology disruptions, the power to tell good stories would be a key differentiator.

There is some truth to this. Stories are particularly powerful in times of great change. They help us make sense of what is happening around us and what we should focus on. They help us reinterpret our place in the world and understand what action we need to take.

As we enter a time of great change across our worlds, people will search for stories that help them make sense of these shifts. There is so much that is changing, and following all such shifts is beyond the capacity of most. Even if they managed to track change, they would need to give meaning to all that they were seeing and how these trends were connected. This is where powerful stories that focus attention will be compelling.

As leaders, both sense-making and sense-giving are at the heart of our jobs. While we have to find our own process of sense-making, good stories are a powerful tool for sense-giving. Just keep in mind that powerful stories can take a life of their own. It is our job to ensure they are as close to facts as possible.

Finally, just as change unfolds, we should also be ready for our stories to evolve. We will not always be right and we owe it to our organizations to keep rebuilding our stories as our understanding changes. If we are so lucky, our stories will continue to guide ideas and actions, long after us. For a good story never really dies.

Shalini Lal is an organizational development and innovation consultant with more than 20 years of experience.

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