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Updated: May 27, 2023

Before continuing to develop their leadership stories, leaders should understand what makes a good story. Leaders must know the messages they want to communicate, know the audience to which they want to communicate it, and enlist others to also tell the stories. Authenticity makes leaders’ stories more memorable. Ultimately, no matter what story is told or how it is told, the actions of the leaders will speak the loudest.


Story telling session with leading consulting firm 

Most well-formed stories have a beginning, middle, and end–or a narrative arc. The narrative arc in the story includes action that rises until a big climax, or turning point, and then descends. A leader’s story should build up to a high point in his or her career when everything has come together.

To develop their stories, leaders should determine their leadership purpose and goals, and how they will reach them. Leaders can define their narrative arcs by mapping a time line containing the major milestones of their leadership journeys. Also, they can identify the events and people–whether from early in their lives or sometime in their business careers–that impacted what they value and how they think as leaders. Not everything that leaders remember about their journeys will be positive or affirming; some events and people might have had a negative influence. The purpose of charting their narrative arcs is for leaders to gain a deeper understanding of themselves and what has shaped their leadership.

It is not sufficient to simply have a good leadership story–it must be communicated well, at the right time, and to the right people. Leaders must be aware of how the telling of their stories is perceived by others. Effective communication of a story includes the following:

*Proactively planning the messages to communicate.

*Finding unique opportunities to communicate the story appropriately.

*Identifying who else has a role in communicating the story.

Step 1: Knowing the Message

To be a good storyteller, a leader must know what to communicate and why. The story must be simple, clear, and motivational, without exaggeration. Depending on the situation and the audience, a leader might want to convey some aspects of the story but not others.

The most important aspect of communicating a story is framing–matching the story to the audience. Framing helps leaders illustrate ideas in a way that makes them relevant, helps others draw conclusions, and creates a common understanding. Leaders might not want to directly boast about their attributes, but by using framing, they can help their audiences reach certain conclusions about their skills, attributes, and capabilities. Framing also allows a leader to fit his or her story into the purpose and objectives of the company, or relate it to a specific outcome or purpose. Also, the message of the story can be framed with a tale that brings the story to life.

Step 2: Knowing the Audience

A leadership story lives in the hearts and minds of others. Therefore, a story must be relevant to the audience. Leaders should be aware of how their stories support the stories of others and the stories of their organizations.

Audiences include direct reports, supervisors, peers, and important clients. Each audience, however, has different needs and might interpret the leaders’ stories differently. Although a leader can easily identify who his or her audience is, the challenge is to know how members of a specific audience already perceive the leader, what information will be important to them, and how the audience will make sense of what they are hearing.

Effectively communicating a story starts with being empathetic and establishing relevance for the audience. The choice of medium used to communicate the message is important, too. Leaders should not rely on one-way communication technology, especially if the message could evoke an emotional response.

Step 3: Maximizing Moments of Truth

There are times in a leadership story when something was gained or lost–known as moments of truth. These moments offer opportunities for leaders to share or reinforce their stories. A moment of truth can be thought of as a great awakening or a revelation that made an important change in the life of the leader. Such moments make the stories more memorable.

A leader can plan for those moments of truth when it would be appropriate to share all or part of the leadership story. A leader should also be prepared to communicate his or her story during chance encounters and unplanned events. In either case, these moments allow leaders to clarify, inspire, and enlist other protagonists in their stories.

Step 4: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Leaders are “on stage” all the time, so their choices of words, actions, and nonverbal cues to communicate their stories also communicate something about themselves. To be perceived as authentic, these three elements must align. Therefore, leaders must have a strong self-awareness of what they believe and value, and ensure their words and actions reflect that awareness.

Step 5: Enlisting Others to Tell the Leadership Story

Some leaders are wary of telling their stories, believing that it comes across as self-promotion. This cautiousness is justified. Leaders should be careful about what they say about themselves in comparison with what others say about them. A leader’s story is best communicated through the words of others; therefore, a challenge for leaders is to find others who will sing their praises. Those who are recruited can act as credibility substitutes. Their credibility rubs off on the leaders whose stories they are telling. Leaders should foster sound relationships with several people who can act as their credibility substitutes. The effort takes time and commitment; reaching out to the protagonists they identified earlier can be a good start.

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