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Storytelling has always been the most effective way to deliver a message about human behavior.

There’s a time and place for everything

My father was never one to walk away from a fight. As a young teen, he heard some kids being disrespectful to an elderly woman and he quickly stepped in and taught them a “lesson” that they would never forget. The story of how he took on the three older boys spread like wildfire; the scuffle had occurred during Petrovden (Saint Peters Day), a midsummer celebration that also happened to be the biggest event in the small Macedonian village of Smilevo.

As my father made his way home, soreness already fading, he envisioned being greeted as a conquering hero. Instead, he walked through his front door and was immediately and harshly scolded by his grandfather. How could he be so selfish? How dare he embarrass the family by taking attention away from such an important event in the village? My father tried to defend his actions, repeating what the three boys had said and how he couldn’t let it pass. But he was making the wrong argument. His grandfather wasn’t disappointed that he’d handed out some justice, but he was disappointed with my father’s timing and the public spectacle that had followed.

My father told me this story after I got suckered into an argument at school that earned me detention. The importance of hitting the pause button, determining the appropriate time to act and looking at the big picture has stayed with me all these years.

While times have changed, I still occasionally find myself participating in corporate meetings that more closely resemble a street fight than a meeting of professionals in suits. Instead of one gang against another, we have staff groups against line organizations. Instead of fists, we use words and budgets as our weapons. Instead of an annual celebration, we hold an annual budget meeting. Would I have felt better going at someone during one of those meetings? Sure, in the moment. Ultimately, however, answering someone else’s unprofessional behavior with an unprofessional response would have diminished my standing in the organization. Of course, there will always be situations where conflict is unavoidable, but as the story goes, “There is a time and place for everything.”

Two great storytellers: My father Jovo Galovski and my Great Grandfather Vele Galovski.

A long line of storytellers


Why storytelling is important

Throughout history, good storytelling has been the most effective way to deliver a message about human behavior. Think of the heroes and role models in your life, and think of how they taught you, motivated you and ultimately inspired you to step up your game. I would bet that each and every one of them was a fantastic storyteller. Smilevo, my father’s village, is famous throughout Macedonia for this very reason. It has a reputation for producing incredible storytellers, and my father was no exception. My childhood was illustrated with colorful narratives of his greatest successes and his most tragic failures, all with their own valuable lessons about life.

Knowing this, it amazes me how many organizations fail to take full advantage of stories that can teach, motivate and inspire. When a message needs to come directly from the leader, the story should be carefully crafted to help that leader build a strong relationship with every member of his or her team. By establishing this powerful, person-to-person connection, employees will willingly work harder. They will respond more quickly when there’s a course correction. They will generate more creative energy. They will tell the truth about what’s going on in the organization, and provide invaluable inside information that’s needed to make the best possible decisions.

The Art of Storytelling

Of course, it’s easy to talk about building this person-to-person connection, but it’s very hard to do well. You have to invest time and energy in the process, but even more importantly, you have to believe in its importance.

When I managed a factory [see The Factory Case Study], I made it a point to talk to every one of our 300+ workers every day, no matter what shift they were on. Some people in the company thought I was crazy, but I have always believed that personal contact with employees is a powerful leadership tool. Those individual interactions gave me an idea of what was really going on in the factory, and what was really important in the lives of my team members.

Six key elements of effective storytelling

When delivering a story, you don’t want to come across like an empty suit. Listed below are tips that can help you become a more effective communicator through storytelling.

  1. When you communicate, reveal something about your true personality. Then people will see you as an interesting, real life, 3D human being.
  2. Don’t be afraid to be passionate, because a breakthrough goal is something worth getting passionate about.
  3. Use humor if it feels natural. But be original. Don’t grab a canned joke from a website or book. People will see right through you, and you’ll end up doing the exact opposite of what you had hoped to accomplish.
  4. Share personal stories from your professional or personal life, and highlight organizational heroes and success stories.
  5. Bring emotion, sincerity and conviction to your interactions. Exude a quiet but unshakable confidence, and make it clear that you believe in honest dialogue that gives everyone the opportunity for input. That will make people sit up in their seats.
  6. Never forget that you’re talking to smart, capable, empowered employees. Appeal to their hearts and minds. Find an honest, engaging way to inspire them.

Storytelling in a digital age

The sheer size of many companies can inhibit your ability to effectively communicate through storytelling. As I advanced in my career and assumed responsibility for larger organizations, it became impossible to know every employee on a personal basis, let alone talk to each one every day. Next, throw in competition between online, electronic and social media communications and personal, human interactions, and you quickly begin to wonder if there’s still a place for storytelling in your communication program. There certainly is.

Not only is receptivity to a good story hardwired into us; it’s now more important than ever. When I worked for Bank of America, Hank Shaw and I created a series of letters to educate employees about the importance of customer loyalty and retention. These articles were written as if we were writing to a friend – loaded with personal stories and anecdotes. We distributed them in both print and electronic form. More than 22,000 people voluntarily signed up for a subscription, proving to both of us that letters are still effective in the digital age. If you work these storytelling ideas into your personal communications, you’ll wake people up. Soon, they’ll actually look forward to hearing from you and following you. The creation of that personal bond ensures your credibility and authenticity in the mind of your audience.

Leadership Stories is my way of continuing the long history of storytellers from Smilevo. I’m sure that Dedo (grandfather) Vele and my father would be proud that their story is being shared with a new generation.

About Leadership Stories

Leadership stories are drawn from the bedtime ritual at our house which usually finished with “Dad tell me a story”. These stories were about our family: Who we are, where we came from, and to share life lessons that were passed on to me. As I told the stories, it became very clear to me the significant impact that they have had on my life, my career, and my leadership style.