CEO Insider

Storytelling is the Skill You Need to Work On

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is the most important skill or competency that great leaders share. I’m pressed for this all the time, so I’ve done a lot of reflecting on my answer: in my opinion, one of the most crucial skills a leader can have is his or her ability to tell compelling stories. In fact, I believe that leadership is actually synonymous with storytelling; after organizations grow to a certain point and leaders are doing more influencing and managing than building and doing, it’s critical for them to be able to craft compelling narratives.

In essence, storytelling is the ability to create an emotional connection with an audience. It’s a way to pitch your employees, or inspire your manager. It’s a way to humanize yourself as a leader, and to get teams to root for your success. It’s the best way to recruit talent, develop relationships with customers, lead productive board meetings, and all sorts of other tangible applications. In sum, it’s a way to get everyone on the same page, and it should be one of the most powerful tools in your toolkit.

People aren’t born being good storytellers; like any skill, this is something you can learn. Most of us are hardwired to get a bit anxious when speaking in public; evolutionarily, our brains view that set of eyes on us as a threat, and it’s tricky to overcome that instinct. The only way to get more comfortable speaking in public, telling stories as you do, is to train your brain.

I’m constantly helping my clients practice their talk tracks for big meetings or initiatives they want to push through. Usually, we focus on two key improvements: finding the MIT (most important thing), and making the story shorter. As we run through the speech over and over again, they get more and more confident about the point they’re trying to get across, and they can reduce their speaking time by half or more.

During these storytelling drills, I usually lean on the PREP framework. Use PREP to lay the foundation for your story, then practice it over and over again (I recommend at least six times) to nail it; you should feel your story becoming more compelling with each run through. PREP stands for:

Point: Start with the end. People often make the mistake of telling stories chronologically, but it’s all too easy to lose your audience in details that don’t matter. Start with the point or key takeaway, and build the story out from there.

Reason: What are the reasons to believe your point? Here’s where you’ll add data or your opinion. Speak in short bullet points, focusing on helping your audience to process the information.

Example: Paint a picture. Cite one example that supports your key point. This is your opportunity to humanize your story and bring it to life with a customer anecdote, moment from your own life, etc. The more specific and relatable details, the better: use names (whether real or fake), personal details, and any other specifics that will help drive home your key point.

Point: Make your point one last time, making sure you deliver the exact same message as clearly as you did the first time.

The PREP framework should help you compose short, snappy stories that communicate key points quickly to your audience. However, you might think it’s unrealistic to use an entire framework and practice a story six times before actually delivering it; can’t good leaders speak off the cuff? Yes, definitely: that’s why it’s important to spend time crafting stories with the PREP framework and to practice them. That practice ultimately eliminates the need for such intensive prep. After internalizing this storytelling model, it will become much easier to spin up great stories on the fly and it will start to feel more like second nature.

In addition to PREP, another helpful tool is optimizing for stories and soundbites. A story is how we bring a concept to life. It’s what gives color and texture to the facts and data. For example, if you’re describing a new product launch, you might consider telling a story about Marcia, a customer who will truly benefit from the new product. Tell us about Marcia’s background and how she will use the new product. This will help to humanize your story. Finally, end with a soundbite. What is the headline? If we remember only one thing, what is it?

As a CEO, your job is to wake up every morning with a demonstrative point of view. Your job is to rally the company around your vision and help everyone to see into the future with you. You get to align teams, remove obstacles, and generate short term wins in service of that vision. For that reason, your storytelling skills must be pristine. Whether it’s during a one-on-one conversation, presenting at an all-hands meeting, or sharing at a board meeting, the factor that will determine others’ confidence in you is your ability to tell a compelling story, even about the most mundane of things.

Great stories are the essence of great leaders. Start being more thoughtful about the stories you tell today, and I promise, you’ll quickly see the payoff!

Written by Nikki Goldman.

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Nikki Goldman
Nikki Goldman, CEO and Founder of I/O Coaching. Nikki is a highly experienced executive coach, leadership development expert and team management advisor. Nikki has worked with companies such as Peloton, Warby Parker, LOLA, American Express, and many more. Nikki Goldman helps leaders to unlock their potential and forward their thinking and she acts as a thought partner to CEO’s and executives helping them to grow, shift, and evolve. With an undergrad degree from the University of Pennsylvania and an Executive Coaching Certification from Columbia University, Nikki combines academic research and real-life experience to create impactful programs. Nikki is a lifelong learner and is constantly seeking more ways to enhance her coaching practice.

Nikki Goldman is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.