Communicating the Vision: Lead by Telling Stories

Return to main page

In this world of instant communication, people are constantly bombarded by facts and figures. After a while, one statistic seems to blend into the next. Compounding the confusion, a lot of executives fail to connect with their employees because they're spending more time barking orders or lecturing than they are trying to establish a useful dialog. Worse yet, their use of vague buzzwords and corporate double talk, while it may sound savvy, only increases the risk that misunderstandings will occur.

When no attempt is made to engage the audience — be it one person or 1,000 — even the most important message will not be heard. Countless hours are wasted every day — in meetings, conferences, and business lunches — as people drone on about facts and figures without putting them into context to help their listeners comprehend their importance. Finding an original and effective way to establish such a context is critical to communicating your ideas successfully. Says Mike Levad, program developer at the Franklin Institute Science Museum, "It's very much a way to get to people's emotional states. It's a lot more compelling to tell a story."

In this Quick-Read you will find:

  • What you can do with a story.
  • Selecting the right story.
  • Tips for telling the story.


"Storytelling works very well as a teaching tool for lots of reasons," says Mike Levad. "Probably the most important: it provides context for content. Facts don't exist in a vacuum, there are always other things attached to them, and giving people a story to attach those facts to makes it much easier to remember — kind of the same way music makes it easier to remember your ABCs."

What you can do with a story

Storytelling is nothing more than getting a point across in a memorable way. Stories, which need be no longer than a couple sentences, can be used to do many things:

  • Solidify corporate culture. Tom Peters tells a story about an executive of a chocolate factory. As he was touring the factory, the exec noted to the plant manager that it was uncomfortably hot and humid in the area next to the chocolate machine and that it must be unpleasant for workers. The plant manager replied that there wasn't any money for air conditioning in the budget. The exec then asked to be directed to a phone where (in front of the plant manager) he called building maintenance and asked that the plant manager's desk be moved up next to the chocolate machine. Then he turned to the plant manager and said, "Well, I can see your point, but think about getting air conditioning into the budget." Air conditioning was installed the following week, much to the relief of the factory workers.

  • Communicate facts and theories. Saying that the computing power will double every 18 months is much more compelling than describing the geometric increase in the number of microprocessors you can fit on a microchip over time.

  • Provide a context for statistics. Describing the millions of square feet of concrete in Grand Coulee Dam takes on more meaning when you say that you could build a one-lane road one foot thick all the way from Seattle to New York with the concrete contained in the walls of the dam.

  • Acknowledge employees' accomplishments. Telling a story about how an employee took the initiative to create a nonprofit organization that would help working mothers care for their brain-injured children not only celebrates the employee's accomplishments but also creates a behavior model for your other employees.

  • Motivate employees and encourage desirable behavior. A story from Hewlett Packard tells of Bill Hewlett encountering two shop workers smoking on the factory floor. Instead of chastising the workers in front of their peers, Bill walked up, handed them each a cigar and asked the workers to smoke those cigars outside. The message was communicated, and there were no more issues with workers smoking on the shop floor after that.

Some people tell stories in meetings; some use stories as sales tools. The goals may be different, but the basics are the same: engage listeners and keep the stories simple. Couching complicated information in a simple story improves retention rates.

Selecting the right story

It's important, of course, to find the right story for your purpose. If you can't find an existing story that says what you need it to say, do a little research and write your own. Put as much effort into researching and developing the story as you would into any business presentation. Know your audience, and know what it is you want to convey to them. Then search for a metaphor or analogy that fits. If you want a story to help build your corporate image, interview your employees. Ask why they originally applied to work for your company, and what they feel their purpose there is. Odds are, they'll have stories.

Avoid the temptation to tell too much in a single story. Also keep in mind that some of the best stories don't focus on a real-life issue but on a metaphor or analogy for the real issue.

Every story should answer: who, what, where and how — when and why usually fall into place. Remember, stories are no more than a sequence of events. Even the shortest story has a beginning, a middle and an end.

Tips for telling the story

"Especially with our communication level today with electronics, we are inundated with facts and figures, and therefore most people have developed a rather thick skin toward data," says Ken Farmer, storytelling consultant. "We have to come in through the backdoor with people. So we tell them a story — preferably one of our own — and if it's not our own, hopefully, we'll have the acting skills to make it our own."

Instead of focusing on the actual words, concentrate on the key points and the meaning behind the story. Know the story, but don't memorize it verbatim. That is, memorize the essence of the story, then "throw the words away." Not only is there a danger of forgetting lines when reciting a story, you're pretty much guaranteed to lose your audience because they will sense you're not fully invested in the story you're telling.

Additional tips on storytelling:

  • Don't try to explain the story or it will lose its impact.

  • Never start with, "I'd like to tell you a little story," or you'll lose your audience before you begin.


The restaurant chain, Red Robin International, records the "unbridled acts of kindness" demonstrated by its team members. These may range from an employee running to a grocery store to get a specialty item for a customer, to an off-duty worker helping the needy.

It has become a major part of the chain's corporate culture. Wanting to recognize team members for such actions, managers began sharing stories at the start of management meetings. "Every major meeting we have in the company starts off with an unbridled story," says Neil Culbertson, vice president for marketing. The storytelling now extends into staff meetings at individual restaurants.

"We try to honor everyone who does an unbridled act — a lot of them I'm sure we never hear about," he adds. A handful of the stories are published in each issue of Red Robin's internal newsletter. Others can be read by Red Robin's patrons on the back of the dessert presenter at each table. "Those vary by market," Culbertson says. "At Red Robin of Michigan, which is one of our franchisee companies, they'll have an unbridled act contributed by one of their team members in Michigan. In Red Robin International, we'll have a different unbridled act." These are rotated throughout the year. "It really fosters a team environment."

The "unbridled act" stories might seem short, but that's the whole point. A lot can be learned in a few words. Consider the following story taken directly from Red Robin's fact sheet: "A family came in around Christmas and Team Members overhead they didn't have a tree. The family left with the restaurant's tree tied to the roof of their car."

"We're constantly keeping that reminder out there that unbridled acts are part of what makes Red Robin special. We do that through our newsletter, through constant reinforcement (by telling stories) at meetings, through the dessert presenter on the table, and our team members are doing it every day," Culbertson says. "For every unbridled story we hear about, I'm confident there are many others we don't hear about."

DO IT [top]

  1. Know the point you want to make, and find a story that conveys it. Use an existing story or create your own.

  2. Learn the story inside out, but never recite it word for word. Know it as well as you know your own life story.

  3. Take an acting or public speaking class to sharpen your presentation skills and learn basic improvisation techniques. You'll also learn how to use vocal and facial expressions to make your storytelling more effective. More presentation style tips can be found in the Quick-Read "Communication Tips — Public Speaking."

  4. Practice simple imagery exercises (if you can visualize the story, you'll be able to convey it more vividly to your audience). For example: Close your eyes and imagine biting into a juicy, sour lemon. Your imagination should induce an immediate physical reaction in your mouth as your body prepares to dilute the sour juice from the imaginary lemon.

  5. Tell the story in the first person to make it your own.

  6. If you sense you're losing your audience, pick out the one person who seems the most distracted and direct the story toward that person.

  7. Practice, practice, practice. Like any skill, storytelling can be learned; but it takes dedication to become a good storyteller.



Art of Storytelling by Nancy Mellon (Element, 1998).

The Power of Personal Storytelling: Spinning Tales to Connect With Others by Jack Maguire (J.P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1998). Mostly personal story telling; not work related.

Corporate Legends and Lore: The Power of Storytelling as a Management Tool by Peg C. Neuhauser (McGraw-Hill, 1993).

Internet Sites

"Why Every Company Needs a Story," Inc., May 1996.

"Forget the Glitz — Deliver the Gold," Inc., July 6, 2000. How-To/Tutorial.

Article Contributors

Writer: Paula Hendrickson

Related Articles
Need Big Ideas? Try This Tool

Your Move — What Will It Take to Open Your Eyes?

New Funding Sources for Minority-Owned Firms

Short Breaks Improve Productivity

Surviving, Prospering, Growing By Capitalizing on Media Attention

Building and Inspiring an Organization

Articles in our Entrepreneur’s Resource Center appeared in print and online newsletters published previously by the foundation. More than 1,000 articles can be found in the categories below, addressing timeless challenges faced by entrepreneurs of all types.