When we analyze the people who have inspired us to think differently and take action—from marching on Washington to buying the first iPhone—we usually end up circling the same question: What makes great leaders?
Is it their expertise? Their personality? Their intelligence? Their likeableness? How they look?
While it’s usually a combination of many things, author and TED talker Simon Sinek, as well as many brand, marketing, and storytelling experts, have argued that all really great leaders have one thing in common: They all know how to tell really great stories.
The irony? When you’re in a situation where you want to inspire people to do something—e.g., a hiring manager to hire you, a potential client to work with you, or a media outlet to publish your guest post—most people tend to throw facts and figures and statistics at them as a way to prove that they’re the best and most qualified.
In your personal life, you tell stories all day long—at the coffee shop, in meetings, on the phone with your best friend, and over dinner with your family. But in your professional life, it’s much more common to speak in facts and figures.
Here’s why that doesn’t work: because statistics don’t make heart-beating humans feel anything. Those facts only appeal to the logical side of the brain. And super-interesting neuroscience newsflash—that’s not where anyone makes decisions. People make decisions almost entirely with their emotional brain. As Michael Bosworth and Ben Zoldan wrote in What Great Salespeople Do: The Science of Selling Through Emotional Connection and the Power of Story, “We are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines who think.”
So if you’re interested in positioning yourself as a leader—whether within your company or as a professional speaking to other professionals—here are three story frameworks to have in your arsenal.
1. Your “Why” Story
Why do you do the work you do? Why do you run the business you do? Why do you want the job you’re applying for?
Imagine you’re interviewing at two anti-bullying nonprofits. You meet with the CEO of the first organization, who talks about the position, the company setup, and its most successful campaigns. You meet with the CEO of the second organization, who tells you a little bit about the company, then explains that she was inspired to take the job after experiencing severe bullying herself and wants to help make sure the sadness and loneliness she experienced as a kid isn’t experienced by others. Which organization would you join?
Your “why” story is, hands down, one of your most powerful stories—both as a person and a business leader—because it gets to the heart of your intention.
2. Your “Stand For” Story
As a person or a brand, what do you stand for? Or, what do you stand against?
Let's say you’re interviewing two people for a job. The first person reads off his accomplishments from his resume and then talks about his skills. The second tells you about his skills, then shares a story about what he stands for as a person and how this job aligns perfectly with his worldview. Who are you going to hire?
3. A Testimonial Story
Sometimes it can feel uncomfortable to talk about and take credit for the impact you’ve had on other people, but explaining how you were able to help someone—from a client to a colleague—is much more powerful than spouting off a laundry list of your achievements.
To craft a testimonial story, start by thinking about one of the accomplishments you are most proud of, like launching a company-wide coporate social responsibility program. Instead of talking about what that program did for the company, talk about how it personally impacted the clients of your company. That emotion and personal connection will take your accomplishment to a whole new level.
As author Janet Litherland once wrote: “Stories have power. They delight, enchant, touch, teach, recall, inspire, motivate, challenge. They help us understand. They imprint a picture on our minds. Want to make a point or raise an issue? Tell a story.”