Leadership is storytelling

Storytelling has been on my mind for a while. I am writing a book about leadership. I also have been doing some work for Trinity College on innovation and entrepreneurship. Part of that is storyboarding, storytelling and pitching. Also writing a book about leadership, which in my view is all about storytelling.

Putting Stories to Work: Mastering Business Storytelling

So have been reading up. Titles such as “Resonate” (my old time favourite) by Nancy Duart and  “Putting Stories to Work: Mastering Business Storytelling” by Shawn Callahan, to name a few.

Storytelling is everywhere

Storytelling seems relevant everywhere I look. Entrepreneurship, marketing, social media, change management, innovation, strategy, management, stakeholder engagement, learning, self-awareness, health, sports, leadership, etc., etc.. With all our distraction machines at our fingertips, I think stories will become more and more important. I think it will become the only medium that will remain effective. The only question is how we will apply technology to storytelling.


There is something sacred about stories. They have an almost supernatural power that should be wielded wisely. Religious scholars, psychologists, and mythologists have studied stories for decades to determine the secret to their powers. Stories created civilisations. Our ability to speak gave us the group-mindedness that helped us build larger communities and institutions.

Storytelling is older than the spoken word

It has only been in the last 6000 years or so that we have translated the sounds we make into a complete writing system. About 65 percent of the time we’re talking informally, we’re telling stories. It’s hardwired into how we communicate. Unfortunately, writing now dominates corporate life. Yet at our core, our innate communication skills are miming and oral storytelling. We often forget that most of the communication in an organisation also happen orally.

We dream in stories

The greatest stories of all time were packaged and transferred so well that hundreds of illiterate generations could repeat them. The parables, fairytales and the fables. Stories are the most powerful delivery tool for information, more powerful and enduring than any other art form. We don’t dream in memos, reports, facts or arguments or opinions. We dream in stories.

Mirror neurones

Let’s start with the neurological part of storytelling because that is the key to unlock the understanding of how important storytelling is. It is called the mirror-neurone. A mirror neurone is a neurone that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neurone “mirrors” the behaviour of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.

When we listen to a story, the chemicals in our body change and our mind becomes transfixed. When you hear a story, you feel what the storyteller feels. When you hear a story, your brain lights up in the same way as the speaker’s brain when they are telling the story. Hearing a good oral story is like seeing something actually happening.

Seeing and feeling

The important words are seeing and feeling. It is a fact of memory that we better remember something if we see it happening, even more so if we feel it happening.  When we hear stories that evoke our compassion or admiration, more blood flows to our brain stem—the part of the brain that controls our heart beats, blood pressure and breathing We feel other people’s emotional states, and it affects us deeply.


Let’s take a marketing perspective. This is from “The end of absence”, which is a passionate plea for less distraction and the danger of (the lack of) attention economy. Because perpetual connectivity in the short run boost energy levels and augment memory, but over time they impair cognition, lead to depression, and alter the neural circuitry in the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex—the brain regions that control mood and thought. Chronic and prolonged techno-brain burnout can even reshape the underlying brain structure.

  • We “like” 4.5 billion items on Facebook every day
  • We send 144 billion e-mails every day
  • We upload one hundred hours of video to YouTube for every minute of real time.
  • Every second, we uploaded 637 photos to Instagram
  • The average teenager now manages upward of four thousand text messages every month

Only stories will help with the cut through of the information overload. Experiences continually wash over us every day, but only the ones that evoke an emotion get noticed.

Stories help us remember

We have an incredible memory for images. A researcher showed his subjects 10,000 images, fairly boring snaps of dogs, cars and people. Of the 10,000 images, the subjects correctly recalled 66 percent.  Another research shows that when asked to recall the words, those who had constructed stories were able to remember 6–7 times as many words as those who had not used stories

We remember things that create emotion

Think of another emotional moment and see how well you can recall it. A story describes what happened. A good story helps you see what happened. A great story helps you feel what happened. A great story conveys emotion, engages us, and helps us picture what’s happening. If two products have the same features, the one that appeals to an emotional need will be chosen. Read “The science of selling“. Emotion always wins.

Storytelling is a competency

Business storytelling has arrived. Because the world continues to grow in complexity: change is speeding up. For organisations to be agile, to adapt, they have to forge sincere relationships and develop the ability to understand and work with emotion. In this environment, story work is a core competency.

Storytelling is an essential leadership skill

“The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture”. That is from Edgar Schein. He developed the Organisational culture model. The principal vehicle of leadership is the story. The leader affects individual behaviour, thoughts and feelings through the stories that he and she is telling.

You cannot fake it

Culture is a set of stories. The leader’s job is to set the scene and paint the picture. Memorable, meaningful and with heartstrings. Aiming for clarity and recall in their oral communication at work. With authenticity.

Remember the equation: Trust = (credibility + reliability + intimacy) / self-interest

If you want to build trust as a leader, you have to act in a way that triggers stories of credibility, reliability and intimacy, but not self-interest. “Leadership by example” in short. Or “servant leadership”. Because the mirror neurones have a big BS detector. You cannot fake it. Imagine the leader as the emotional metronome (put a lot of metronomes in a room at different speeds and eventually they will sync). What the leader feels, the organisation feels.

Strategy is storytelling

The ability to shape your future depends on how well you communicate where you want to be when you get there. A global study conducted in 2012 involving 300,000 employees found that just over half did not understand the basics of their organisations’ strategies. A good story would help. To be told repeatedly. It turns out that the more we hear about something, the more we accept it, or even like it. This is called the exposure effect.

Cells that fire together, wire together

Not only creating memories and change behaviour but also to create a collective of purpose. Cells that fire together, wire together (Donald Hebb). Creating flow. Read “Stealing fire”. On how to create flow within organisations. Skyrocketing productivity. Flow creates a 200 percent boost in creativity, a 490 percent boost in learning, a 500 percent boost in productivity.


Now imagine applying technology to corporate storytelling. Using neuroscience, psychology, gaming technology, augmentation, virtual reality, memory implants, brain-net, nanotechnology, etc. If that is of interest, you should read “The future of the mind“. That is a story you will remember.

sensemaking cover


Sense making; morality, humanity, leadership and slow flow. A book about the 14 books about the impact and implications of technology on business and humanity.

Ron Immink

I help companies by developing an inspiring and clear future perspective, which creates better business models, higher productivity, more profit and a higher valuation. Best-selling author, speaker, writer.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top
× How can I help you?