By Lee Farnsworth

I recently met up with an old friend that I hadn’t seen for a couple of years. We spent five years working for the same organisation and for a good chunk of that time we saw each other on an almost daily basis. Despite the fact that I christened him with one of those nicknames that refuses to budge, we always got on well. He hadn’t changed all and it was good to see him brimming with enthusiasm about a forthcoming career move. In turn, I told him about my interest in leadership storytelling. He nodded. Then he frowned. I could almost see his question forming.

‘What exactly do you mean, story?’ he asked.story road

It’s a good question. So good in fact that I am going to break my answer into two parts. In this post I will explain why leaders need stories. In a second post (‘How to bake a story’), I will provide a simple recipe for story crafting.

Why do leaders need stories?

Because conveying information in story form enables us to influence and persuade more effectively than carefully plotted arguments and evidence alone.

Psychologists have shown that this is because stories ‘transport’ us. The term transport attempts to describe the way that stories cause an audience to visualise scenes unfolding and to experience the story as if they were participating in it. When we become immersed in a story we temporarily leave the here and now.

Transportation is important because studies have shown that when we return from the story world, we are often changed. Psychologists Melanie Green and Timothy Brock showed that transportation leads to the adoption of beliefs and to positive evaluations and empathy for the characters in the story. They also showed that narratives and other forms of communication (rhetoric) are evaluated by distinct mental processes.

We evaluate rhetoric (the boring parts) by a process known as ‘cognitive elaboration’ in which the claims or arguments are tested against our knowledge and experience. In this mode, our minds adopt a sceptical and challenging approach and we set out to find weaknesses in the argument. Basically, rhetoric puts our minds into Prime Minister’s Question Time mode.

During transportation though, our minds become more trusting and more easily adopt beliefs consistent with the story they have heard or read. Stories make us less adversarial. This might be because stories increase our attention and focus, reducing the opportunity for the development of counterarguments. It might be because transportation makes us feel that we have witnessed the events directly and personally. It might be because transportation makes us develop empathy for the characters. Perhaps all three mechanisms play a part.

Whatever the mechanism, their ability to transport us is what gives stories the power to influence. And what leader doesn’t need a big dose of that?