Stan Ward is a good friend of mine and an excellent teacher on the topic of leadership. I thought you would enjoy a followup to his prior post on using story as a leader. -Kevin

In my previous post, I introduced readers to the concept of a leadership story. Today I’d like to share how to craft your own leadership story. While the following method is not the only way to craft a leadership story, it is certainly an effective way that is easy to learn. We’ll discuss three basic principles: purposeplot, and the principle of parsimony.

First, let’s discuss purpose.

Before selecting a leadership story, think about your purpose. What do you want to achieve with this story? Sometimes communicators select a great story first and then force it to fit their purpose. The results are awkward, and the story becomes hokey instead of inspiring. So start by considering if your primary goal is to inform (educational), to connect people or concepts (relational), or to motivate people to action (inspirational). Selecting a primary purpose does not mean that a story cannot accomplish multiple goals, but your primary purpose will determine which stories you chose and what details you include.

  • Educational stories are often “how-to” stories. These stories help followers understand an organization’s culture because the stories feature “how we do things around here.”
  • Relational stories attempt to connect people or ideas. Often these stories reveal something about yourself to your followers so they can relate better to you. Don’t tell stories only about your successes. Sometimes stories about your failures can humanize you and let followers know that it is OK to make well-intentioned mistakes.
  • Inspirational stories often feature an organization’s values at work. How did the organization’s core principals help you make a decision and overcome an adversity? Even more interesting, when two organizational principles seemed to compete with each other, how did you finally make a decision and take action?

Next, let’s discuss plot.

Think of a story as a series of events with causal connections. Event A causes event B which then causes event C. The movement of the story helps keep people listening, and that movement is the story’s plot. Plot can be divided into four components:

  • setting (when and where the story happens, who is involved)
  • conflict (this is what makes the story interesting – the obstacle which must be overcome)
  • climax (the moment in the story where something happens that changes things, often overcoming the conflict)
  • resolution (how the story moves from instability to a new kind of stability).

Last, let’s discuss parsimony. 

The Principle of Parsimony (sometimes called “Occam’s razor”) claims that all things being equal, the simplest explanation is preferred. A similar principle exists for effective storytelling: include only the most relevant details regarding purpose and plot. At the same time, “simple” does not mean “simplistic.”  The key here is to keep all the essential details without omitting important factors.

For purpose: Is your primary purpose educational? Then don’t try to add inspirational or relational details that aren’t essential to the story. Cut out anything in the story that does not advance your purpose.

For plot: Get to the conflict as soon as possible. Conflicts hook the reader’s attention. Also, eliminate any unnecessary details. For example, if the time of day and the weather when something happens is not relevant to either the conflict or the resolution, then leave it out. Don’t fill your leadership story with flowery prose; fill it with purposeful details.

Other resources:

If you would like to know more about leadership stories, then I recommend Stephen Denning’s (2011) The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, Lori Silverman’s (2006) Wake Me Up When the Data is Over: How Organizations Are Using Storytelling to Drive Results, and Annette Simmons (2006) The Story Factor.

If you are particularly interested in combining story and power point presentations, you should take a look at Cliff Atkinson’s (2008) Beyond Bullet Points.

A variety of internet sources are also discussing leadership storytelling. For example, here is a video of Denning explaining how leadership stories work:

And you can always email me for ideas specific to your individual needs. I enjoy hearing, crafting, and telling a good story.


Stanley J. Ward is the Director of Campus Life and Ministry at The Brook Hill School, a published author, and a napkin theologian. When not writing his dissertation, he also plays ukulele. Email him if you want to know more about leadership stories.

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