Stories are as old as civilisation itself, though you’d be forgiven for thinking they’ve just been invented, the way communicators are latching onto the current craze for ‘storytelling’. As an industry, we’ve woken up to the power of stories in shaping hearts and minds within organisations.

Storytelling is now viewed by many as an essential part of the modern leader’s communications arsenal too. Need to get employees to buy into a difficult change programme? Then tell them a story about the time you were forced to make a tough career decision… and, well, just look at you now!

once-upon-a-timeBut what separates an ok story from one that has the power to really shift attitudes?

The difference is usually in how it’s prepared and how it’s told, says Sheila Hirst of leadership communication experts Omilia Hirst. Her insights are grounded in the consultancy’s research into authentic leadership and how to communicate in multi-cultural environments.

“Authenticity is everything when it comes to storytelling,” says Sheila. “Employees will quickly sniff out a bona fide story from something being told by rote. And if it’s not genuinely aiming to connect through sharing it won’t be believed.”

People prefer stories to PowerPoint data because they generate memorable images and feelings. They create and share experiences – triumphs, challenges, lessons – and we like the intimacy they foster between teller and listener when told from the heart, with purpose. Strip out the authenticity and you remove their power.

“Our research shows that authentic leaders tell the right stories, at the right time, and in the right places, but there are a whole lot of other things that make stories credible,” explains Sheila.

“People can tell in a split-second if there’s a disconnect between what someone is saying and what they are thinking and feeling. If they aren’t telling their own story – or they don’t truly believe what they’re saying – the story becomes another exercise in corporate spin.

“That’s dangerous because while stories have the ability to energise a workforce, they can also perpetuate cynicism or disillusionment if they are revealed to be an empty puff of air.”

So how do we as communicators (and leaders) make sure that stories are used to best effect?


The first thing is creating the right environment by giving people the space to tell their own stories. Storytelling should not just be about telling, but also listening, if it’s to feel genuine and well-intentioned.

Good preparation and careful thought are also essential. That means asking the right probing questions before you share a story, or coaching leaders to consider these questions when telling their own:

  • What is the real purpose of the story?
  • What or whom does it serve?
  • Why am I personally committed to telling it?
  • Have I prepared this story and developed the skill to tell it in an inspiring way?
  • Is this the right time and place to tell it?

Sheila adds: “Research suggests that we open our hearts to a story when told from a place of honesty and humility. If we want stories that stand out from the noise, create meaning and truly connect leaders with their people, we would be well advised to consider the stories we are telling with more care.”

sheila-hirstMore about Sheila


Sheila Hirst, Director of Omilia Hirst, is an experienced Facilitator, Master coach and Storyteller, combining experience gained from senior management roles in SMEs and Corporates, with 25 years in the field of organisational and personal communication and change in the UK and globally. She specialises in coaching leaders to find and use their authentic voice through a greater understanding of themselves and others.  As a consequence leaders are better able to clarify their priorities and articulate and share their vision across audiences in a way that is both truly engaging and convincing. She also helps inter-cultural teams connect and engage with each other in order to make the most of their collective strengths