Storytelling is now considered a core competence for any leader and any business. Its influence and significance are acknowledged by The New York Times, Forbes Magazine, Harvard Business Review, Inc. Magazine, and Fast Company, to name just a few.

Companies who build a strong culture around storytelling outperform other companies. They typically enjoy an annualized revenue growth rate of 10.4 percent compared with 6.1 percent for other companies, according to Ty Montague, reporting in Harvard Business Review.

But finding and sharing your stories is only half the equation. All my clients ask me how to become a great leader through storytelling. I have two secrets to share.

The first secret doesn’t require a lot of explanation: practice, practice, practice. To get there, in my coaching and workshops we set up a Story Lab with a partner.

It’s the second secret that trips people up, yet it is essential for powerful leadership. And that secret is . . . drumroll . . . listening.

As we climb the leadership ladder, listening – instead of talking and doing – becomes more critical than ever. I suggest that 70 percent to 80 percent of your time be spent on listening. Yes, that’s a lot. But as U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson always pointed out, “You ain’t learnin’ nothing when you’re doin’ all the talkin’.”

The steps below help leaders listen to stakeholder stories to build influence and charisma.

4 Steps to Take
1. To get to the heart of the matter and gain rich material to deepen your understanding, ask a question that evokes a story instead of an opinion or a thin description. Always use a story prompt, like “Tell me about the time when . . .” or “Tell me what happened when . . .”

2. Throw Active Listening out the door. Active Listening (validating what you heard) is an essential skill, but we need a different kind of listening to win at leadership. So the Story Lab focuses on “listening delightedly.”

Listen for the joy of listening. Your goal is to listen the best story possible out of someone. Don’t take notes. Don’t interrupt. Don’t focus on the piece of advice, suggestion, critical feedback, story, or solution you want to share. Simply listen deeply, without that internal monologue. You will be totally amazed at what you learn.

3. Once the story is told, ask reflective questions. We can boil questions down to two basic types: information and reflective. Information questions are, “What was that person’s name? What city was that? How old were you?” etc. These kinds of questions satisfy our mind, but they don’t build relationships or influence. Nor do they help you fully understand what was shared.

Instead, ask reflective questions that will reveal more. Questions like, “What did you like (or not like) about that experience? What did you learn from that experience? What do you think this means to you?” Continue to listen delightedly.

4. When the story is complete, offer appreciations. This is critical. Your role is to highlight and acknowledge what is already going right, because we want more of that. Avoid statements like “That was really good.” Instead offer comments like “What I specifically like about your story is . . . , How this story affected me is. . . , When you said this [X], it made me realize . . . ,” etc.

Offer suggestions and ask information questions only after these steps are complete.

Everyone I run through the Story Lab is stunned by the experience. How do people feel?

• Heard
• Connected to you
• Inspired
• Helped
• Strengthened
• That they have a partner in you

This is the bedrock of influence. What’s not to like about that? Story on!

About Your Columnist


Karen Dietz is a featured columnist for Women Taking Charge, the official blog of Connected Women of Influence, where she covers how to build impact and influence through the power of business storytelling. Karen is the author of the bestselling book Business Storytelling For Dummies, opened the 2013 TEDx San Diego conference with her talk on the power of story listening to change the world. She is also a textile artist who brings her artwork and design thinking principles into her leadership and story coaching/workshops to create ‘sticky learning’ experiences. Karen’s storytelling expertise can be found at Just Story It.

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