Storytelling – a powerful tool of effective leadership!

Once Upon a Time There Was a Great Leader – A Very Powerful Storyteller.

If you are a dedicated Watkins Associate there is no more enjoyable activity than sitting around at a Watkins conference or at an exotic vacation resort listening to some of our leaders (especially the seasoned veterans) swapping stories.  Sometimes they tell self-effacing tales of their own experiences.  Often they relate a story about someone on their team or a special customer.  Frequently their stories turn to special experiences they have had representing Watkins – the Company.  Tales about our remarkable products are favorite themes during these sessions.

The Watkins Storytellers are something special.  They share their insights with passion.  During their story sessions there is much laughter and joy.  But amid the fun there are valued lessons to be learned.  The storytellers are teachers.  I have noted that many of them repeat the same story (or variations on the theme) anytime they can find an audience.  They have polished and honed their craft.  Their stories become powerful testimonials to the value and worthwhile nature of their life and business with Watkins. 

Most of the more illustrious storytellers are senior leaders with long experience in life and business.  They relate to the people in their world and bond with them through their stories.  They have learned that a key attribute of leadership is the ability to tell a good story.  Story tellers help build community.  They inspire and motivate.  They bring out the best in people. 

These storytellers are a part of the oral history of Watkins.  They help to pass on the traditions, heritage, value system and guiding principles of Watkins, Inc.  Often, they are not accomplished in advanced language skills, have vast vocabularies or demonstrate the polish of a professional speaker.  They simply share from their heart.  They are genuine, honest and touch upon truths that are universal.  They simply know how to relate to and touch the lives of others.  They are a joy to know.

But you, too, are a story teller.  You actually tell stories all the time.  When you are sitting with friends and begin to talk about the recent trip to a family reunion you are telling a story.  When you repeat a joke at the diner over your morning coffee with a friend you are probably swapping stories.


But first, before we get to far down the road we want to put things in perspective.  This article is intended to raise your awareness of storytelling and encourage you to develop your own personal storytelling style and skills.  We are not suggesting that you must devote large blocks of time, energy, research and practice to become a Master Storyteller.  That would not be practical and certainly is not our intention.  But we do hope you will make storytelling an interesting and FUN hobby that may also help you to enhance your leadership skills as you build your Watkins Business. 


The Beginning of a Long-Term Study of Story-Telling

A few years ago, in my Industrial Consulting days, may partners and I contracted with a client to write a three day training program titled:  The Dynamics of Effective Leadership.  To be perfectly frank about it, when we began to work on this project none of us had ever thought about storytelling as an important element of effective leadership.

As with many other people who study leadership, we looked at things like over-all knowledge, experience, the ability to clarify an organizational vision, problem solving, listening skills, planning, organizational skills, the ability to motivate and numerous other obvious characteristics that make up effective leadership.  But we did not have storytelling on the list of important traits for leaders.

It was a book by Howard Gardner, a leading psychologist that began to point us toward storytelling.  The book, Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership, looks at eleven leaders from very different fields.  Early in the book Gardner makes the following observation:

“As a rule to thumb, creative artists, scientists, and experts in various disciplines lead indirectly, through their work.  Effective leaders of businesses, institutions, and nations lead directly through the stories he or she tells.”

I believe Gardner’s “rule of thumb” to be right on target.  Scientists lead by performing experiments, then writing about them in journals.  This builds their reputations in the scientific community, leading to more prestigious positions and greater influence.  They often continue to grow as leaders by doing further experimentation which goes ever deeper into a subject.  The same model of leadership works for artists, authors, and musicians.  They gain reputations by doing what they do best. 

When it comes to leadership in institutions of business, education, government, social movements and other areas of life, people who rise to the top are most often those who can tell stories.  These stories encourage, inspire, and in other ways bring people along in the direction that the leader wants to take the enterprise.  The leader uses stories to clarify a vision, set direction and establish the moral compass of the organization.  The more people follow the leader the more powerful he or she becomes.  Often that power translates into great success and accompanying wealth for the enterprise and the people who have a stake in it.

Leadership Storytelling takes many forms.  Here are some examples.

President Ronald Reagan was adept at telling those “once upon a time” stories.  In a speech he would often go into detail about the heroism of a person who had served in the military or who had done an heroic act.  While never very long, his stories were often told with enough detail that you could not fail to get the point.  At just the right moment, the congress and visitors would rise to applaud the exemplary hero and, if President Reagan had told the story right, there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house. 

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. could tell the same kind of story, but his style was usually very different.  In the “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King actually told a story in reverse.  In that section of the speech that many of us can quote almost verbatim he told a story of the future, a visionary tale where his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  Was this really a story?  Yes, but a story of a very different type and with a very different style.  Most stories are based on the past.  Dr. King’s story was based on the potential and possibilities of the future.

Jesus of Nazareth was a master story teller.  One of the reasons he attracted large crowds was because of his public miracles.  But, Jesus was very careful not to allow himself to become known as a Miracle Worker.  He did not wish to become known as the Healer but rather he desired to be called the Teacher. 

Jesus taught in beautifully simplistic short stories called parables.  He taught so the highly educated and uneducated of his day would understand his message.  Most importantly he dialoged and challenged people.  He tested their thinking and shared his insights. He told his stories to anyone who would listen – lawyers, tax collectors, fisherman, religious leaders, government officials, people of all cultures, rich and poor and even the less than desirable citizens of his day. And everyone who heard his stories and joined in his great dialog was forever changed.

He engaged people with short stories that reflected the life and times in which they lived.  He related to their life experiences.  He taught powerful lessons and moral truths based on the routines of daily life.  His stories were simple – not complex.  But his stories had the power to open whole new possibilities for those who listened.  Sometimes the stories turned their thinking upside-down.  His parables touched the hearts and minds and imaginations of the people.  These remarkable little stories have been memorized, repeated, analyzed and taught for almost 2000 years.  Millions of people have been influenced by the power of these masterfully crafted stories.  Amazingly, these parables still speak to us today!

Hone Your Skills as a storyteller.

Storytelling seems to come naturally to some folks.  There are people who, because of genetics or family upbringing or whatever, are natural storytellers.  They just have a “feel” for the stories that connect with people.  Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Cosby come to mind.  How natural it seems for them.  But even if you are not a natural – storyteller – it does not have to be drudgery to become a good teller of a tale.  You can have lots of fun developing a storytelling style, which will serve you well into the future and contribute to your stature as a leader.

It is our hope that as Watkins Associates you will find your own voice in telling stories that will connect with your people.  You will probably find a variety of styles helpful in your storytelling.  In order to assure that your storytelling is of maximum help in the development of your leadership, there are several steps you may want to consider.  We will get to those steps in just a moment.

Some Effective Techniques to Help You Become a Good Story-Teller

We simply want you to be aware of a few techniques and actions that will help you to grow your ability to communicate, coach, share ideas and experiences with others in more compelling ways.  Do not look upon our suggestions as a call to launch another big project in your life.  You may elect to spend some time working on these ideas.  If they prove to be important for you – you will discover ways to casually integrate them into the daily routines of your life. 


For example: For many years I have a kept “idea journals.”  They are loose-leaf three ring binders filled with blank paper.  There is one on my night stand next to my bed with an ample supply of pencils and pens right next to it.  Another journal is kept on a shelf at my Watkins work station.  I keep 3×5 index cards in my car so I can jot down ideas that come to me when I am away from home.  I then tape these cards into one of my journals when I arrive home.  Any kind of idea that comes to mind goes into my journals. 

Some entries are simply a key word or a brief sentence – anything that will excite my memory banks so I can recover it and work on it later.  As an idea seems to take on importance I then file it electronically in my computer where I can visit it periodically.  I can word-process and edit the idea into a completed story.  You have probably guessed that most of my storytelling is in written form.

The ideas and stories featured in this BLOG passed through my journals and were then “fleshed out” when I needed them.  Some were drafted and edited over night – others over years.


How does one become a good storyteller?  Following are several steps that may be helpful for you.

**Start your journal.  Once you organize and prepare some way to capture your ideas the rest of what we suggest will become easy and be a lot of fun!

**Begin Collecting Story Ideas from your personal life and save them in your journal.

To get started set aside some quiet time.  Reach back and remember your past.  Let your mind wonder through your early years.  You will tend to recall people, events and things that have been long forgotten.  When you revisit the past you may rediscover small bits of happiness and insights that will bring you joy.  You may unleash flashes of power and be energized by fond memories.  This little exercise will encourage you to visit your past more often.

Look back at some of the people in your life who have impressed you and told a “life story” that helped to define who you are today.  We all have a few people in our lives that set remarkable examples for us.  They may not have been highly articulate storytellers but they were genuine, honest, caring and very influential in your life.  They may not have been storytellers with a great facility of language and vocabulary but instead they told their story by the way they lived.  Their story helped to shape you into adulthood.

Fast forward to your current life.  Collect stories that feature you.  Include special relationships, events, situations, challenges, adventures, misadventures, up-times and down-times that have impacted your life.  Many of these “life events” may make great contributions to your life story.  Note those things that have touched you emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.  They may become the soul of the stories you will share with others.

**Collect story ideas from the world at large.

Continuously read and listen to the stories of others.  Learning the stories of others is critically important.  Read the morning newspaper and listen to the news.  Look for articles and personalities that catch your fancy and reveal ideas that you can use.  Study the great writings of your religious persuasion and reinforce your moral values.  Great stories come from Holy Words.  Read the true stories of history and the fictional stories in good novels or short stories.  Read about leaders within our Network Distribution Industry. 

Learn about leaders in other industries and settings.  Know the stories of some respected contemporary business leaders.  There is much to be learned from the lives of others.  If you don’t know many stories of famous contemporary business leaders, read their various biographical sketches available in books, trade journals and on the Internet.  Do whatever you can to expand the sources of stories that can help you as you grow your own collection of stories.

Note the stories that you learn about other leaders and document them in your journal.  Writing down a simple outline or brief description will help you to remember and retrieve the story when you need it

**Collect story ideas from the Wonderful World of Watkins.

Watkins represents a treasure trove of possibilities for story material.  It is our hope that you will use storytelling to strengthen your ability to build relationships and bond with people who are a part of your Watkins experience.  The more you are able to relate to people the more effective you will be as a leader.  Single out Watkins leaders you admire and learn their stories.

Collect stories about the Company.  For example: The story about the beginning of Watkins is in my journal.  I often tell the story of how JR Watkins built a direct selling empire on the foundation of a single product – red liniment – which he “brewed” and bottled in his kitchen.  It is a remarkable story.

Irwin Jacobs, The current owner of Watkins Inc. is a powerful story teller.  One of the high-lights of the Watkins Annual Business Meeting is to hear Irwin Jacobs share his insights.  He has a compelling story of his “rags to riches” journey in life.  I have heard his story several times and each time it seems to take on a greater luster.

Most of the Executive leaders in Watkins have developed their own storytelling style and their own arsenal of stories.  Their ability to connect with people about what they have experienced is one of the reasons that they are leaders today.

Focus your attention on collecting personalities and colorful people in Watkins – your customers, Associates on your team, coaches and executive leadership.  Most all of them represent the seed of a great story that you can pass on to others.

Note:  If you use some other person’s story be certain to give credit.  It is only honest and proper to do so.

Collect stories about your favorite Watkins products.  These stories can easily be turned into great product testimonials.  A good testimonial is a short-short story and is of priceless value!

**Review your journal and pick out five ideas that you would like to work into a story.  For starters make simple story outlines.

Pick out story ideas that are of most interest to you.  These may be inspirational stories about people who have overcome difficult odds to succeed in life.  They may be stories about how Watkins helps to solve life’s problems through our remarkable products or our premier home-business system.

You may enjoy telling about common people who made uncommon contributions to your life.  Think about family, friends and neighbors who have somehow impacted your life.

To be an effective leader you must tell stories that connect with the people you coach and lead.  Some of the material will come from your own experience but many of your ideas will come from others.

 Some Story Ideas

  • Share a story of great courage and over-coming hardship to achieve success.
  • Give an example of when you faced a problem – took action and got results.
  • Tell a story about lessons learned from misadventures.
  • Self-effacing stories are fun and show that you are human.
  • A contemporary real-life story that holds special meaning for you can be exciting.
  • Tell a “warning” story that will help people from going down a wrong road.
  • A hero’s tale is always exciting.
  • Share a personal experience that has a strong point you wish to convey.
  • Use a story from history to stress a key idea.
  • Relate stories about leaders you have admired and what you admire about them.
  • Visionary stories – what you would like to see unfold – a dream story.
  • Find great idea stories with out-of-the box thinking.
  • Most of your stories should be about people whose actions or decisions should be emulated.
  • However, you may also look for stories of people who messed up.  (Example: Fran and I tell stories about my Uncle Harry’s Misadventures).
  • Use the exemplary lives of people from history to strengthen your stories and give credibility.  A brief story about Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, JR Watkins, Mother Teresa, or Margaret Thatcher can be placed in your story to make a key point.  Quoting famous people ads luster to your stories.

 **Draft simple/brief outlines of the stories you have selected.

We suggest that your initial stories be focused on your Watkins Business experience.  We are attempting to bolster your leadership skills to better build your business.  At this point do not worry about polished writing.  Just get the gist of the story down.  It may be best if these initial stories are very short presentations.

Use this simple structure to build your story outline – the Beginning – the Middle – and the Ending.

The Beginning: Get attention – Introduce your main idea – share how it may relate to your potential audience.  Arouse interest!

The Middle: Tell the main parts of your story.  Amplify on your main idea.  Use the Middle of your story as a time for your listeners to discover what you want tem to discover.  You may engage, involve and encourage participation.  This will come easier with experience. 

The Ending:  Here is the wrap-up of your story – the “punch-line” – the moral of the story – the great climax of the tale.  Tie the end together like a neat bow.

**Refine Your Stories to the point that you are comfortable with them.

**Learn and Memorize your stories.

**Begin to practice telling the stories to yourself

I recruit the family dog as my first audience.  I bribe her with a couple of treats and she gives me great reviews!  Unfortunately, I discovered that she was taking my treats and falling asleep before the end of my story.  I now make her stay awake and hear the whole story before she gets her treat!  It is only fair!  I do not want the world to learn that even my family dog goes to sleep listening to my stories.

Tell your stories to a recording device.  Replay them to perfect your technique.  Speak them into the mirror to analyze your facial and body language.  All this is helpful.  However, you must actually tell your stories to people in order to become a really good storyteller.  Every time you share a story you will improve.

**Start telling the stories to your family, friends and associates

Some leaders learn to tell their stories by gathering a group of friends or business associates who work together to help each other improve skills in a variety of areas.  Others join clubs or groups, such as Toastmasters, where people constructively critique each other.  Some have family members who can be a great help.  Still others pay consultants and trainers to help them develop and tell the stories.  Whatever you do, put together a program where you can practice your storytelling craft in a variety of settings.  Make a speech to a service club or to co-workers in a business meeting.  Develop a training event or seminar and make presentations.  All these tactics will help you grow.

**Practice, Practice, Practice

**Unleash your stories on the waiting world. 

**Polish and retell your stories over and over again.

Above all, have fun.  Storytelling is one of the really exciting and delightful aspects of leadership development.  You will be very glad you took the time to work on this important component of good leadership.  Enjoy!  And tell us a few of your stories.  We are always looking for new material for our BLOG.


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