Mentoring Through Storytelling

one female executive telling a story to another
Ty Bennett Photo
Leadership Inc.

3 minutes

Leaders' own 'aha' moments can be powerful teaching tools if we share them in a ‘struggle to solution’ format. 

Communicating well is not only an intellectual exercise. To really connect with people, especially their emotions, we need to bring them into our experience. Stories do that. When you paint a picture with your words, people put themselves in that picture.

As a leader, the right story can be a gold mine. Story creates a spark that ignites a new awareness. It is such an influential tool that, if you use it constructively, it can change people’s hearts and minds. That is why Janet Litherland said, “Stories have power. They delight, enchant, touch, teach, recall, inspire, motivate, challenge. They help us understand. They imprint a picture on our minds. Consequently, stories often pack more punch than sermons. Want to make a point or raise an issue? Tell a story.”

One of the most underrated skills in business today and one of the most effective tools in the leader’s toolbox is storytelling.

So how do we do it?

The most common story a leader tells in the mentoring process is an “aha” story. This story is designed to reveal a truth to the learner and the process by which the leader gained this aha. The point of the story is to impart wisdom and coach the learner through a new situation and—by framing this advice in the form of a story—it is heard, remembered and more likely to be acted upon.

The key to this type of story, and to all stories in fact, is the model of struggle to solution. An influential story is struggle first and then solution. This is the point that most influencers don’t realize. It’s the struggle that is the hook for the story. There is something about confrontation and conflict that grabs our attention. It engages emotion and draws us in.

We all want to believe we are on The Hero’s Journey, the monomyth of novelist James Joyce—to venture out in life, face struggles, experience victory and bring it all back to the village of our lives as wiser souls is the stuff of the human condition. Whether you know it or not, your story of your own struggles and your own victories—however modest they may seem to you—has tremendous power to inspire and motivate others and propel them to greater heights.

For leaders to tell this story effectively, we need to think over where we learned these lessons and then we need to be willing to be vulnerable and share our own shortcomings, misconceptions and stumbles to share the aha that came as the solution.

An aha story from a leader would follow the pattern: Early in my career I was asked to lead a project … and I was struggling with … Everything changed when my manager … and as a result of her advice I changed my approach … and this was the result …

The aha moments in our lives and careers can be powerful teaching tools if we share them in a “struggle to solution” format. The struggle is what learners will relate to and, because of this connection, the solution will be a credible idea or strategy that they will want to implement.

Like any great skill, telling stories takes practice—both to identify the aha stories you can use in the mentoring process as well as learning to tell those stories effectively. Remember, however, that mentoring through storytelling makes the insights palatable, memorable and actionable.

Ty Bennett is the founder of Leadership Inc., a speaking and training company with a mission to empower individuals and organizations to challenge their status quo, cultivate exceptional relationships, and compete in extraordinary ways. 

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