How the Storytelling Process Can Make You a Better Coach

Storytelling is an essential part of leadership communications. In the following sentence, Steve Almond, author of Truth Is the Arrow, Mercy Is the Bow, writes:

“The most fundamental question for readers is to who we’re being ask to care about, what they desire, and what sort of trouble they encounter in pursuit of that desire. In other words, what promises is the piece making? Has our protagonist been forced to reckon with external obstacles and internal conflicts?”

If you were to substitute readers for followers and a piece for a story, you would have an excellent framework for shaping a story. Almond has authored 11 books and has taught writing in MFA programs for decades. Truth Is the Arrow is a distillation of what he teaches. And he does it with verve, candor, style and courage.

Why We Need Stories

For that reason, his exploration of storytelling is worth exploring for leaders who need to communicate more effectively with their followers. Stories have beginnings, middles and ends, and in the management environment, leaders know the beginning but not the ending. Forming the ending – fulfilling the mission – is a series of “middles” – ever-changing and ever-challenging.

 The narrative in fiction has been plotted, though when the writer is writing, they may not know it at the time. Same for work life. We mark milestones, but we are still in the process. Storytelling – that sheds light on people and effort – makes the progression worthy of further commitment.

A vital part of storytelling is revealing something of yourself. Almond does a skillful job telling parts of his story throughout the book. He is not afraid to laugh at his early writing efforts. More directly, he deals with family challenges and is not afraid to call himself out for shortcomings in his teaching.

Almond notes that writers come to workshops to express themselves, and part of that expression involves the grasp of self-knowledge. In this regard, the principles of the writing process mirror the coaching process, peeling back the layers to help the individual learn more about themselves.

An essential part of storytelling is humor. At this, Almond is a master. Not afraid to reveal his own foibles, he does so in ways that make us laugh and at the same time say, “I know that feeling.” That lesson is something that binds listeners – and followers – to the storytellers. Consider it vulnerability tinged with what it means to be fully alive.

Revealing Self

Near the end of the book, there is a chapter, “Man at the Top of the Stairs,” that explores a character’s inner life. Writers have to find a different way of being in the world,” writes Almond. “The making of literature is the manner by which we come to understand our inner lives, by which we travel in difficult truth toward elusive mercy, and thereby affirm the bonds of human kindness.”

Same holds true for leaders. Their connection to those they lead may waver from time to time, but when the leader knows themselves they have the capacity to look outward, to connect with others with story that resonate with shared experience. And when those stories reflect hopes and aspirations tempered with kindness and grace, the connection between leader and follower remains resilient and firm.

First posted on 5.00.2024

 Note: For more insights into the parallels between writing and coaching, here is my LinkedIn Live interview with Steve Almond.