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Leadership Lessons From Walt Disney: The Power Of Storytelling

Walt Disney storyteller

Simply stated, if you want to engage people, tell a story.

Several years ago, a colleague at Disney Institute and I were presenting to a small group of business men and women who had traveled from Spain to experience our “Disneys Approach” professional development courses at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. This particular group spoke little or no English, so we worked with translators to convey the learning experience.

Throughout the leadership training, we shared several examples of how Walt Disney effectively told stories to his team to help them understand his vision for the experiences he was trying to create. Of course, the defining illustration we shared is when Walt Disney personally conveyed the story of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs with the animators who were going to spend the next 3-4 years of their lives putting his story on film. (If you’re not familiar with this story, I highly recommend reading it here.)

When we felt as though we had made our point about the power of storytelling as a leadership tool, my colleague paused briefly, and asked the group a very astute question, given the potential language barrier. She asked them if our segment on storytelling would be useful to them. The answer was powerful, and became a universal lesson neither of us will soon forget. One gentleman in the back of the room raised his hand and shared, through the interpreter, “Yes, because we have simply forgotten what our ancestors taught us.”

He shared that he was going to use this lesson to convert his typical presentations on business strategies and objectives into stories that people would remember. His theory was that this would inspire people and connect with them emotionally rather than strictly on a rational basis. Of course, we were thrilled, because that is the lesson about the power of storytelling that Walt was demonstrating back in the 1930’s, and it’s one that our Disney leaders have continued to use effectively to this day.

Recently, an article from Psychology Today states:

“Stories are how we think. They are how we make meaning of life. Call them schemes, scripts, cognitive maps, mental models, metaphors, or narratives. Stories are how we explain how things work, how we make decisions, how we justify our decisions, how we persuade others, how we understand our place in the world, create our identities, and define and teach social values.”

As Walt Disney inherently understood, the mind naturally tries to encapsulate a fact, an experience, or a new idea in a story form, so the key to effective communication is to embrace our innate desire for storytelling, not to resist it.

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