Lessons Learned From a Master Storyteller

June 15, 2017    |    Brad Holst

It was a masterclass in the art of storytelling. Former Secretary of State General Colin Powell had every person in the room enthralled as he spoke at the Bay Area Council’s 2017 Outlook Conference.

Weaving story after story together, he shared memorable insights into the current state of the world and powerful lessons from his lifetime of distinguished service.

Later that day, in a more intimate breakout session, he continued to harness the power of storytelling as he responded to questions, using them to instruct, to illustrate, and to bring his points of view to vivid life.

It was an afternoon I’ll never forget.


Three storytelling lessons I learned from General Colin Powell.
Rush hour traffic in San Francisco can be a nightmare, but I didn’t even notice it on my drive home.

My mind was totally occupied processing what General Powell had said. And then I started thinking about what could be learned from his expert application of masterful storytelling.

Here are three storytelling lessons learned:

1) Find the stories in your life.

It was clear that General Powell had a library of stories in his back pocket that he could reach for whenever he needed. You could tell that there were some stories he'd planned to use, but many were used spontaneously, like when he was responding to questions.

Some were from his professional life. Others were more personal, sharing stories about his parents, his children, and his own experiences growing up. All worked beautifully in what was a very professional business setting.

You might not have had a life that played out very visibly on a global stage like General Powell’s—I know I didn’t. But no matter if you’re early or late in your career, if you do a little digging, you can be certain you’ll find rich veins of stories from your professional and personal life that are ripe for the telling. 

2) Never tell a good story once.

General Powell told a story about an experience with President Ronald Reagan and the squirrels that live around the Oval Office patio.

It culminated in a potent lesson about influencing executive decision makers. It grabbed and held everyone’s attention with just the right dollops of humor sprinkled throughout. And it was not only told artfully, it was told very efficiently—in less than two minutes—with no word wasted.

When I got home, I searched for “Colin Powell squirrel story” and was a bit shocked to find so many hits. It turns out he included this story in his book. He uses it in many of his talks. There’s even at least one YouTube video with the General telling this story.

A story is like a shoe, in that it needs to be broken in before it can be worn comfortably. The first time you tell a story will not be your best, nor will the second or even third time. 

It takes multiple practices to make it work well. But once it's “broken in" you can use it effectively for a lifetime. It’s there in your brain, ready to be used “on demand” whenever the situation calls for it.

3) Keep it fresh.

If you were to look up the definition of the word “gravitas” there’s a good chance you’ll see General Powell’s picture cited as an example.

He delivered his talk to the Bay Area Council in a very genuine and authentic manner. He had a reserved, dignified presence with an underlying powerful yet quiet energy. It works very well for him and his audience.

But when General Powell tells a story, he fully commits to its delivery. He goes all in with a twinkle in his eye, expressive gestures, and, in the case of the squirrel story, a spot-on Ronald Reagan vocal impersonation.

Even though he’s probably told most of his stories countless times, there was a freshness to how he told them. You could tell that he enjoyed being a storyteller.


Remember...when you’re telling a story for the hundredth time, your audience is hearing it for the first time. 
If you’re bored by telling it, you can be certain your audience will be bored hearing it.

But if you put energy into the telling of an oft-told story, just like General Powell did, you’ll get that energy back from your audience exponentially making the experience fresh for everyone.

As mentioned in a recent blog, you can build your own storytelling skills by observing how masterful storytellers work their craft.

Sites like TED.com are full of wonderful examples. And, as I was reminded at the Bay Area Council’s 2017 Outlook Conference, nothing compares to experiencing great storytelling live and in person.


Want to become a better storyteller? Watch this Harvard Business Publishing video. Looking for a fun, high-impact session at your next leadership offsite, sales kickoff, or annual all-hands meeting?  Schedule a Storytelling Session with Mandel. Contact us to learn how.