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Thought Leadership

Let’s Talk Leadership: Engaging Your Audience and Telling a Good Story

Graphic showing the text: “Leading in the Middle: ‘Talking Leadership’”

This article is part of our Leading in the Middle Series. Each month, we will share a Thought Leadership article by UNC Executive Development Senior Associate Dean Dave Hofmann on how to lead effectively from any position in an organization.


I’ve had many opportunities to hear senior leaders talk about their leadership journeys, communicate corporate strategy, and seek to inspire others. Many are excellent at conveying their messages—clear, concise, and compelling—while others might benefit from an idea or two about how to make them better.

So, let’s talk leadership and two characteristics present in all the great presentations I’ve seen: engaging your audience and punctuating with a good story.

Engaging Your Audience

Effectively engaging an audience and communicating with impact involves skillfully adjusting pace, tone, and cadence, and balancing abstraction and tangibility of ideas.

  1. Variability. Perhaps it’s obvious that, as a speaker, you must vary your pace, tone, and cadence. Slow down and add pauses if you’re saying something that you want your audience to really focus on. At other times, speed up, or raise and lower your voice. Imagine an orchestra conductor in the back of the room signally you to speed up, slow down, increase your volume, or decrease it to create a piece of music instead of just a series of notes or chords played in progression. Many leaders already know this.
  2. Abstraction and tangibility. One thing that leaders more rarely consider is the need to vary the levels of abstraction and concreteness. Think about this as a windowpane. At the top are high-level, abstract concepts and key takeaways that you want listeners to remember and act on. At the bottom are detailed stories that help people imagine, feel, and experience a tangible situation, making core aspects of these concepts “come alive” (see interesting, related research). You do not want to spend too much time in the middle. Here, there is too much detail for the few key takeaways to be clearly articulated and remembered and, simultaneously, there is not enough detail to make these takeaways really come alive. Instead, effectively “talking leadership” requires fluctuating between the top and bottom of the window.

Scratching your head? Okay, maybe I lost you a bit with that analogy.

Instead, consider an executive who is presenting the organization’s core values as part of an overview of the corporate strategy. Imagine that the six core values are already familiar to the audience. One option is to cover each of the six, define them in turn…and in doing so, sit right in the middle of the figurative “window.” Here, there is too much detail to move quickly, yet not enough detail to make the message really come alive.

Female speaker giving a presentation during business seminar

Another option sounds like this: “Well, I know everyone is familiar with our six core values, and all of them are critically important for us to execute our strategy. But here are two that I think we need to really focus on over the next six months, and here’s why…” Or, “…Here are two that are really resonating with me and my team at the moment.”

After this, the executive speaks in depth about the two core values and tells a story about why these two are top of mind. In essence, the speaker moves from the top of the window to the bottom, while skipping the middle. Once at the bottom of the window, the speaker then needs to tell a compelling story.

Leveraging a Simple Three-Part Structure to Tell a Good Story

What makes a good story? In the context of “talking leadership,” a compelling story includes three components: a beginning (context), a tension point, and a resolution. The goal is for listeners to experience, feel, and imagine a concrete situation illustrating a key point.

1) Context

A quick introduction sets up the story’s context. Who was involved, where were they, what was going on, and when did it occur? Keep the context-setting short and quick.

2) Tension point

A story is really only worth telling when it includes a tension point, conflict, surprise, or gap in perception. It is not the context that really grabs listeners’ attention, but the tension point. Stories start to come alive and have an impact when you get the audience excited to see how the conflict or tension point will be resolved.

3) Resolution

The resolution is the final part of the story when the storyteller ties up loose ends and releases, or resolves, the tension built during the middle of the piece.

“Talking Leadership”

Effective leadership presentations are more than just bullet points on slides, just like a piece of music is more than a series of notes and chords. Instead, they are opportunities to engage, persuade, and leave a lasting impression. “Talking leadership,” when skillfully done by effectively engaging your audience and punctuating with a good story, can transform your message from mundane to memorable.

To read more from Dave Hofmann visit his Substack and subscribe

Dave Hofmann is Senior Associate Dean of UNC Executive Development and Hugh L. McColl, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.