Ignite Engagement Through the Art of Leadership Storytelling

Story is a powerful business tool.

As a writer/screenwriter, I formally studied the art of writing and storytelling. From Stephen King’s On Writing, to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, to Aristotle’s Poetics. Which, by the way, is so tiny when you pick it up, it’s tempting to think it’ll be an easy read… It is not. It’s super packed with insight and requires a lot of reflection as you’re reading if you really want to really understand the material.

Maybe you’re thinking: “You just need that for fiction. That’s not for business.” Not so fast! Storytelling is what will captivate an audience, will attract your clients and will inspire your team.

So what basic structure could leaders use to help carve a more powerful business story?

Potential uses for these stories

Before we just jump into that, let's start with the potential uses for these stories.

I know that it gets tossed around a lot. “Think about stories.” Okay, but for what?

The obvious first one is in giving a presentation. That could be internally or it could be at a speaking engagement. Usually you would use a story to help support facts, and it might help make data a little bit more accessible, a little more concrete, and a little less dry.

Another place to use story could be on the website. It can help provide insight into the company. It can help provide insight into the way it operates, into its values, its mission, who are the people behind the business. So it can really help an audience connect when they come to your website.

You can also use stories in articles/blogs where it can help attract a potential client who might see themselves in that stated problem. They might recognize that situation and think: “That's happening to me too. Okay, they get it.” And so that might be attractive to them.

Another time that story might be useful is when training our team members. And that could be done potentially at onboarding. So when you do it at onboarding, you would use story so that they can understand their role better, so that they can understand the mission of the organization, so that they can align more appropriately. You may pick a story about a client and how they had a very specific problem and how you went in and helped them address that, then it might help that new employee see the “expected behavior” in dealing with that type of situation. This could help with alignment and foster a sense of connection and belonging within the team when they start hearing how their role integrates into the big picture and how they are contributing to the mission of the organization.

Using stories can also help integrate lessons learned. By sharing successes and failures, you can potentially accelerate the onboarding of a new team member, because then they might understand more easily: “This failed because of that. Okay, see, I would've thought that would've worked because XYZ, but then it's not because ABC.” That could help avoid some “rookie mistakes”.

Basic structure

So what kind of basic structure can we use? Again, this is barebones, super basic structure. I won’t be addressing acts or what happens when and what should happen in a story.

You'd want to typically start with painting a picture. What's happening? We call that the ordinary world. Where are you, what are you doing? What is the situation that you found yourself in, or the client or whatever. We’ll focus on you but depending on the story, you would want to focus on the client or whatever, depending on the point of view that you're using to tell the story.

Then you want to explain what difficulty you were facing. And this is usually where the client would recognize themselves, or at least your audience. They will be listening to that and then recognize: “Wow, that sounds a lot like me.” And so this is usually going to draw them in because they relate and they want to see where it goes.

Once you've done that, you’ve explained the difficulty you were facing, then you want to talk about how not addressing the problem made things worse. To use terminology, it’s a “refusal of the call” of sorts. You want to talk about how not addressing the problem made things worse. So you had this thing, you didn’t want to deal with it, and by not dealing with it business was so much worse off because you did not do that thing.

And the worsening of the situation usually brings you to a certain point where it was like: “It can't continue. This has to change.” And so then you describe that situation. The situation that pushed you to seek another solution because the status quo wasn't working.

Once you’ve described that, you continue with the solution that you employed that worked. And that's usually something that you offer in your business. Just a little tip: don't start giving solutions that you know everybody but you offers. Make sure that you're aligned. We are talking about business stories here, so we want to make sure that everything is aligned. And so the solution that did work is typically what you're offering.

Once you've described how the solution worked, then you move into how you, your life, the business, the client's business was transformed by this new approach.

The transformation aspect is really important because if it's just a teeny tiny change, nobody's going to be moved by that. It’s the big transformations that do. It's much more attractive in the sense that if a business offers: “Hey, you can work with me and you're going to make this teeny tiny progress” vs “Hey, you can work with me and you're going to get this huge progress”. Well most people will opt for the second company.

And just by the way: be honest! No exaggerations! None of this “I'm going to promise you the moon and I'm going to underdeliver.” Nope, nope, nope. That's not good for anyone. So make sure that whatever you're promising, whatever is that change, however the transformation happened, that you can reproduce that. None of these: “Oh, hey, I did this one thing and look at me. My business did 20x in revenue.” And then it was some kind of weird fluke that can never be replicated by anybody else. Please don't be that kind of business.

So whatever that transformation that occurred, what was it? And how is your life now? What is this new world that you're in that is transformed because you dared to lean in and you dared to accept the challenge and you dared to employ that new solution. You weren't sure, but whoa, it worked. And “look at me now”.

That was a very generic, linear way of telling a story.

And in presentation, once you kind of master the basics and you write down your story in that very linear way, you may choose to move around the elements.

I'm sure you're familiar with it. You know how sometimes the very beginning of a TV show is the end or close to the end, and then they go back 24 hours earlier or six weeks earlier. And so that's just one way of hooking you in. I'm not saying necessarily do that, but find a way of creating that hook. You can start a little ways in, you can start in the middle of an action, etc. Play around with it. Play around with the elements. But make sure they're all there. And that is just going to give it more flavor.

Even a story that is linear can still be extremely interesting if you tell it right. Then, of course, we fall into presentation which is a whole other thing. We're just talking about the elements of the basic structure of storytelling.

For myself, just to give you a little bit more of a concrete example, when I give a talk, I may start with a story, and then I bring it to the point where it's “things had to change”. And then I start talking about my topic. But as I'm going through the talk, I will update the audience on the evolution of the story. So usually by the time I get to the end of my talk, I've covered the whole story, but in little parts. The story is tied into what I am teaching and I’ll continue telling it as I teach the new points. I'm not saying that every slide there’s a one-sentence update. But rather do it in chunks.

Something that I noticed is that, typically, it keeps an audience interested because they want to find out how it turned out. At the same time, it helps give a concrete example of the impact of the teachings in real life. So it really helps drive your points home.

Keep an inventory as you go

Keeping an inventory of these business stories is something that I find extremely useful. If I'm writing a talk or an article and there's a place where I would like to use a story, I find that sometimes it can be really hard to recall one on the spot when I need it.

So if you want to get better at creating and using these stories, then find a place to put them all together. Of course, there's going to be that initial effort that's going to be a little bit more difficult because you have to think and put stories in that document. But if you can even start building it slowly, it would be a step forward. Like “Oh, I remember this story that's probably applicable for this thing. This would be a good illustration of this.”

And then once you have something that's reasonably well built, then you can simply keep topping it up. Then, when you have this big list and you're writing something and you're looking for a story to illustrate a specific point, you can refer to your list.

You may also want to consider having team members contribute stories. That may even spark an idea for you to use as the basis for a case study or something.

There’s no right way of maintaining this list. Do whatever works for you. It really doesn't matter. To help you think about this, here are a few ideas: You could create a spreadsheet with tabs. And the tabs could be by topic, use or audience. Or you could also just have one big list. Personally, I've actually found that works better for me. Just one big list. And I put it in alphabetical order (easy to do with a spreadsheet).

Some of the information that I feel is important to capture, especially if you have just one big list, is to write a few lines about what the story's about. Not so much that the whole story is there but just a few lines, a few key things to jog your memory. Then the point of the story. What does it teach? What does it illustrate? And also who is the audience for this story? Keeping in mind of course that one story could potentially be tweaked per audience. You might highlight certain things or word certain things differently based on who your audience is.

Start trying to incorporate these

Without going overboard – not saying we should be telling stories every day, in every article, every web page – but for some specific events, try incorporating a story. See how it might make a difference in connecting with your intended audience in a better way.

By crafting compelling narratives that showcase our company's journey, values, and mission, we can provide our audience with a holistic understanding of the organization's purpose. And help create a connection at an emotional level that will leave a lasting impression.


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