Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Careful around the campfire: Five types of leadership storytelling and when to use each

This post is part of my series on leadership storytelling. Last time, I shared six ways to convince leaders in your organization to try storytelling; today I take a look at five specific types of stories they can tell, depending on what they seek to achieve in the process.

A few years ago I was planning a town hall during a particularly rough patch in my client’s company history. Sales were down, layoff rumors swirled, turnover was skyrocketing. As for morale, it wasn’t just in the basement, it was in a damp, foul crawlspace. The CEO knew this and decided to start the town hall with a pep talk of sorts. She was eager to try storytelling and wanted to open with a memorable anecdote. Unfortunately, she was traveling right up until the day of the meeting so we weren’t able to prep her, or find out what, exactly, she planned to say. Here’s what happened:

The CEO started by projecting a picture of several campers huddled around a fire roasting marshmallows. “This is how our industry used to be,” she began. “We were – pardon the phrase – happy campers. We competed for share, but the overall sector was healthy and growing.”

The next slide featured the same campers, now in a downpour and running for a tent. “But then things started changing,” the CEO continued. “New regulations threatened the industry’s very existence” – cue a picture of the tent collapsing – “our intellectual property came under attack” – the forest is on fire – “and the entire sector shrank rapidly” – a grizzly bear towered over the campers, mid-roar.

Dramatic pause. “All of these distractions make it tremendously difficult for us to focus on doing our jobs. But today, I want to remind you that there is hope. We are in an incredibly competitive industry, but remember: We don’t have to outrun the bear. We only have to outrun the slowest camper.”

End of story.

Later that week I facilitated focus groups to get employees’ reactions to the town hall. The slowest camper story came up in every single session. Many people appreciated the CEO’s attempt to break away from the PowerPoint, but just as many were confused by her message. “Was she trying to be funny? Or uplifting?” one mid-level manager asked. “If that was meant to inspire us, it was an epic fail.” (Said another: “I’d hardly call being chased by a carnivore the size of a small sedan a distraction.”)

I love this story, because it illustrates why leaders should employ storytelling in a strategic, goal-driven way. (And because a story about storytelling is so meta.) Stories are tools, and the type you or a leader chooses to tell during a particular situation depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re slaving over a hot stove and need to stir the alfredo, you use a spoon; when you’re scraping every bit of that caloric goodness out of the pan and onto your plate, you need a spatula (technically a rubber scraper, but who says that?)

Just how many types of stories are there, you ask? The answer is, as usual, it depends who you ask. Various storytelling aficionados categorize stories in different ways, and there are no hard and fast rules. Adapted from The Story Factor by Annette Simmons, here are overviews of five typical stories, along with prompts to help you come up with each type of story:  

1. Introducing Me: This type of story introduces a new or unknown leader to the organization and paints them as a living, breathing human, not just another new resident of the ivory tower. Ideally, it’s about a past experience that shapes them into the leader they are today. Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address at Stanford is one of the best and most famous examples of this. Several minutes in, Jobs describes how he dropped out of college and, freed of required classes, started taking the courses he actually liked. One of these was calligraphy, which ignited his passion for typefaces and, consequently, bringing beauty into technology. Thus we have an intro-level college course to thank for the iPad’s elegant contours.
If you’re a communicator helping a leader come up with their own “Introducing Me” stories (or are a leader yourself), try describing one of the following:
  • How you overcame a personal or professional flaw (a small one – like fear of failing – nothing that involves 12 steps or an arrest record) and what you learned in the process
  • A turning point in your career where you had to make a difficult choice and how it shaped you
  • A time where you saved the day
2. Conveying Values: These stories are all about culture. They’re especially important when an organization is undergoing fundamental changes (such as a merger, growth, downsizing or shift in business strategy) that threaten its identity. During such times, leaders often extol the virtues of retaining the company’s culture or the values it must develop to thrive. Yet they’ll often talk in conceptual terms – “we must stay true to our humble beginnings! Continue working as one team!” – that come across as preachy. Culture is, at its core, intangible, which makes storytelling the perfect communication vehicle for talking about it. Leaders can make the abstract real with specific examples, such as:
  • The moment you realized someone was a role model and what they did to earn that distinction
  • A situation in which you were asked to compromise a value and how you responded
  • A value your parents instilled in you via leading by example
3. Teaching: This is the cautionary tale. The teachable moment, the modern Aesop’s fable. A leader tells a teaching story to help the organization steer clear of others’ mistakes. Here, a leader describes a situation that is at least a little negative, so employees feel compelled to avoid it.

Years ago, I worked with a nuclear plant. Things were generally okay with the local workforce, but a local union was aggressively courting them. Every week a new bulletin or email would circulate, urging workers to vote to organize. The plant manager called a town hall and told the following story. “In the 1990s, I was a third-shift engineer at a unionized plant. One time, the reactor needed an emergency repair. Problem was, this particular task was considered union work – something I, as a mid-level manager, couldn’t do because of the labor contract. But it was the middle of the night. I was the only person there, union or otherwise, who had the training to make this repair. So I spent the next six hours in protective gear laid out on top of this reactor fixing it. When I climbed back down the next morning, there was a grievance waiting for me for doing union work.”

The plant manager paused. “That’s not the kind of the relationship we have in this plant. We are a team. We make decisions together. And I hope we can keep it that way.” His employees agreed, and voted against organizing.

When you or a leader needs to caution teams about a looming obstacle, think about times that you’ve experienced (or observed) a similar issue, such as:
  • A time when someone made a false assumption and the resulting consequences
  • A situation when you or someone else should’ve spoken up earlier
  • A small problem that ballooned into a big one when ignored
4. Jumpstarting Action: The economy has not been kind lately, and many leaders find themselves cajoling their employees into changing firmly established habits just to survive – creating a sense of urgency for change.  (I worked with a leader who liked to use a photo of an actual burning platform.) Often leaders will describe near-post-apocalyptic scenarios, such as the bankruptcies, budget cuts or headcount reductions that could happen if the status quo continues. Yes, negative imagery can trigger change, but it’s counterproductive to paint a bleak future without giving people specific actions to take to avoid it. That just scares people in paralysis: employees will entrench themselves even more firmly in established routines as a source of comfort.

Instead, be very specific about the change your organization needs to make. Don’t just say you need to become a more agile company; share stories that illustrate specific actions, such as reducing the time in which customer service resolves complaints. Think about a time in your own life where you had to make a similar change. What did you do? How well did it work? Try describing:
  • Achieving a new year’s resolution or breaking a bad habit
  • A time you dared to break an unwritten rule
  • Receiving a piece of negative – but accurate – feedback that was difficult to hear but ultimately inspired you to change for the better
5. Inspiring: Finally, the happy stories. Unlike those meant to teach or jumpstart action, inspiring stories are, well, inspiring.  This is your chance to be positive and visionary, to give people a reason to stick it out through all the drama and chaos and God knows whatever else is going on with the company. It’s about a higher purpose, the reason everyone comes to work in the morning, the bright shining future that is theirs for the taking. In times of distress, leaders use these stories to repair morale and remotivate, often doing so by focusing on the company’s core mission or reason for being. Some organizations have an intrinsically inspirational purpose, such as helping patients, saving lives, promoting safety, etc. But even those that turn out widgets usually help make the world a better place in some way. That’s where leaders should focus.  Try describing:
  • What you see, hear and experience when you walk into the company’s office five years from now – the water cooler conversations, the accolades won, the grateful customers. (Do avoid too-specific details that could turn out to be wrong.) 
  • What you’ll say some day when a friend asks why you’re glad you stayed with the company through thick and thin 
  • A hypothetical conversation with a customer whose life is more effective, enjoyable or meaningful thanks to the company’s products or services
So there, in broad brushstrokes, are five types of leadership stories. In my next post, I’ll get a bit further into the weeds and talk about some specific characteristics that define a good story, no matter which type it is. And I’ll eventually get those unicorns I promised you last time.


  1. Tamara, Thanks, your blog post is a helpful model for leadership storytelling, but your 5 story types feel pretty similar to the model Annette Simmons already laid out in her book, The Story Factor back in 2000.

    “Who Am I” Stories = Introducing Me
    “Why Am I Here” Stories
    “The Vision” Story = Inspiring
    “Teaching” Stories = Teaching
    “Values-in-Action” Stories = Conveying Values and Jumpstarting Action
    “I Know What You Are Thinking” Stories

    1. Andrew, thanks for pointing that out. When I first started researching leadership storytelling, I did come across this story categorization scheme online; however, I was never able to find out exactly WHERE it first came from as the sources I found were all uncredited. I've updated my post to include attribution to Annette Simmon's book. Thank you again.