How to Tell Stories that Change the World
Updated: Jan 27
The Problem: Imagine you are a startup CEO in a bind. Your sales aren’t materializing, your investors are skeptical, and your Fortune 500 strategic partner is suddenly unresponsive and may support your competition. On top of that, you lost 2 of your star employees and your Board wants you to do a pivot. So what do you do? Well, naturally, you start telling stories!
I’m only partially joking. As a CEO, everything you do, in some form, is to get people to follow you - and one of the most powerful ways you do this is by telling stories. “I know what you should do! Buy this product! Invest in this company! Be my employee! Follow me!!!” Be it your customers, your investors, or your employees, you are always pushing a narrative. In fact, if anything, new CEO’s regularly and meaningfully underestimate the amount of storytelling they need to do - or tell the wrong kinds of stories altogether. Here are three of the biggest CEO storytelling mistakes:
(1) When in crisis or when things are not going well, some CEOs tell fewer stories and engage in less oratory than they should. Often, these CEOs go into Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn responses which suppresses their leadership exactly when their teams need it the most;
(2) Other CEOs tell stories that only focus on the positive - and ignore the fear, anger, doubt, or resentment within their organizations, i.e, their Organizational Shadow (hints on how to deal with that here). This is a terrible mistake. Employees and stakeholders, out of psychological necessity, must address their negative emotions. Faced with uncertainty or fear, and without the narrative leadership of the CEO, employees will make up their own stories, based on their personal feelings, in order to make sense of the situation. By that point, the CEO has ceded narrative control of their company to employees’ internal dialogues;
(3) Some CEOs only tell one story - the story in which either (a) their customers are the heroes or (b) the company, in some abstract way, is the hero (“We’ll change the way people do XYZ business!”). In this latter scenario, everyone who works at the company will feel like they are generally associated with the heroic cause, but implicitly, the biggest hero in such stories is always the CEO himself. This is not as powerful as telling more humanized stories that make the employees and Stakeholders heroes also - what I call a “Chewbacca Story” (more on that here).
One additional point that I want to make (and which we will see again later) regards the Emotional Wound:
Oftentimes, the most powerful stories have, at their core, the hero's very deep and personal wound. For Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, as we will see, it's that his father was murdered. For many entrepreneurs or leaders, this includes some history of personal difficulty or suffering. Not every leader, however, has this tale of suffering. If you are curing cancer, the "wound" in your story may be *other people's* suffering.
Many times, this wound is the main reason why the storyteller is driven or motivated to undertake a heroic task or journey.
Storytellers often feel shame about discussing their personal wounds and try to leave it out of their story - since they don't have the right language or narrative tools to discuss it. They think it sounds like therapy or "too personal" to go into - but it's where so much of their story's strength is.
Later on, these same storytellers are very confused when their story lacks punch or emotion. But they really shouldn't be, because they left the real emotional heart and logic out of their story!
First, however, I really want to impress upon you how powerful narrative is in creating our perceived realities. This guy knows a thing or two about it:
What Happens With Narrative: This is going to sound all Matrix-like, but as powerful as stories are to changing our mindsets, we still remain unaware of just how much stories affect our sense of reality... because we keep mistaking them for reality itself.
When I say "We live in story," I'm really not kidding. No, seriously. Is there a very emotionally powerful event or Truth (with a capital T) from your life that you can tell me about, but not as a story? Can you even think about the most powerful events of your life - but not in story form? How do you discuss it or think about it? And if your view is, "Well, fine, you're right, I can only think in stories, but that's because all human consciousness is structured in stories!" then I think you really need to think about what that implies for you as a leader.
Because there is more than one story for any set of facts. The uncertainty around the facts is where the storyteller creates reality. And controlling reality is how you control organizations.
I won’t go into this in too much depth, but recent research has shown that not only do our brain’s neural networks synchronize with the storyteller’s brain when we hear a story, but after hearing stories, our brain biochemistry changes and continues to be changed for several days. Our biological predisposition to narrative presents CEOs with a tremendous opportunity to shape the corporate reality around them. In fact, Steve Jobs was famous for using (and abusing) narrative skills so effectively that they were called his Reality Distortion Field.
So why do CEO’s fail to use narrative to shape reality as much as they can?
Because they themselves can get trapped in their own stories. This can be most acute during a crisis or whenever a CEO feels shame, guilt, or trauma - one of the most dangerous situations for the CEO and company. Anytime a CEO is stuck in a negative story, they first have to get themselves out before they can tell a story that will make people want to follow them. If the CEO is particularly stuck, they may want to look at solutions for Attentional Debt, Organizational Shadow, or the Problem Progression. They may also want to speak with mentors, advisors, or an executive coach. Their stuckness may or may not be related to their Emotional Wound. What matters, nonetheless, is that the story that the CEO is stuck in may not be the story that they need in order to lead the firm right now.
This propensity to get lost in their own stories makes the first two of CEO mistakes above more understandable: when in challenging waters, CEOs seek to avoid anxiety instead of leaning into it, which means: (1) they talk less when they should be storytelling more (to map the company's way out of the crisis), and (2) they try to focus on only the positive, instead of addressing both the positive and the negative.
Of course, in order to do this, CEO’s need to know how to tell persuasive stories, which brings us to the third problem: (3) the most common types of story, the Three Act Structure (first developed by Aristotle) and the Hero’s Journey (based on the work of Joseph Campbell) are not the CEO’s best narrative strategy. They make for great film scripts and may help marketing executives create customer profiles, but they are not narratives that scream “Follow me, I know the way!” (I'm not just making this up. From my past life, I have an MFA in Film from NYU Tisch, which means I could technically be a film professor, and have studied narrative extensively. Those ain't the way to do it!)
So what does work?
The Solution: First off, when I’m talking about CEO storytelling, I’m not talking about anecdotes, although anecdotes are certainly part of it. Rather, I’m talking about the wholesale process of creating an entire reality and worldview through narrative tools - one which justifies following the CEO into the depths of hell and doing what they are asking for. Some may prefer to call this rhetoric or persuasion instead of storytelling. That’s fine as long as one never loses sight of the fact that the most immersive and compelling tools of storytelling are: (i) showing what the current world is and (ii) showing what it could be if you (the listener) took action.
Obviously, I am not advocating that the CEO tell false stories to make everyone feel better. That’s the only thing worse than telling bad stories. Rather, the best narratives are based on the truth, because successful CEO storytelling is not about distorting indisputable facts.
Rather, it is about cutting through the *uncertainty around these facts* to align Win-Win-Win opportunities with values that feel good (where Win-Win-Win opportunities are defined as a win for clients, the company, and the employees).
Once CEOs understand this, they are in a position to: (1) tell stories that target the corporate uncertainties which demand narrative guidance; (2) include the negative feelings of their Organizational Shadow in storytelling (more on that here); and (3) use the right storytelling model, which is my modification of Aristotle’s Ethos, Pathos, Logos model of rhetoric.
The balance of this article focuses on this modified Aristotelian model, although many other topics relevant to corporate storytelling are included in the embedded links in this article. In the event that you want an even simpler storytelling tool, you can read my (forthcoming) article about the super simple Win-Win-Win model.
Actual Steps: Aristotle’s model of rhetoric has three main components: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. Let’s take a simple example to start, familiar to anyone who has seen The Princess Bride: the Inigo Montoya Story. It is a tale told in three parts and perhaps the shortest version of this storytelling framework ever:
“Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya” - Ethos, or who he is.
“You killed my father” - Pathos, or emotion.
“Prepare to die” - Logos, or logic.
If you will remember the Emotional Wound concept from earlier, Inigo Montoya does not shy away from mentioning his. The wound of his father's murder is the entire heart and driver of his story - and it's why we remember him 20+ years after this silly movie came out.
Let’s look at this in a bit more detail:
Ethos - your arguments for your character, credentials, and experience plus any other elements such as word choice, tone, and anecdotes. In essence, everything which make you seem credible. These are the arguments as to why we should follow you, in particular, as a leader. What are your bona fides? Inigo Montoya is very sparse with his (for comedy purposes) - it's just "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya."
Pathos - your appeal to the listener’s emotions, including both the feelings we want to embrace and more importantly, the feelings we want to avoid or do not like. This is a good place to use anecdotes, visions of the future we aspire to, and visions from the past we want to avoid. For Inigo Montoya, it's three words, "You killed my father." [Note: Although it's beyond the scope of this article, one of the most powerful Pathos arguments is to say "and here is the bad thing that will happen if we don't take action!" - this will be covered in a future Bet Language article, but it can really motivate frozen people. For a story-based analogy of what this feels like, you can consider the scary vision portrayed by the Ghost of Christmas Future in A Christmas Carol. For a religious analogy, consider Hell. The parallels are noteworthy as, for many belief systems, getting as much emotional distance away from this bad "default future" (as Tony Robbins calls it) is the core emotional fixation and the heart of the narrative.]
Logos - an appeal to the logic of your argument. In other words, what actions should be done in particular and why are those the most logical choice? For Inigo Montoya, the logic is simple, i.e., "now I'm going to kill you in return."
In other words, Inigo's story is basically, "You hurt my father (Pathos) and, therefore, me (Ethos) badly (Pathos), so I'm gonna hurt you (Logos) badly (Pathos)."
As with Change Management checklists, this Ethos-Pathos-Logos structure is deceptively simple. Try going through any powerful testimonial or user review for a product (e.g., on Amazon) and you’ll see that the best reviews combine all three components. For example, Ethos may be implied in the number of reviews the reviewer has written, which gives them immediate credibility, or in the depth and detail of how they tested a product, which implies professional competence. To make this more concrete, consider my fake Consumer Reports style review of three computer mouses to see evidence of this in action:
All three mouses were tested by 200 independently selected reviewers (Ethos) who spent at least $200 on computer hardware annually (Ethos), and received 30 minutes of training on how to test the products and calibrate their feedback to our questionnaires (Ethos). We next divided the users into categories based on how many hours they worked at their computers daily (Logos). Users of Product A gave the product a 90% thumbs up, one of our best scores, (Logos) except for the heaviest computer users, who sustained discomfort at the end of the day (Pathos) and gave the product a 42% approval rating, one of our worst scores (Logos). Product B got a lower overall score at 85%, but the heaviest users rated it at 88% making it a great alternative to Product B for them (Logos). Users said Product C seemed to have battery problems and 2 users said their mouses short-circuited and caught on fire (Pathos). Product C had a 3% approval rating (Logos). We suggest the heaviest computer users go with Product B to protect themselves from discomfort (Logos) and all other users go with Product A based on its higher ratings (Logos).
One pattern you will notice here is that Ethos arguments typically come first, followed by some mixture of Logos and Pathos, but, clearly all three arguments can get mixed together. I would also note that there are several instances of what I call “Ethos” that others might call “Logos.” For instance, consider the line “received 30 minutes of training on how to test the products and calibrate their feedback to our questionnaires.” In my mind, I feel that, psychologically, this is processed more as “these reviewers are qualified” (Ethos) than being a logical argument (Logos), but others may disagree. Please note that some sentences may even hit Ethos, Pathos, and Logos all at once!
Why This Works: To better illustrate these steps in a business example, let’s switch to an example of a CEO in a tough situation who uses the persuasion technique to convert a potentially demoralizing story into new spin for her fundraising pitch. In this case, I’ll base the example off of a conversation I recently had with a CEO. The CEO was an African American woman who was struggling to raise a round of fundraising for a product aimed at improving workplace efficiency. At one point, she mentioned a painful statistic - fewer than 40 African American female CEOs have raised more than $1MM in VC funding (she had done so and was part of the group). My suggestion was to use narrative tools to turn this statistic into a strength. In other words, based on this “bad statistic,” a very simple pitch could be made for investors that emphasizes the positive and turns the story on its head:
“How would you like to meet one of fewer than 40 African American women to ever raise more than $1MM in VC funding (Ethos) and see the product that helped her beat those incredible odds (Pathos)? We will be on a fundraising trip in NYC in three weeks time (Logos) and are setting up meetings with family offices (Logos) who are interested in being more than an investor, but an ally (Pathos) to teams who know how to succeed against the odds (Ethos) and who are producing products that empower other self-starters (Pathos).”
Here is how to deconstruct the narrative:
Establish Ethos / Credibility - her statistics and accomplishments are highly effective in saying “I know what I’m talking about and listening to me is a good idea!” Being one of fewer than 40 CEOs in this category is powerful proof of accomplishment (albeit against a biased system, but no less true!).
Pathos / Emotional Appeals - all the references to beating the odds and “being an ally” aim at getting the reader emotionally involved. This also leverages the psychological principle which states that sometimes the best way to build relationships is to ask for a favor. By the way, you can see in this case the emotional appeal is to be empathic.
Logos / Logic- some of the best sleights of hand in narrative persuasion are done with implicit or subliminal arguments. The CEO in this case could, of course, had simply asked for a meeting at some point in the future. But by saying she was going to be “in NYC in 3 weeks time,” her ask seems more logical and less desperate. It also puts her on equal footing with the investors (i.e., “I’ll see when it’s logical for *my* schedule” = my time is as important as yours).
As you may notice, my main transformation was to center her Emotional Wound at the core of her story and make it into a strength. This can be very hard to do if the Emotional Wound is emotionally weighing you down (which is why it can help to work on it with someone).
Amazingly, this new narrative allows the CEO to now talk about any hard thing she has ever suffered as an example of why she should get funded. If she grew up working 2 jobs, that’s yet another example of why she is special. She has determination. If she had a parent who was ill? Guess what? More resilience and evidence as to why she is special. This is the power of *controlling the uncertainty around the indisputable facts* - no one can dispute her statistic about the underfunding of African American female CEOs. And no one can dispute anything else in her history - either her successes or failures. But by using a narrative form that restructures the meaning of the facts, a new worldview can be created.
Best of all? The narrative is 100% true. What part of that story is false? Not a word of it. And, it creates a universe in which there is an implied Win-Win-Win that feels good for the family office if they fund her: the company / CEO benefit (Win 1), the product and its customers who are also “self-starters” will benefit from an investment (Win 2), and the investor benefits by allying with a winning team (Win 3). To repeat the quote above: the best narratives are based on the truth, because successful CEO storytelling is not about distorting indisputable facts, but about cutting through the *uncertainty around these facts* to find Win-Win-Win opportunities that align with values that feel good.
Finally, one of the most powerful ways for entrepreneurs to use this technique is to create a Founders Story for their company. A Founder’s Story is simply a version of this model that addresses why you started the company in the first place. You need three components for this (which you can probably guess by now!):
Ethos (Credentials) - who was "the you" that made you want to start the company and why your experiences and credentials made you the right person for the job.
Pathos (Emotions) - as to your company’s purpose, what world do you want to create and what kind of world do you want to avoid (i.e, your Ghost of Christmas Future)?
Logos (Logic) - how will your company deliver on the above?
Founders Stories are so strong, in fact, that they can completely transform or regulate a company’s culture for years, if not decades. When I worked at Goldman Sachs (in its halcyon days when it was a private company), they often spoke about their Founders Story in training - a story that started in 1869! In fact, I would go so far as to say that if a startup does not have a Founder’s Story, it’s putting its corporate narrative, CEO authority, and culture at a much greater risk than is necessary. Founder’s Stories re-regulate a company’s emotional life during organizational imbalance.
Where You May Get Stuck: Despite laying out this formula, I do have to admit that persuasive narration is an art. It takes considerable skill to master the structure outlined above. In fact, one of the most powerful tools to add to storytelling is Bet Language, which I will attempt to outline in a future article, but which also uses darkness, negativity, and Shadow to inspire and drive risk taking.
Nonetheless, an awareness of how the framework above functions is a good start. To the extent that you find that you are stuck, I would make two suggestions:
(1) Start by brainstorming your Ethos components - i.e., what gives you credibility in this situation? This is a powerful place to start since it forces you to be constructive and list facts. From a cognitive behavioral framework (CBT) this also challenges any of the cognitive distortions that may be bogging you down or making you negative;
(2) Try walking around, talking out loud, and pretend that you are telling the story to different audiences; alternately try walking around and telling the story as if you were one of your heroes (that could be anyone, real or fictional, who would tell an awesome version of your story - it could be Oprah, Jesus, or Brad Pitt if you like!). This can help get you out of your own story. Additionally, speaking invokes different narrative memes in our heads versus writing, so sometimes this can break a block.
Finally, worse comes to worse, you can always hire a copywriter or communications coach to help with the process!