Want to create change? Tell a story.

I was a freshly-minted adult when I graduated from Stanford Business School half a lifetime ago (23 years to be exact). Along with my classmate Seth Godin who was also a youngster when he graduated, I found all the theory that filled the biz school classrooms to be rather stale. Seth and I were so bored that we created our own independent studies course where we interviewed interesting businesspeople and asked them to share their rules for success (the result, “Business Rules of Thumb,” was the first book for us both…good luck finding a copy). We found these corporate leadership stories to be much more compelling than any decision tree or manufacturing bottleneck analysis. Two years ago, Seth even wrote a book on storytelling called “All Marketers are Liars,” in which he suggested that successful marketers don’t talk about features or benefits, they just tell great stories.

Since then, I’ve read a lot of great books on storytelling but I’ve yet to read one that so systematically and convincingly explains the steps for creating the drama and landscape for storytelling as the one I’ve just finished. Authors Richard Maxwell and Robert Dickman, who are consultants in the entertainment industry (if there ever was an industry based on spinning a tale, that’s it), have written The Elements of Persuasion which came out a few months ago. They suggest that all successful stories have five basic components: the PASSION with which the story is told, a HERO who leads us through the story and allows us to see it through his or her eyes, an ANTAGONIST or obstacle that the hero must overcome, a moment of AWARENESS that allows the hero to prevail, and the TRANSFORMATION in the hero and in the world that naturally results. Sounds a like a Hollywood hit to me. But, reading this book, I became convinced that great leaders are also able to express their reality and vision using this arc to define their story.

I was reminded of this last week while giving a presentation about my book PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo From Maslow. I was speaking to this group, not knowing that the wife of one of our employees was in the audience. For those of you who’ve read PEAK, you know this is a tale of how I launched my impractically-named company (Joie de Vivre Hotels) more than 20 years ago because of the passion I felt for the hospitality business’ approach to making customers feel good. I talked about how I was burnt out at the age of 25 having spent my first two years out of biz school getting pummeled in the rough-and-tumble world of commercial real estate development and construction. Starting Joie de Vivre (mindful of the company’s mission statement – defined by our name: “joy of life”) and growing it to be one of largest boutique hotel companies in the world was exhilarating. But, in our fifteenth year, we experienced the worst hotel downturn since World War II and Joie de Vivre was particularly exposed since all of our hotels were in the same region, the San Francisco Bay Area. Having all of our eggs in one geographic basket led me to not take a salary for three and a half years, during which time I became a real Abraham Maslow nut reading all kinds of books by this mid-20th century psychologist. I then applied his self-actualization-driven Hierarchy of Needs theory to how we created deeper relationships with our employees, customers, and investors. In the end, Joie de Vivre flourished during a difficult time and a new psychology of business was sprouted, which I applied to the company and came to realize was being used – in various forms – in other peak-performing companies.

So, I was telling this story on my book tour and the employee’s wife I mentioned came up to me after I spoke. She said she’d told my tale to probably 50 people because it was like describing a Jimmy Stewart film in which the good guy wins in the end. As she was describing my story back to me, I realized she was following that arc of PASSION – HERO – ANTAGONIST – AWARENESS – TRANSFORMATION that “The Elements of Persuasion” speaks of. So, I asked her, “Why do you keep telling this story?” And, she responded, “All of us need the inspiration to believe that if you persevere with your passion, you will one day succeed. Your story gives people strength.” While I don’t recommend going through the fire the way my company did, it is more than gratifying to know that our story is now inspiring others.

So, the next time you’re trying to persuade your colleagues about a particular strategy or idea, consider telling a story. Maybe tell a true story of someone who’s tale might mirror what you’re trying to articulate. If it’s your own story, all the better. Or possibly tell a future story that describes the positive, transformative outcome of what might happen if your team pursued your path. Facts and figures can help rationalize your story, but it’s the raw emotion that will draw people in and help them to remember just what you had in mind. Change happens when people are inspired.

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1 Comments

  • Steve Gorton

    Interesting read - and the second para follows the work of Joseph Campbell from Hero of a Thousand Faces.

    It was the structure of the story from this book that George Lucas used when the original Star Wars was created.

    I've not read Elements of Persuasion, but am left wondering if Campbell is referenced?

    Steve