July 26, 2017 / Esther Choy

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When teams set out to achieve impressive business feats, they need a steady diet of inspiration. And the stories their managers tell can provide that inspiration. But when the goals are ambitious, the stories can’t be haphazard. They need to be carefully thought through so that they’ll connect with their audiences and fulfill their purpose.

Crafting inspirational stories

A story that inspires teams to achieve goals needs these four elements:

1. A strong structure.

I always recommend a three-act structure for stories. Why? It’s tried and true. Most books, films, and shows can be divided into three parts that roughly coincide with the beginning, middle, and end of the story.

  • Act 1 situates the listeners. You tell them when and where the story is happening. You introduce the protagonist and plant a hook that keeps them curious so they’ll hang on your every word.
  • Act 2 is the longest part of the story, and here’s where you tell the listeners about setbacks and newfound insights—all culminating in the protagonist’s biggest hurdle.
  • In Act 3, the protagonist overcomes that big challenge. By the end, everything changes—usually leading to a happy, satisfying resolution.

Your story needs a strong structure. But it’s good news that instead of inventing an outline out of thin air, you can follow this three-act structure again and again.

2. The right point of view.

When you step up to inspire your team, their perspective is what matters. Does that mean you find out an employee’s story and tell it? You certainly can. But you can also craft your own story to address what your audience wants and needs to know.

Sir Richard Branson’s farewell letter to Virgin America is a great example. Instead of focusing on how he felt about a buyout he couldn’t prevent, he focused on singing his employees’ praises: “You proved that it is possible to create a business with a terrific culture and a brand that people love.”

What did Virgin America employees want and need to know? That their beloved founder had noticed their work.

3. Authenticity.

No matter how well you structure a story or consider what your audience wants and needs, your story will fall flat unless it is authentic. It must reveal something genuine about the teller, so that it genuinely connects with the audience’s emotions. Before you tell a story, ask yourself: What does this story mean to me?

4. A visual anchor.

Harness the power of visuals when your story must translate complex concepts. Need to illustrate a system? Try a circular flow diagram to show how the parts of the system work together. Need to portray relationships between people or ideas? Consider a Venn diagram. Or try these:

  • A simple graph can show how a process unfolds over time.
  • A pie chart shows emphasis and proportions.
  • A formula shows certainty—what you’re illustrating is as certain as the fact that 2 + 2 = 4.

Got an idea that doesn’t fit neatly into one of these categories? Try sketching it, freestyle! With these tools, you’ll create the stories your team needs. And hopefully, you’ll spark a truly rewarding change in your business.


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Esther’s book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available!

Photo credit: Riccardo Annandale via Unsplash

This article by Esther Choy originally appeared on AMA Playbook.

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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