August 24, 2018 / Esther Choy

Origin stories

There are as many stories as there are people, but the most compelling stories in business can all be boiled down to five basic plots: stories of origin, rags to riches, rebirth, overcoming the monster and quests. All of these plots are crucial for a leader’s toolkit, but perhaps the most basic and essential are origin stories.

Every organization’s “about us” section, every pitchbook, every networking conversation is an opportunity to tell an origin story. After all, “how did it all begin” is one of the most ancient human questions; virtually all religions embed stories about the start of humanity. To crave an origin story is to be human. For leaders, this means that everyone wants to know how your movement, cause or company got started. So it’s vital to learn how to tell that story better.

But why is it vital to select a plot at all? Every time you intentionally select a particular plot like an origin story, you automatically elevate your presentation in three ways: you guide the audience’s emotional response, improve your presentation’s structure and eliminate superfluous details.

  1. Guiding the audience’s emotions. Each type of plot evokes a different kind of emotion. For instance, rags to riches stories prompt feelings of empathy, overcoming the monster stories provoke righteous anger and quest stories instill a sense of restlessness as the audience wishes for quests of their own. When you know the emotions that a certain plot is likely to inspire, you don’t have to wonder, “How will my audience feel after my presentation?” You can guide and predict their emotions with greater accuracy. Those who listen to an origin story begin with curiosity about a brand, organization or leader’s origins and finish listening with a sense of satisfaction. A well-told origin story satisfies the audience’s desire to connect the dots between past and present in an inspiring way.
  2. Building a sound structure. The complexity of life can make our past experiences feel chaotic when it comes time to narrate them. However, a plot can impose order on this chaos, making the experience easier to communicate. For example, starting a business is fraught with emotions and stressors. It’s also a busy time filled with many memorable events and conversations. How do you sort out which events, emotions and conversations really matter? When you frame the story of your business as an origin story that unearths the roots of what’s still important now, you can better figure out where the story starts and resolves.
  3. Excluding unnecessary details. Part of what makes storytelling difficult is that the more we reflect on our stories, the more details we find. Plot can keep your story on a straight path instead of entangled in the weeds of extraneous details.

A Simple Template For Origin Stories

Elevating your presentation by using an origin story does not have to be difficult. It won’t require a PhD in literature. As a matter of fact, all you need is a simple template:

  • Begin with the moment it all started.
  • Narrate the moment the leader realized this idea was big enough to be a business (or beloved enough to be a life’s work).
  • Mention the people who helped the leader launch their business or career.
  • Introduce conflict: the initial problems and solutions (optional).
  • Reflect on how the past has influenced the present. For instance, what has changed since the beginning, and what core values or visions have stayed the same?

Example: Naadam Cashmere

When it comes to origin stories, Naadam Cashmere has one that is both wild and simple.

The moment it all started: Two friends got stuck in the middle of the Gobi Desert, were saved by Mongolian herders and stayed with those herders for a month, becoming good friends with them.

The realization that this idea is big: After they left, they realized they wanted to help those hospitable herders make a better profit from their cashmere wool. At the time, most herders sold to middlemen who garnished most of the profits. Believing they could improve the lives of their Mongolian friends and provide luxury cashmere at a lower price, the two friends raised $2.5 million, drove back into the Gobi Desert and started their company with the 60 tons of cashmere they purchased.

Who helped: Of course, making luxury clothing required expertise, so they brought on experienced designer Hadas Saar as cofounder and creative director.

How the past influenced the present: “What started out as an unexpected visit to the Mongolian countryside turned into the fairest, most sustainable and most affordable top-of-the-line cashmere the world has ever seen,” according to Naadam’s film, The True Story of Naadam. The tale is sweet and simple, connecting the dots for Naadam Cashmere’s audience and helping them understand the essence of this company.

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Example: Former Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz

But you don’t have to get stranded in the Mongolian wilderness to tell a good origin story. For Former Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz, for instance, the most transformative experiences all happened close to home.

The moment it all started: Bartz grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. Her mother died when she was eight, and growing up without her motivated Bartz to be good and work hard. This hard work led her to the University of Wisconsin, where she pursued what she loved: computers.

The realization that this idea is big: She graduated in 1971, a time when very few people had computer science degrees, which gave her an advantage.

Initial problems: However, most people in her field were male, and she often dealt with an atmosphere of harassment.

Who helped / how the past influenced the present: Being good and hardworking helped her advance in her career, and it turned out that the combination of being an “ornery farm girl” and having good mentors helped her survive in a male-dominated environment.

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Photo credit: Rebecca Talbot

This article first appeared on as part one in my series “5 Basic Plots for Leadership Storytelling.” Read parts two and three.

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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