December 22, 2019 / Esther Choy

Christmas songs and leadership storytelling

For some people, Christmas songs are an invitation into divine mysteries. For others, they’re a precursor to days with “earworms”—catchy tunes that get stuck in your head. Whatever your own experience, Christmas songs are as much a part of the holiday atmosphere as crowded parking lots and eager children.

Why have some of these songs remained the standards year after year? Why did they first catch on? What keeps us going back to them? And, most importantly, what business storytelling lessons can leaders learn from their popularity? How can they build what Nobel laureate and economist Robert J. Shiller refers to as “contagious narratives”? Shiller investigates how contagious narratives shape economic events—but such narratives also shape a leader’s own sphere and are well worth constructing. Three Christmas songs in particular demonstrate core principles that make these “earworms” contagious.

1. Silent Night (“Stille Nacht”): Match Your Message & Delivery

Many factors have gone into making Silent Night one of the most popular Christmas songs for over two centuries.

For starters, its origin story is sweeter than a candy cane. Legend has it that a broken-down church organ led the organist to compose a simple, singable melody that could be accompanied by guitar vs. organ. Oh, and the church was in an “exquisitely picturesque village” near Salzburg, writes Peter Tregear of the University of Melbourne. Sound like a Hallmark movie yet? For starters, its origin story is sweeter than a candy cane.

Legend has it that a broken-down church organ led the organist to compose a simple, singable melody that could be accompanied by guitar vs. organ. Oh, and the church was in an “exquisitely picturesque village” near Salzburg, writes Peter Tregear of the University of Melbourne.

Sound like a Hallmark movie yet? Tregear suggests that the charming story is probably fictional. “But we are inclined to propagate creation myths like this nonetheless,” he writes. “They serve to consecrate and ennoble what might otherwise be rather mundane reasons for creative acts.”

What isn’t fictional about this song, however, is the way message matches delivery. The melody is a gentle one. Rather than the loud “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” or the exuberant “Jingle Bells,” the melody forces the singer to sing softly. The tune “has the contours and style of a lullaby,” notes Tregear.

Whenever you are conveying an important message, it’s important for the delivery to match. Leaders can take a page from a recent ad for Google Translate that does this well. Because the ad is about the power of words, its audience will pay extra attention to the narrator’s delivery, which is soft-spoken yet emphatic. The message is short and sweet: exactly one minute long. The ad believes what it says—that words are powerful—so it does not overuse them, but simply lets us feel their impact.

2. “All I Want for Christmas Is You”: Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

This year Newsweek found that Mariah Carey’s 1994 single is the third most popular Christmas song of all time. Not bad considering the first and second most popular songs—White Christmas and Silent Night— have been around for decades or centuries.What is it about the Mariah Carey song that makes it, to quote a writer for Spotify, an “earworm”?

To find out, Spotify turned to The Music, Mind and Brain group at Goldsmiths University of London. Goldsmiths’ research discovered that most of the 1,000 catchiest songs are incredibly repetitive. No shocker there.

What’s more revealing is that, on some level, our brains like the repetitions. They “enable people to emotionally connect to a song without trying very hard,” says Spotify, summarizing the Goldsmiths analysis. The same works for delivering a message. Consider, for example, all of the refrains in Nike’s commercial “Dream Crazier,” about women pushing through athletic boundaries others had set for them.


Toward the end, the commercial becomes quite repetitive, using the word “crazy” 13 times. If there’s one thing viewers will remember about this ad, it’s the word “crazy.” This prepares them to remember the final line: “It’s only crazy until you do it.” Repeating an important word or phrase can prepare your audience to receive and retain your main point.

3. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”: Champion the Underdog

Gene Autry’s version of this ballad is the fourth most popular Christmas song of all time, says Newsweek.

It helps that the song has its own franchise, going from a storybook to a song to a TV movie. This gives audiences more ways to experience and imagine the story.But the story arc itself—the underdog whose oddity becomes useful—fits a classic plot people find appealing time and time again. Apple put this plot to use in a recent ad titled, fittingly, “The Underdogs.” It’s the narrative of a group of under-appreciated office workers landing an opportunity to pitch their idea to a high-ranking boss. But even more than that, it’s the story of how they used Apple products as they prepared their pitch.

The leadership storytelling lesson? While audiences are hooked on a classic narrative and rooting for the underdog, they can also absorb other messages. You can deliver important information in a way they will enjoy.

Whenever life is stressful, rushed, or even annoying— as it can be at the end of the year— we can learn to look for the leadership lessons. Stories are all around us, which means that leadership storytelling lessons are hiding in plain sight (or sound).

Read more for examples of how business leaders have put these principles into practice.

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If you need help making your message stick, schedule a complimentary working session with us.  For more examples of the right stories to tell at the right time, sign up for our monthly guide. My book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available and serves as your business storytelling toolkit.

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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"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.

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