Influencing through story

Written by

Nancy Duarte

Written by

Nancy Duarte

Executive summary

This keynote gives you a taste-test of four of our methods to use storytelling principles to influence. From infusing story into a presentation to giving others the emotional fuel to get through a day, and even pushing the narrative of your organization into a new era (relevant for you).

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Talk transcript

I am excited to share today how to influence through story. You know, almost all roles require you to influence others. All roles are influence roles. Whether you manage a team, work beside them, or even if you’re communicating up, leveraging story increases your influence.  

Monday, March 16th, 2020, was the first Duarte staff meeting after shelter in place. Many people and organizations were frozen from fear, and I knew my team was facing down a dangerous monster that we all needed the bravery to fight.  

After that meeting though, my team did not shrink in fear. They rallied. With agility and innovation, they transformed all of our workshops, all of our clients massive industry events into virtual ones. It was no small feat. We did things during covid we never thought possible, and we did it quickly too.  

Duarte has been in business for 33 years, so we’ve made it through several external crises. Each crisis tested our values, our character, and our resolve to realize a vision. Each time we responded by doing what we did in that meeting too, we told stories. As leaders, we need to demonstrate bravery.  

How do you become brave? No matter what the challenge, you face and overcome fear, and then you overcome fear again and again and again, and then you talk about how you overcame the obstacles and overcame the fear by telling stories. 

Then, it was amazing. Because two weeks after that meeting, we had an astounding internal story told. I’m going to share that with you later, but first I want to teach you how to tell your own stories. Better still, I’m going to explain to you how to use story in business and why you would want to do that. 

Story is a powerful communication device. Some of the world’s highest performing brands, and our most beloved executives use stories to engage us and make us feel affection for their culture and their products. Stories can move people to embrace really big ideas and accomplish great things. Now that we can hook up an FMRI machine to the brain while the story’s being told, we are learning even more about its power. 

When a story’s being told, it’s engaging. All of our senses and our brains light up, like Super Mario when he finds a star.  

The emotional parts of our brain are on fire and they’re triggering thoughts and emotions all at once. Because our minds are more engaged, we’re more likely to remember what we heard. This is why we physically react to stories. We get the chills, we gasp, we laugh, we cry. Stories give us all the feels.  

What’s cool is that the mind of the storyteller and the story listener, they’re firing at the same time and in the same places, too. Spoken narratives cause our brains to fire in unison. 

This mental alignment brings the emotions of the storyteller and the story listener into alignment too. Some might call this empathy. Nerds call it neuroplasticity and sci-fi writers call it assimilation.  

Those waves of feelings, they transport us to other places in our minds. Hearing a story shifts our attention away from critical thinking and analytical thinking, and it makes us more open to new and expansive ideas. 

Finally, stories move us to act.  

When we hear stories, chemicals are released into our blood, and one of those chemicals is called the love hormone because it floods our bodies when we feel affection for another person. It’s the exact opposite of the hormone you feel when you receive a parking ticket, but as you know, when we feel connected to one another, we’re more likely to want to help them. 

But how am I defining a story? When I talk about story today, I am not talking about fairy tales, fiction, falsehoods, or spin. We’re going to leave that up for Congress to do. What I am talking about is framing your point of view in a logical story-based structure. Today you’ll learn why it’s important to invest in the use of this powerful device because it’s already wired into our brains. It’s going to help you transform information into meaning.  

What role can story play in your organization’s communication? We are going to cover four ways to use stories to influence. First, stories express our identity as companies and as people.  

It describes who we are, where we came from, and what we stand for. Our stories define us and how others perceive us.  

Second, stories make ideas stick in our brains, like fly paper when we wrap them in a memorable and emotional story package.  

If you use stories to articulate your big ideas, people will be moved to carry them forward.  

Third, stories help people find meaning in data and articulate insights that lead to action. 

Communicating data using story principles speeds up the decision-making process. 

Finally, we’re going to cover how stories give traction to your initiatives, by making people more receptive to alternate futures.  

We pulled insights from great movements, and almost all of them started with an impassioned plea. The spoken word, especially story is a catalyst for change, and let’s explore each of these.  

First, our own stories are a lens into our life and how we lead. Our personal stories demonstrate to others who we are and why we show up the way we do. Story explains how our life experiences shaped us and transformed us. 

Stories are also very highly structured. All stories share a common three-act framework.  

Whether you’re telling a personal story over dinner, a historical story, the ones told well, all share a classic story structure that was first documented by Aristotle.  

The beginning is act one. This is where you meet the hero. 

They’re usually a likable, but a somewhat flawed person, and they have a goal. And you want to root for them. Think about Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, or me, trying to wake up early for a workout.  

Then an inciting incident happens, which sends the hero on a journey into the middle of the story, and it’s in the middle, the hero, encounter roadblocks and obstacles and tests and trials.  

Luke encounters the dark side, Frodo encounters Sauron, and I encounter just how comfortable my bed is. But because you like them, you want to root for them to overcome what we call this messy middle of the story. 

Then it’s in act three, the hero has overcome the roadblocks, and they are transformed because of the entire journey.  

Luke becomes a Jedi. Frodo destroys the ring, and I, I’m just super happy for Luke and Frodo. The purpose of story is to reveal the lessons that were learned by the hero, to learn about their transformation. 

Lessons are learned by making good decisions while navigating this messy middle. Sharing experiences of how we’ve overcome our own messy middle, can inspire others who are faced with similar obstacles. No one wants to be around someone who thinks they are always perfect. We want to hear the messy middle and how people have overcome it. 

Let’s look at the story of Pinocchio. In Act one, there’s a toymaker creates a wooden puppet and wishes on a star that he would be a real live boy. Then the messy middle, is the puppet comes to life but is wooden and must prove he is worthy of being real. He joins a traveling show, he tells lies. He’s tempted at Pleasure Island. Then tragically, his father was swallowed by a whale while he is looking for his beloved son. That is a super messy middle.  

Finally, in Act three, the puppet saves his father, but dies himself. And it’s because of his sacrifice. He’s now worthy to be a real boy. But let’s look at the lesson that Pinocchio learned from this messy middle. It was, if you were brave, truthful, and unselfish, you will find salvation.  

Pinocchio had a dream of becoming a real boy, and it only became reality when he learned how to be unselfish, by laying down his life to save his father’s. Just like Pinocchio stories can transform your communication from being something wooden, into something that breaths and has life. 

Every leader should have a handful of stories ready to share so that you can help others get unstuck. As you know, stories can be told from three perspectives. There’s “I” stories, “We” stories or “They” stories.  

An “I” story is one that’s told in the first person. This is usually a story that you have personally learned a lesson from, and these are the most powerful stories you can tell because you can tell your own transformation from a place of personal conviction. 

My examples could be stories about how I got married at 18 and only have a high school education, or how I quit as the CEO for a week, because I just thought it was too hard. How the Pinocchio ride is so freaky at Disneyland, I wouldn’t take my kids on it. You are the authority about your own stories. 

But don’t forget the messy middle. An “I” story cannot be about how amazing you are and how everything is just perfect. We worked with the public CEO, who often told flattering eye stories in a super like a self-congratulatory way. His employees would just roll their eyes every time he told all about his awesomeness, so we were hired to help him incorporate story. 

When he finally did tell a story about a lesson he learned from failure, he got a standing ovation. I will follow a leader who’s tried and fails and talks about it before I will follow one who pretends that life is not hard.  

Similarly, “we” stories. “We” stories are shared by a group of people where a group learned a lesson together.  

A “we” story could be about your family, your team, your company, your community. These stories are about how you overcame obstacles with others. These can also be told with deep conviction from your perspective because you lived through them. You could say, “we” wrote a book together. “We” survived a pandemic. 

Your recount of it might be different from others, but you were there, and you can tell this story of overcoming well. “We” stories are powerful, like the origin stories of co-founders or entire departments mastering a big initiative.  

Third person stories, or “they” stories are told about other people or historical events. But you played no part in it.  

You’re simply relaying the outcome of the lessons that someone else learned. These stories are great to tell too, but if you do tell one, immerse yourself in the lesson of the story and tell it in a way that transports people to feel like they were there. It’s as if “I” and “we” stories are your own personal testimony, but a “they” story needs to be more like a performance. 

The stronger we convey the events of a story; the more others will believe the lessons learned were valuable.  

I will tell you a “we” story. In 2004, I had a designer named Kristen who wanted to pass a token at a staff meeting as a ritual, so she could appreciate someone who supported her. Then at each staff meeting, the recipient would pay it forward. 

I loved the idea. The next staff meeting, she showed up with a tiki. It had red beady eyes. It gritted its teeth and she passed it to Kevin and thanked him, “Thanks for supporting me on this project this week”, but by 10:00 AM Kevin was in my office saying, “I love the program Nancy, but I think this little token is grimacing at me, is demon possessed.” 

But he didn’t want to hurt Kristen’s feelings, so I’m hurting her feelings by telling the story to the public. I asked her to come back with something different to pass, something that looked happy to be passed. She came back with this little guy. A little wooden giraffe, and it perches on the edge of a desk. 

This guy’s been painted. His little nose is cracked off, but he’s our original giraffe and an internal of appreciation here at Duarte. That was happenstance that she happened to pick up at giraffe. Yet, these animals have taken on incredible meaning for us, and eventually one giraffe wasn’t enough. We had lots of reasons to appreciate each other. 

People could email photos of giraffes. Pass little giraffe statues. We even have little rubber giraffes you can throw at each other in meetings. We probably have a thousand of these little guys in all shapes and sizes.  

We even let our employees expense the giraffes, and it led to some interesting conversations with our CPA. Then in 2016, we had a really difficult year. We put in a new MIS brain into the company, which added rigidity to our creative process, and it was like stripping the soul out of the company.  

I was traveling with an employee at the time, and he was listing off to me all this dissent. He’s like, this person’s unhappy. This one is struggling. I was like, oh my gosh, what is a herd of giraffe called? And neither of us knew. I looked it up and it is called a tower. I loved that. When giraffe coalesce, they are a symbol of strength and refuge, a tower. I officially made the giraffe, our company mascot. I have no idea why I had not done that sooner. 

Now, we put them on t-shirts and mugs. We give away cards. They’re everywhere. That year, we also changed the name from “Pass the giraffe” to “Giraffirmations.” What do you do when there’s a pandemic and you’re feeling depleted, and you want to gather as a tower of giraffes on World Giraffe Day? 

We ask the San Diego Zoo if we can party with some giraffes. The giraffe experts let us ask them anything you would ever want to know about giraffes. Did you know that giraffes have the largest heart per mass of any animal? That’s right. That’s awesome. So, for almost two decades now, my heart warms every time I see a giraffe.  

The experiences I have lived through define me. They define us. They define others in really profound ways. In fact, overcoming trials and roadblocks and talking about it, will make you an authentic and transparent communicator. Build a collection of well-crafted stories to share that are going to help others, whether you’re from a stage, or especially when coaching one-on-one. Tell stories well, so others can learn from them and be changed too.  

Next, using the rise and fall of story is going to help us spread ideas. Stories that resonate, have an arc of tension and release. Here is the shape of a dramatic arc as visualized by dramatist Gustav Freytag.  

This is commonly referred to as a story arc. Again, you can see that the conflict rises in the middle. It builds tension, and then the falling action releases it. That rise and fall of a story is what keeps us engaged. You establish a scenario, you build tension, build tension, build tension, <pause> and then you see, you needed that tension released.  

In fact, the cathartic rise and fall of a plot structure is now scientifically proven. 

In 2016 at Cornell University’s computational story lab, they fed 1700 books from Google’s project Gutenberg into a computer. Classics like Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella. The team plotted the arc on the Y axes, as the hero moved between good fortune and Ill fortune. It’s pretty nerdy to enjoy plotting books as much as reading them. 

They found that all of the stories fall into six plots, each with a three-act structure. In 2009, I set out to determine why the greatest speeches of all time seemed to have a rhythm and a cadence to them. It seemed to me like they had a similar rise and fall like a story has. I knew that this held the secret to how great communicators influenced others. Here is what I discovered.  

This is the shape of an influential talk. The line represents your talk over time. We call it a “presentation sparkline,” and it has a three-act structure. It uses the building of tension and releasing it, just like a story. Let me break it down because it has a beginning, a middle, and an end too. 

The beginning should establish what is. This is the shared current reality of your audience.  

What is, helps define the status quo, the shared realities and mindsets of the audience, your organization or industry. Then you contrast your current realities with the future state by sharing what could be. The audience begins to see the ideal picture of what their world will look like with your idea adopted. 

That gap between what is and what could be is similar to an inciting incident in story. This gap kind of throws the hero’s world off balance. Causes them to grapple with whether they’re going to leave, what feels safe to them, and choose your proposed future. Now the middle is structurally going to toggle between what is, what could be, what is, what could be, what is, what could be. 

This is going to create contrast in the minds of your audience. Stating the gaps clearly and repeatedly helps them separate from the status quo and makes your future state more alluring.  

But just like with a story, the audience knows that the path to what could be might not be an easy one. Just like a young hobbit at the start of a book, your audience needs to be shaken out of complacency. 

Now, how you end your talk is very important. The principle of recency states that people will remember the last thing you said more than they will remember the beginning or the middle. Make your final point, powerful.  

End by stating what we call the new BLIS. Make it clear how their world and life will flourish if they choose, what could be in their future. To prove that the shape was really true, I analyzed hundreds of great speeches and they all followed the Sparkline at various intervals.  

I’m going to show you Dr. King and Steve Jobs’ sparkline today, but you can also see deeper analysis because I unpack them further in my talk on Both Dr. King and Mr. Jobs started movements that changed a lot of lives.  

Let’s look at Dr. King. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his 16 minutes, “I Have a Dream” speech on the mall in DC and here is the shape.  

First, it establishes the current state, and you can see how he contrasts what is, what could be, all the way through the Sparkline. Notice about two-thirds of the way through, the frequency gets really tight. This was his legendary “I have a dream” sequence. He basically moved back and forth almost at the phrase level.  

You know, he didn’t name this the “I Have a Dream” speech. He named it normalcy, never again. It was the people who named it the “I Have a Dream” speech because of that sequence.  

He ended the speech by pulling on songs they sang together. Sacred texts they’d recited together to unite them around hope and real freedom, and that would be BLIS.  

Now Steve Jobs was a master business communicator. His product launch keynotes were tuned into by millions of viewers. Let’s look at the shape of the first iPhone product launch presentation. You’ll see that a presentation sparkline has a lot of flexibility.  

Notice how Mr. Jobs has the ability to keep an audience at a heightened sense of what could be. Plus, can you see the break at the very end of the line toward the bottom at the end? That was when he told a great story to fill up time when his clicker broke. 

Jobs used story throughout, and he even used his demos, and they were conveyed in the form of a story. Now, this presentation was 90 minutes long. I do not recommend anyone do a 90-minute talk, like ever, unless you invent the iPod and look great in a black turtleneck. 

But more importantly, what Steve did is he had his audience laughing and clapping in almost 32nd increments during that 90 minutes. If you can do that, then I approve of you presenting for 90 minutes.  

You might be thinking this model is only for people with world altering things to communicate, but I would contend that everyone has important ideas to spread. It’s in that spirit I want to bring this all down to earth a bit so that you can see it in a very practical application. That is of the impassioned plea, the yielded fantastic results.  

That is the letter my 11-year-old niece crafted to convince her dad to buy her a mouse, an actual mouse. She pulled out all the stops and she used contrast to her advantage, and here it is. 

Dear dad, we want a mouse. You might say that they’re stinky, but they’re not if you put special drops in their water. I just want to say parents, don’t let this persuasive point fool you. Those drops do not work.  

You might say that they are mean, but you rarely find an aggressive mouse. If they do bite, it’s usually just a curiosity nibble. Was that a really brilliant rebrand right there?  

I know you would not want to pay for it, but Sophie and I have that covered. We have saved our birthday money so we can pay for the mouse and everything else. You will not have to pay a single cent. Also, the mouse will be in Sophie’s or my room, so, you will not have to see it all the time. What does she choose as her new BLIS? We will respect any decision you make.  

Now, I am not suggesting that your new BLIS be a lie because what kid actually respects the decisions that their parent makes? Guess what? Yep, she got her mouse. My niece never took our courses, never read my books. All she had was this desperate passion.  

Granted, it was 11-year-old passion for a mouse, but she inherently contrasted and followed the form. You’re going to be hard pressed to identify a movement that did not start with an impassioned plea. She used the same techniques that work for Steve Jobs.  

The point is, use contrast to create that cathartic rise and fall so others long to spread your ideas. Use insights from the classic story arc to influence others towards action.  

Now we’re going to transition to data insights. Data insights are becoming mission critical to organizational success.  

I would bet you money that my niece Cece, has a hundred percent probability that she needs to learn how to persuade with data too, really soon. 

Now according to PWC, 67% of jobs are now enabled by data.  

That means regardless of your role, you must understand how to interpret and communicate findings in data because organizations use data to inform most of their decisions.  

Now, many analytical roles spend time deeply exploring the data. They explore it, twizzle it, plot really great charts. 

Some people at this stage, you’re feeling a bit more comfortable, just kind of flicking charts to someone that’s in a higher pay grade than you so they can figure out what to do. Yet, one of two things happens when you’re exploring in the data. You’re going to find either a problem or an opportunity in the data. Once you find the problem or opportunity and you’ve identified it, you have a communication challenge to solve now.  

The threshold for you to cross in your career so you could advance forward, becomes learning how to explain the actions others need to take because of the data.  

The ability to identify the action and communicate it well, moves you from an individual contributor to a strategic advisor. As you build this muscle, you’ll become more trusted and eventually your data stories are going to inspire others at scale as you grow into an influential leader. Now, keep in mind here, these career progressions happen simply by becoming a stronger communicator.  

Becoming a storyteller of data is a key part of communicating well. Plus, it helps not only your company and your clients, it also helps your career. Yes, I am saying combining data with story will get you promoted. For this research, I pulled thousands of slides with just data on them from eight of the Fortune 50 brands that Duarte serves.  

When I looked at the data slides in isolation, I looked at the communication situation. What type of chart was chosen, how it was annotated, but specifically I looked at all of the words on the slides.  

I pulled all the words off, sorted them into the parts of speech in a spreadsheet to see if and how they were trying to influence the data. I know, my job sounds so exciting, and I hate to be rubbing your face in it, but what I found is, the plotted charts themselves made sense and were clear. 

But when words were added to each data slide, it moved the data from making sense, which is important, to making meaning, which drives others to action.  

Let’s go back and return to the three-act structure that I’ve already covered. Now I want to apply it to a data story. As you know, once you dig through the data, you have found a problem or an opportunity, you can use this story structure to make a recommendation of action that needs to be taken. 

In Act one, this is where you make it really clear what the current state is. You would state clearly what the problem or opportunity is you found in the data.  

Then you transition to Act two. This is the messy middle of the story. This is a statement about the actual data you found that needs to be different in the future. 

In Act three, you make it clear what the action is you are recommending. What is it that’ll drive your recommendation to a positive resolution? You’re going to notice on my slide that I’ve highlighted in green the action that brings resolution to the story. Keep an eye on that as I go through some way, overly simple examples of recommendations that have been shaped into a three-act structure, so you can get the gist of it. 

Here we go.  

In act one, our warranties let customers cancel shipments already in transit, and now we own regional warehouses to store unreturned parts, and it’s costing us 8 million a year. So, we need to reduce our costs by routing parts back into saleable inventory.  

You can see how that middle of the story is the data you want to see changed. The third act has the word reduce highlighted because this is the action that’s going to resolve this story. Let’s do another one.  

On Tuesday, 3,141 new people from Brand-X downloaded our new gated offer, and Brand-X has been named as a target account that could eclipse the size of our largest customer. So, we need to allocate $50,000 to continue ABM and expand executive engagement immediately.  

To summarize, the three-act structure for a recommendation from data is in Act one, you state the problem or opportunity found in the data. Act two is the data you identified that needs to change. Act three is the action to take that will resolve the story. 

Structuring a recommendation from data as a story is going to make it crystal clear and frankly, it’s going to speed up decisions within your organization and with your customers too.  

Having clear recommendations from data moves people from, let me think about it, to let’s do something about it. Now the choice of verb or action that you’re using in your recommendation is a very important decision, and this was one of my favorite discoveries I made while writing DataStory. 

When I pulled out all the parts of speech from each data slide, I became fixated with the types of verbs or actions that were being used, in association with the data. It was easy to see a pattern.  

The two types of verbs are process and performance verbs.  

Process verbs were smaller actions or steps that you would take to reach a bigger goal. Whereas performance verbs, they’re more expansive and are usually measured through dashboards, KPIs, or OKRs.  

The performance verbs, they tended to be attached to more strategic goals than the process verbs. I want to show you some examples.  

You could recommend we need to create a new flavor, but a more performance-based way to say that would be, we need to disrupt the market through flavor innovation. 

You can see how it went from a process verb to a performance one. You can almost hear the swooshing sound of that recommendation getting sucked right into the C-suite for approval. Let’s look at another one.  

You could say we need to research a pricing plan to grow market share, or you could recommend that we need to capture market share through competitive pricing. 

Last you could say, we need to support the acquisition of a better CRM or invest a hundred thousand dollars into a CRM to double customer retention by delivering a personalized experience. You can tell the difference. It’s pretty easy to do it.  

What is it that’s pulling it up the food chain for approval? It’s because you’re starting to appeal to how executives are measured.  

It’s an executive’s job to make sure the company is successful in three areas, and that’s money, market, and exposure. I might be the only exec who has attempted to articulate how executives are measured. This is a bit meta, but money, market, exposure. 

Executives drive each of these up and executives drive each of these down. Executives need to drive-up revenue and profits and market share and drive-up retention of clients, employees, and partners by building a strong brand. Executives need to drive down costs, drive down the time to market and drive down risk when you make a recommendation from data. 

You need to tie it into one of these primary measures to get the approval from the exec. If you’re making a recommendation to an executive, and especially one that’s a member of the C-Suite, make sure it appeals to driving money, market and exposure up or down.  

Some have said data is the new oil, and that’s because the volume of data is huge. But more importantly, the finding in the data are simply just that valuable. The findings are going to stay buried without the help of a communicator.  

Frame insights from data, into the shape of a story, to help drive action. Communicating action is a big threshold to cross in your career.  

When you move from just analyzing the data, to being the one who determines the action to be taken because of the data, it’s going to move you into that role of strategic advisor. Ultimately, you’ll become a leader internally and with your customers. 

Once you become a strategic advisor, the next natural step in your career is to begin to lead.  

One of the best tools to lead is using story as a tool. To drive change and make progress on initiatives you drive.  

A primary role of a leader is to invent new futures and opportunities. In fact, all of us can create something from nothing, simply by the power of the spoken word. 

Leaders see where we collectively need to go and can envision a future state that improves human flourishing, but ideas are going to go nowhere unless you’re effective at communicating how to get there.  

In order to motivate all the stakeholders to come along with you, you have to communicate well. When you can communicate well, you can mobilize people in mass to create something that never existed before. 

There’s a common symbol in business that traces the journey into the future really well, it’s called the S-curve of innovation. It pictorially describes the path an organization takes. As it starts, it grows, it matures an idea or a product or an initiative. But then when innovation reaches maturity, stagnation can sit in, which leads to decline, and the death of an idea.  

Unless, you reinvent by imagining a new future, and then you reinvent the future again and again and again. Leaders must keep dreaming about a new future.  

Innovation gives the organization the lift it needs to be an enduring brand. My co-author Patty Sanchez and I asked ourselves, do these S-curves of innovation follow a story plot? 

Well, they do. Let’s zoom in and let’s talk about what communication looks like on this curve. Communication matters a lot during change. Let’s say that each of these tiny circles is a communication touchpoint. Might be an email, a memo, a report, presentation, conversation, whatever it is. 

Communication happens every day. Up, down, across, out, of your organization. There’s times when your teams come against something major, and it just demands more of them. There are moments where they’re going to have to dig deep to find the motivation to do what needs to be done. 

It’s in those times you need to pull on all of your storytelling tools to create a galvanizing moment, like how to rally after a setback, enduring another change in direction, honoring the heroes who save the day. Moments like these create communal effervescence that refreshes people’s spirits and rallies them to recommit. Then over time, these moments string together to create a movement.  

That movement follows the shape of a story. We call this shape of this movement, a Venture Scape. It’s made up of five stages grouped into three acts, just like a story.  

Let’s look at act one. This is the dream and leap phase. You declare your vision and then people choose, or they choose not to join you. If you communicate it well, they will jump in. But sometimes their commitment to your idea may require you to articulate your dream multiple times in various ways before they choose to dive in. 

Then act two. This is the messy middle, the fight, climb, fight, climb. If they do jump, just know it’s always much harder than they ever anticipated.  

Remember, this is the messy middle, and they just jumped into it, and this is where transformation happens. You need to be the mentor. To give them the emotional fuel to make it through this messy middle. As people overcome obstacles, they’ll climb closer to the goal. 

Then in act three, ultimately, they arrive. In the end, they achieve the dream, or they fall short, and this is when they need time to kind of look back on the journey, celebrate accomplishments, and learn lessons from the failure.  

The important thing is they have changed, and they only changed because they choose to go on this journey. Each stage along this journey, your little travelers, they have different emotional needs and each point you need to meet people where they are at, and you need to move them and help them see where they need to go. 

In the dream stage, people need a moment of inspiration so they can see what you see and want to go there. You have to sow the seeds, so they decide to change.  

In the leap phase, people need a moment of decision so they can count the cost of the choice they’re facing and then muster the resolve to dive in anyway. 

This is the moment that you convince them that the messy middle is still a better option, than staying where they currently are.  

In the fight stage, people need a moment of bravery so they can feel courageous and capable of defeating all the dragons that are blocking their path forward.  

It’s in the climb stage people need a moment of endurance so they can find extra motivation because they’re slogging up the hill, even when they can’t see the top. They’re exhausted and they’ve run out of emotional cliff bars.  

In the arrive stage, people need a moment of reflection so they can celebrate the wins, maybe hand out some rubber giraffes. Mourn their losses and recharge their batteries before the next adventure begins.  

Your communication will fuel your audience and ease them over each one of these thresholds along the way.  

In January of 2020, just before Covid, we had a new and grand vision to transform millions into strong communicators. The team loved it. They dove in. They were so enthused. They created a Glee club to sing about it, and then within weeks covid hit and it tested our resolve to stick with the vision. 

How did we keep the team focused and engaged? Through story. Like I shared earlier, the Monday after shelter in place, mark and I told stories of other crises that had happened to the business to demonstrate bravery, and then the team rallied. They didn’t shrink.  

Then only two weeks later we had another astounding story told by an employee, and it was told on Joyful Day by Becky. She’s our VP of Growth and Strategy. So, what’s Joyful Day? It coincides with World Down Syndrome Day on three 21, March 21st.  

That date signifies the triplication, 3, of the 21st chromosome, which causes Down syndrome. Her family has sanctioned that day as a family holiday, and it’s an honor of this guy Drew. On Joyful Day each year Becky reflects what did she learn in the previous year, and she chooses to share different stories of the biggest lessons that Drew taught her.  

It’s a beloved annual event at Duarte. You laugh, you cry, you cheer. We have Kleenex on hand and also electrolytes because it is all the feels. Last March, just after shelter in place, she shared beautiful stories about how Drew made her feel brave. 

Brave. Her stories happened to be the exact fuel our team needed, and frankly, I needed it too. At the end of the talk, she taught us the American Sign Language gesture for brave. You put your hands on your shoulder and you pull them out with a fist. The sign also means courage, it means healthy, and it means heal. 

And this gesture became a symbol of this season, and I’d love you to try to do it with me. (Demonstrates the sign, brave) Brave. 

A lot has transpired since then, including me and how I communicate. I delivered 23 video memos in 2020. Employees saw me from my home. Yeah, I was wearing my jammy jams, but also, I was conveying hope and solidarity that the struggle was real. I made it clear on how we’re going to navigate through it strategically and emotionally. As you can see, I’m using that symbol for brave. 

I used it all the time. It became a symbol infused with a lot of poignant meaning, and it is forever embedded in my gesture lexicon. I want you to just try it again. (Demonstrates brave sign) Brave.   

Just in case you were wondering, I did finally figure out how to dye my own hair, or at least just the front bit, which is really all I needed to do because people saw me on Zoom.  

Stories create emotional fuel, but only if you tell stories that help others where they are at. You have to be willing to embrace your own messy middle and share how you overcame. 

Some of you have endured some really messy middles in life and at work, and telling the stories that changed you is what’s going to motivate others to accomplish great things.  

This was a lot of information and I bopped quickly through a lot of models to help you see how to empathize, to frame and structure how you communicate using story. Why is this important? Because as you learn to lead, communicating with influence will be the most important skill to learn.  

In fact, data pulled from LinkedIn’s Talent Insights tool, every year so far shows that communication skills are the number one skills gap. Knowing how to communicate well will help your career and your company. 

I love this quote. “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood. Don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless amenity of the sea.” That’s what story does. It opens our heart to future possibilities and great stories start with you. They are about you and how you have changed. 

To be honest, it takes bravery to tell stories because in doing so, you are admitting I have lived a messy middle. Stories convey that you are open to change, and it unveils your authenticity.  

Telling your story is the first step in you changing the world.  

Whether you are battling a monster like Covid or just trying to get a new pet mouse, communicating through stories creates longing, and it makes others more willing to travel into the future with you. It makes them want to be part of your tower.  

Thank you so much for joining me. You can do it. You can be brave and invest in story. It will inspire others to follow you as you create massive positive change. Thank you. 

Take the next step

We offer flexible, individual and team training to help build critical communication skills as well as hands-on, one-on-one coaching and full-service strategy, consulting and presentation design support. Learn more below:

Take the next step

We offer flexible, individual and team training to help build critical communication skills as well as hands-on, one-on-one coaching and full-service strategy, consulting and presentation design support. Learn more below:

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