April 22, 2016


13 ways to unearth stories for your execs

LAS VEGAS - APRIL 5: Jorma Ollila, chairman and CEO of Nokia speaks about the telecommunications industry and its future during his keynote speech for the 2006 Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) convention on April 5, 2006 in Las Vegas, Nevada. CTIA runs from April 5-7. (Photo by Bryan Haraway/Getty Images)

Leaders are often Type-A number crunchers who hate telling stories. The result? Data-clogged speeches, dull videos, stuffy blogs and op-eds no one will publish. Here’s how to mine gold.

By Russell Working

Story strategist Justina Chen once was meeting with an executive when she learned he was an avid fisherman. Chen, a novelist and author of “The Art of Inspiration: Lead Your Best Story,” asked “What do you learn from fishing?” “Patience,” he told her.

“Give me an example of using what you’ve learned from fishing and applied to a business challenge?” she replied.

It was an ah-ha moment. It dawned on the executive that a personal story could make an abstract lesson concrete and real to his audience.

Whether you’re writing a TED Talk, producing a video or crafting an op-ed, stories are one of the most powerful means of communication. Why, then, is it so hard to get some leaders to tell them? Here are some tips for mining stories in your organization:

1. Do your research.

Before meeting with the principal, research to find what stories he or she has told in previous profiles, speeches, videos, writing and interviews, says Jeff Shesol, founding partner at West Wing Writers and a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton.

“You’ve got to know what’s out there so that you don’t waste your precious time with the principal asking him or her to tell you stories that you could’ve gotten somewhere else,” Shesol says.

[FREE DOWNLOAD: 10 ways to enliven senior executives’ communications]

2. Establish the ‘emotional destination.’

Set your goals up front, Shesol says. Stories must advance those goals or move the audience, reader or viewer toward your conclusion.

How to do that? Ask how your principal wants the listener to feel after hearing the speech, watching the video or reading the op-ed, says Drew Keller, president of StoryGuide.net and an Emmy-nominated PBS writer and editor. You might wish to get a laugh along the way, but they need an intellectual or emotional destination—a moral of the story.

When the principal understands the destination, “they understand what you’re trying to accomplish,” Keller says. “They say, ‘Oh, yeah, I had this thing happen to me when I was a kid.’”

In other words, don’t script that great joke about how a priest, a rabbi and a proctologist walk into a bar unless that advances your argument.

3. Make it an ‘interview.’

When you set up an appointment with your leader, ask for an “interview,” not a “meeting,” says Chen. Using the word “interview” puts speakers on notice that they will be answering questions. “They’re prepared to be talking,” Chen says.

4. Meet on their turf.

Go to your speaker’s office. Look around. Everyone has an “artifact” that is meaningful to the speaker. These can hint at interests, values and (best of all) stories.

Are there community theater posters, ski lift tickets, a high school football helmet, an Australian boomerang, a photo of your source’s spouse and kids in front of Hagia Sophia, a mounted alligator head given by a Marine Corps platoon? A baby shoe, a trophy from the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships? Ask about these.

“Already, you’re rolling them into storytelling mode,” Chen says.

5. Ask for a ‘grit story.’

These stories, Friedman says, tend to say, “I was knocked down, but I got back up again.” An easy climb to success makes for an uninteresting narrative. We want to hear about resilience: how someone came back from defeat, overcame a challenge or triumphed over hardship. These stories don’t have to be about your speaker; they can be inspirational tales about others.

One executive told Chen about how, when he was 13, he grew eight inches in a year. His spine didn’t keep up with the rest of his skeletal growth, leaving him bent over. At 13, he was in an uncomfortable brace. The doctors told him he couldn’t play football or basketball again.

So he learned how to play tennis in a brace, and he became nationally ranked. When he told the story to an audience of 14,000 employees, he drew a business lesson from it, saying, “People, we are still playing tennis.” He received the first standing ovation of his career, Chen says.

6. Keep an ear open for stories.

So many times in conversation, leaders will say, “I never tell stories,” says Friedman. Yet the same person probably tells stories all the time. Listen for them, and take a note.

“If you’re talking about a speech with your principal and they tell a story, there’s a good chance that’s going to apply to the speech,” Friedman says.

Say to your leader: “That’s great. Can we use it?”

7. Ask directly.

Some parts of the speech will be easy for audiences, readers or video viewers to understand. But often there are often other parts where the point is more abstract. Friedman says to tell them, “This would be a good place for a story.”

Then ask your principal for a story illustrating that point.

8. Gather stories in your organization.

Mary Kate Cary, a former speechwriter for George H.W. Bush, is working on “41ON41,” a documentary film about her former boss, the 41st president, Friedman says. The approach is a good one for digging up stories: Ask others in your organization for stories.

Whether you need it for a speech or a video, you can tell your executive, “I was talking to so-and-so, and she gave me this unbelievable story,” Friedman says.

9. Share a story.

If you tell someone a story, it’s likely they’ll share one with you, Friedman says. Your just-the-facts leaders might be surprised at how many stories they have unconsciously stashed away.

10. Collect stories.

Any time you hear or read a good story, write it down, clip it from the newspaper or cut and paste it in a file, Friedman says. Here is the moment when the Wright Brothers figured out flight. Here is a light bulb moment for Thomas Edison.

“That’s part of the job: to look for stories,” Friedman says.

When The Wall Street Journal turned a century old, the newspaper ran a series based on the number 100. In one feature, the paper interviewed a 100-year-old man and his 97-year-old wife, who had been married 80 years.

To what do you attribute this long marriage? They both traveled a lot, and they were both hard of hearing. Friedman used it in a speech about teamwork.

11. Give them a heads-up.

Executives tend to be Type A personalities who want to feel in control and don’t like surprises, Keller says. They are pressed for time and don’t want to look foolish. Many try to give off a vibe of omnipotence, yet they fear a personal story will make them look vulnerable.

Knowing this, you can ease your way by telling them (or their admin or the go-between) what you’ll be looking for so the executive can prepare.

“Surprise rarely works,” Keller says. “They need, frankly, time to plan ahead.”

12. Skip the Brothers Grimm.

“They need to own the story,” Keller says. “In other words, it needs to be genuine. It can’t be a myth or something they heard. It needs to be, from them, a real story.”

Not only can people tell when a story isn’t genuine, but you also must find out what they learned.

13. Follow up.

Use follow-up questions to dig deeper or add depth of understanding, Keller says. Try questions such as these:

How did you feel?

  • What did you learn?
  • Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?

Try these techniques, and you’ll drag a story out of the boss—one way or another.


This article is in partnership with Kollective, and is Part 1 of a 3 Part Series.