Having morale issues? Try telling better stories

In 2008, newly-minted Skype CEO Josh Silverman had a problem.

Sluggish growth at Skype had caused his team’s morale to take a nosedive. This was a problem in itself, but it also threatened to derail his plan to launch a groundbreaking new feature: full-screen video calls.

Silverman thought if he could convince employees of the importance of their work, morale might recover – and put the business back on track.

He hosted all-hands meetings and brought in real Skype users with a single goal: convincing employees that they weren’t just enabling cheap video calls, but heroically helping people stay in touch with their loved ones.

Within two years, morale bounced back, video calls became a reality, and Skype was sold to Microsoft for $8.5 billion.

Silverman’s success represents the power of a good story.

If your company’s facing lagging morale that can’t be solved by yet another pizza party, you might want to start telling an inspiring story of your own.

Here are some of Will Storr’s tips for getting it right.

1. Develop your characters

People love hearing about other people. We’re empathetic creatures, so we get excited when there’s a chance to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and observe how they overcome challenges.

Great storytellers tap into this by putting characters at the center of their narrative – rather than data points or jargon.

It’s why Star Wars is about a farm boy-turned-Jedi instead of a deep dive into the mechanics of building a Death Star, or why Legally Blonde’s story of a sorority sister-turned-lawyer is more entertaining than a PowerPoint presentation on people’s misconceptions about blondes.

When you’re assembling a cast of characters for your story, Storr suggests relying on three universal archetypes that historically resonate with audiences.

The hero

This is the main character who the audience watches grow over the course of a narrative. In the Skype example, the employees were the heroic warriors tasked with connecting people with their loved ones.

The shadow figure

This is the person or concept that presents an obstacle for your hero. In the Skype example, the shadow figure was the obstacle that stood in the way of connecting people with their loved ones – such as unfamiliarity with video technology.

The light figure

This is a guide, tool, or principle that helps the hero along their quest. In the Skype example, it could be the new technology itself, or the enthusiasm of super users to adopt video calling.

Remember: you’re not the hero

While you may be tempted to portray yourself as the hero of your story, let your audience fill that spot. When you portray yourself as the hero, you’re telling a story about solving your own problems, not your team’s.

Instead, think of yourself as the light figure. You’re training Luke to master the force, not going in and blowing up the Death Star yourself.  

2. Know your audience

The best stories feature relatable heroes.

To better resonate with your team, portray a hero that they can simultaneously identify with on a personal level and ultimately aspire to be. There are two elements you can leverage to do this: your audience’s identity and their values.

Identity

People are driven by a sense of belonging. It’s why we host parties, wear the right colors at the tailgate, and put college bumper stickers on our cars.

To motivate your colleagues, start by determining their social identities.

  • Are the majority of them parents, or young people in their early to mid 20s?
  • Do they identify as “work hard / play hard” or do they live for their families and time off?
  • Do they see themselves primarily as brilliant minds changing the world, or caring empaths helping people?

When you notice significant overlap between identities, you can build this into your hero.

Values

What does your team pride themselves on? What action would they view as unforgivable? What principled stance would they take if it was them versus the world?

Asking these questions can help you describe the “final version” of your hero once they’ve overcome their obstacle.

Building credibility

Practicing empathy doesn’t just help you craft relatable heroes. It also gives you a chance to portray yourself as a credible light figure in the story.

If you can align yourself with their identities and make clear that you share their values, your role as a guide stands out.

3. Don’t lose the plot

Most stories follow a familiar structure.

In Wizard of Oz:

  • Dorothy starts in Kansas as a bored teenager.
  • Suddenly, her life is upended and she’s transported to a magic land where she has to overcome a wicked witch to get back to the heartland.
  • When she makes her way back, she realizes that there really is no place like home.

Or in Titanic:

  • When Rose boards, her entire life has already been determined by her mother and new fiance.
  • She then meets an exciting young artist and goes on a whirlwind romance that’s upended by a sinking ship.
  • When she survives the disaster, she commits to living on her own terms.

These stories boil down to a three act structure. They start with a broken situation, escalate to a struggle, and then end with everything being fixed.

There’s a reason why we see this so often. The human mind is constantly barraged with information and in order to make sense of it, we have a tendency to organize the messy details of our lives into tidy narratives that include a beginning, middle, and end.

To rally your team, mimic the three acts.

For example, if you’re overseeing a project to develop dog-friendly fireworks your story would look like this:

  • Summer was broken. Every 4th of July, our team of noble dog owners had no choice but to watch helplessly as our furry friends panicked when the fireworks show started across town. We wanted to change that.
  • Our team struggled to upend the status quo. Fueled by our collective love of dogs, we worked countless hours to design a new, silent firecracker that would light up the night sky without rattling the neighborhood windows.
  • Now it’s fixed. Next summer, cities across the country have vowed to only use our firecrackers. We can finally bond with our little buddies at the annual barbecue – and grow closer as a family.

4. Practice before you start talking

We’ve put together a handy template you can use to define your problem, characters, and story – all before you get up in front of the team and start talking.

Want to learn more about crafting winning stories? You can watch Will Storr's Storytelling Sprint on demand starting August 1.

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Business education for builders, disrupters, doers and changemakers. Hands-on experience taught by top professors

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