brand stories persuasion

The best stories to rally your team (and one to avoid)

surgeons in operation room

Leaders (maybe you’re one) try to inspire teams by telling them stories about other teams. Yet all team stories are not created equal. Here are some of the best stories to tell your team (and one to avoid). Let’s start with the least effective team story and move to the most effective.

The least effective story is the one everyone thinks they’ve heard before.

 In my experience, the least effective business storytelling I’ve seen in the American workplace has the same five ingredients that make it:

  1. American-centric,  
  2. sports-centric,  
  3. male-centric, 
  4. hero-centric, and 
  5. your team wins. 

Don’t get me wrong. These stories are great. I love the 30 for 30 documentaries by ESPN and that all sports. But let me do you a favor and tell you those stories sound a lot alike in the workplace, which may not be loaded with sportsfans. If you substitute any one of those five ingredients for something else, your story instantly becomes more intriguing, especially if you lead a diverse team.

Leave the mainstream and embrace the alternatives.

Let’s say you stick with sports team stories. It’s the easiest. Then explore sports that aren’t mainstream in America or at least aren’t well known. Watch the Olympics and other sports events aired in other countries to discover all kinds of sports you never knew about. Dig up the outlier sports like Jai Alai or Murderball. Spotlight sports teams full of female athletes in typically male-dominated sports. Focus on teams where success doesn’t come down to one superstar making an amazing catch, but is the sum of parts. The more unusual the messengers and characters are within the story, the more your audience stays tuned.

Leave sports and explore other team competitions.

Let’s think bigger than sports. Beyond the world of athletics is the world of other competitions. Tell stories about team competitions in architecture, choral performance, robotics battles, B-Boys battles, etc. The stakes are just as high because everyone who cares is watching and if a team wins they are legends and if they lose it’s heartbreaking.

Leave winners and connect with losers.

My favorite story category is losers and people who screw up. Leaders avoid telling stories about losers, yet if you play it right, those stories can show more depth. Have you watched the multi-Emmy winning show Ted Lasso? Dang it, that show sure is charming. It’s a team of management losers helping a team of athletic losers and you root for all of ’em. You can tell a story about a team that loses and say, “they didn’t win, yet they stuck to their principles and that’s more important.” Or, “that loss taught them a lesson, so they came back stronger the second time around.”

Sometimes a loser story is what your team needs to hear from you after their own loss. Use loser stories to rally your people after a defeat and gird themselves for another attempt. If you never lose, it means you don’t have the courage to take big risks. I strongly recommend telling loser stories as they show wisdom and self-awareness within the storyteller—that’s you—and reassure teams they will survive.

Leave the staged world for the real world.

Now let’s leave the world of contrived competitions among teams and go into the world of real teams with much higher stakes. What about teams on submarines? Or teams of teachers responding to real world injustice with their students in real time? Or teams in an emergency room? History has loads of unofficial teams that form organically like neighbors banding together to defend their homes from invasion or to overcome a natural disaster. 

Leave humans for the rest of the animal kingdom.

How about the magical world of teams that aren’t human? Nature is full of incredible teams whether it’s bees in a honeycomb, lionesses hunting together, dolphin pods swirling up those fish-buffet-tornadoes, penguins rotating for heat, or birds taking flying shifts as they migrate. The world of nature is teeming (pun intended) with ripe metaphors about taking action for the good of the whole.

Teams teaming with teams is the ultimate team story.

The best team stories are the ones about teams teaming with each other. An excellent TED talk stars Amy Edmondson on how to turn a group of strangers into a team. She dissects the Chilean mining disaster; a story of engineers, medical professionals, NASA, the military, and so many others coming together to turn a potential tragedy into a miracle. 

Reinforce your personal brand. 

As you explore different kinds of stories you want to tell, know the stories you choose position your personal brand as a leader. If you tell the same clichéd stories that are already out there, your people will tune you out.

Fresh stories mean fresh ideas.

The audience can’t see that your ideas are fresh when your stories aren’t. Being fresh is especially important during the pandemic when every work day is a blur and a repeat of yesterday. Catch their attention with something unexpected.

Stay curious about the stories you don’t know yet. 

In a world where diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging matter on a broader scale, showing that you seek to share myriad untold stories is revealing and affirming. Let your audience see you have a curiosity about the lives of others, lives nothing like yours, and an appreciation for their struggles and triumphs. You can also use your access to share videos and written content from people sharing their stories in their own voices to truly create an authentic experience and connection.

Tell it like you feel it.

Whatever stories you tell make sure they’re genuine and strike a chord deep inside you—then hold on to that chord as you retell them. If you felt something deep inside as you heard the story, then chances are the other humans in the room will feel the same thing when you repeat it. Telling stories, especially team stories, creates shared experiences. A moment of interconnection is what inspires and unites everyone on the team. During the pandemic, anything that creates a sense of community rather than isolation so your people feel seen is powerful. Find a story that speaks to you and share it with your people as soon as you can.

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