1: “Seven hundred happy passengers reached New York after the Titanic’s maiden voyage.”

This week we are looking at the key elements of what author Stephen Denning calls a “springboard story.” This specific type of narrative “performs the most useful thing a leader can do: communicate a complex new idea and inspire action to implement it,” he writes in The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling.

A springboard story is authentically true. It “actually happened—not an imaginary story about something that might happen. It’s something that has already occurred,” Stephen writes. “It’s not enough to tell a story that’s true as far as it goes. You must tell an authentically true story: a story that once people check it out and all the facts are known, people will still say, ‘Yes, that’s pretty much what happened.'”

While the statement above about the Titanic is factually accurate, it leaves out the part about the fifteen hundred other passengers who drowned when the ship sank.

“And when those facts become known, if they aren’t already known, then the negative backlash on the story and the storyteller is massive,” Stephen writes.

Not smart. And yet, “ironically corporate communications often fall into this pattern,” Stephen observes. “They paint a rosy picture of a situation, but just around the corner is lurking some hidden negative element. Once that element becomes known, if it isn’t already known, there is a massive negative backlash on the story and the storyteller.

2: Stephen also recommends communicating the date and place where the event happened up front. “In storytelling, little things can make a big difference,” he notes. When we give the date and place, we signal to our listeners that this is a true story. This story actually happened!

Next, we select a single individual to be the hero of our story. Not a group. Not a team.  

Doing so taps into “an archetypal narrative pattern—the hero’s journey,” Stephen writes. We are taking our listeners on a journey with someone who sets out to do something challenging. Someone who meets obstacles. Someone who ultimately triumphs.  

“Everyone has heard this kind of story thousands of times,” Stephen writes. Why? Because it works. “This kind of story has deep roots in the human psyche. All of us tend to see our own life as a journey with goals and obstacles that get in the way of attaining those goals. So when we hear a story in the form of a hero’s journey, we respond from the deepest reaches of our psyche.”

Stephen recommends we introduce our protagonist up front, so our audience isn’t spending mental energy attempting to find someone with whom to identify. We have only a few seconds to draw our audience in. We’re “not writing War and Peace,” Stephen observes. We “don’t have the luxury of hundreds of pages to lay out the scene and gradually introduce a vast cast of characters.”

Instead: “Make it easy on both the audience and yourself: start out with the date, the place, and the protagonist,” he recommends.

3: Lastly, we want to choose a hero similar to our audience. We want them to think: “I know that situation! I’ve been there! I’ve had that problem!” Doing so makes it easier for them to identify with the protagonist and see themselves in our story.  

If we “are talking to an audience of economists, the hero is likely to be an economist. If [we] are talking to a global consulting company, the hero is likely to be a team leader in the consulting firm. And if [we] are talking to oil drillers, the hero is likely to be an oil driller.”

Our story becomes their story.  


Reflection: What is a current challenge I am facing? What “springboard story” could I tell to motivate my team or audience?

Action: Do it.

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