Winning business through storytelling

August 20, 2012, 7:52 PM UTC

By Jonah Sachs, contributor

Before his name was synonymous with extraordinary leader, Phil Jackson was a frustrated runner-up who couldn’t beat Detroit. 1989 — Jackson’s Chicago Bulls had lost to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. 1990 — same story. And though the Bulls were the top seed in 1991, the now-legendary NBA coach recalls feeling gloomy as the playoffs wore on yet again. Sure he had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, two of the NBA’s best in a generation. But this one team had their number. And this one team was up next.

“The Pistons were the bad boys,” he told me as he recalled the days just before his breakthrough. “And our guys had gotten into the idea of trying to be tougher than them. It didn’t work.”

The strategy had earned them a few embarrassing bench clearing brawls— and a lot of frustrating losses thanks to errors made in anger. Then Jackson decided to tell a story he had heard far from the court. What he was about to learn is the common discovery made by the leaders of nearly all iconic teams and enterprises: great stories are the glue that bring people together to achieve extraordinary things.

“I sat the team down and told them the story of the Lakota Sioux warriors,” Jackson explained. “Before they would go into battle against the Crow, the Lakota would pause to thank the Great Spirit for their brave enemy. Without the Crow, the Lakota knew they would not be tested — and so they would never become great warriors.”

By the end of the story, the team, at first unsure where their coach was going, had fallen into rapt attention. Jackson had tried to teach patience and inner calm before. He knew it was the only way the Bulls could defeat their hated foe. But nothing stuck. Until he told this story. The result was night and day.

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“We swept them and went on to beat them 27 straight times after that,” Jackson remembers with a smile. The Bulls, of course, went on to beat a lot of other teams too on the way to six NBA titles.

Jackson built a lasting, winning enterprise around a core story strategy. He changed his team’s shared identity, their view of how the world works and even their values with one short story. Even-though it sounds unlikely that a story can do all that.

Of course, Jackson’s approach is not unique. It’s the secret I’ve heard from nearly every extraordinary business leader I’ve spoken to. Because it is so universal I’m convinced that once it’s broken down, breakthrough storytelling can be used as a core strategy by anyone managing a brand or enterprise.

The Structure of Any Story

Here’s how any well-told story works: On it’s surface we find characters and conflict, the visible elements of the story. In Jackson’s story, we have the Lakota Sioux locked into battle with the brave Crow. Of course, none of these visible elements are placed there by chance. They all exist to illustrate a core truth about how the world works — the Moral of the Story. The counterintuitive but compelling moral of the story told to the Bulls was, of course, that the true warrior loves his enemy.

Finally, one level deeper, we find the core values of the story. Stories, after all, are simply vehicles for values. We can shout our values to others all we want. That does nothing. Encode them in a good story, and they start to go viral among our team. That’s just the way humans work. Jackson replaced his team’s values of vengeance and machismo with values like calm and patience. And that changed everything.

Building a Story Strategy

Brands, and the enterprises behind them, thrive based on their ability to get people to modify their behavior by changing the way they see the world. We want our teams to perform more optimally by binding them together in shared purpose. We want to get our potential customers to behave differently and engage with us, or engage with us more deeply. So we tell them stories based on an intentional strategy — and we win.

Building your story strategy begins by identifying “the moral of the story” — the core belief your audience is living by that stands in your way. For the leaders of many dysfunctional teams like Jackson’s that moral might be “fight fire with fire.” For Apple back in 1984, the broken moral of its customers was “computers are tools just for business.”

Your job as a leader or brand is to introduce a new “moral of the story” that is more compelling than the broken old one. Once you do, it becomes the foundation of your story strategy. Every important story you tell should point back to this insight. You’ll know it’s working when members of your team or your customers start telling their own stories with your moral at its heart. By understanding and sticking to your moral, you’ll come to stand for something distinct in the hearts and minds of your audiences. It gives your message the consistency you need to lead.

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Now let’s go deeper. If we plan to share our moral, we must recognize that we are also asking them to share our values. A good story strategy can get them to do that. But only if we are authentic agents of those values ourselves. As you examine the moral you espouse, ask what values is it based upon? Am I, or is my brand a credible embodiment of those values? The best brands and leaders are. The rest are ignored regardless of how good their stories are. In understanding and living by your values, you will achieve resonance.

Once you’ve set your moral and values, you’re ready to tell actual stories. As you choose characters and situations to play out the lesson you want to teach, make sure they’re relatable for your audience. Here’s the key: the hero of your stories should never be you. The hero is always your audience. Jackson knew his “heroes” saw themselves as young warriors, so he told the story of young warriors long ago and far away. The story worked because it wasn’t about him.

The characters and situations in the stories you tell may be real, legendary or entirely fictional. If you want to tell inspiring stories from your own experience, start with your moral. What experience did you have that let you know this moral was true? Your story may start there. But don’t be constrained by fact: Many of the most convincing stories told by leaders and brands never pretend to be true. Think of the best 30-second spots. They’re fictional, but the honest ones teach us a core truth and connect us to our values.

Jonah Sachs is the co-founder and CEO of Free Range Studios. He is the author of Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell – and Live the Best Stories Will Rule the Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012).