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Nobody Roots for Goliath: How to Lead with Storytelling

Having a great idea is not enough. A great idea only comes to life when there’s an equally great story to go with it.

In fact, your ability to craft a story around your idea, product, or mission, is more essential to success than the idea itself.

Great ideas with uninspiring stories go nowhere. However, a powerful story can propel an otherwise good-enough idea to greatness.

Here are four tips on how to lead through storytelling.

1. Nobody roots for Goliath.

Focus on the underdog. Be the underdog. Underdogs provide tension. Tension keeps people’s attention. Our brains are wired to pay attention to uncertainty. There’s no tension or surprise when the person who looks like they should win actually wins. A thousand times in history a giant warrior crushed a smaller and weaker opponent. But those aren’t the stories we tell for thousands of years. The one we remember is the time a boy took down the toughest guy on the battlefield with a stone.

Think about the Rocky movies. Although we know that Rocky will win in the end of most them, he’s always positioned as an underdog facing insurmountable odds. He’s the champion who wasn’t supposed to be a champion. Only a few lucky people could ever be Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. The message of Rocky is that everyone gets a couple of shots in life to be a Rocky Balboa.

We can admire a giant, but we’re unlikely to personally identify with one. However, we’ve all felt like a child facing Goliath at some point in life.

The underdog story resonates. Resonance inspires commitment. Commitment inspires action.

2. Make it personal.

Great stories are centered on people, not just ideas. Being smart is not enough. Having a brilliant plan is not enough. You also need to be compelling. New ideas can enlighten those around you. However, you need a personal narrative if you want to be inspiring. If you’re pitching a new product or idea, personalize the potential benefits.

The core, the beating heart, of a truly great idea-story should be the real people who will benefit from it, not the brilliance of the creator.

Who are the people whose lives will be improved by your idea? Find a real story from a real client that makes the point. Are you crafting a new mission for your organization? Let team members talk about why this change is personally meaningful and inspires them to devote their time, talent, and intellectual capital to this potential future.

Altruism and self-sacrifice for a greater good are always better motivators than success for the sake of success. Keep the welfare of those you serve at the center of the story. Do that, and your team will be willing to do the impossible.

3. Talk to someone, not everyone.

Every great story has an intended audience. A story written for everyone is compelling to no one. Kleenex is for everyone. It’s useful, but Kleenex is not a part of anyone’s identity. Maple bacon ice cream is only made for a select few. Most people would hate it. However, those who love it are fanatical about it.

Whenever possible, be maple bacon ice cream, not Kleenex.

Know exactly who you are trying to reach and be content that this story will not appeal to everyone. A story that aims for the middle is a story born to be average. It will be slightly interesting to most, but deeply compelling to none.

A powerful story will alienate some people because they will rightly see that it is not really intended for them. However, that same story will stick like glue to a smaller subset of people who think, “Finally, these people “get me”. This is what I’ve been looking for, but I couldn’t find anywhere else.”

Be willing to let some people walk away, as long as a select few become die-hard fans. No idea, product, or campaign needs everyone to succeed. It only needs enough. And it needs enough of the right people, not just some people.


4. Practice.

Storytelling is a skill you can learn. Very few people are born as a Tiger Woods of storytelling. You have to plan, practice, assess, and try again. It really stinks when you have a great idea, charge up the hill with it, and turn to find no one following you.

Before you discard the idea, consider how well you sold the story of the idea.

More often than not, the idea was fine or at least good-enough. What it needed was a great story and someone to tell it.

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