Learn the Basics of Storytelling

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you'll be able to:

  • Explain why story structure is important.
  • Identify the four components of a basic story arc.
  • Describe the three types of stories.

Story Exchange

In 2009, a man named Todd Bol built a “little free library” outside of his home. It was a tribute to his mother who was a school teacher. The premise was that people could come and freely take a book or give a book.

Maybe you’ve seen one of these little free libraries before?

Little free library

Sharing stories with your team can be just like the little free library, where there’s give and take, and everyone shares. As a manager, you want to cultivate an environment where sharing and listening are part of the culture.

Why is this valuable? Because as you learn about each team member and uncover their “story” (for example, who they are, what motivates them, what they care about), you learn how to best connect with, inspire, and engage the individuals on your team.

Listen to Your Team

Learn to listen to your team so you know which stories to share. Listen to stories about their life and their interests. Learn about your direct reports’ passions, interests and career goals. Map out work opportunities. Think about ways to channel their passions to engage them at work.

Here’s how this works. Aadi, a high-performing analyst, works in finance in Chicago. She likes to share stories about her travels. She shares that her goal is “to visit every continent before she turns 30.” A “perfect fit” Sydney-based assignment comes up. You reach out to Finance Manager Kylie in the Australian office on Aadi’s behalf. In her 6 weeks spent “down under,” Aadi’s doing her best work because she’s engaged both personally and professionally.

Listen to learn what inspires your team as individuals. Then, match those interests with great career opportunities.

Share with Your Team

‘Speak in such a way that others love to listen to you. Listen in such a way that others love to speak to you.’ -Unknown

“Speak in such a way that others love to listen to you. Listen in such a way that others love to speak to you.” —Unknown

If you want your team to be open with their ideas, it’s up to you to set an example. Share your story:

  • Tell others what motivates you.
  • Reveal what you care about.
  • Discuss important decisions you’ve made in your life and/or career-wise.
  • Talk about successes, failures, lessons learned.
  • Share what you’re proud of and perhaps what regrets you have.
  • Explain reasons behind your business decisions.

How to Structure a Story

If there’s a story you’d like to share, it helps to start by using a structure. Story structure is the organizational method you use to put the pieces of your story together. It’s the framework you use to move your listener from the story’s start to its finish. Using a story structure helps you tell stories in an exciting and engaging way.

Click the graphic to learn more about the importance of story structure as told by Jen Brown. Jen is a senior manager in Customer Evangelism here at Salesforce and teaches the storytelling portion of our Sales’ Bootcamp.

“The structure is like signposts for the reader. You’re bringing them along the way and helping them remember the most important parts.” —Jen Brown, Sr. Manager, Customer Evangelism, Salesforce

The Story Arc

You can use something called a story arc to structure your stories. A “story arc” is the chronological way the events unfold in a story. The arc gives the listener or reader the opportunity to travel through the story like it’s an adventure!

The basic story arc has four parts:

  • Setting
  • Struggle
  • Turning point
  • Resolution

 Cartoon of a story arc thru a wave/ setting, struggle, turning point, resolution

Let’s take a closer look at what each of these mean and how you can use the story arc to make your stories most engaging.

In this table, we’ll explain what each part of the arc is and give an example of how to use it. This scenario is about a manager sharing a story with their direct report.

Hint: The example column tells a story!

What it is
What it does
For example

The setting is where and/or when the story occurs.
Helps your direct report imagine the scene as if they were there in the moment.
The meeting room was stuffy and warm. It smelled like a mix between paint fumes, freshly pressed dry-cleaning, and leftover catered lunch. There were no windows or artwork—just a larger-than-life screen for presentations, a stage, and a room full of people.

The struggle is the character’s pain point, challenge, or conflict.
Builds tension, adds just enough anxiety to keep the story interesting, and helps your direct report empathize with the story’s main character.
I could not get in touch with my manager. She was supposed to present. I knew the presentation, but had never spoken in front of a crowd before. I waited. I waited some more. I called. I was worried… what would happen if she didn’t arrive?

More time passed. I called and called. No answer. The presentation was due to start in 2 minutes. My heart raced. The event’s organizer approached and said:

“What would you like to do?
Turning point

The turning point is the defining moment. It’s when the main character has no choice but to take action.
Makes your direct report feel so engaged that they want to shout, “Do this” or “Don’t do that!”
“I’ll give the presentation,” I replied.

I gulped some water and walked on stage. I could feel my heart racing. The lights were so bright on stage that I couldn’t see the audience.

The resolution is the ending and what happens after the turning point.
Inspires your direct report.
I did the best I could. I tried my best to remember the speaking points, but it was agonizing—I read from the speaker notes for entire chunks of the presentation. My voice was shaky. But I stuck it out. I stayed with it.

I learned more about presenting in those 30 minutes than I ever did from months of watching my manager present the same speech.

Three Types of Stories

Here are three kinds of stories you can share with your team:

1 Real life Stories that relate to your life and experiences.
2 Inspirational Stories that coach, boost morale, and inspire.
3 Informational Stories that communicate information about the business.

Here’s a little insider tip: These aren’t mutually exclusive. A real life story can be inspirational and related to business.

Real Life Stories

In Hawaiian culture, real life stories are called “talk story.” Talk story is like “shooting the breeze.” It’s sharing information or stories about your weekend and the things you enjoy doing. Here we’ll call them “real life stories.”

A real life story can be as simple as sharing information about your life. It’s about bringing your full self to work and getting to know the people you work with. It’s about making connections that build rapport with your team. When you’re vulnerable enough to share personal stories, you’re showing the team it’s okay for them to share their true selves at work.

Since real life stories are informal, you can simply share appropriate stories that make sense for the message you’re trying to send.

Here are some tips we’ve put together to help break the ice with your team:

Do this
Not this
Start your 1:1 meetings with small talk.

For example: Talk about the movie you went to last night, and ask your employee how their evening went.
Jump right into business.

For example: “Good morning. Say, why are we so far behind on this project?”
Share stories about your career.

For example: Share career highlights, decisions, challenges, failures, and lessons learned along the way.
Keep your career journey top secret.

For example: Never talking about your career aspirations, missteps, and/or what you’ve learned from others.
Be vulnerable.

For example: If you made a mistake, don’t know the answer to a question or how to do something, be honest.

Or, if you’re going through something in life, share with your team. For example, if your dog is sick, it’s normal to be out of sorts. Let your team know what’s going on so they can understand where you’re coming from.
Put up a front of being perfect.

For example: Part of building rapport is being open and vulnerable about your weaknesses, not putting up a front that you know everything and/or always do things right.
Vent appropriately.

For example: Appropriately share your own stress with your team and empathize with the challenges they face in their work. Stay “solution-focused” on what you and others can do to improve the situation.
Go overboard in unloading your concerns about the business or other teammates.

For example: “Can you believe this!? Here we go again! We’re never going to get this done! They really screwed up this time. We might as well shut the project down immediately.”
Talk about the good things that are happening at work.

For example: “Excellent work in Q3! We shocked everyone by not only meeting our numbers but exceeding them. So we’re heading into Q4 strong. I know it’s going to be a good year end for us.”
Share gossip.

For example: “So, did you hear what happened to Charlie last week? I was out with Charise and she heard from Lydia that Charlie’s been dropping the ball for the past month…”

Inspirational Stories

As an inspirational coach, you have the opportunity to influence lives. Your direct reports will be looking to you for guidance. And they’ll come to you when they’re stuck, need help with a project, or when things are not working quite right. And, if the morale on the team is low—for whatever reason—they’ll look to you to build them up.

Inspirational stories help your team see through a broader lens and find hope when things get tough. The key to sharing inspirational stories is making sure they’re relatable, riveting, and repeatable. Think of it as “the 3 Rs” of inspirational stories.

Click the graphic to learn more about “the 3 Rs,” and to hear what our in-house storytelling expert, Jen Brown, senior manager in Customer Evangelism, has to say about the value of adding vivid details to your stories.

“A good inspirational story is relatable, riveting, repeatable…It has to be something that draws you in. It’s those vivid details in a story that get you to pay attention.” —Jen Brown, Sr. Manager, Customer Evangelism, Salesforce

Informational Stories

We talked about how to share your own real life stories and how to create and share stories that inspire. The third kind of story you might share as a manager is about business. We’ll call these informational stories, since they share, well, information.

Informational stories may be useful for:

  • Project kickoffs
  • Status updates
  • Team news
  • Presentations
  • Written communications
  • Emails
  • Chatter

Business communications inform about the business and require action from your team. They frame facts so your team understands what’s required of them, the urgency, and the bigger picture.

Unlike the other two types of stories, it’s up to you to turn your business communications from facts and agenda items into a story. We’ll cover this in more detail later in this module.

Let’s Sum It Up

You don’t need to be an expert on story structure to tell a great story to your direct reports. But it helps to understand the basic parts of a story—that way you know how to make things most engaging for your listener.

In the next unit, we’ll talk about the way that you can use stories to inspire your team and build rapport with your direct reports.


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