Five Types of Stories Leaders Tell to Inspire

July 25, 2016

Business leaders and entrepreneurs are very busy people, and they usually outsource or delegate time consuming things like writing.  However, there’s one thing that cannot be outsourced, is public speaking, not if you want to be an inspiring leader.

The role of a leader of a group is to manage the meaning of the group.  People are emotional and their brains are “meaning making machines”.  Many leaders think they can just use hierarchical structures and S.O.Ps to manage performance, but that alone is not enough.  Whether you know it or not, like it or not, people are going to make up their own meanings to fill the “meaning vacuum”.  Just hang out at the food joints at lunch time in a business area, and you tune in to a “radio station” called the “Gossip Channel”.

Therefore, as a leader, you have to inspire your people through powerful meaning setting conversations.  If you want to inspire your audience, but struggle to find inspiring content type, here are 5 types of stories that you can tell to inspire.

Hero’s Journey – Pain to Passion, Suffering to Success Stories

The hero’s journey is always inspiring. People like a rags-to-riches type stories, because they play to everyone’s inner hero.

Life can sometimes be dreary and ordinary, and people are bogged down by day-to-day concerns.  That’s why everybody want to be inspired, something that appeals to their higher selves.

A hero’s journey story accomplishes that.

It’s an illustration of your personal journey from your pains, your struggles, your failures (something that peope can all relate to, though they woulnd’t admit it).  It also details your journey, how you’ve accomplished what you’ve accomplished.

It gives them hope that they too, can do the same.

Here is an example of my Hero’s Journey Story – How I Overcame Fear of Public Speaking

Stories of Insights, Lessons and Growth

There will be times when you find yourself in the position of having to influence someone who is older than you, more experienced than you.  In this situation, you may come up against a barrier, real or perceived of having to convince them to trust and belief you.  In Asia, where the culture of respecting seniority is prevalent, this can be an even bigger barrier.

This is where the second type of inspiring stories comes in – stories of insights, lessons and growth.  These stories help to break through people’s resistances such as “what do you know? What gives you the right to teach me?”  In this type of stories, you share your experiences, and you usually garnish it with a “what I have learnt is _______” statement.  This statement is casually added into your story, but don’t be fooled!  It’s an incredibly hypnotic language pattern!  In many parts of Asia, where seniority (in age and hierarchy) is given premium, what you say may not carry weight if you’re young / look young.  By prefacing your key insights with “what I have learn is _______”, you level the playing field.  People may have reasons to doubt or challenge your opinion, but they cannot doubt the validity of what you’ve said you’ve learnt.

Here is one of my favorite examples:

Two years ago, I met Ava Diamond at a speaker’s conference where she was one of the speakers.  At that time, I have been in the training and speaking industry for three years.  Although I was doing Ok, business was growing slowly, I was still dissatisfied.  One of my frustrations then was that there were too many trainers in the industry, how could I differentiate myself from my competitors?

During the question and answer session that followed her speech, I was dying to ask the question, but with my peers in the room, I didn’t know if it would have been appropriate.  Then, an audience member asked the very question, “I am a project management trainer and I reckon I am a very good one at that!  However, there are so many around here in Singapore.  How do I differentiate myself?”

Ava’s answer was one of the most profound idea that has shaped my speaking and entrepreneur journey till today.  She said,

Competition is an Illusion.  Just offer the world your best, and people who gravitate towards you are your clients, your friends, your participants.   The rest, they’re just not meant to be, so you’re better off focusing on those you serve.

I had always been spending a lot of time looking at my competitors and wondering how I can beat them. With Ava’s words ringing in my head as a reminder, I just focus on my own business, and giving my best in every project that I undertake.

Stories of Human Connection

As the truck was winding itself through the mountain roads of Timor Leste, my fellow passenger, Faustino, one of the local orphans reached for his bag, took out a small bun, tore it in half and reached out to offer it to me in his broken English “Bread, sir you want?”


(East Timor was under Portuguese rule for years, and so the Timorese spoke Portuguese)

Without hesitation, I took it and gave it a hearty bite.  I wasn’t really hungry, and let’s just say it wasn’t the softest loaf of bun I’ve ever eaten.  As I was grinding through the bread, I spied a tear falling from Faustino’s eyes.

“Why Faustino?  What’s the matter?”, I was concerned.

“Small thing small thing, sir… I…I am emotional, because all the guests… from Japan… They eat special food, they… no eat my bread… But sir you’re different… Obrigado!  I am happy!”

It never occurred to me that my small gesture had made such a difference.  We were there on a mission trip, to help rebuild schools and teach the displaced orphans English, to help the Timorese decimated by years of civil war.

However, that day, I learnt that it’s not just the schools and the teaching.  What truly mattered most of all is the human connection.  We may talk differently, dress differently, Nike sneakers, Ray Ban shades and all, but we’re all one human race, and the simple gesture of receiving bread from a community of people who have so little, yet have so much to give, was the defining moment for me for the whole trip.

Brought a warmth to your heart didn’t it?

Everyone, regardless of who you are, crave for connection at some level.  That possibly explains why people can be absorbed in romance novels and drama serials, they are gripped by the “will they, won’t they (be together)?” kind of plots.  Stories of connection help people to feel more connected.  They are inspired to reach out to connect with their own friends, communities, families.

Stories of Unlikely Heroes (“I don’t believe he just did that!” Stories)

While the hero’s journey story tells of a person’s personal journey of overcoming an adversity, the sacrifices made, the values that they lived by in making their decisions and the lessons they have learnt.  “Unlikely heroes” stories are stories where people who would usually considered as “weaker” or more “dependent” emerge as heroes.

We all know the famous story of Nick Vujicic, the man who was born without arms and legs, but who not only managed to survive against the odds, but went on to live a remarkable life of joy, service and contribution as a motivational speaker.  I am a big admirer of Nick, but I think this story has been told so many times as the typical underdog story that it more accurately categorized as a hero’s journey story rather than an unlikely one.

Here’s my personal example of an unlikely hero story.

Have you ever experienced moments like this?  If you’ve young children, have you ever been surprised by your children, who taught you important life lessons?  Mine such stories, never underestimate their ability to surprise, to change people’s paradigms and to inspire.

Stories of Making a Difference

One of the six basic human needs identified by Tony Robbins, is the need to make a contribution, and this need is one of the highest order needs because it’s related to our self-actualization.

I agree with Tony Robbins, and it’s my strong conviction that every person, whether they know it or not, wants to make a difference to the people they care about.  However, preaching “make a difference” is just as effective as those “customer first” and “human capital is our number one priority” slogans – they go over people’s heads.  However, you can inspire people to make a difference by telling a “make a difference” story.

Here’s one of my personal story:

I was speaking on a cruise ship on a 19-day cruise from Singapore to Sydney, and on such a cruise, it would not be appropriate for me to speak on serious topics such as presentation skills and leadership.  Therefore, I proposed to speak on something that’s more light hearted, and something that the audience will like to learn more about – relationships.  I spoke to the agent who arranged for the speaking engagement, and I was told that I will be speaking to a fairly mixed group of people, of various age groups, nationalities and backgrounds.  With that information, I went ahead to prepare my presentations.

However, when I boarded the ship, I realized that almost all the passengers were twice my age.  Undaunted, I decided to chat with some of them over the buffet dinner in order to break the ice.  They started regaling me with stories of their 50 over years of marriage, their families and their grandchildren.  I was extremely confronted to say the least.  What does someone like me, who’s not married, who doesn’t have as much life experience, have to teach these people that they already don’t know?

However, there I was on the ship, and I’ve prepared my materials, it’s too late to turn back.  I had no choice but to trust in my expertise, my practice, and myself.  I went ahead and shared with them about the Enneagram, how they help us and improve our own self-awareness, and improve our relationships.

At the end of the talk, a couple came up to introduce themselves and asked to speak to me privately.  Since we had 19 days on the cruise, I consented.  At the first meeting, the lady said tearfully, “We are celebrating 30 years of marriage on this cruise, but we’ve had enough!  We cannot stand each other anymore and we’ll be filing for divorce when we return to Sydney!”  Spending 19 days on a cruise ship, what a curious choice for a separating couple.

I held several conversations with them, and using the Enneagram, I helped them to see their blind spots and the cause of communication breakdowns.  They were both viewing the relationship only from their points of view, blocking each other, and causing hurt and distance in spite of their best efforts to make things work.  I gave them specific suggestions to work on their communications for the remaining 15 days.

On the penultimate day of the cruise, I bumped into them on the ship again, and they came up to me and with tears in their eyes said “Thank you Coen!  You’ve saved our marriage… Thank you so much!  We cannot thank you enough!”

That day, I’ve learnt that you’re never too young, too inexperienced, too inadequate to make a difference in other people.  Just trust in yourself, your knowledge, your practice.

The modern-day leader is not only preoccupied with having to manage tasks, they also have the challenge of providing meaningful leadership to their employees. Everyone is so connected through social media these days, if you don’t invest the time to create the meaningful context for employees to work, they will seek their own.  These five types of stories will work most of the time because they are linked to the innate human desires in everyone to be good human beings.

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