Storytelling secrets of 10 great leaders

Storytelling secrets of Bill Gates

In a busy market, getting your company’s story to the attention of potential customers can be challenging. In new book The Storyteller’s Secret Carmine Gallo reveals techniques used by stellar leaders to get their message across. Director took a sneak peek…

With the average internet user bombarded by the equivalent of 174 newspapers of data every day, it’s little wonder that our hunter-gatherer brains are finding it difficult keeping up. To stand out amid the maelstrom of messages, the need for businesses to craft a concise, coherent and convincing story is more important than ever before. Here’s a selection of the famous leaders Carmine Gallo examines in his new book, and the storytelling lessons you could learn from them.

Storytelling secrets of Steve Jobs1. Steve Jobs, Apple founder

Storytelling secret: Being passionate
Jobs’s candid 2005 “stay hungry, stay foolish” commencement address to Stanford University graduates racked up 20 million YouTube views. The entire text is now embedded in Pages, the Apple Mac’s word processing application.

What you can learn Share the passion that motivates you.

JK Rowling's storytelling secrets2. JK Rowling, author

Storytelling secret: Structure
In her 2008 Harvard commencement speech, Rowling adhered to a triumvirate-led construction for her story, comprising: 1) a ‘trigger event’ (chronicling her jobless, single parent years) 2) details of an epochal transformation (writing Harry Potter) and 3) the life lesson she learnt (“You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity”).

What you can learn Craft your own personal legend, highlighting any struggles you’ve encountered.

Storytelling secrets of Howard Schultz3. Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO, Starbucks

Storytelling secret: Repetition
By retelling the story of discovering espresso culture on a work trip to Italy as a Starbucks employee in 1983 Schultz helped boost the company’s sophisticated coffee-drinking credentials. Another favoured speech motif is repeatedly linking Starbucks’ famed CSR with the tale of his nappy-deliveryman father being badly treated by his company when he broke his ankle.

What you can learn Summon any personal experiences or events that inspired your company, repeating it until it becomes embedded into your company folklore.

Storytelling secrets of Bill Gates4. Bill Gates, Microsoft founder

Storytelling secret: Surprise
In a 2009 TED talk on malaria, Gates opened a glass jar of mosquitoes, letting them fly around the auditorium. “There’s no reason only poor people should have the experience,” he told the stunned crowd.

What you can learn Shock your audiences with well-timed stunts, plot twists, and by trampling on their expectations.

Storytelling secrets of Sara Blakely5. Sara Blakely, founder, Spanx

Storytelling secret: Focusing on a challenge
By repeatedly regaling audiences with the story of how she cut the feet from a pair of tights to create body-sculpting undergarments, Blakely drove forward a revolution in lingerie and created a$1bn (£690m) fortune.

What you can learn Teleport listeners into your world: give them challenges they can identify with.

Storytelling secrets of Sir Ken Robinson6. Sir Ken Robinson, education expert

Storytelling secret: Humour.
Robinson’s 2006 “Do Schools Kill Creativity” speech is still the most popular TED talk of all time. Peppering his speech with killer gags, his speech is almost like stand-up comedy. At two laughs a minute, the speech was funnier than the movie Anchorman (1.6 laughs a minute). “If they’re laughing, they’re listening,” noted Robinson wisely.

What you can learn If you’ve got serious stories to tell, try lacing them with humour.

Storytelling secrets of Sir Richard Branson7. Sir Richard Branson, founder, Virgin Group

Storytelling secret: Simplicity Branson developed the art of a business pitch at boarding school when selling his student magazine to sponsors via a payphone. “Dyslexia shaped my – and Virgin’s – communication style,” Branson said. “Virgin used clear, ordinary language. If I could quickly understand a concept, it was good to go.”

What you can learn Succinctness. As Branson says: “If something can’t be explained on the back of an envelope, it’s rubbish.”

Storytelling secrets of Pope Francis8. Pope Francis

Storytelling secret: The ‘rule of three’ The pontiff’s Jesuit training taught him that the human brain can remember things set in triplets easier. “Man has disfigured natural beauty with social structures that perpetuate poverty, ignorance and corruption,” he told six million people at an outdoor mass in Manila last year.

What you can learn Three is the magic number – a strong rhetorical device used since Aristotle.

Storytelling secrets of Chris Hadifled9. Chris Hadfield, astronaut

Storytelling secret:
The Canadian spaceman’s TED talk “What I Learned From Going Blind in Space” received a standing ovation. Its pièce de résistance was his PowerPoint deck of 35 slides of photos illustrating the terrifying incident when his eyes stopped working in the middle of a spacewalk. It’s backed up by neuroscience too: photos are easier to recall than words – studies have shown people can remember more than 2,500 pictures with 90 per cent accuracy for several days after.

What you can learn Strong visual images (or even using vivid analogies) are perfect for creating a scintillating story.

Storytelling secrets of Sheryl Sandberg10. Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer, Facebook

Storytelling secret: Emotion over data At the 2010 TEDWomen Conference, Sandberg ditched the data she’d prepared in favour of homilies about her three-year-old daughter clinging to her leg before she flew to the summit, along with the difficulties of women getting into leadership. The speech went viral, and Sandberg eventually wrote a book (2013’s Lean In) about the stories she received from women who were inspired by the talk.

What you can learn Don’t give listeners too much data – EQ (emotional quotient) is stronger.

More on storytelling

The Storyteller’s Secret by Carmine Gallo (Pan Macmillan) is out now, priced £12.99 

Watch Carmine Gallo talk about how entrepreneurs share their brand story on his YouTube channel


About author

Christian Koch

Christian Koch

Alongside his work for Director, Christian has written features for the Evening Standard, The Guardian, Sunday Times Style, The Independent, Q, Cosmopolitan, Stylist, ShortList and Glamour in an eclectic career which has seen him interview everybody from Mariah Carey to Michael Douglas through to Richard Branson with newspaper assignments including reporting on the Japanese tsunami and living with an Italian cult.

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