When business leaders start building their business storytelling skills it can help a lot to see how other business leaders tell business stories.
Here are 9 examples from some of the world’s top business leaders who purposely and systematically share stories to help their message to stick. You might like to review our guide to spotting stories so the stories leap out of the videos for you.
Steve Jobs – TV media interview
Many leaders think they just don’t have time to tell a story, especially when they are doing a media interview. Steve Job shows us this is not the case and jumps straight into a story when he says, “We went into retail about 5 years ago …”
This doesn’t look like a polished story, which adds to its impact: it’s not spin, it’s just what happened. But notice how we learn about the success of the old Apple store, the risk they took with an underground location (reinforcing their rule breaker image of Apple) and the emphasise they put on design.
Barack Obama – out on the hustings
This is the first of two clips of Barack Obama telling the same story to two different audiences. It’s useful to see how stories morph depending on when and where they are told.
In this first telling we see Obama out on the campaign trail drumming up support for his candidacy. This story is the last thing he says in his speech. It’s designed to spur action.
Barack Obama – the stadium
In this telling of the Greenwood, South Carolina story, Obama is in a stadium. His die hard supporters know the story but they are keen to hear it again. There is a back and forth communication with the audience, a call and response.
Obama starts the story by saying, “It shows you the importance of one voice …” We call this a relevance statement. He is telling us why we should be interested in his story. It’s one simple sentence. Then he launches right into the story.
Notice how he paints pictures for us:
- I open up the shades on my window and its pouring with rain.
- I open up the paper and there is a bad story in the New York Times.
- She was wearing a church hat.
Stories are more powerful if we can see them happening, so be specific. And they will have even more impact if we can feel them happening, when they have emotion.
Ed Catmull – speech to Stanford University
Ed Catmull is the President of Pixar. He has an engineering background. He’s a computer scientist who has successfully built and leads a multi-billion dollar business. I think this example of storytelling illustrates how a quiet and unassuming leader can tell impactful stories.
Catmull’s speech is all about the challenges he has faced at Pixar. This is a great topic for storytelling because people love to hear when things went wrong and how they were fixed.
He starts his talk by posing two questions, both couched in stories.
The first is a broad story about how computer graphics companies who had once lead the industry made catastrophic mistakes despite being told that they were about to make them. Catmull wants to know, how do I avoid these mistakes?
At 8:15 in the clip he tells a story of how his production managers had become second class citizens. He was dismayed that he didn’t see it coming.
Cutmull pinpointed the crux of the problem. “We had confused the organisational structure with the communication structure … Communication needs to be able to happen with anybody at any time.”
The theme of A-team vs B-team repeats at 14:27 when Catmull tells us what happens when you have one team creating a high quality movie for cinema release and the other is doing a straight to DVD release. Another tricky problem to solve.
Recovery from the A- vs B-team problem required starting Toy Story 2 over from scratch and they worked brutally hard to do it. And just so we understood just how hard, Catmull tells the anecdote about how a husband and wife team at Pixar left their baby in the car in the summer heat rushing to work (it was close but the baby was OK).
At 26:10 we learn about post-mortems and gaming the system. Great story with the lessons of why it’s important to do post-mortems differently each time.
He finishes with a story (29:18) about how we get complacent in business. At Pixar they say, “It’s the story that counts” but then discovered everyone says that. “Once you can distill an idea into a concise statement you then can use that statement without having to worry about behaviour change.” It becomes a dead idea.
John Kerry – all staff meeting
Here the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, is addressing his department for the first time and he tells a terrific connection story that says he has an understanding of the diplomatic world (I’m a bit like you) and that he shares their values. Jump to 13:40 for the story.
Howard Schultz – talk at a business conference
Howard Schultz is the CEO and Founder of Starbucks. His talk is all about the company’s remarkable turnaround.
Schultz kicks off with the story of the leaked memo (13.10) which was the harbinger of the difficulties they were about to face.
At 17:35 he tells the story of growing up in Brooklyn, a personal story showing what drives him and why Starbucks provides, to this day, comprehensive health insurance to all employees.
After realising Stabucks had lost the passion for making great coffee, he tells us about closing all US stores (24:10) for retraining 115,000 people. The beginning of the recovery.
Schultz then tell is how he gets all the store managers together (11,000 people) at a cost $32 million to inspire action (26:22 – 32:32).
Warren Buffet – talk to MBA class
This is a short clip which shows Warren Buffet sharing a hypothetical situation (a story) to get the MBA students to really think about leadership. The story is an analogy for leadership, selecting stock in companies and how to live a good life.
Indra Nooyi – media chat
Indra Nooyi is the Chairperson and CEO of PepsiCo. In this clip she tells some specific and personal anecdotes about her family life that give us insights into her character and helps humanise the CEO role.
Steve Jobs – commencement speech
Stories featured in so many of Steve Jobs presentations and media appearances. He definitely understood how to purposely and systematically tell a story to influence, engage and inspire action.
This commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005 has had 18 million views on YouTube. In it Jobs tells three personal stories and begins with the words:
“I want to tell you three stories from my life. No big deal. Just three stories.”
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on: