It’s down to the final minutes of the 1995 Rugby World Cup Championship match.
To everyone’s surprise, the South Africa Springboks are ahead of the New Zealand All Blacks.
The fans in the stands are swaying from side-to-side as they sing Shosholoza, “go forward.”
The captain speaks to his team:
Look in my eyes.
Do you hear? Listen to your country.
Defense, defense, defense.
This is it!
This is our destiny!
People want to be part of a bigger story
In the movie Invictus, newly elected President Mandela knows that post-apartheid South Africa needs to unite as one country.
He works with Francois Pienaar, the team captain of the Springboks national rugby team, to unite South Africa around the Springboks and Rugby World Cup tournament.
He creates a story that both whites and blacks can rally behind. It’s the story of a sports team, a tournament, and overwhelming odds.
In that moment when Pienaar speaks to his team, the fans in the stands and the players on the field know they are part of a story that is much bigger than themselves. “Do you hear? Listen to your country!”
Mandela crafted a compelling story for South Africans. The story moved them and they wanted to become a part of it.
Craft a compelling story of your work and your team
In his series on the Dos and Don’ts of SaaS, Joel York encourages software companies to craft a compelling story. It’s not so different from the story Mandela created for South Africans. Your story may not be on the scale of national destiny, but it can still be a great story.
Look at it this way. You have devoted your professional life and your organization to the solution of a particular problem. It’s a problem that your buyers share with you. It presents a big challenge to all of you. It’s important to solve this problem. Otherwise, why are you spending your life working on it?
Joel York: “Great stories have legs. They can be recast, repurposed, reinterpreted and remembered.”
How do you craft a compelling story?
Robert McKee explains that you have two ways to persuade people.
One is conventional rhetoric. It’s intellectual. You build your case. You use facts, statistics, and proof.
The second way to persuade people unites an idea with an emotion. In a story you weave together both information and you arouse their emotions and energy.
McKee says that a story expresses how life changes. It begins with a situation. Then an inciting incident. After which the story describes how the protagonist tries to restore balance. But the protagonist’s subjective expectations keep crashing into an “uncooperative objective reality.” Time after time after time.
“All great storytellers since the dawn of time – from the ancient Greeks through Shakespeare and up to the present day–have dealt with this fundamental conflict between subjective expectation and cruel reality.”
“But most companies and executives sweep the dirty laundry, the difficulties, the antagonists, and the struggle under the carpet. They prefer to present a rosy – and boring – picture to the world. But as a storyteller, you want to position the problems in the foreground and then show how you’ve overcome them.”
The first power of stories: people actively simulate stories in their minds; they learn how to act
Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick explain that our brains engage with a story differently than they do with abstract information.
When we hear a story, we simulate it in our minds. We engage with the story. We are not passive.
Why does simulation work? Because when we simulate in our mind, we evoke the same parts of the brain that are evoked in real physical activity.
The visualizations focus on the sequence of the events themselves, not the outcomes. Unlike when you communicate abstract ideas, when you tell a story your audience engages and recreates the story for themselves.
Mental simulation is a powerful way that our brains use to solve problems and to build skills. “Mental simulation is not as good as actually doing something, but it’s the next best thing. And to circle back to the world of sticky ideas, what we’re suggesting is that the right kind of story is, effectively, a simulation.”
When you tell your story, the brains in your audience begin simulating and practicing your story in their minds. They actively engage in learning.
This is the role that stories play — putting knowledge into a framework that is more lifelike, more true to our day-to-day existence. More like a flight simulator. Being the audience for a story isn’t so passive, after all. Inside, we’re getting ready to act.
The second power of stories: they provide inspiration to act
The Heath brothers go on to say that inspiration provides the second payoff from stories. And inspiration drives action.
Is there a pattern to inspirational stories? Are there common plots that you can use to craft a compelling story about your software company?
Chip and Dan Heath reviewed hundreds of stories that “uplift, motivate, and energize” to look for common story patterns.
They concluded that inspirational stories have three basic plots: the Challenge plot, the Connection plot, and the Creativity plot.
- The Challenge plot. The classic David and Goliath story. The key element is that the obstacles seem daunting to the protagonist. Challenge plots inspire us by appealing to our perseverance and courage. They inspire us to act.
- The Connection plot. Heath used the good Samaritan story to illustrate the connection plot. It’s about “people who develop a relationship that bridges a gap — racial, class, ethnic, religious, demographic, or otherwise.” Another example is the Mean Joe Green commercial with the young, white kid. They are from different worlds, but the Coke brings them together. Connection plots “inspire us in social ways. They make us want to help others, be more tolerant of others, work with others, love others.”
- The Creativity plot. This plot “involves someone making a mental breakthrough, solving a long-standing puzzle, or attacking a problem in an innovative way. It’s the MacGyver plot.” Heath uses the famous explorer Shackleton as an example of the creativity plot. He couldn’t risk a mutiny among his men, so he would put all the whiners and complainers in his tent. By keeping them close, he lowered the risk that their complaining would discourage the other men. A creative solution.
You can use any of these plots to craft your story, but you are most likely to succeed if you start with the Challenge Plot.
Craft a story that teaches and inspires
The power of your company’s story is twofold. It simulates solving the problem that you and your buyers want to fix. It teaches people how to act.
Second, it inspires them with the challenges you have overcome.
Both of these benefits are geared toward motivating people to change their behavior. When you craft a compelling story, you can make people act.