Real Leaders

Use These Centuries-old Storytelling Techniques to Become a Better Leader

At its essence, communication is storytelling. And when the goal of communication is to persuade, the simple matter is that the person who tells the best story wins.

In 1949, Professor Joseph Campbell outlined the basics of story throughout history. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he laid out patterns that recur in mythology throughout time and across cultures. He referred to the summation of these patterns as the “monomyth.”

The monomyth is a basic and widely applicable story model. A hero is called to go on an adventure, meets helpers, surmounts obstacles, solves a crisis or wins a contest, and usually comes home transformed. We see this basic structure again and again, in everything from Homer’s Odyssey to The Wizard of Oz to Black Panther. These are stories that keep us rapt, fully engage us, and satisfy us in the end.

And you can apply their structure to your communication needs.

The Call to Adventure

What is the adventure of the story you want to communicate? Before you can craft a message, you need to know what you hope to accomplish. You need a SOCO—a Single Overarching Communications Outcome, or an intention for your communication.

The Colorado Education Association (CEA) needed to get the message out that education was vastly underfunded in the state. Teachers could not afford to live in the communities where they teach. In 2020, teachers in Colorado, who make significantly less than the national average, could go to any other state in America and have a better standard of living. There were stories of teachers having to live in their cars. The goal of our messaging was, of course, more funding.

The Hero

In the story we decided to tell for the CEA, the hero would not be the teacher. To get your audience invested in your story, you need the right hero, someone they can relate to and unabashedly root for.

You might think that in a political campaign, for example, the hero would be the candidate, but it’s not. In fact, the hero is the voter. When people pull the lever for an issue or a candidate, they should view themselves as the questing hero and the candidate as the ship who will sail them safely across turbulent waters.

So it was with the students in Colorado and the lack of funding for education. In crafting our message, we made the hero the students—voters’ sons and daughters, corporations’ future employees—who were embarking on their own adventure of education and successful lives. We focused on how underfunded schools (with leaky roofs, outdated textbooks, etc.) were impacting the classroom and causing real harm to students. And through the students, we could come to teachers’ aid, pointing out that teachers who earn more are likely to stay in the profession longer, meaning better student outcomes.

The Helpers

 In advertising campaigns, the brand might be the hero, although it’s more likely (perhaps more effectively) the helper. In an advertising campaign for a facial cream, for example, the hero would be the person questing for dewy skin and the helper would be the cream. For a muscle car, the hero would be the driver questing for image while the car provides the horsepower.

In the CEA campaign, we needed the help of educators and the public to pressure the legislature. We needed to bring them into our story. The media was also a helper. As attention to the issue increased, we placed 150 stories and were included in national coverage of education funding, drawing eyes from around the country.

The obstacle or contest: While the regularly hosted CEA lobby days in January 2018 drew a lackluster response (obstacle—did people really care?), something else was happening out in the rest of the country: Educators were talking about striking. This stirred Colorado’s teachers to consider the same. Over the next few months, the monthly lobby days snowballed as more and more people showed up. The “Days of Action” became major rallies, with all the logistics and headaches that entails. We were suddenly riding the wave of a full-scale social movement. All told, over several months, about 17,000 Colorado educators had rallied.

The Transformation

We accomplished a lot in this campaign. In the following legislative session, the School Finance Act increased average per-pupil investment by $475, including $150 million in the K-12 budget. This was a significant long-term funding achievement. We had moved education to the top of the public agenda to get the crucial attention it needed amidst the other issues competing for funding — such as transportation, prisons, parks, and agriculture — addressed in over 500 bills per legislative session.

Telling a story that your audience can relate to, sympathize with and participate in can help ensure that your message gets across, leading to some version of happily ever after.

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