The overlooked secret to better teams: tell compelling stories

People love a good story. This is why we read books, watch movies, eavesdrop on conversations, and scroll down our Facebook newsfeeds. And because people love good stories, we should be telling more of them. We’ve already discussed how important this is for agencies, but what about everyone else?

Stories are powerful for almost any organization. Here are some ways that you can enhance your team’s collaborative abilities through the magic of storytelling.

#1 – Use stories to deepen team commitment

One night in 1973, Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx, flew to Las Vegas to gamble. But this wasn’t for his personal gain; instead, he was hoping to help his struggling company pay for the jet fuel needed to keep their business running. Luckily, he ended up winning $27,000 – enough to keep FedEx afloat for another week.

This story was among the many stories referenced in research work done by Northwestern University and the University of California, Berkeley. Per this research, having a compelling story in your company history can inspire commitment and positivity among employees. But the story you need to tell should have a very specific twist. From the paper (emphasis mine):

[C]ounterfactual reflection, or thinking about how origins could have turned out differently, can produce increased feelings of commitment and behaviors aimed at strengthening commitment. Regardless of the target of reflection (company, country, or business contact), and regardless of whether participants were undergraduate or M.B.A. students, reflecting counterfactually on a target’s origins boosted commitment to that target. […] We found that when people reflect counterfactually on the past, they tend to think that the future will take on a more positive trajectory.”

In other words, it’s not enough to tell the story about FedEx’s Fred Smith winning $27,000 in Vegas. To inspire increased commitment and a positive vision of the future, you need to remind people what could have happened had Smith not won that night: FedEx would never have been the courier giant it is today, and the company might not even have registered as a footnote in American business history.

Use this technique
  • Review the history of your organization or your team and look for stories that have a counterfactual narrative embedded in them, and then remind people of that story. Are there some strokes of luck, genius, or inspiration that have allowed your company to survive or thrive? What effects did these positive incidents have on the company? What would have happened if things went the other way? What would the consequences have been? Be mindful of these questions whenever you tell the story.
  • What stories do you tell about your organization? Be more mindful of the anecdotes you relay to others – they may have a greater effect than you think.
#2 – To boost morale, understand inner narratives

Using counterfactual narratives to boost morale doesn’t just hold true for organizations as a whole; it works in an individual level as well. In some cases, it’s not enough to tell people “Think positive!” or “You can do this!” Instead, dig a little deeper and find a story.

According to researchers from the University of Virginia, to make people feel good, here are the stories you should remind them of when they encounter positive or negative events (emphasis mine):

When people think about a negative life event, they feel better if they compare it with an even worse outcome (e.g., “I got a C on the test, but at least I didn’t fail!” Roese, 1994). The present studies show that when people think about a positive life event, they feel better if they imagine how the event might never have happened.”

Use this technique:
  • When working with individuals who struggle with morale, figure out the inner stories they tell themselves. Do they avoid giving themselves due credit for the work they do? Do they focus too much on their failures? What’s their story about the motivations that drive them to work each day? Learning their stories can help you figure out which steps to take next.
#3 – Improve team performance by encouraging shared stories

In psychology, there’s this term called “mental models” – which is jargon for a person’s perception of “how the world works.” Your thought processes, how you perceive your environment, how you see your role and relationships to the other people and things around you. When it comes to doing your job, you have a specific mental model for that, as well as mental models for the other activities and tasks that you tend to do within that job.

In other words, mental models are the stories we tell ourselves about how the world works. And it’s these stories that have an impact on how we perform with a team.

In a study published by the Scandinavian Journal of Trauma, Resuscitation, and Emergency Medicine, researchers found that when the medical staff at a trauma center shared their stories or mental models, they performed better, especially when it came to teamwork. It’s as if the shared stories helped them coordinate more smoothly.

Southwest Airlines does this deliberately for their employees, devoting resources to sharing employee stories across the company. According to Forbes:

“Every week [Southwest CEO] Gary Kelly gives a “shout out”—public praise—to employees who have gone above and beyond to show great customer service. Each month the Southwest Spirit magazine features the story of an employee who has gone above and beyond… [I]nternal corporate videos like this one are filled with real examples and stories to help employees visualize what each step of the purpose looks and feels like.”

Use this technique:
  • Get your team to share their work processes with each other – even if their tasks aren’t completely related. By knowing how every member of the team works, they’d be able to coordinate with and delegate to each other better, especially now that they have the others’ internal processes in mind.
  • Find a way to “officially” share these stories, even if it’s via something as simple as an internal email newsletter. This makes it easier to refer to and remember, since the stories are actually recorded somewhere.
#4 – Motivate people by showing them the fruits of their labor

Perhaps the best perks you can give your employees aren’t “Pizza Fridays” or an office game room – sometimes, all they need to stay motivated is the knowledge that they’ve made a difference to others.

Snagajob, a job search company, understands this well. According to, the company shares “I Got a Job!” stories with their employees, which are true stories from grateful jobseekers who have found employment through the site, giving the Snagajob team an inspiring glimpse into the results of their work.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology showed that employees are often unaware about how their efforts make a difference, yet mere exposure to this information can easily motivate them and enhance their job performance. In one experiment, researcher Adam Grant looked at the performance of fundraising call center workers who read stories from former beneficiaries (those who received scholarships as a result of the fundraising). From the study (emphasis mine):

“[F]undraising callers who read stories about former callers helping to finance student scholarships increased significantly 1 month later in the number of weekly pledges they earned and the amount of weekly donation money they raised. Fundraising callers who read stories about former callers benefiting personally from the job did not change on these performance measures, nor did fundraising callers in a no-treatment control condition.”

In other words, it’s not stories about employee benefits that actually drive motivation and performance, what makes the difference is the stories about the change employees could make in the lives of beneficiaries, clients, or customers.

Use this technique:
  • Find customer stories that show how your organization has solved a problem for them or helped them achieve a goal. Most businesses already have a process in place for getting customer feedback and testimonials, but this is often used for marketing and increasing sales. Just as Snagajob has done, try sending these stories internally to remind your employees of their purpose.
#5 – Use stories to convince others of your ideas

In 1969, the late Fred Rogers (of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) had to testify before the U.S. Senate to defend a $20 million grant for the funding of PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, where Rogers’ show aired. While Rogers did provide a written statement, he did not read it aloud and instead used his finely tuned storytelling abilities to make his case. This video shows how he did it (a transcript of the video can be found here):

As you can see from the video, rather than lecture the senator on facts, Rogers talks about the stories he tells that portray the drama of childhood – whether it’s about getting a haircut, relationships with siblings, and anger in the family. He even recites the lyrics to one of his songs at the end of his speech.

“I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the 20 million dollars,” the senator said in response.

What exactly happened here? How was a single man able to sway a major decision without being argumentative and without stating any facts and figures?

This is where “transportation” comes in. According to research done by psychologists Melanie Green and Timothy Brock, transportation is the “mechanism whereby narratives can affect beliefs.” It’s what happens when you’re reading a good book, watching an engrossing movie, or listening to your friend tell you an engaging story. All your mental energy and focus becomes directed to the events of the narrative.

And when that happens, our beliefs tend to shift to become more in tune with the conclusions of the story. In further studies by Green, it doesn’t even matter if you label a story as fact or fiction, transportation can still occur as long as the story is well-crafted.

Use this technique:
  • The next time you’re in a conflict or if you need help changing someone’s mind, try using storytelling techniques to make your case. Sure, you should still make the facts available, but if you’re able to tell a story that successfully transports people, it will be easier for them to understand the case you’re trying to make.
We owe it to each other…

The author Neil Gaiman once wrote, “We owe it to each other to tell stories.” This is true not just because stories are beautiful and entertaining, but also because stories are the best vehicle we have for communicating complicated ideas, inciting change, fostering camaraderie, and staying memorable. So the next time you have to say anything important to your team, try the exercises above and say it with a story.

Post by Celine Roque

Celine Roque is an independent author and marketer focused on entrepreneurship, marketing, and creative work. Her writing has appeared in Gigaom and The Content Strategist.