CEOs tell stories all the time. Great CEOs are consistent in the stories they tell, framing their companies’ core narratives to connect authentically with different audiences.
The first step to becoming a powerful storytelling CEO is to understand and master three key stories about your company: the numbers story, the vision story and the bridge story.
1. The numbers story contextualizes data.
Data is ubiquitous, but, by itself, it's meaningless.
People often glaze over when you start talking about numbers. And when you’re deep into Excel and PowerPoint, they glaze over even faster. CEOs need to extract key data points and trends to make their numbers story visible.
A numbers story contextualizes data. It gives meaning to the numbers by identifying trends and showing what the predicted outcomes are for the company.
Related: The 5 Elements of Storytelling
Stepping into the shoes of the greatest storyteller in history, Apple CEO Tim Cook confidently asserts his authority by bringing company data to life through storytelling.
Cook’s most recent keynote reflected over 40 years of the company through visuals that made sense of milestones and what they meant for consumers and the company. Though packed with numbers, Cook’s hour-long speech followed a classic narrative framework - the Freytag Pyramid -- and even looked ahead into the future.
2. The vision story describes the future.
This is perhaps the most important story that every leader needs to tell.
It's the palpable story of what the future looks like. The leader takes people to the future by making it true in the present. The vision story is bigger than goal setting and much more compelling than projecting business outcomes. The vision story is the story you tell employees, investors, advisors, and yourself to generate creativity and belief in the present.
Recently, I listened to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta. That speech has thunder and lightning because it is so specific about what the vision looks like, sounds like and feels like for all Americans. This vision story will resonate until that day we make the dream a reality.
3. The bridge story shares proof of your success.
The bridge story is similar to the vision story in many ways.
It makes the vision story real for your audience by citing past successes as proof that the vision is attainable. This is where the key work of business-building and storytelling come together. It’s where you connect what the business has done in the past and where you will take it in the future.
The bridge story shows that people can count on you and your company by sharing specific moments of proof.
Take a look at Kathryn Minshew’s recent bridge story about raising a $16 million series B round for The Muse.
Minshew explains that the company didn’t need the funding, which is a great way to say “I’ve got this under control, but when an investor of strong caliber and aligned values showed interest, it made sense to join forces.”
In just a few sentences, Minshew creates a bridge to the future, explaining that the new funding will be used to expand to more cities, and build out a new line of services, such as Coach Connect.
CEOs who are master storytellers interweave these three key types of stories with slightly different versions for each audience - customers, team, investors and advisors -- while looking to both the past and the future.
Look again at Cook’s Apple keynote. It’s as if the world is asking: “Tim, can Apple keep innovating without Steve Jobs?”
Using a past portfolio of innovations from Apple, and a nod forward to the new building, where Apple will host its annual meeting next year, Cook deftly paints a picture of a promising future. One that is forward-leaning and within Apple’s reach.
Through storytelling, Cook calmly asserts, “Yes, you can count on Apple (and me) to keep it up. I’ve mastered it all, even the master’s delight in storytelling.”