How startup leaders can use storytelling to motivate their teams

Storytelling is a great tool for marketing. But it’s also useful for internal communication

One day, the forest caught on fire, and all of the animals rushed from the forest. As they were watching the forest burn, they saw a hummingbird flying back and forth, from the river to the fire, dropping one drop of water on the fire at a time. The other animals stopped her and asked “hummingbird, what are you doing?” Before returning to her work she responded, “I’m doing the best that I can.”

This simple story is at the heart of our work at Resonate, and it’s one that we reference often. The hummingbird is our logo, and it’s symbolic of how we describe leadership: being proactive in the face of a challenge. This particular story has been repeated so many times in our office that now, when we tell someone she’s “being a hummingbird,” she knows that we are commending her on her initiative, proactivity, and leadership.

At the risk of sounding like another business blogger: stories are incredibly powerful. But they have applications that are much broader than external communications and marketing. If used intentionally and regularly, strategic storytelling can be an important factor in building a strong, motivated, and successful team.

Here are three ways that we use storytelling at Resonate to motivate our team.

Values Alignment

Startup leaders talk often about the importance of values within a company, yet it isn’t as simple as writing them down on a piece of paper. Making values a present force in the culture of the organization requires repetition and demonstration.

At Resonate, we hold quarterly team retreats, and at most of them, we start off the session by talking about values. But we don’t just talk about them in the abstract. Instead, we have each staff member share one or two stories about moments when they were proud of themselves or the team, and then map those proud moments to our values.

Telling stories about when we demonstrated our values makes them more real and present in our minds. This process helps highlight what values we are doing well at achieving, where we are falling short, and opens up a conversation about where we can be more aligned with and committed to our values.

Impact Stories

When we think about impact stories — successful stories of participants and clients who have benefited from our programs — often times we think about sharing them externally as a source of validation for our work. Yet sharing stories of success internally is just as important. Despite the fact that our program is based on storytelling — we teach personal storytelling as a tool to gain confidence and leadership skills — not everyone on the team has a chance to hear those stories in the course of their daily work.

During our team meeting every week, we allocate time for program staff to share about recent workshops with the whole team. Ultimately, the reason that all of us are so excited about what we do is because of the impact we have. So giving the program team time to share stories of participants who have been positively impacted by our work is motivating for the whole team.

Strategic Planning

We went through a strategic planning process last year, and anyone who has done it knows that it’s hard work. There are tons of moving pieces, lots of input from various stakeholders, and at times it can get hard to keep track of where you’re actually headed.

We found it very orienting throughout the process to take time to reflect on our vision for the future — not in an abstract way, but in a very specific, concrete way. Having each staff member tell a story about where they see the organization in 5, 10, or 50 years allowed us time to really dream about what we want our organization to look like. By fitting those stories together into an aspirational reality, we could then work backward toward building out the step-by-step of how to get there.

Ayla Schlosser is the CEO & Cofounder of Resonate, which unlocks the leadership potential of women and girls in Africa.

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