How to Structure Your Leadership Stories for Maximum Impact

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While there are numerous story structures that go by different names, if you were to boil them down to their most essential elements, you would have a story structure along the lines of what I call “The MORAL Framework.”

The idea behind this framework is that any story you tell in business environments should have a clear moral—that is, a lesson or key takeaway—that you want to drive home to your audience.

But in order to set up that lesson so that your audience will be ready to hear it, you need to craft a story that:

  • Creates tension to trigger the release of cortisol that grabs the audience’s attention.

  • Brings resolution to trigger the release of oxytocin that causes them to feel empathy and root for the hero—as the audience becomes emotionally invested in the story’s outcome.

(To dig deeper into the neuroscience of storytelling, see my article “How Stories Move Hearts and (Literally) Change Minds in Sales Presentations.”)

But how do you accomplish those two objectives in a business story?

That’s where the MORAL Framework can help. Here’s what the framework looks like using MORAL as an acrostic:

Mission: What does the hero want?

The hero is on a mission because they want something—to protect their family, achieve a goal, win a race, discover the “Lost Ark,” etc.

Opposition: What’s standing in the hero’s way?

The hero encounters a challenge that threatens to keep them from fulfilling their mission. This is the part of the story where you create the tension that triggers cortisol that grabs the reader’s attention.

Resolution: How does the hero counter the opposition?

The hero confronts the challenge in a way that will either succeed or fail. This is where you continue to build up the tension and then relieve it, triggering the release of oxytocin.

Assessment: What are the results?

So, what’s the outcome? Did the hero fulfill the mission or fall short?

Lesson: What lesson does this story drive home?

Any story you tell, especially in a business setting, should have point. This is where you explicitly state that point—the MORAL of your story.

Application: The Sun & the Wind

So, how do you use the MORAL framework in a business setting?

Let’s say I want to tell you a story that illustrates the power of storytelling to open minds and reduce resistance from the people you’re trying to reach.

One story that comes to mind is a fable by the ancient Greek storyteller, Aesop, called “The Sun and the Wind” that offers a powerful lesson for us today. And it goes like this...

As the Sun and the Wind were debating who was the stronger force, the Sun noticed a traveler walking along the road below them.

And, right then, the Sun got the idea of how he and the Wind could settle the “who’s the best” matter once and for all.

He pointed to the traveler and offered this proposal to the Wind: “Whichever one of us can get that man to take off his jacket will be considered the Winner.”

The Wind—assuming he had the upper hand—agreed and went first.

But as he put his power on full display, something very interesting happened. While the Wind's strength grew in intensity, so did the traveler's resistance.

As a result, instead of getting the man to take off his jacket, the Wind's force caused the man to cling to his coat even tighter, refusing to let it go, until eventually, the Wind gave up.

Then it was the Sun's turn.

He emerged from behind the clouds and quietly focused his heat on the man.

At first, nothing appeared to be happening. But then a drop of sweat trickled down the man's forehead. And then another and another, until the traveler was sweating profusely.

And what do you do when you’re wearing a jacket and start feeling really hot?

You take it off, right?

And that’s what the man did. A few seconds later, he willingly took off his coat.

So, what’s the lesson here for us as entrepreneurs?

When it comes to working with people—employees, clients, investors—the subtle art of influence (like what the Sun employed) is more powerful than direct force (like the Wind).

And storytelling is the ultimate tool for building the influence you need to overcome resistance and make your communications more memorable and impactful.

Breaking It Down

How does the Sun & Wind story fit within the MORAL Framework? Here’s what the breakdown looks like, with my raw notes/ talking points for each section.

Mission: What does the hero want?

The Sun wants to settle the debate of “Who’s the Greatest” once and for all.

Opposition: What’s standing in the hero’s way?

The Wind stands in the Sun’s way.

Resolution: How does the hero counter the opposition?

The Sun came up with an idea—a competition. Whoever can get the traveler to take off his jacket will be the winner.

Assessment: What are the results?

The Wind should have the advantage. But as the story plays out, the Wind’s strength actually backfires. The Sun’s strength, while less dramatic, proves to be more effective. The Sun wins the competition.

Lesson: What lesson does this story drive home?

When it comes to working with people—employees, clients, investors—the subtle art of influence (like what the Sun employed) is more powerful than direct force (like the Wind). And storytelling is the ultimate tool for building the influence you need to overcome resistance and make your communications more memorable and impactful.

The Bottom Line

The MORAL Framework helps you organize your thoughts and keep your story concise—so that you say only what you need to say to get your point across.

Sean M. Lyden is CEO of Lyden Communications LLC, a Strategy and Storytelling consultancy that helps entrepreneurs tap into the power of story to grow their business.

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