“The greatest delivery system for any idea is a story.”[i] But there is a difference between good stories and effective stories. Good stories will hold people’s attention, but effective stories inspire action.
Effective stories work because they have the intended effect on your audience. What are those effects? Did we trigger them? Did your story do its job? To answer these questions, you must be able to answer three precursor questions that get increasingly tough to answer.
- Who is your story for?
- What is it for?
- How will you know if it is working?
Crafting your school’s brand story is an accepted foundation of articulating your brand: who you are, what you promise and your intent and ability to fulfil on that promise. Helping schools with their brand story has been part of imageseven’s Message Architecture Program for well over a decade.[i] But we agree with author and speaker Jay Acunzo, who believes you need to build a collection of go-to stories that can be used anywhere at a moment’s notice. In designing this collection, you can move from telling a good story to being an effective storyteller.
Your story collection should have six different types of stories, all on standby and ready to do the hard work of motivating action and challenging the status quo.
Story type 1: The brand story
At the top of the story pyramid is your brand story. It’s the big mission of your school. Your unique narrative that permeates and informs everything you do. This is your school’s story at its most macro level, and while it may vary a little as you fine-tune it to different audiences and situations, there is still only one brand story you need to have.
A proven model for crafting your brand story is summarised by Donald Miller: “A character who wants something encounters a problem before they can get it. At the peak of their despair, a guide steps into their lives, gives them a plan and calls them to action. That action helps them avoid failure and ends in success.” [i]
What is your school’s brand story? Is there an agreed version or are there many diverging stories? Can you and your senior team, confidently and without notice, tell your school’s brand story?
Story type 2: The personal story
This story type is similar to your school’s brand story, but it’s just about you. A fundamental building block of your school’s brand is your intent and ability to fulfil on your school’s brand promise. Current and prospective parents and staff will look to you for evidence that you can fulfil on that promise and that you intend to do so. Your personal story is the substantiation they seek.
This seeking for evidence will often appear as questions like, “How did you get here?” and “Tell me about yourself.” But personal stories often devolve into a bland listing of positions held and the schools where you have worked. That’s boring! Your career has been a fascinating journey with significant lightbulb moments, deep insights that have changed your trajectory and mentors who have had a profound impact. Tell that story about yourself. It’s really worth listening to.
Story type 3: Personal anecdotes
Your personal anecdotes are stories of particular moments that are your personal experiences. You craft and use personal anecdotes to draw attention to certain points or to teach specific lessons that your more holistic personal story would not achieve as effectively. They help you make more targeted points than your personal story and they also serve to substantiate you — or your school — as worthy of support.
It is tempting to stop developing your catalogue of stories after mastering these three types. After all, these are effective tools. But to stop there you deprive yourself of the ‘power tools’ of storytelling. Up to here, your catalogue contains a limited number of stories, however there are so many other worthy, useful and effective stories that you can tell. They are just not about you.
Usually, personal stories are easy to tell. After all, you were there and they are your story. Next level storytellers develop the ability to coopt any story. They can tell stories about others with the same craftsmanship and enthusiasm as if it were a story about their own personal experience. This opens up a world of possibilities and allows our use of story to become even more effective.
Story type 4: Lead stories
Lead stories aren’t about you. You aren’t even present in them. But to your audience, it feels like you were right there when it happened.
When somebody asks you the inevitable question, “Who has done this?” — you will have the answer. Lead stories are particularly useful in telling your audience, “I have the vision for you. Here is what it looks like when that vision becomes reality.”
Not only are lead stories not about you, but you are also unlikely to be the first person to tell them. You may have heard it at a conference, read it in a journal, seen it at another school or heard it on a podcast. You then edit out the unimportant details and expand others with additional research. You emphasise key points of relevance and tune your language to your audience. Now nobody tells the story in the way that you do, and you’ve made the story your own.
Jay Acunzo believes telling lead stories inspires action more effectively than telling personal stories, because you evolve beyond using your own experience as a proof point. When you find a good story and then build it into an effective one, lead stories become the crown jewels of the entire collection. It is on you as the storyteller to stop your audience thinking about what it looked like when you did it and start sharing what it looks like when people like them do it.
Story type 5: Supporting anecdotes
Supporting anecdotes are like your personal anecdotes, but they are about other schools and other people. They are your preparation for the next inevitable question, “How do we do this?” Typically, they are more focused on teaching specific lessons, answering specific questions or teaching specific parts of your educational philosophy, methodology or process.
Story type 6: The sceptics’ story
Some of your audience will be sceptical. There are always sceptics who don’t get your point or don’t want to get it. The sceptics’ story begins with a person or school who was sceptical. This may not need a new story of its own if one you have previously developed for your catalogue already contained a cynic, disbeliever, doubter or questioner. These stories usually work best when presented as a perspective to consider rather than irrefutable proof of your point.
So, develop your school’s brand story, craft your personal story and some supporting anecdotes, then search for stories that are not yours but that can be told with the enthusiasm as if they were … and don’t forget the sceptics.
Six types of stories, each with a purpose, becoming one powerful collection of stories to motivate action and challenge the status quo.
It’s your mission. It’s your school brand. Tell it well.
- Stories are an effective delivery system for an idea.
- Stories should motivate and inspire action.
- Heads should have all six types of stories in their collection.
[i] Aaron Sorkin and Leigh Sales Talk Drama and Politics, 1 June 2022, Vivid Sydney, Australia.
[i] smj podcast 2022, episode 101: ‘The three foundational building blocks of a robust school marketing system’, podcast, imageseven, 3 June 2022, bit.ly/3QB8Brn
[i] Miller D 2018, Building a Story Brand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen, HarperCollins Leadership, United States, page 20.