Stories Are the Best Way to Inspire & Motivate

Stories are the best way to inspire and motivate. I was coaching an executive with the Gap. He needed to inspire action and commitment. I first asked him to tell me about himself. He said,“I’m a newly promoted vice president and this is my first speech to the company since my promotion.”

The Power of a Presentation

I asked, “Who is your audience?” He replied, “All of the Gap executives and 500 Gap managers.” I asked, “Well, what does a Gap manager look like?” He said, “24 to 28 years old.” I said,

“Ed, remember, you are a 45-year old, prematurely silver-haired executive. How long are you going to speak?” He said, “Eight minutes.” I said, “No pressure, but you do realize that in that eight minutes all the executives and 500 Gap managers are going to think either, ‘Now I know why he got promoted,’ or, ‘In a company this size, couldn’t we have done better?’ That’s the power of a presentation.”

I asked, “What is your subject?” He said, “I have to talk about the program in which our employees give us ideas that will either make or save the company money. I need to inspire them to participate.”

Your Opening

My next question was, “Where are you on the program?” He said, “10:45, after the coffee break.” I said, “There are two words you must not use to open your presentation. In fact, if you do, I’ll come out of the crowd, get on stage, and slap you.”

What two words that you hear too often at conferences or company meetings? “Good morning.” If you’re on at 10:45 in the morning, and everyone is delivering eight or ten-minute presentations, there have been several speakers on the program before you, and chances are most of them started with “Good morning.”

“Good morning,” is appropriate for the MC who first opens the program. However, if you’re following other speakers, it’s too predictable and boring. I told him, “What I want you to do is walk on stage and say, ‘We are here to talk about heroes.’ This is important as it will arouse interest in your subject. You will have the most interesting presentation opening of the entire meeting.”

Stories, Not Statistics, Inspire Your Audience

Then Ed gave me a page of statistics. I said, “Ed, numbers can be numbing. To inspire, tell the story behind the statistics.” After this, he called the HR department to research stories. One of my favorites was about a guy who worked in the mailroom. One day he realized he was sending eight FedEx packets to the same location with the same item inside, a company publication.

He called the manager sending them out. He asked, “Does it matter if I combine them and add a note telling the other end to distribute?” It was okay. He walked over to the other guys in the department and said, “Guys, if you find you’re sending multiple items to one location, at least see if you can combine them with a note to distribute. After all, we own stock in The Gap. We don’t own stock in FedEx.” That one idea saved The Gap $200,000.

My next coaching advice was, “Ed, next you need to answer the audience’s unasked questions. ‘What did you do with the money?’ This is where you make your statistics sexy. $200,000 is 17 miles of shelving. It is another jean size we haven’t designed. It’s another month of The Gap rocks, The Gap swings, The Gap jives commercials.”

I continued, “Your audience will also be wondering, ‘So, if you use my idea, what’s in it for me?’ Then you tell them about the cash rewards, and as you walk out you play David Bowie’s “Heroes.”

The fact that my brother played on David Bowie’s “Heroes” has absolutely nothing to do with my adding it in every possible presentation.


My next question was, “Ed, do you have any kids at home?” He said, “Yes, I have an eight-year-old daughter.” I suggested, “What I want you to do is sit down with her and say, ‘Daddy’s going to tell you some stories about some interesting people he works with.’” If you can keep the attention of your eight-year-old daughter, it’s possible to keep the attention of 500 young Gap managers. Practice your stories on your children.

I said, “Ed, I want you to be so good that every time your daughter hears you come in, she runs over and says, ‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, tell me some more stories about those interesting people you work with.’” If you’re going to speak in front of 500 Gap managers and all the executives, you need to practice and rehearse so that you can have fun. After all, Oscar winner Michael Caine’s advice is, “Rehearsal is the work, performance is the relaxation.”


I was there to see Ed walk on stage and begin by saying, “We’re here to talk about heroes.”

Everybody laughed. I didn’t know they would laugh. He didn’t know they would laugh, but he had enough sense to wait. You must always respond as if you anticipated your audience’s reaction. If you keep talking while they’re laughing, you will program your audience not to laugh.

Then Ed continued, “We are here to talk about heroes. They may be sitting in front of you, they may be sitting behind you. They may even be you in the trenches, Gap heroes.” I saw 500 Gap managers sit up, sit forward, and pay attention.

You should not be surprised to know that Ed was the first executive on stage in that meeting to receive a standing ovation.

Stories to Inspire & Motivate

The secret to telling stories that inspire and motivate is to populate your stories with flesh and blood characters. Choose characters your audience can relate to.

Remember, when you speak to an audience and do it well, your audience is actually larger than the people gathered in the room. This is because your audience will share your stories with others if you’ve designed them to be worth retelling.

Stories are a simple and great way to explain a complex idea or situation. Stories can inspire and motivate. Give your audience models to show them how ordinary people doing their jobs can make an extraordinary difference.

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