It began with a question. A small boy begging in the streets of India. “What do you want most in the world?”

“A pencil,” he replied.

I reached into my backpack, handed him my pencil, and watched as a wave of possibility washed over him.

A smile erupted and his eyes brightened. I then saw the profound power and promise brought through something as small as a giving a pencil to just one child.


Those 74 words from Adam Braun are the foundation of Pencils of Promise, an organization that’s built over 300 schools worldwide and educated nearly 35,000 students since 2009.

“This only works for non-profits,” you might say.

Jason Fried would disagree.


It all started back in 2003. Back then we were a web design firm. Companies hired us to re-design and simplify their web site.

Business was great and we were busy. But we were disorganized. With so many concurrent projects, things began to slip through the cracks.

Projects dragged on too long. We dropped the ball on key deliverables. We had some major miscommunication (“Wait, who said that? We did? When? Where?”).

Back then, we relied on email for everything. Email’s great for many things. But it’s not great for long-running projects. Things get lost, people get left out of conversations, there’s nowhere to go to see what’s left to do. Know what I mean?

So we started looking for a project management tool. We needed something to help us communicate ideas, organize the work to be done, and present work to stakeholders. Simple as that.

We tried a few tools, but they were complicated and too hard to use. So we slowly slipped back to using our old standby – email. Our problems continued.

Frustrated, we decided to build our own simple project management app. A few months later we had something ready. We started using this tool with our existing clients.

Immediately projects ran better! We regained the sense of order and calmness we’d been craving. And clients noticed – they really appreciated the improved communication and organization.

Then our clients started asking us what software we were using to run these projects. Turns out they wanted to use it for their own in-house projects!

Hey, maybe we’ve got a product here! So we polished it up, priced it fairly, and put it on the market. On February 5th, 2004, Basecamp was born.

We announced it on our blog. Within a month, we had about a hundred paying customers. Hundreds more followed. Within a year, Basecamp was generating more income for us than our web design business.


Is Basecamp the only project management tool out there? Not a chance. There are hundreds. But it’s the one with the best story (and perhaps the healthiest profits).

As Nancy Duarte teaches us, “stories are the most powerful delivery tool for information, more powerful and enduring than any other art form.”

When we listen to a story, the chemicals in our body change, and our mind becomes transfixed. Stories link one person’s heart to another. Values, beliefs, and norms become intertwined. When this happens, your idea can more readily manifest as reality in their minds.

It takes discipline to be a great communicator – it’s a skill that will bring a big payoff to you personally and to your organization.

So, when should you use stories in your organization?

Anytime you need to influence someone or illustrate a concept. Here are three examples to get you started.

Recognize a team member.

Every week, we gather the whole team together for about 10 minutes. We celebrate birthdays, review our internal report cards, and share examples of excellence. As we award our Excellence bracelets, we share the story of how they were earned. Not only does it make the recognition more meaningful than a simple “good job,” it gives other team members ideas of how they can choose excellence.

(For another great example, watch this clip from Tony Hsieh of Zappos. Far more powerful than simply saying that they expect great customer service.)

Share the vision and values.

If you’ve flown Southwest Airlines, you’ve experienced this example. Their vision is, “We exist to connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel.” But that’s just the beginning.

This Forbes profile explains more: Storytelling is the single most effective way to remind employees of the company’s purpose and to reinforce the purpose in their day-to-day interactions with customers. Every week Gary Kelly gives a “shout out”—public praise—to employees who have gone above and beyond to show great customer service. Each month the Southwest Spirit magazine features the story of an employee who has gone above and beyond. Southwest highlights positive behaviors through a variety of recognition programs and awards.  Finally, internal corporate videos like this one are filled with real examples and stories to help employees visualize what each step of the purpose looks and feels like.

Explain your beliefs and priorities.

Back to Duarte. “If you’re like many professionals, using stories to create emotional appeal feels unnatural because it requires showing at least some degree of vulnerability to people you don’t personally know all that well. Telling a personal story can be especially daunting because great personal stories have a conflict or complication that exposes your humanness or flaws. But these are also the stories that have the most inherent power to change others. People enjoy following a leader who has survived personal challenges and can share her narrative of struggle and victory (or defeat) comfortably.”

I decided to try this at our last company Christmas party. I wanted our teams to understand that our commitment to being an excellent place to work was more than lip service. I was terrified of being so open with my background and struggles, but I felt that they needed to understand why it was something I was passionate about.

I shared my back story, warts and all. I shared what it felt like to get a raise when minimum wage went up from $4.75 to $5.15, and that I never wanted anyone on my team to experience that. I shared the experience of giving birth to my daughter on Medicaid and WIC, of later having thousands of dollars of medical bills when I was ill without coverage, and how I remembered the day that I was able to provide health insurance for myself and my family. I shared that for me, jobs weren’t just a paycheck, they were a ladder to climb out of difficult life situations. And that we were serious about providing those opportunities here.

Ready to get started?

My favorite resource is Nancy Duarte’s book Resonate. It walks us step-by-step through different types of communications, verbal and visual. (Seriously. If you’re a leader, this book should be within arms’ reach.)

One of the templates I reference often is how to “Turn Information into Stories.” The framework is brilliant. Here’s a snapshot of the beginning. You can see how simple it is to use.

story template

Another great reference is Lead With a Story by Paul Smith. In addition to dozens of helpful stories, Smith shares seven elements to make an average story great.

  1. Start with the context. (the why)
  2. Use metaphors and analogies.
  3. Appeal to emotion.
  4. Keep it tangible and concrete. (avoid being vague or business-speak)
  5. Include a surprise.
  6. Be concise and to the point.
  7. Create a scene or event for the audience to participate in.

And if you’re ready for some practice, Toastmasters is an excellent place to get some reps in with a supportive audience.

Now, go tell your story. It matters.


photo credit: flickr/minnellium