How Leaders Use Story — A TEDx Talk

When I was invited to submit a topic for a TEDx Talk, I knew that I wanted to talk about leadership. Because leadership is all about influencing people, making a meaningful difference for them. And the heart of SagePresence — the reason I fell in love with this business — is that it’s all about giving people more ability to make a difference.

I suppose my interest in this goes back to my experience of my own life. I’m not sure what the source of it was — maybe it was being the youngest of a large family, maybe it was being what experts nowadays would call an anxious child, maybe people around me had control issues — but I never felt like I was in charge of my day, let alone my life. And at the same time, the people that I respected the most not only seemed to be doing exactly what they wanted to be doing, but they also seemed to be making a difference for other people at the same time.

The people that inspired me the most at an early age were writers and entertainers. They were able to get me to care and to feel. And as I got older and most sophisticated, I recognized that the best ones were able to give me something to think about too. They were making art that made a difference to me, and I imagined, to everyone else.

So I began to study art and entertainment. I wrote, and I got into film. And I discovered the give and take that artists deal with: The more of an agenda you have with your art, the more likely you are going to alienate part of your audience. The wider the audience you try to speak to, the blander your work gets. The more you try to speak to one side of an issue, the less able you are to reach people on the other side. The more you explicitly try to make a difference, the clumsier your art gets. The subtler you go, the more covert you could be accused of getting — and the less likely your message gets consciously considered.

The exploration got me to reconsider my goals. What did I really want to do? I recognized I wanted to explicitly make a difference by appealing to people’s conscious minds. To get them to think critically. To inspire people to truly steer their lives.

I’ve come to recognize that Story is the tool that does this. Story is the tool that human beings use to explicitly communicate meaning, both to themselves and to the people around them, and meaning is something most of us are hungry for.

As Story has evolved over the history of mankind, we’ve used it in increasingly sophisticated ways, weaving multiple storylines together and drawing stories out across time. The artistry and craftsmanship and sophistication often obscures the simplicity at the core. I think this is often intentional.

But as I’ve studied it, the fundamentals of story don’t change. So when you have the tools to distill a story down to its fundamentals, you can consciously understand what you’re being told.

And by the same token, when you understand what you’re trying to say, you can use the same fundamental components to design a story. The simpler and more streamlined you make it, the cleaner and more understandable it becomes, and the more able you are to make the difference you want to make to the people you are looking to influence.

All of this is what drove me to put this particular TEDx Talk together.

I hope you like it. Please let me know what you think. And if you deem it worthy, please share it.




  1. Dean Hyers on May 27, 2015 at 11:23 am

    Way to go Pete! I like your story behind the talk and the talk itself. Well done. As complex and interwoven as the human storyline becomes, it the quality of the telling continues to come back to those core basics. Right on.

  2. Donna Borton Chicone on May 27, 2015 at 3:22 pm

    Great job Pete! Loved your message and your delivery! So good to see you again. Best wishes for continued success!

    • Pete Machalek on May 27, 2015 at 3:37 pm

      Thank you, Donna! Of the many presentations I’ve delivered over the years, this was one of my favorites.

  3. Sherry Lewis on May 27, 2015 at 8:42 pm

    Hi Pete,
    I loved taking your week long class in Minneapolis with the innovative presentation styles and enjoyed this presentation on Ted talk. Your clear presentation and good communication comes out in your Ted talk and your teaching. I’m in Washington DC now and think your assistance in story telling helped get me here. I wish you continued success.

    • Pete Machalek on May 27, 2015 at 11:58 pm

      Sherry, it’s so good to hear from you! Congratulations for landing in DC, and thank you for wonderful message! What are you up to out there?

  4. Bob Steblay on May 28, 2015 at 1:31 pm

    As usual, really a good speech. I always like when you tell it like it is and don’t “beat around the bush”. Keep doing what your doing my friend, helping a lot of people.

    The best to you!!

  5. Mike Ososki on May 28, 2015 at 8:09 pm

    Nervous to give your presentation? No need– your clear concise wisdom, well-practiced and honed, confidently shared and helpfully expressed, is high value welcome to a thirsty audience grateful for good knowledge. Another positive splash to cause welcome ripples that echo into our future change for good.

    • Pete Machalek on June 2, 2015 at 9:57 pm

      Thank you for your poetic feedback, Mike!

  6. Greg on May 30, 2015 at 10:17 am

    Congrats Pete! Very nicely done. I too appreciate the simplicity of the message. Thank you for developing the skill to accomplish that.

    • Pete Machalek on June 2, 2015 at 9:56 pm

      Thank you, Greg! As a former poster boy for self-consciousness and awkwardness, I feel like I’m a pretty good testament to the power of practicing what we at SagePresence preach. More than anything, that’s what allowed me to develop the skills.

  7. Scott Baker on June 2, 2015 at 9:06 pm

    I love the concept of communicating through story. I made my living as an actor in television and film, working in LA and NY. I moved back to MN “to get a real job,” but have carried the notion of story telling into every “real job” I’ve had, from insurance to banking. I know my kids are much more moved by my stories than my lectures 🙂 I’ll have to take a deeper look into Sage Presence – I’m fascinated.

    • Pete Machalek on June 2, 2015 at 10:03 pm

      Well done connecting the dots between storytelling, work and life, Scott! So what’s the latest job you’re applying it to?

  8. Scott Baker on June 8, 2015 at 8:19 pm

    Sorry for he lengthy delay in my reply – I did want to give some thought, rather than just write, “BMO Harris Bank.”
    My discovery of impact through story tellingwas in my freshman year of college when I relented to the relentless pressure of a friend who believed I needed to try out for “The Sound of Music.” When my own father, who does not cry, was moved to tears during that show. I realized the disarming power of story. In theater, we refer to it as the “fourth wall,” or the “willing suspension of disbelief,” but I have come to learn that the essence of the power of story lies in the opportunity to navigate past the listener’s natural defences. We all have preconceived notions about the message coming at us; we don’t know or don’t trust the messenger, we have our own agenda that needs to be protected… all these issues, among many others, keep us from taking the message in. We cannot be changed; the process of change cannot begin until we take the message in – “take it to heart.” I will write again later…Scott

  9. Hien Ngo on January 18, 2016 at 3:00 pm

    Thanks so much Pete for your excellent leadership story formula MC – B – M – E.

    • PeteMachalek on January 19, 2016 at 3:44 am

      My pleasure, Hien! I’m so glad you are benefitting from the simple formula! Please let me know if I can help further!

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