Make It Visual – "Story-Boarding" the Future for Your Fully Engaged Team

Companies live a never-ending story: “I’ve got to re-engage my teams.” And there are two never-ending problems in the way:

  1. Engagement wears off and people slide back into the comfort of routine.
  2. The bar keeps rising and competitors with more motivation fight their way up.

How do you achieve higher motivation when staff already knows you’re going to try to entice them to work harder? Everyone’s trying to find their “orbit” and find comfort in a “new normal.” Not everybody is up for yet another climb.

SagePresence wants you to leverage the power of story to engage your team. An article I recently read put story in a new light for me personally, which I’ll share in a moment. 

In my experience, inspiration is the new motivation, and influence is the only true leadership. Story is the key to both.

Leadership isn’t about bosses and reports. Making someone else do something because you’re higher on the totem pole isn’t leadership, it’s just authority. True leaders win the hearts and minds of people, inspiring them to get behind a vision (an end state) and a mission (an approach to getting there).

Story is one of the core power-sources of influence, because story does four simple things.

  1. Story gets you to lock in on a main character your audience cares about.
  2. Story establishes a not-so-happy beginning state that the main character is in.
  3. Story establishes a happier-ending state that the main character would rather be in.
  4. Story prescribes a set of actions in the middle that would change the beginning into the end.

If you’re asking yourself, “How can I possibly get my team to feel the way I do?” then you have #1 (Main Character) wrong. You need to put yourself aside and make the people you want to influence the main character. What not-so-happy beginning are they in? What happier-ending situation do they want to be in? How can the actions you want help them get there?

That’s the secret of story power. The action can be what you want, but the situational change has to be what they want.

It’s your job as a leader to connect the dots between what they want and the actions you want them to take. You don’t need them to care about what you care about. You have to start caring about what they care about, and ask yourself how the actions and behaviors you want from your team can help them get to a happier ending they would value.

I just read an article about how Petco leaders achieved 100% engagement from their stores in a brand-differentiating customer experience which would only gain them market-share if it was universally embraced. As I was reading, a new level of story power hit me like a brick – going from story to story-boards to better visualize the journey of words.

As a filmmaker, I’ve made lots of storyboards. They’re little drawings that let you see the story with your eyes, much like a comic book that steps you through the string of movie scenes and shots. But since SagePresence has spent so much time working with speakers, my tendency has been to focus on bringing story structure to the spoken message, and draw my clients away from their tendency to hide within their presentations as the narrator of a PowerPoint.

With that emphasis, I’ve spent more time painting a picture with the structure behind the words, and less time painting the picture with pictures.

Then I read this: “Petco developed three learning map modules that painted a picture through drawings and illustrations, metaphors and questions on the proposed future state of the company.” I thought, “This is story structure, and they’re telling it visually.”

As distant as the content below may be from your annual meeting speech, this comic strip expresses all four parts of story structure in 3 visuals. I’ve never seen nor heard of this comic strip before, but even as I rapidly scrolled through my google image-search window (scanning for “3-frame comic strips”), this one stood out from a hundred others because all four story components were instantly visible.


Visual stories show a negative BEGINNING, a MIDDLE action, and a happier ENDING, for a Main Character

To harness story-power, you have to see the simple, complete story. You can use more than three visuals to tell it, but spot the simple story first, and then elaborate. Let’s break this comic story down:

  • The Main Character is a group which happens to be a mix of Aliens and Humans. (It’s a “we” story.)
  • We are fighting. That’s our not-so-happy Beginning, a situation that prevails until…
  • An action occurs in the Middle. We recognize we’re all tired of fighting, creating a change to…
  • happier Ending where we find a new state of love and acceptance of each other.

The storytelling brilliance of this comic strip goes beyond its simplicity to the way it captures emotion.

  • The Beginning frame unveils the feelings around the troublesome situation. I see fear and anger.
  • In the Middle frame, the action (again, recognition) brings sentimental tears and relief.
  • The Ending bursts with joy.

Emotions take story from situational progression to an experience of change. If you try to visualize a story, pay attention to what your images say about the feelings around the beginning and ending situations. In contrast to the alien comic, look at the following strip and ask yourself if the visuals communicate the experience of change or not. (I blurred out the text so you have only the visuals to cue from.)

Visuals require emotional cues to create an experience of change.

Visuals require emotional cues to create an experience of change. Without feelings, there’s only information.

Clearly this comic strip has a Beginning, a Middle action, and an Ending, but we can’t tell if it’s good, bad, or something else. These visuals speak to a “flat” experience – no change at all.

With good story structure, and visuals that help you capture the emotional experience of change, you can influence your team.

Your team members are already motivated, and their motivation ties to the situations they’re in now that they don’t like, and what’s possible for them that they’d really like better. If you can help them get from where they are now to where they want to be using the action you want them to take, you can inspire them to embrace your desired action.

Being inspirational is a lot like being a magnet. A magnet doesn’t contain any magnetic energy. If you take them into space, magnets don’t stick to anything. What they’re doing on Earth is harnessing the magnetic power that’s all around them.

Motivational speakers don’t carry motivation around in their pockets. They harness the motivational power that’s all around them.

Motivation resides in the people you’re talking to, so use story structure to inspire it out of them. In short, apply your middle (action or information) to bridge the gap between where your team is and where they’d rather be. If you can help them grasp that the action you want is their ticket to the place they want to be, the motivation will surface.

Words will help them grasp the thought, and visuals can help them see it. Please share with us how you have used visuals to inspire your teams. Have you reflected the full story in a simple visual way?

Tell us what you’ve done, or try it and tell us what happens.

And don’t forget to contact us for a free lunch-and-learn so we can share the power of story with your team in person, and check out our products page for a copy of our best-selling book and supporting products that leverage story power to your team’s success!


  1. Greg on January 17, 2013 at 10:24 am

    Thank you thank you thank you! Very very good. The thought that true leaders produce leaders kept ringing in my ears as I read this. Just posted internally here at work. Have a great day!

    • Dean on January 18, 2013 at 10:42 am

      And a double thank you back! 1) That was one healthy string of thank you’s for one sentence, so YAY! 2) I greatly value your forwarding the post internally. We blog to help others, and that feels like help coming back. So thanksX2, Greg!

  2. Jean on January 17, 2013 at 10:58 am

    This reminds me of visioning boards that individuals use. What a great way to engage a group toward their goals!

    • Dean on January 18, 2013 at 10:51 am

      That’s funny, Jean. I’ve never seen visioning boards but I can imagine what they must be. A side effect of spinning into coaching, training, and speaking as an accidental offshoot of the film career is that I don’t always realize what’s new or not within the field. I’ll explore vision boards further and see if I can clarify the nuances a filmmaker may bring to the equation and to learn what results have been produced in individuals. In a way, both a company and an individual are “single entities” (certainly “legal entities”), so perhaps similar results can be obtained. Thanks!

  3. Linda on January 19, 2013 at 8:58 am

    Love this post Dean! Your use of examples makes it easy for the reader to understand the value in story-boarding. I have been involved in healthcare quality improvement for over a decade and story-boarding has been utilized to show the positive effects of process improvement–current process isn’t achieving the desired results, actions to improve, positive goal related outcomes. Since about 65% of people are visual learners, what better way to get a point across than a storyboard.

    • Dean on January 24, 2013 at 11:40 pm

      Thanks, Linda. I’d love to see examples of the kinds of storyboards you would have used (or similar examples). If you know of any online, drop us a link.

      We’ve done hand-drawn storyboards in coaching to capture the not-so-happy now, the happier ending our client was going for, and the action in the middle our client landed on as the “vehicle” for their journey, but those personal scribbles probably don’t live up to whatever you used in your past work.

      Thanks also for the stat on the % of visual learners. That’s useful and compelling.

  4. Rathii on January 28, 2013 at 12:05 am

    I am completely on board with the notion of story-telling to motivate, uplift and even entertain in what can seem like a dreary activity or environment. Stories are essential in the workplace – it creates a sense of emotional authenticity rather than telling people what to do. I lead a team of highly capable specialists who are a group of very intelligent and talented young individuals. It is so important for me to keep them enthused about what they do and I find that story telling and even drawing out certain things whether it’s on a board or a piece of paper gets the idea to be much stickier than just telling them what needs to be done. It gives back the responsibility to the person you are talking to and they own that power when they form their own conclusions based on the storyline. With story telling, you are showing, rather than telling. And we all know showing gets the job done much faster and most importantly WAY more fun.

    • Dean Hyers on February 1, 2013 at 6:57 pm

      I’m glad to hear the way you use story with high-end specialists, Rathii. Sounds like you found a combination of “show and tell” that really gets your ideas across. I find that sometimes the more sophisticated the group the more we just “assume” they’ll understand, and as you point out, reaching people on multiple levels and senses is important at any level of sophistication. Stay with us, Rathii and we hope to hear from you more!

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