Southwest Airlines, one of the most popular airlines in the country, started on the back of a napkin. Herb Kelleher, the former CEO, famously scribbled the business model on a cocktail napkin, and eventually the airline transcended startup status to become a massive corporation.
There were many reasons for the company’s success throughout the years, but one important factor was the use of storytelling to elevate the personal brand behind it. The anecdote about Southwest Airlines’ genesis is one that proves that the biggest ideas can start in the smallest, most unlikely places—and Kelleher’s personal brand made a huge impact on the company.
Storytelling isn’t the cornerstone of leadership, but it often enables leaders to connect with an audience in ways normal forms of communication fall short. CEOs like Kelleher, Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines and Steve Jobs of Apple are known for the ease with which they tell stories (or convert message opportunities into memorable interviews and teachable moments).
Personal brands can use stories to distill potentially complex issues down to digestible, relatable ways to draw a connection with the audience. Associating a name or product with positive, familiar imagery is just the type of strategy that helps it connect on a broader level. Leaders who use their own stories to build their personal following can have the same effect.
Related: Market Yourself
Make sure your story sticks.
Communication—from staff meetings to public speaking platforms—is all about the art of getting your message across. The best storytelling transcends previously built barriers and connects with the audience on multiple levels. When used effectively, it will become a major asset to your personal brand.
Harnessing the magic of a well-told story is a tough line to toe. Use these four tactics to ensure storytelling is something your brand can use to its advantage:
1. Make sure you and the story are authentic.
Whether you’re the protagonist, antagonist or just a supporting player, you should always be a storyteller. Never make yourself the whole story. The storyline and message must always be clear and delivered earnestly with no gratuitous commercialization or unnecessary distractions.
For example, Kelleher has an unusual personality, but that was never the center of his brand. The message was how he defined the business’s safety culture and encouraged a positive work environment.
He concentrated on the people who worked for him, the ability they possessed to do their jobs and how supportive he was of their decisions. This message, one of a considerate, caring work environment, is one Kelleher and Southwest can call back to in order to continue positioning the airline as one that takes the needs of its employees and customers to heart.
2. Riveting, invigorating messages are key.
Whether you like to use humor, irony, empirical evidence or any other technique to color your message, make sure it connects with your intended target audience. Branson, for example, used playfulness and good humor when presenting Virgin’s projects. He preferred a “cheeky” approach, one that not only distinguished him from his competition, but also trickled down into the public perception of his brands.
If a leader’s personal brand is built around interesting, entrancing backstories and messages, the public will have an easier time connecting with him and his professional brand.
Converting a regular message into a captivating one means engaging the audience from start to finish. Have the message come alive through your story, and enable the audience to feel as if they are a part of it.
3. Stay focused on the storyline.
Short is better than long, simple is better than complicated and less is always more. It’s been said a million times and the same holds true with stories. Don’t wander in the story and don’t add irrelevant details.
Remember why you’re telling the story in the first place. Richard Branson’s consistent use of his unique personality was one of the keys to the strong performance of his brand. In every way, his company demonstrates the same good humor that he possesses—a trait customers associate not only with Branson, but also with Virgin.
4. Be memorable without all the gimmicks.
Metaphors are great, but don’t simply offer them up for the sake of symbolism. Comparisons are delightful when they are relevant and plausible, but they should always improve the message, not distract from it.
There’s a reason Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech is still referenced more than a decade after its deliverance. He understood that an authentic personal brand stems from what makes someone unique, using the metaphor of a person’s inner voice to represent that.
He encouraged students to pursue whatever it is that makes them stand out and build their success upon it. Brand building works similarly. Using a unique story or connection to evoke a positive feeling in your audience can keep your brand top of mind.
Kelleher, Branson and Jobs all delighted audiences with storytelling and were memorable because of their uniqueness, their personal brands. In each case, the result was a successful company with a strong relationship to its customers.
Stefan Swanepoel is the chairman and CEO of the Swanepoel T3 Group. Swanepoel is a New York Times best-selling author; a business, leadership and motivational speaker; and a real estate trends strategist. The T3 Group operates T3 Sixty, a management consulting company that provides extensive research, strategic analysis, and business innovation to facilitate better management decisions in the real estate industry.