At Facebook, Don Faul and his team faced one of the more goliath tasks anyone in tech has ever faced. It was his job, as VP of Online Operations, to ensure a good experience for the site’s hundreds of millions of users — including responding to reports of abuse, flagged content, and other bad experiences. This boiled down to supporting his intrepid team members — sometimes spending entire days dealing with the toughest of human issues — to do their best work and stay motivated against overwhelming odds. The skill that made the critical difference: Being able to tell good stories.
It’s not something that came naturally to him either. He had spent the first five years of his career as a Platoon Commander in the U.S. Marine Corps. — an environment that didn’t exactly encourage emotional vulnerability. It was only through his work at Google and then especially Facebook where the importance of empathy and admitting failure took hold, and he poured hours of practice into relaying his experiences to inspire others.
“Whenever I meet with new leaders, I always talk about their responsibility to inspire people — to tap into that intrinsic motivation to be there and work hard,” says Faul. “We’re fortunate to work in an industry where meaningful work is getting done, and people badly want their work to be meaningful. Stories connect the two. It’s the skill every leader needs to learn.”
In this exclusive article, Faul shares the nuts and bolts tactics of influential storytelling he’s learned at Google, Facebook and as Head of Operations at Pinterest (he’s the first to admit he’s still learning) — and the three types of stories every manager and startup founder should be able to tell fluently.
WHAT MAKES STARTUP STORIES WORK
No one will give you money or agree to work for you if you’re bad at storytelling. Every pitch — whether it’s to a VC or a sales prospect — is a story, and the best ones have compelling narrative arcs that connect listeners to a higher purpose, says Faul. Today, he’s the COO of performance sportswear maker Athos, and this is critical to building the company every day. The number one factor for success: Enthusiasm.
Can you raise the hair on the backs of people's arms? Inspiring confidence is all in your delivery.
In most cases, a story succeeds when you connect a smaller idea or action to something bigger — a purpose, a movement, an emotion. This is how you get people to follow you on a journey, whether they're a customer following you through your product, or an employee agreeing to grueling startup hours to be a part of your vision. This skill becomes essential as soon as you have even one employee, says Faul. It’s your responsibility to keep them connected to the dream of what you’re building together — through the hardest of times. You have to look at it as an integral part of your job, just as or even more important than your product, engineering or design skills.
THE LEVERS OF GOOD STORYTELLING
Connecting to Mission
The undercurrent of every story you tell as a manager has to be your company’s purpose. At Facebook, Faul felt that his job managing the user operations team started with the organization’s drive the connect the world in positive ways. He knew a thread had to run directly from this central company purpose to every single individual on the team. Every person had to be able to relate to the company’s purpose, and their work had to have a clear and understandable impact on this purpose. In many cases, especially as companies grow, this becomes less and less clear. People’s work becomes increasingly narrow and niche. Stories are vital for clarifying ties between people’s every day and the long-term objective.
“People’s intrinsic motivation comes from feeling that they're doing something important. Their work moves people. It powers a vital part of the company,” says Faul. “Every single place I have been, there have been difficult times and tapping into this drive was the most important reason we retained talent and made it through. When I was in the Marines, we had a lot of unimaginably hard days. The leadership had to make us feel confident that our work, and therefore our commitment to the work, mattered.”
In addition to underscoring purpose, good stories evoke emotion — real, raw human emotion.
What happens in those moments where you feel yourself on the edge of crying? Or you feel your heart expand? Or you smile involuntarily with joy?
“In these moments, really think about what is happening to trigger these feelings. How can you create experience with this type of resonance in the lives of your employees?" Faul says. "When people look at their work through the lens of human emotion, everything changes and they better understand the gravity and importance of their work.”
He often tells managers on his team that he wants every single person to feel excited to talk about their work at weekend parties and after-work cocktails — because what they’re doing is meaningful. When you look at the anatomy of this feeling, it’s a combination of pride, conviction and happiness. What events and behaviors cause you to experience these emotions? Perhaps it’s overcoming an obstacle, expressing genuine gratitude for a teammate, appreciating high-quality work. When these things happens at your company, you can double down on the impact by pausing and reiterating what just happened. Really take time to soak it in and celebrate it. If you don't, your team won't. Everyone's default is to move on to what's next.
Remember also that people attach emotion to individuals. They love rooting for people. They love experiencing the world through others’ eyes. The more you can tell stories about actual people that connect to the broader purpose, the more your audience will feel and not simply hear what you are trying to tell them. For example, you might highlight the work of one team member in particular, and explain how it nudged the entire company closer to an important metric. You might emphasize the level of craftsmanship they brought to their work, how they assisted a teammate in need, how their depth of belief in the company led to something incredible. When you talk about the genuine feelings one person has, you’re leveraging social proof to help others reach the same emotional place.
Being in Service
Practice will make all the difference to the quality of stories you tell. Faul remembers when he first started focusing on storytelling at Google, he often came off as dry and not very inspiring. He had to invest hours and hours in becoming an a natural at narrative. But he couldn’t have done this without finding his own drive — and that came from being in service to the people he was managing.
The people in my life who tell stories that give others the chills — they work harder than anyone I've ever known to do it. They practice hundreds, not just dozens, of hours.
“I firmly believe that leaders at companies need to be in service to their people. They need to ensure they have everything they need to succeed,” says Faul. “One of the most critical needs they have is a complete picture of why they should show up and pour their heart into their work every day. It’s not a nice to have, it’s a basic need.”
If you’re having trouble prioritizing storytelling at your company, he recommends reframing the skill in this way. It’s a service you’re rendering to your employees — more important than lunch catering or great equipment. Give it the time that level of importance merits.
Putting Yourself in Their Place
Your employees will be energized by any story that shows that you’ve been where they are before, and that you — as their leader — understand their experience, says Faul. This is true for a host of reasons. They want to know that the people shaping strategy and making decisions see the impact it will have on people. They want to know they’re on the same path to success. They want to be able to feel safe and heard and valued. The more you can make it clear that you’ve been in their shoes, facing the types of challenges they face, the more effective you will be.
This means really inhabiting and feeling the frustrations, fears, stress and disappointment that your team encounters along the way. These aren’t positive emotions. They’re hard to weather and relive. As a manager, it’s easy to want to be teflon, to have all the answers, to seem effortlessly successful (and therefore credible). But real credibility comes from accepting how hard things really are and providing a roadmap for others to survive and grow stronger from similar challenges.
“At Facebook, I worked for a guy named Dan Rose who was really, really good at this,” says Faul. “In 2012, we faced a number of tricky situations and Dan would tell us stories about his time at Amazon and similar struggles he faced there. He was open about having the same anxiety we were all feeling at the time. Because he shared that so freely, we trusted him when he explained how he’d navigated through those tough times. It gave people a level of comfort that we’d find a way to work through it.”
By empathizing and making himself vulnerable to criticism, Rose built trust and confidence. It feels counterintuitive to let down your guard. You think it will have the opposite effect, but you have to lean into that tension and discomfort. As much as you can, you have to put yourself in the place of the people on your team so you can authentically relate.
When asked about the best leaders he’s ever observed, Faul immediately cites General James Mattis, who replaced David Petraeus as head of United States Central Command. He recalls one particularly cold, harrowing night in Afghanistan when the Marines needed to defend an airfield in the middle of hostile territory. The general spent hours standing a post side-by-side with a 17-year-old soldier, talking to him to understand what his experience in the Marines had been like, how he was feeling, how things could be better. Here was a man in charge of all of the forces in the region, and he made it his business to fully comprehend the life of one soldier, Faul says.
Obviously, running a tech startup is different, but the principles of good leadership are strikingly similar. If you don’t have a past experience you can use to connect to your team’s current plight, get familiar with what’s happening for them now. Listen to their stories, so you can eventually tell one that will speak to people and make them feel seen.
This degree of empathy is closely tied to the first of three different types of stories Faul believes every manager should tell frequently and deliver compellingly. Read on to learn how to develop each of these narratives and tell them in a way that moves people.
#1 THE FAILURE STORY
“Being vulnerable is one of the most powerful things you can do as a leader because it shows you’re genuine. Being genuine builds trust. Trust is the key to getting anything done,” says Faul. “If you’re willing to tell everyone on your team about your mistakes, your shortcomings, what you’re currently working on to get better, you seem more human. It’s easier for people to connect with you. They have an easier time believing what you say, and that you’re taking their wellbeing into account.”
It also gives people permission to take bigger risks in their own work. If your team knows about times you tried to do something and failed, they will also see that you recovered and went on to succeed. They won’t feel hard-pressed to be perfect or place small bets so they always win. When you’re at a startup, you can’t afford to play it this safe.
“At Facebook, Sheryl [Sandberg] used to talk very publicly and encourage other leaders at the company to talk very publicly about things they tried that didn’t work and what they learned from it,” says Faul. “She would tell specific stories about the smartest people she knew, how they had stumbled, and how they had worked through failure. The way she told these stories, the people were very real to us. The feelings they experienced when they failed were very real. But the idea that the company was learning and moving forward was also very real. She made it clear these experiences were the foundation of Facebook’s culture and something to take pride in.”
Faul remembers when he first started leading people in the Marines, being vulnerable was very difficult for him in the same way it’s hard for many new tech managers. “You don’t want to show any sign of weakness because you want to convince everyone — maybe mostly yourself — that you’re there for a reason, you’re not a fraud, you don’t have any doubts,” he says.
His attitude toward vulnerability and sharing failure didn’t start changing until he arrived at Facebook and saw the example set by Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg. Now he feels responsible for modeling this approach to the managers on his own team. It’s one of the most powerful ways to pass these skills along to more people and strengthen your entire organization.
I saw firsthand the way my relationship with people changed once I started talking about mistakes. The entire environment of my team changed. Everyone started sharing more openly.
One of the key failure stories Faul shares draws his time at Pinterest. Early on, he worked on major projects related to the company’s culture. “I know there were many pieces of this I approached the wrong way. I made some bad decisions, including one that didn’t get the response we wanted at all inside the company — it just didn’t land,” he says. “It was my first big, visible failure as an executive, and I knew it reflected poorly on me. I had to work through that, acknowledge the failure, apologize for it, discuss it over and over again. It was incredibly hard for me to do.”
Instead of sweeping the episode under the rug, he now tells this story again and again. Whenever his team confronts a similar situation or makes a mistake, he recalls it. Because the truth is, he did get through it. His team at Pinterest not only survived but went on to other successes. Knowing that recovery is possible on this level generates productive psychological safety for everyone involved.
There’s another story in this genre Faul tells, that almost everyone working at a startup will relate to at some point. After he was at Facebook for a while, Sandberg — his manager at the time — hired someone new to take over a large part of his job. “This was honestly one of the hardest moments in my career — one of those big moments where I felt like a failure, like I wasn’t moving forward,” he says. “When we talked, she told me that it was because the company was scaling and this is a normal function of scale. Now I can see it was 100% the right decision, but at the time it felt awful.”
Fault’s told this story 100 times, he says, to make it clear to people on his team that this is something even the best employees will go through at fast-growing companies. It’s important that he admits the depth of the emotion he felt, and even that he questioned what was happening and doubted himself. Because this is what he knows people he manages will experience.
“I can tell people, ‘I’ve been through this and I legitimately know that you’re going to make it through this and be fine, be better, do more,’” he says. “Now I have three or four stories over the course of my career like this that I tell to soften these hard moments for the people I work with and give them the confidence to endure and stay excited.”
Being vulnerable doesn't weaken your authority. It strengthens everyone else around you.
Let’s say you’re new to management, new to storytelling, and uncomfortable with being this open. If this is the case, start small, Faul says. For instance, if you’re a founder, and being vulnerable with your whole company feels impossible, start by being open with just one of your first employees. The more people you try to reach this way initially, the more pressure you will feel, and it can break you.
You want to get some success under your belt. Open up to just one person, or two people you really trust. See how they respond and how it changes their work style and ethic. Chances are, you’ll get a positive reaction, he says. Plus, it will give you a chance to strike your own balance between vulnerability and confidence. You don’t want to share messy, doubting, fearful emotions without some resolution. Don’t leave people scared about the direction and future of the team or the company. Instead, use vulnerability to fuel your conviction in the path you’re charting now.
The second tactic for nailing failure stories: Choose your words carefully in advance. “When I feel people getting worried around me or not taking the big risks, or trying to rebound from a mistake, the first thing I do is sit down and write out the story I want to tell them,” says Faul. “It’s so important that I find the right language that will make it clear I know what their feeling and that there’s a solution. I’ll even practice with my wife. I don’t think people should expect to be good at this spontaneously. And it’s so important to get right.”
When he prepares what he wants to share, he always asks: Is my message clear? Is it simple? Does it evoke emotion? Is it the type of story that members of your team will tell your friends in a conversation about why they love their job or the company? The answers all have to be yes.
#2 THE GOOD EXAMPLE STORY
One of the best stories to encourage great work, behavior, actions, etc. is a story exalting an individual has exemplified these traits.
“Stories are incredible tools for reinforcing the quality of work you want to do or the type of behavior you want people to exhibit,” says Faul. “Especially when you’re trying to help your team live the company’s cultural values, giving them lots of rich examples of people doing it already makes a huge difference.”
For instance, Faul has continually noticed how hard it is for people to offer feedback to managers, particularly those a couple tiers higher in the organization. As a result, leaders often get the least amount of constructive advice for improvement, when they should probably receive the most. People are afraid. They’re intimidated. They don’t want to offend or burn bridges. Telling people it’s important to offer this feedback isn’t enough. The only thing he’s seen work is telling stories that champion this behavior.
“At Facebook, there was a well known story about an intern who, when given the chance to ask a question of a top executive, offered constructive feedback about a television interview the person had recently given,” says Faul. “That story has been told now dozens of times to show how important it is to speak your mind if you think leaders can get better. To show that that type of courage — to say something difficult to help boost performance — will be rewarded.”
You want good example stories to become part of company lore. This is how values truly become the fabric of your startup — not by posting them on the walls or repeating them during an all hands. “There are now thousands of Facebook employees who can probably tell you some version of the intern story,” says Faul.
Repetition is your key to success here. Even if people memorize your mission, vision, value statements — they probably won’t internalize them. Stories about other people living these words are the best way to make them meaningful.
“At Pinterest, CEO Ben Silbermann did this extremely well,” he says. “He would start every all hands meeting with a customer story — a different customer every time — and how different people within the org had made success happen for the company and that customer. He’s always deliberate and crystal clear. Everyone got to see our mission and the way we want to work in action through these stories every other week.”
Getting good at this is vital for early stage companies. There’s so much going on, so many needs, so much fast action required, that communication ends up being very ad hoc and fragile. It’s easy for people to lose track of what’s going on, company priorities, why the work is important. Telling stories about people doing good work that maps to your highest priorities will align everyone around what they should be doing.
This solves another common issue too. “Most startups don’t spend nearly enough time recognizing people,” says Faul. “Most people need to know their managers and org leaders see their hard work and value it. They’re hungry for this type of acknowledgment. When you tell a story about them, you kick their motivation into hyperdrive, and you make them a model for the rest of the team to follow their lead.”
One of the best ways to build a good example story is to slowly zoom out. Faul gives customer operations as an example. Perhaps a support team member had an incredible win and saved an account for the company. You’d start by explaining what this person did objectively and what they achieved. Then you use what they did to explain why the customer support function is so invaluable to your company strategy. From there, you can talk about the level of service you want to provide company-wide and what this looks like. And finally, you can touch on how this will power the overarching mission.
Another example: Instead of telling everyone how important it is to hit deadlines, or castigating a team over a missed deadline, you can take every opportunity to acknowledge the people who excel on time. You can use their experience to explain why timely work is so important, what it makes possible for customers, how it changes the way the company is perceived, and how it helps everyone deliver on the promise they’ve made to the market.
With one narrative, you can fuel a top employee, set a positive example for an entire functional area, underscore company values, and connect the work of individuals to the bigger picture. This is what makes the good example story indispensable. It’s incredibly versatile and effective.
“You have to treat things like quality and discipline as core competencies your organization needs to win,” says Faul. “At Athos, we’re trying to build the most sophisticated strength and conditioning training system on the planet. To do this, we need everyone to know how high-quality our products are and how aspirational our brand must be. If we can’t get this across, it won’t matter how good our product actually is. So everyone needs to be pushing for this all the time.”
The stories he and his fellow executives tell are about people who believe every tiny detail matters and act accordingly. The people who are immediately responsive over email to customers. The people who think through more graceful packaging solutions. The person who decided to use a certain color thread in Athos' garments to give them their premium look and feel. These stories get told repeatedly over email and in meetings, until everyone automatically connects these actions to the long-term vision of the company.
#3 THE INSPIRATIONAL STORY
That connection between individual employees and the broader purpose of your organization is very delicate and one of the first things that breaks during scale if you’re not very careful. Inspirational stories serve as the glue making sure these separations don’t happen. As a founder, it’s important that you not only invest in telling these stories, but also in your managers learning and being able to do it too.
Telling an effective inspiring story starts with psychologizing your audience — and, to an extent, building an audience you know will be receptive to your message. For instance, at Athos, Faul knows that employees are passionate about athleticism, about helping athletes achieve better performance. Many of them have a background playing sports or doing yoga or strength training. He himself was heavily involved in high school and collegiate sports. Based on this knowledge, he knows the company’s mission to build better athletes will resonate, and that telling stories about how Athos is actively strengthening athletes will incentivize excellent work.
“You want to tell these same stories in your recruiting process and watch carefully to see how they land with candidates,” he says. “This is how you can select for people to enter your mission who you know will care about it. These people will always do better work than those that choose to be there for the money or the brand association, or even because they think the product is cool or the problem is interesting. As you build an organization, you want to draft people who will not only be bought into what you’re doing, but the stories you tell to drive people forward.”
Inspiration requires even more rehearsal than the other types of stories. Whenever Sandberg needed to rally people behind a project or cause, they would dedicate hours to refining their language, practicing and infusing their words with the emotion they wanted people to feel.
“Trying to be inspiring and missing the mark is painful and damaging,” says Faul. “I know because I tried to do it a many times before I was ready. Now I take the time to think through every inch of these stories. I feel that I owe it to my team. It’s one of my biggest responsibilities.”
Knowing what you want to say is a good start, but you really need to have the right structure. You want to sit down and outline. What information should come first? Who are the protagonists people can relate to in your story? What is the arc of the narrative that makes the story new, interesting, different, counterintuitive, resonant? When you practice in front of people, what grabs them? When do you see the emotion on their faces? How can you double down on those remarks? Sometimes, Faul’s team members will see him apparently talking to himself in his car in the parking lot. But he’s not. He’s practicing stories.
“You have to figure out what works for you. I personally don’t like memorization because it doesn’t feel organic, and my delivery can be a bit stilted. Some people love memorization,” he says. “Some people want note cards with the four bullet points they have to hit. The real advice here is to do whatever makes you feel and act comfortable. That’s all that matters. And know that it will definitely feel uncomfortable the first few times you do it. That doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.”
Remember, an inspiring story is a service you're providing for people you care about.
There are several components most inspiring stories share.
First, they’re aspirational. They touch on what the future could look like. Actions your team could take. Quality you have the ability to deliver. Stretch goals are motivating. People want to tackle new things so they can learn and grow. The suspense adds drama that moves people to be their best. There’s positivity in accomplishing a leap, of course. But don’t discount the positivity that comes out of trying, failing and learning too. Don’t be afraid to set the bar high.
Competition inspires. People instinctively want to be the best. But you don’t have to be talking about competition with another company or a common enemy. You an talk about competing with last year’s numbers, last month’s customer pipeline, etc. People want to compete with themselves. But if you don’t frame things in this way, you’re missing out on that source of motivation.
Express the confidence you want people to have in themselves and the organization. Act as if it’s already been earned. You know something they don’t. You see the successful outcome already. According to Faul, this was another strength of General Mattis.
Shortly after 9-11, Faul found himself in Kandahar listening to Mattis give a speech to 300 Marines. “I remember, we were all extremely nervous but not admitting it. Candidly, we were scared and we had no idea what was going to happen,” he says. “The general didn’t ignore this. He talked about the sacrifices he knew we were all making, and how natural it is for humans to feel fear. But then there was a turn and he shared, plainly, how confident he was in each and every one of us. He reminded us about our training, how prepared we were, and how he was certain that we would triumph.”
That speech touched on so many of the great storytelling mechanisms: He empathized with how he knew the Marines were feeling. He held up the example of those that had excelled in training. He challenged them to rise to the higher purpose they were serving, and he expressed unqualified confidence in their abilities.
“I remember feeling this incredible level of strength and optimism after hearing that speech,” says Faul. “I had probably exchanged three words with this man, but the story he told about us and our training made me trust him and trust myself. I remember thinking how the right words can be so powerful. They can make you feel like anything is possible.”