Unleashing Your Voice Blog


SPOILER ALERT:  IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE LAST SEASON OF GAME OF THRONES—AND DON’T WANT TO KNOW HOW IT ENDS—DON’T READ THIS BLOG POST! 

Last week, more than a million people signed a petition demanding a re-do of the entire final season of the wildly popular Game of Thrones TV series.  That’s more than the populations of Montana, Delaware, Rhode Island and five other states in the U.S.; more people than live in Iceland, Fiji or Luxembourg (and several hundred other countries as well). 

Why so much energy and outrage about a TV show?  There were hundreds of reasons cited via media channels, blog posts, comment threads and discussion websites, but it all boiled down to one core issue:

Game of Thrones jumped the archetype.

Archetypes are narrative grooves that are deeply etched into the human unconscious because they reflect and reinforce universal human expectations and needs.  Archetypal story lines are repeated over and over again in the tales that move people most, feature almost inevitable outcomes, and tap into motivational patterns that help us see and make meaning of what’s going on inside and around us.  Archetypal dissonance occurs when a narrative disrupts those patterns in seemingly meaningless ways—either in how it’s told or how it ends.  Game of Thrones ultimately upset the apple cart on both fronts.

Stories about power (the Ruler archetype), vision (the Magician archetype) and connection (the Lover archetype) are among the most potent of the archetypal story lines. Game of Thrones was largely a Ruler story, but it dabbled in the other themes as well, to very mixed results—and ultimately didn’t leave a clear or compelling message about its core premise.  That left a lot of questions about what kind of story people had invested in for nearly a decade.  Was it a cautionary tale?  A morality play?  A romantic tragedy?  And what, in the end, actually mattered about it?

I feel like three things happened in Game of Thrones that led to the outrage:

  • The show became plot driven instead of character driven. The show runners short circuited the storytelling in favor of plot machinations, leaving it very unclear what was motivating many of the main characters (or why those motivations changed so quickly and so decisively).  That’s especially true when it comes to Queen Daenerys, whose absolute corruption may have been foreshadowed but unfolded in a whiplash time frame.  Effective story tellers can subvert traditional narrative themes, but not in a way that wipes out most of the previous character development and almost all of the values that shaped our understanding of them. 
  • The ending mixed up the archetypes. In what had previously been a Ruler story line, the ending was essentially about a Magician gaining the power (but without a real Magician payoff).  The seer became the king—but despite having magical powers, Bran didn’t convey any vision for moving a kingdom forward to go along with them.  His ascension didn’t feel earned, either through action or through an empowering aspiration that others seemed likely to follow. 
  • The ending wasn’t really right for our times.  The story had the look of medieval times, but it was a fantasy not entirely bound by the constructs of any specific period.  Yes, it ultimately sowed the idea that a move away from monarchs towards a kind of democracy is the right direction—but its end note involved depicting its strongest female leader as rapidly succumbing to drunken power, and relegated the other to running a subsidiary rather than the whole enterprise.  Maybe not the best look for 2019? 

So, what does any of this have to do with workplace leadership, culture building or branding?  Quite a lot, actually.  People and organizations make these same kinds of mistakes all the time.  So here are some key take-aways for leaders from the Game of Thrones uproar: 

  • Take purposeful action and act from authentic motivation.  There’s a lot of propulsive action in organizations these days (like in the final episodes of Game of Thrones), and much of it is more plot driven than character driven.  Driving blindly toward results instead of purpose or mission is a great example of that.  In that case, motivation can seem very shallow to others (and certainly not empowering or engaging enough to prompt genuine commitment and contribution). 
  • Take the time to see and understand who you really are (and who your organization is)—and live by that.  This will make your authentic motivational drivers very clear—and is far more likely to shape your success than drive without any particular purpose to propel it.  It also builds trust because others know what to expect and can ultimately count on it when you stay the course.
  • Convey your values and your vision.  People want to know where you’re going and why.  They want to know what you stand for and care about.  In Game of Thrones, Bran sees the future but doesn’t share anything particularly meaningful about it or what it might mean.  We also don’t really know what values will shape his actions.  Values provide the inspiration and the guard rails for moving forward (they keep you on purpose and on brand while shaping a culture that cares to do so).
  • Tell a coherent, contemporary story.  It’s hard to build internal or external brand loyalty when your story line shifts too often—there’s nothing substantive enough to sustain engagement.  The expression of it is another matter, though.  You can live out a Ruler story line (or any other) for decades, but you should refresh how the story is told much more frequently based on what’s going on in your market, in the culture, and—most importantly—in hearts and minds. 

You don’t have to take the lessons of Game of Thrones to enterprise heart.  Then again, who wants the entire population of Fiji turning against you? 


I met Elise Mitchell, CEO of Mitchell, when I gave a keynote last month at the PRSA’s Counselors Academy (a convening of C-suite leaders throughout the public relations industry).  She has a great story, building essentially a one-woman communications practice in Fayetteville, Arkansas, into one of the top 10 fastest-growing public relations companies in the world (and winning all kinds of industry kudos along the way).  She’s also recently released her first book, Leading Through the Turn–a leadership book that cphoto cindy blog motorcycle bookombines lessons learned from her passion for motorcycles with her conviction that real professional success and significance has to be  about the journey as much as the destination.

That’s an idea that gets traction in personal growth circles, but not so much in the business world where crossing the finish line fast is often revered above all else.  Elise found a voice with an alternative view, and had both the passion and conviction to speak her truth.

Any organization, leader or professional who wants to find an authentic and inspiring voice needs to do the very same thing.  It’s about aligning your Why (the passion that motivates and fuels your journey) with your What (the conviction that shapes meaningful, destination-oriented action).  When you do that, what you say will always convey the courage of your convictions—and your communications will carry the kind of heart and determination that gets heard.   Even the more provocative things you have to say will be received differently because they’re grounded in authenticity.  Remember this:

  • If you have the courage of your convictions, you’ll find the confidence to say what you believe is right–even though other people may not agree or approve
  • If you have the courage of your convictions, you’ll become brave enough to do what you feel is right—despite any external pressure for your to act differently

You’ve got to get in touch with both your passion and your position to do this, though. Having the courage of your convictions is really about bringing both the head and the heart into play, and that’s a hard to ignore combination because it leverages both feelings/emotions and thoughts/beliefs.  Remember that passion is a strongly held feeling of enthusiasm or excitement that brings you alive for others.  Conviction is a strongly held thought or belief that lends credibility to your stance.   Enjoying the journey and reaching your destination usually doesn’t happen if you don’t have both.  Why?

  • Passion without conviction can be disempowering–generating a lot of excitement without anything actually happening. Passion without conviction can actually be baseless, overly zealous, shrill (and even dangerous if it’s blind).
  • Conviction without passion can be disengaging—generating a lot of action that may start to feel purposeless over time. Conviction without passion can actually be judgmental, dogmatic, flat (and even dangerous if it’s heartless).

If you want to get more in touch with the real courage of your convictions, take a few minutes to explore these questions and what the answers really mean.  This can be an exercise you do for yourself as a leader or with a group as a culture or brand-building activity.  Once you’ve brainstormed your answers, then consider how those insights could shape a more powerful stance, start a conversation or just get others more interested in you.  I’ll share my own answers as an example.

What are you most passionate about, and why does that matter to you?  (NOTE:  Don’t just list things you like to do at work; this exercise is about finding clues to your voice through a more holistic lens. Would that look different for a group or organization?  Sure, but brainstorm a list of individual interests to see if some collective passions emerge that might also be shaping/driving your culture).      

So, I’m passionate about expression and identity, redemptive stories, great writing and design, music with moving lyrics, color, abstract painting and collages, poetic voices, positive psychology, human motivation, causes/organizations that empower well being, mentoring, purpose and legacy.

If I think about why these things matter to me, the pattern that emerges is my core identity as a creative type who loves expression that’s meaningful and really matters (and has a positive, purposeful tone).

What do you know or believe more than anything else, and what are you willing to do because of that? (NOTE:  Remember, these are core principles that shape who you are and what actions you’ll take.  Shared beliefs would be uncovered in a group exercise to explore this question as well).

So, here are my answers:  I believe that everyone has a story to tell and a voice that deserves to be heard.  I believe that there’s something special about every individual and organization that needs to be seen and acknowledged.  I believe that we’re all part of a tapestry where every thread matters.  I believe that well being is a fundamental human right.

If I think about what I’ll do as a result—well, it feels like I’m doing this right now—authentic branding/communications work that helps individuals and organizations get heard and contribute in important ways.  I especially love working with purpose-driven organizations and non-profits that cultivate well being and serve the under-served, so that fits in as well.

When I put passion and conviction together, I think it gets back to my slogan.  My premise is that a truly authentic voice is essential for success, contribution and well being.  If that’s provocative, it’s only because a lot of communications out there are about spin and saying what we think other people want to hear.  I like helping my clients be courageous enough to lead and shape their brands with authenticity.

So where does the courage of your convictions take you?  Feel free to share any insights about your own courageous convictions with me (or tweet them to @storybrander).  And remember to enjoy the ride as you move toward that finish line!

Cindy Atlee is a Creator type who loves to help professionals, teams and organizations understand and express who they really are in the world.  She’s the principal of The Storybranding Group and co-author of the Professional Strengths, Values & Story Survey (SVSS).  Cindy helps individual and organizational clients cast themselves in a compelling, enduring story that authentically conveys their unique value.  Take the SVSS for yourself here:  http://www.storybranding.com/take-the-svss-survey/.





I love a good story.  You probably do, too.  Stories influence, inspire and capture our imaginations like nothing else.  We tell them all the time, whether we realize it or not.  And they scare the heck out of many of my clients.

I’m not talking horror stories here, and I certainly don’t mean my clients are literally afraid of narratives. What sometimes gets me a deer-in-headlights look is suggesting they need to know and live and tell their own story in the world to have a really successful brand.  Maybe it’s a little intimidating to realize that answering the question who are you? is what jump starts a compelling brand identity—but it’s the surest path to being seen, heard and apprecman and woman with 3d book pile backgroundiated for something that draws the right clients, members, donors or other important audiences to you.

Traditional branding strategy says you should start by understanding your target audiences.  And of course you absolutely do need to know what they care about and what makes them tick.  First, though, you need to understand who you are and what you’re uniquely prepared to do so that you can have a vibrant, vital, authentic, arresting conversation with the world about it.  This applies whether you’re a solo practitioner or running a firm—a “self” is either an individual with a personal identity or a collective with a discernible character and capacity (which usually adds up to a strong  group culture).

When you understand yourself, you have a foundation for creating the kind of zeal that gets attention.  So if you want to get crystal clear on your unique value, start by typecasting you or your organization as the protagonist in a story you’re truly moved to live and tell in the world.  Then frame a narrative that’s based on the two key components of a truly great story:

  • Every inspiring protagonist has a quest—it’s the purpose that captures your reason for being; a fuel that enlivens and animates you.  Getting in touch with purpose keeps you and/or your people truly engaged in your work.
  • Every great story has a happy ending—it’s the promise or outcome you can always be counted on to deliver.  Getting in touch with promise clarifies what makes your story matter to anyone else.

I’m a Creator with a quest—and a purpose— to help my clients understand and let others know who they really are in the world.  I’m a zealot for “empowering self expression”—the kind that positions organizations and people to talk about what matters most to them.  Why should anyone care about that?  Well, I promise to help clients find a voice that will inspire and influence others (added bonus:  they’ll probably experience more aliveness and even joy while they’re doing it, too).

You’ve got a story as well, and it really should be the foundation for your brand personality and messaging.  You can start the process by “story typing” your enterprise, which involves exploring what kind of protagonist you or your organization is most like—and articulating a purpose or promise its story arc suggests.  Is that kind of process really good business?  You bet it is, and here are some of the many reasons why:

  • Story-based branding is built on the motivational drivers that have inspired and engaged human beings since the beginning of time.  You can use other techniques to inform your audiences, promote your services, and even connect with them on a personal level.  Nothing motivates better than evoking a narrative that suggests how everything is going to turn out, though (and casting yourself as the protagonist who can resolve whatever conflict might get in the way).
  • A great storyline helps you leverage both your strengths and your values.  The protagonists in great stories rely on a combination of strengths (what they’re good at) and values (what they care about) to accomplish their missions.  There’s no story without both.  Strengths are critical, but they’re actually not nearly as memorable as values.  At the end of the day, you’re most likely to be defined by the value system that others associate with you.  It makes great business sense to be deliberate about how you want to be perceived instead of letting other people draw their own conclusions about what you stand for.
  • An authentic storyline is your most powerful trust-building tool.  Truth-based communications build credibility and draw others in through genuine attraction to something that has a true pull for them.  That sets up an entirely different dynamic than basing your brand on what you think your audience wants to hear, and establishes a trust-focused relationship from the outset.  Conviction and passion just ring true, and that’s what story-based branding is all about.

So let your sense of self breathe life into your brand—and let your brand become an authentic expression that creates more success and fulfillment in your world.

This post was adapted from an earlier version that appeared on http://www.caprsa.com/news/.

Cindy Atlee wrote her first (and last!) novel at the age of 13. After a brief foray into journalism (interviewing Jimmy Buffet in a bowling counts as journalism, right?), she became a brand strategist, coach and facilitator—eventually serving as SVP, Branding & Organizational Culture, at the global public relations firm Porter Novelli.  She’s now founding partner at The Storybranding Group, where she helps clients define and give voice to what’s best, most distinctive and appealing about them.





This is the third blog post in my three-part series on the who/why/what of branding, professional/leadership development and team/culture building.   Read part one:  How the Most Watched TED Talk of All Time Got it Wrong.  Read part two:  Why You Must Tell the World What You’re For. 

I worked for a while with a client who literally brimmed over with passion, enthusiasm and excitement—for something different almost every time we met. Now don’t get me wrong, this client had a lot going for him. He had a well developed, positive sense of identity that shaped his Who.  He was frequently on fire about his purpose and very eloquent about his Why.  But he never seemed to translate it into action. This client was definitely What-challenged.

Business people jumping on springboard as progress conceptOur work together was about changing that, and the breakthrough for him happened when it came to meaningfully articulating the What of his career path and business direction.

In my last two posts, I’ve talked about the first two components of a great story: Who and Why. There’s no story without a protagonist (who) embarked on a purposeful quest (why). There’s also no closure without a happy ending (well, maybe a cautionary tale, but no one wants to be the subject or object of that!). A happy ending is all about What—what kind of action the protagonist took to resolve the conflict, what kind of outcome ensued and maybe even a hint of what might happen next.

Knowing who you are and having a purpose is the foundation for any kind of authentic individual or group identity and meaning—and that won’t take you or your group very far if you don’t articulate what you’ll do in response to this insight.  In some ways, this can be tougher than defining your Who and Why.  Nailing your What requires real conviction and a commitment to staying a course (at least for a while).  It also means that people with a preference for the conceptual (those of us who love the Why, like my client and also like me!) must learn how to embrace a concrete direction to activate what matters most to us.

The Three Faces of What—and How They Shape Success and Fulfillment

It turns out that most of us have a preference for either Why or What, and those are two sides of a coin that must both be managed and leveraged for meaningful individual or group development.  Too much emphasis on Why can lead to inaction and endless meandering.  Too much focus on What can produce ennui and burnout (an epidemic in many organizations these days).  Being intentional about both sets the stage for a more cohesive kind of fulfillment and success that doesn’t drop each of them into mutually exclusive buckets.

This requires some truly thoughtful attention to the multi-faceted nature of What, though, and some exploration of how its three facets (promise, mission and vision) should be aligned if you want to define and live an authentic and meaningful story.  Remember that What is not just a big promise or a laundry list of tasks, and it doesn’t play out in isolation from who you are and why you you’re motivated to promise or do anything in the first place.  So consider the following:

Face #1:  Promise.  Your promise articulates your value and what it really means. Key question:  What can you always be counted on to deliver that matters to anyone else?  We all needs others to hire, partner, collaborate or engage with us in some way, so it’s critically important that we’re seen and appreciated for the actual value we can provide.   That’s why the happy ending to a storyline is so important—it represents a powerful promise that you can always be counted on to keep, one that matters to you and to others as well if you’ve developed it with care.   A promise statement specifically defines the impact you’ll make that can draw others to you.

Remember also that promise is a timely, situational external expression (making it possible to bring purpose to life in a way that adds value for others).  It may change based on the situation and the kind of impact that’s needed in the moment—but it should always align with who you are and what you’re purpose-built to deliver.

Face #2:  Mission.  Your mission gives concrete shape to the inspired action you’re uniquely prepared to take. Key question:  What are the specific things you should do to deliver on your promise? There are lots of different ways to define mission, but mine is based on the tasks you’ll take on to deliver your purpose and promise.  Your mission should either very specifically shape the products and services that you or your organization offers—or define the inspired steps you are uniquely prepared to take in providing them.  Mission propels you forward through tangible action.  And, it’s also where the rubber meets the road for folks like my client in terms of implementing your dreams.

 The concreteness of mission is especially important for people who love to explore, imagine, envision and ponder (again, people like my client and me!).  With a fully fleshed out storyline, it becomes much easier to narrow down the range of many possibilities that look so good to us.

Face #3:  Vision.  Your vision describes an inspiring future that you’ll want to move toward. Key question:  What could the world look like when your purpose is fulfilled and your promise is energetically activated?  Some people think of purpose and vision as one and the same, but I don’t.  For me, purpose exists in the here and now, guiding how you show up in the present moment and what engages you most in life.  Vision exists in the future, always pulling you toward something bigger.  Often, vision can feel like a cause or a movement that your purpose could fuel into realization.

The conceptual nature of vision is especially important for people who tend to be task oriented and action driven because it gives them a raison d’etre beyond simply getting the next thing done.  By developing a storyline, people like this can find greater fulfillment and discover what really matters most to them in the long run.

So, what does all this look like for you?  Feel free to share a promise, mission or vision statement in the comments or send me a tweet @storybrander.

Cindy Atlee is a Creator type who loves to help professionals, teams and organizations understand and express who they really are in the world.  She’s the principal of The Storybranding Group and co-author of the Professional Strengths, Values & Story Survey (SVSS).  Cindy helps individual and organizational clients cast themselves in a compelling, enduring story that authentically conveys their unique value.  Find out more about her next career development program here:  https://www.eventbrite.com/e/becoming-known-well-5-weeks-to-an-authentic-personal-brand-career-path-tickets-33428813481





This is the second blog post in my three-part series on the who/why/what of branding, professional/leadership development and team/culture building. 

Last month, I had the amazing privilege of working with 1,500 educator-leaders at the National Education Association’s annual leadership summit.  These are educators who do even more than serve students in their classrooms and their communities—as if that wasn’t enough!  Every one of them has also taken on a local, state and/or national role as an activist and mobilizer for students and their inalienable rights to a great public education.  They’re as dedicated a group as I’ve ever seen.advocacy word written on wood block. Wooden alphabet on a blue background.

The work with NEA was designed to help attendees get in touch with a deeply authentic sense of self, and to claim a voice that leveraged what was most special, unique and different about each of them.  It was the first time I’d ever tried such a large-group story typing process.  And yes, it was daunting to think about how we could shape an experience that would engage 1,500 people.

I shouldn’t have worried.  This was exactly the right group for the work, and I think that’s because they have a fierce draw to the Why of their storyline—there’s a quest, a purpose, a reason for being that drives them.  We just needed to help them understand the nature of their Who (a strong individualized sense of best self) and how it aligned with their Why (the fuel that energizes and motivates them) so that a personal narrative could start taking recognizable shape.  Their conviction and passion took over from there.

Advocacy is at the Heart of Your Why

You couldn’t find better folks than the ones who are part of the NEA. There’s no question that their organization’s very heart beats to the drum of advocacy.  I had a little epiphany as I worked with them, too, and this is it:  We all need to be advocates.  I don’t think there are any exceptions.

  • Any organization that wants to build an inspired workforce, fiercely loyal customer base or highly engaged stakeholder group of any kind needs to start thinking of themselves as advocates for something
  • So does any leader who wants to build a productive, committed team
  • So does any professional who wants to make a meaningful, successful, enduring contribution with their work

Advocacy is at the very heart of purpose.  It articulates what you’re for (and isn’t that a relief in a world where we seem to spend all of our time talking about what we’re against?).  It motivates you to keep on going despite the challenges.  It builds common ground.  It defines your quest and shapes a storyline that draws other people in.  And here’s the great news:  every one of us can be a powerful advocate, and you don’t have to be saving the world to show up that way. You just need to answer one powerful question:

  • What are you deeply, meaningfully, intensely, vociferously, no-holds-barred for in the world?

The answer could be laughter or self expression or tolerance or chocolate (okay, the right kind of chocolate actually can save the world, can’t it)?

Story type can help you answer that question, because knowing who you are offers profound clues about your passion and conviction—and those are the key shapers of advocacy, purpose and Why.  It’s the Jester who lives for laughter and joy; the Creator who’s compelled to stand up for everyone’s right to tell their own story; the Everyperson who holds diversity most dearly and fiercely.  Once you’re clear on Who you are as the protagonist of an individual or collective story, an inevitable narrative arc begins to develop that takes you directly to insights about your quest, your purpose, your advocacy and your Why.  So if you want a great brand, team, culture or leadership identity, remember the following:

  • Why provides the motivating, energizing fuel that can inspire you or anyone inside your organization to get out of bed in the morning and keep moving throughout the day. A purposeless career, team or organizational life often ends up feeling devoid of meaning or a sense of aliveness.  A purposeful career, team or organizational life provides motivational drivers that keep people committed and contributory.
  • Why helps you inspire and involve others as well. Sharing a powerful purpose actually invite others to define their own best selves or higher callings—and can help them align with something aspirational about you or your organization that forges loyalty and builds deeper engagement.
  • Why helps shape a voice or brand that others relate to on a visceral, emotional level. That’s where relationships are forged and sustained, and where lasting value is created and built.

So once you’ve established your Who—and cast yourself in a meaningful, enduring role that captures your best self—move on to your Why.  Ask yourself what your protagonist most wants to advocate for and take in that energy and motivation.  Then, get moving on your quest!

In my next post, I’ll talk about the happy ending to your story—the promise you’re willing to make, and the outcome you’re committed to delivering for others.