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.


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

Let me start with full disclosure.  Simon Sinek’s Start with Why treatise is one of the top 10 most watched Ted Talks of all time.  And I think Simon Sinek is great.  I refer my clients to his Ted Talk all the time.  Essentially, Sinek says that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”  Why is all about your purpose and your reason for being, according to Sinek, which he thinks is way more interesting than what it is you actually do.  He also says if you know your Why, you’ll figure out the What and then the How.

I totally agree with Simon, except for one thing—he starts a question too late for me.  Instead of starting with their WManWithColorshy, I think people and groups who want to understand themselves and/or compel others need to start with their Who.  Articulating who you really are is the key to finding your passion, your conviction, your authenticity and your voice.  It’s also the foundation on which trust, relationship and engagement are built.  That’s because we understand ourselves and each other through the framework of narratives—and stories always unfold in a who, why and what sequence.  Here are the three components that shape any great storyline:

  • Who: A protagonist (the best self of an individual or team that creates the impetus for a narrative based on something deeply true about their identity)
  • Why: A quest (the protagonist’s purpose, which ultimately is challenged by a conflict that stops its fulfillment)
  • What: A happy ending (the protagonist’s promise, or the ultimate conflict resolution the protagonist can enable or produce).

Using Your Who to Build Motivation, Engagement and Trust

Every truly developed individual, team or organization needs to explore and articulate who they are, why they need to exist and what they’ll do or deliver as a result.  The answers to those questions can shape an identity that makes compelling sense of us to ourselves and others—and frame a guidance system for our beliefs and actions that keeps us true to that essential sense of self.  Consider these other reasons for starting with Who instead of Why:

  • Who is a two-dimensional question—it makes us look at the dynamic combination of strengths and values that forge a best self. The protagonists in great stories always succeed because their most authentic strengths and values work in tandem, not as isolated parts.  The combination of genuine strengths and values makes any protagonist more credible, more deeply empowered and ultimately more likely to be successful.  This step is also the foundation in developing an inspiring leadership or professional presence.
  • Who is the foundation for answering the Why and the What of our existence. It’s really tough to know why you’re here if you don’t know who you are and how you want to be.  Many people I talk to say they don’t know what their passion or purpose is—often, it’s because they’ve skipped an exploration of their own character and capacity as a first step.
  • Who makes it much easier to tell our own story to others. My organizational clients often tell me they don’t know how to tell their own story well.  Any great story begins with characters that everyone can understand and relate to—so casting ourselves or our organizations in a role and/or locating ourselves in a storyline that conveys who we really are is the first step in knowing and sharing our real story.  It’s also the foundation of a great brand.
  • Who fuels positive intrinsic motivation and engagement. Knowing who we are can breathe more vivid life into everything we do, motivating and empowering us in our work and in our worlds.  When organizations help their people do this—and leverage the contribution quotient that’s discovered—true employee engagement can be developed.  Great teams and cultures can be built on this kind of foundation.
  • Who builds authenticity and trust. Customers or other stakeholders are also more likely to engage with organizations when their authentic strengths and values are clear.  It’s critical to remember that no relationship moves forward without trust (including the one we have with ourselves).

So, what are the best ways to find and express your Who?  The following steps apply to professionals/leaders, teams or organizations:

Step #1:  Cast yourself in an authentic individual or organizational role.  You can start that process using the free Professional Strengths, Values and Story Survey, which measures how much you relate to 12 universally well-known characters in stories that have recurred throughout time.  Here’s the link:

Step #2:  Articulate your story-based strengths and values.  Once you’ve started working with a character, you need to understand your own way of expressing and living its core attributes.  Make a list of the specific strengths you bring to the table because you’re like this, and the related values that matter most to you when it comes to professional success, fulfillment and contribution.

Step #3:  Create a defining identity statement.   To anchor your sense of self, you can create a statement that articulates the real nature of who you are.  Here’s a template to fill out:

At my/our best, we’re most like a (fill in the character) because: _____________________________.

If you don’t want to work with the SVSS to establish a character, here’s another line you can work with:

At my/our best, who we really are is:___________________________________________________.

In my next post, I’ll talk about building on Who to get at your Why.  Meanwhile, feel free to share who you are in the comments!

Cindy Atlee is a Creator type who loves to help clients 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 also trains coaches and consultants to work with the story typing framework; find out about her next training from March 29-31 here:

I have this recurring dream where a large group of people I’m working with are mostly milling around in this very large, efotolia_120436866ntirely concrete building. All of them have come to me with important messages or ideas that they started out really excited to develop and share–but something is stopping them from doing that. Instead of working, they keep going back inside and sitting down in one of the building’s many small, empty, windowless rooms.

The rooms have thick, strong walls that don’t allow any sound to travel through. They’re gray and colorless, with nothing in them to fuel inspiration or imagination. They look a lot like cells, except for one thing. The rooms are entirely open in front, with no barrier at all to prevent anyone from walking right out and back into the world. Most of the people in my dream stay right where they are, though–inside these rooms with their ideas inside themselves, unexpressed.

It doesn’t take a dream analyst to interpret what’s going on for me here! My vision is for everyone to unleash a voice in the world–and to work in places and on teams where it’s heard and appreciated. I’ve always thought this dream was meant to remind me of what it looks like and feels like when that doesn’t happen.

Why don’t we let our voices be heard?

I never expected more concrete business information from a dream, though, but that’s what happened recently when I had a much longer version of it. This time, I was able to start asking people who were still in the rooms what was going on and why they weren’t excited about sharing their messages any longer. I always heard one of three things:
  • Some were deliberately reining themselves in–deciding what they have to say is too big or too bold so they have to scale it back, and killing their enthusiasm in the process.
  • Others had given up because they didn’t have a “perfect” message–they’d tinkered and tinkered with in, and ended up stripping most of the real life out of what they wanted to share.
  • A few people had sought out and taken too much input from other people–now they didn’t even recognize their own ideas or feel much of the passion that had fueled them in the first place.
So, I woke up and realized I needed to share what I learned from this dream. And before this turns into a bummer of a blog post, let’s flip what I found out was holding others back into really positive lessons for getting your own voice heard:
  • Lesson #1: Let your biggest, boldest ideas shape what you share. Those big ideas are what motivate you to act; get them out there and into the world if you want others to pay attention.
  • Lesson #2: Don’t overthink what you’re burning to say. The most important part of starting a dialog with real life in it means getting the conversation going.
  • Lesson #3: Find your own authentic point of view. Sure, it’s nice to know what other people think. But it’s your own point of view that sets you apart and gets you heard (even when others don’t agree with everything you’re saying).

I need to share more boldly, too

So, it turns out this dream wasn’t meant just for my clients. There’s a powerful message for me in here as well (after all, I was the dreamer!). I’ve got some ideas of my own that I may not share often enough or loudly enough, one for each area of my work life (branding, employee engagement & team/culture building, and leadership/professional development. Here they are (and look for blog posts on each topic in the coming weeks):
  • Branding: Great branding and messaging starts out as inside job. It tells your story in a way that invites others in–and its main objective is to create resonant aliveness with others.
  • Team/culture building and employee engagement: Workplaces need to start letting people bring their whole selves to work. Mostly, we let people tell half their story at work, and it’s the half about performance and what they do (not presence and who they are).
  • Leadership development: We need to start looking for authentic advantage in our workplaces-not competitive advantage. Competitive advantage says “I need to move as fast as I can and outmaneuver someone else and by doing that I’ll win.” Authentic advantage says “I have gifts and talents and ideas and intuitions that other people don’t, and if I contribute them we all get to win.”
Do you have a big idea to share? An unfiltered message? A passionate point of view? Join the ranks of the self expressed and tell me about it!  Post a comment or send me a tweet @storybrander.

And if you haven’t taken the Professional Strengths, Values & Story Survey yet, check it out here to find out who you are in the story you’re most moved to unleash in the world:

I’m excited to let everyone know that now you can download my new, free eBook–Bringing Your Message to Life.  In it, I offer some very easy-to-use tips for creating messages that will really get heard.  And, I share some simple, story-based communications tools to bring real life to the things you have to say.

Here’s one of the most important tips in Bringing Your Message to Life People deeply relate to characters in the stories they love. If they see you as part of a story that really matters, they’ll relate to you, too. So take a look at the eBook if you’d like to know more about how to cast your organization, your business (or yourself) as the central character in a story that moves your audiences.

There’s lots of other material in the eBook as well, like a compelling framework for creating messages at every rung of a four-step communications ladder; help with focusing your messaging on the “happy endings” that mean the most to you and to others; and pointers on how you can harness the power of your most under-utitlized communications resource–the people who work for your organization.

Of course, that last one only works if those people are really part of your story and want to share it.  In addition to getting this eBook ready, I’ve been using a lot of my blue sky thinking time this summer to focus on internal branding and employee engagement and what they really mean.  Here’s what I know for sure about that: if  you look at your organization through a story-based lens, you can see what gives your culture life (or why it’s dormant).  If there’s a powerful purpose and compelling promise at the core of your enterprise, you’ve got a premise that starts to engage your workforce.  If your people can see how their own stories align with the organization’s, you’ve probably got really passion and commitment.

I’ll be sharing some new tools and resources on the front soon.  Meanwhile, take a look at Bringing Your Message to Life–and please share your thoughts!