How to Build Culture Through Storytelling

One brisk fall day 20 years ago, I shuffled into the great marble halls of the Accademia in Florence to see Michelangelo’s David. I had seen the postcards and posters and projections so many times, and from so many angles, I felt as if in some way I had already been there.

As I approached the statue down the long hall, however, I was shocked – it was taller, more clearly shaped and more powerful than I could have ever imagined.

davidscurtain2In the hour that followed, I just sat there, in awe, taking in all of the details, even as my classmates moved on to the next room. The eyes, the subtle curls, the veins on his hand. It seemed to me then to be more living than the living. I felt like an idiot for ever thinking I had known anything about it.

And it begs the question that I would ask many times in my travels: What is the connection between a true original expression and their two-dimensional representation?

I see a similar question every day with the companies and non-profits I serve.michelangelo-david-story Outwardly, the focus of these very inspiring organizations is too often on the outputs (the press releases, the tweets and videos) shooting off in thousands of directions, and too little on what’s at the center of it all.

And when it comes to building your internal culture, the question is even more important. Because the culture of a company is never really ‘done’. It’s always changing, responding to growth, product evolution and leadership change. Done well, your storytelling is a reflection of what is already inside your DNA, waiting to come out. As Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

Every aspect of the organization (fundraising, communications, recruiting, speeches) can feel connected, anchored back to the center of the company, and the stories that give the company life. Done poorly, the center of your company can seem like printed postcards, distantly related to this beautiful creation that has impacted so many people. No wonder 42% of all employees can recall their mission, vision and values!

Here are three ways you can tell your story is flat:

1. Your values are not alive in the hearts of your employees. They might be on the walls, or repeated in retreats, but they feel ‘aspirational’, something that you’re reaching for, rather than ‘inspirational’, something that breathes life into your team.
2. Different leaders describe the organization completely differently. This not only pulls the organization in different directions, it creates dissonance that filters down…If you ask an employee why your company does what it does, they give you that blank stare, rattle off a bunch of acronyms and repeat your your mission.
3. Your brand feels disconnected from your center, or more pushed in from the outside than revealed from the inside.

Here are three steps to bringing your story to life:

1.Ā  Make sure you agree upon what you mean by ‘story.’ These days people use story in many different ways, to mean ‘something you say’ or ‘something that happened,’ or ‘your hangup.’ One way of describing a story is a problem, approached in an interesting way, that makes us care.

2. Make sure YOU and your top leaders know and can tell your origin story. If YOU can’t retell the story, in person, with your own voice, how can you expect someone else to? We’re not just talking about where you come from – the origin is the center of your organization, and an essential indicator of where you’re going. Optimally, you can tell it in a way that gives birth to your mission statement…so it doesn’t seem so disconnected from everything else. If it’s not ready for prime time, workshop it by telling the story first among a group of leaders. Because everything starts there, and the more people that connect that place to this place, the more deeply understood your journey will be.

3. Begin building your treasury of stories. Instead of something that’s just repeated, or written on the wall, search out 10 quality stories that reveal your core values and are retellable inside the organization. They may come from your origin, they may represent your impact, or illuminate your vision. They will likely represent some distinct change that occurred and led the way to something great. Once you find a few, test them out on each other. Consider beginning each company-wide meeting with a story showing what is truly distinct about your organization. Challenge your employees to retell the stories at home, and to find the place that gives them the deeper connection to why they come to work every day.


About the Author
Jay Golden is a storyteller, speaker and story coach, serving clients such as Facebook, YouTube, and the Environmental Defense Fund. As co-founder of Wakingstar, Jay leads storytelling workshops, creates retellable organizational stories, and helps leaders dive into their key insights to connect with and inspire audiences far and wide. He does his best thinking while swimming in the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay.


  1. Rosemarie Somaiah on February 13, 2014 at 6:52 pm

    Jay, your article has put in words so much that I have experienced in my story work. I agree with you, so naturally I think it is a wonderful piece of work! FYI, I’m delighted that the Sydney Story Conference (6-8 June 2014) has accepted my proposal for a workshop on Merlions and Other Modern Myths. I hope I have your permission to refer participants to your blog if required.

    • JayGolden on February 14, 2014 at 12:44 pm

      Hi Rosemarie, that’s really exciting, and thanks very much for your words. I want to hear about more modern myths! And please yes send the word around

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