Storytelling Lessons from WWII Era Posters

In celebration of the 4th of July, I wanted to share posters that my great Uncle, Ben Shalett’s company produced during the WWII era. Many of them were displayed in a Smithsonian exhibit.

You can find them HERE.

While taking in the visual imagery, I started to reflect about how his posters were created to convey ideas about the American dream. In fact, his posters were an exercise in storytelling. Each poster was based on a story we like to tell ourselves about our country. Through visual communication, the posters inspired thoughts of confidence and hope to the American public.

How can we learn from my uncle’s work?

Today, leaders may find it challenging to communicate ideas through storytelling. Our communication may be limited by 140 character tweets, brief texts, even a preference for short emails. These limits may restrain us from using stories to influence or to lead. Still, stories can be visual, as with the posters described above – or they can be verbal but brief and to the point. Below are a few techniques to help bring storytelling back into your communication.


If my uncle could reach people through visual stories during WWII, then you can catch people’s attention during this time of rapid change and innovation.

Tell a story that illustrates a point you want to make, that provides an example of behavior you want to encourage, that shares a key learning from success or failure. You can use graphics to help, but the stories themselves are core to the message. Human beings are “wired” to listen to and learn from stories – we are storytelling animals. Leaders who tell stories can touch people in a direct and powerful way.

Criteria for Storytelling Effectiveness:

• Disclose something about you that listeners may not have known

• Have a clear and compelling message

• Avoid self-serving or boastful content

• Avoid sarcasm or implied negative comments about listeners or those known to them

• Avoid “preaching”

• Include an element with which others can identify

• Make sure your story is relevant when applied to a current issue

• Communicate empathy or understanding

• Open a door to new ideas or solutions

• Start a conversation

• Include playful or self-deprecating humor.


Applications for Storytelling:

There are many times when leaders might find storytelling to be an effective way to communicate. Among the situations that lend themselves especially well to stories are:

• Mentoring opportunities

• Introducing yourself to a new team

• Orienting new people to your team or organization

• Starting a meeting about a difficult issue

• Illustrating a concept

• Re-energizing an individual, group, or team that has experienced failure or difficulty

• Coaching

• Leadership development courses or events

• Getting a key point across to a group that needs to hear it

• Beginning a conversation about a common problem

• Moving an organizational culture toward greater openness and a focus on learning.

Leaders who tell stories that are meaningful have mastered one of the oldest, yet most effective means of communication. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a great story can create a thousand pictures.

Happy Independence Day!


By B. Kim Barnes

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