Tell A Story: Emails for Leaders

Today we are going to talk about telling a story. If you are writing an email, you most likely have a specific point in mind. Most business emails fall in to one of two categories: CYA or CTA. First we are going to examine the information and point of each of these types of emails and then we will follow up with the importance of storytelling.


Do I need to elaborate on its meaning? Covering your assets means that you are sharing information. Perhaps the information isn't interesting (to you). Perhaps you aren't sure how else to communicate the information. The CYA emails are highly informative, often filled with industrial jargon, and let's face it...dry.

 "Research shows that including statistics in the story format leads to increased retention by 25x."

However, writing a dry CYA email is selfish. By writing a dry email of this nature you burden your readers with the following responsibilities.

  • understanding,
  • reading through the lines, and
  • information filing.

In a busy world, we can do better. We write with a servant's heart to craft an email that shares the information in an engaging manner. Adopting the story telling approach takes a bit of practice at first, but the results for your audience are amazing. Consider:

  • Increased information retention,
  • Emails that engage your readers,
  • Results that guide them to the conclusion, and
  • Improved awareness and application without a CTA.


A CTA email includes a call to action. Something must be done. Occasionally, I admit, I send a one liner to my employee who sits just outside my door, "Hey, can you run out to the line and complete the task by 9 am?" However, that one-line email is a continuation of a conversation we had earlier in the day. We are in close communication so the task expectations are clear without writing them down. I still include a deadline.

Let's look at what a real CTA email should include. First, the important elements:

  • Background information 
  • Task Description
  • Resources
  • Timeline or Deadline

CTA emails vary in their complexity depending on the task at hand. Later in this series, we will examine a variety of techniques to write CTA emails and highlight the right details so our readers do not get overwhelmed. Those CTA emails will be categorized by the complexity of the task at hand.

The Storyline

Now that we understand the CYA and CTA emails, how and why can we include storytelling within our email? Well, let's talk about what a storyline looks like. As you can see from the figure below, a story can be graphed on a time-tension chart. We start with an inciting incident, notice the word is inciting and not exciting! Not all business communication is exciting, but it is our job as the writer to keep the reader engaged through a rising action phase, climax, and resolve the email through the falling action phase. If you want more explanation on these terms, check out the links at the bottom of this blog post.

Storytelling in a CYA Email

Inciting Incident:

In general, this is a description of something that went wrong. In simple terms, this is the WHAT of your email. It sets the context. Since I work in manufacturing, emails of this nature generally deal with a safety incident, product defect, or downtime event.


 The climax of your CYA email should include the statistic that needs to be remembered. Including the statistics in the climax section of the email leads to two of the four points highlighted at the beginning of this post: increased retention and improved awareness.

Since our early ancestors walked the earth, the humanoid has told stories. The human brain is hardwired to understand life in a story format.  You will see various statistics running throughout the internet, but research shows that including statistics in the story format leads to increased retention by 25x. This point in the email story is where you want to highlight the statistics you want your reader to remember.


In the resolution of your CYA email, you are sharing with your readership what you or your team did to solve the problem. Be very clear and detailed in this step so that your readership can clearly follow what you did. Since this is a CYA informative email, your reader should have all their questions answered. Keep them reading until the end breaking long paragraphs into short paragraphs. Bullet points and lists of actions may be your friend in this moment.

Before you send out the email, take a second to reorganize the elements in your lists. Are they grouped together in a manner that makes sense? Perhaps chronologically? Perhaps by department? Remember, we are writing a CYA email so the reader can 

  • Increase information retention,
  • Easily draw conclusions, and
  • Improve awareness and application without a CTA.

Your choice to write as a servant leader means you take an extra second to help your readers. In general, there are more of them than there are of you. What does that mean? If you save each reader 1 minute of reading and processing time because you have connected with your reader with clarity, then you have saved the company 20 minutes if there are 20 people on the email copy list.

Storytelling in a CTA Email

Inciting Incident

The CTA email tells you everything about its intent: you want the reader to take action. For a reader to engage with the action, you must fully highlight 

  • WHAT they must do
  • HOW they must do it, and
  • WHY they must do it.

Simon Sinek has popularized Lillian Gilbreath's tenant from her doctoral dissertation of 1919 by saying, "Start with WHY." They are right. To gain energy and engage the reader, you must get their attention by starting with WHY they should take the action that you request of them.


 The climax is the more specific portion of the email that includes the HOW and WHAT. Just as the statistics recall from the CTA email above, extra details included within a storyline will be better recalled by your team members.


As a servant writer and leaders, recognize that all CTA communications are requests. Invite your team mates to participate in the CTA. Highlight the clear expectations, summarize with a checklist if necessary, and include a deadline or timeline.

Let's take a look at a few examples that ask for participation without being demanding, focusing on masks wearing. You can like it or not, but in 2021, masks are still a legal requirement.

"Masks up, Gentlemen!" I overhead an army officer directing his men during a field training exercise on an NPR podcast. I love how adding, "Gentlemen" highlighted his respect for his men.

"Let's get started!" You will see this phrase on my website and in my emails. I choose this because as a servant leader, I really want to drive home to my team that we are facing our challenges together. "Us" is such an inclusive word.

"Please fill out the spreadsheet by noon on Friday." This quick phrase is succinct. It tells the person what needs to be done and when it needs to be completed: specifically. In a quick phrase like this, you have not burdened the reader by wondering "when should I do it, what should I do?" It is very different than the command, "Get it done by Friday!"


Well, maybe today, I should call this section the Resolution!

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Teaching: Taking a page from the narrative


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