Forecasting the future of recruiting operations with Jeremy Lyons

The silent nudge: Employer branding expert James Ellis discusses the power of the unstated in storytelling

“Getting someone to think it is what makes an idea stick, and storytelling does the trick. It makes the idea last.”

James Ellis
Principal of Employer Brand Labs
James Ellis on how storytelling can leave a lasting impact


At this very moment, I am trying to make you think of a certain number.

Think it’s easy? It isn’t. Because if I wrote the number, you didn’t think it. You read it. If you saw a sign that said, “I am 17 feet tall,” that didn’t make you think you might be the height of a one-story house, did it? No. You just read it. And chances are, you forgot it two seconds after you saw it.

So here is my challenge. How do I make you think of this particular number?

An attempt at visualization

Well, I could tell you a story about how I knew a woman who really loved pens. I don’t know why, but she just loved them. Different styles. Different weights. Ballpoints, rollerballs, and even disposable fountain pens (which you may not have even known existed, but they do). Fancy ones, plain ones. She probably has more than a hundred around her house. You couldn’t walk past a stationary store without her going in.

Now, she and I went on a trip. At some point, I needed to write down a phone number on my hand and asked if she had a pen handy. 

She reached into her bag and handed me a super fancy ballpoint with red ink. But when I wrote on my hand, it didn’t take. The ink wouldn’t stick or something. 

So I asked if she had any others. And she started to pull a few out. I remember thinking to myself, who carries around so many pens to take a trip?! She gave me a fountain pen, which made a mess of my hand. 

While I was wiping the ink off as best I could, she put a highlighter in her hair as she rummaged through her bag. Finally, she handed me a roller ball with purple ink. I took it and wrote on the inside of my hand. Wouldn’t you know it? It was dead.

The essence of the story

If I were to ask you how many pens this woman carried, what would you say? Because when I really needed one, the answer was zero.

Did I make you think of the number?

I bet I did.

I bet some small part of your brain was keeping count of all the pens in the story, envisioning the mess I had on my hands as this made-up woman handed me pens, and you thought the number to yourself.

I made you think it.

Not only that, you’re going to see this number everywhere today. It will pop up in emails and on your social media feeds. It might be the number of the special you order for dinner. It might be the season or the episode of the show you watch before bed. It might be the number of bananas in your kitchen right now.

You’re going to think you’re surrounded by this number.

All because I wrote a little article that made you think of it.

Shifting the perspective

Now, what if I weren’t talking about numbers? What if, instead of a magic number, I needed to get you to think of this company as a place where people can do their best work? 

Or that people are exceedingly kind to one another? Or that they offer just crazy bonuses for doing amazing work?

Wouldn’t that be a really useful trick to learn?

Getting people to come to their own conclusion about the company I represent can’t be done as easily as saying, “We’re kind!” or “Do your best work here!” I need to lead someone to an idea such that the thought seems to simply occur in your mind.

Getting someone to think it is what makes it stick and storytelling does the trick. It makes the idea last.

Do you know how I know?

Because that number I wanted you to think of?

I still haven’t said what it was, and you’re thinking about it again.


James Ellis

James Ellis is an authority on employer branding, focusing on companies who think they have no choice but to post and pray for talent. He is the principal of Employer Brand Labs, a bestselling author, keynote speaker, practitioner, and podcaster with a wealth of experience across multiple industries for almost a decade. His new book Employer Branding for Small Business is available on Amazon.


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