Storytelling for Business

by Nick Owen

In a nutshell

1. Why use stories in a business context?

There are many compelling reasons to make stories and business narratives a communication tool of choice.

  • Business narratives and stories, told in the service of effective persuasion and influence, may account for some 14 per cent of US GNP.
  • Stories open the listener to new possibilities and ideas – to things that hadn’t been thought about before.
  • Stories get attention because they are different from the way business messages are normally communicated.
  • Stories suggest and show rather than tell and direct; most people find this approach much more respectful.
  • Stories integrate logic and emotion, reason and imagination.


2. What sort of a leader uses stories?

Anyone can tell stories in business environments, but some people have reservations. Context and culture are important considerations, but organisations in which storytelling is despised may be part of an endangered minority!

  • Storytelling leaders include John Harvey Jones, Peter Senge, Jack Welch, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, the Buddha and Jesus Christ.
  • Stories enable such leaders to pass on their messages with elegance and integrity, with humour and utmost seriousness.
  • Power and strength are actually enhanced through connection to one’s own humanity and vulnerability.


3. Know what you want

Unless your purpose is clear, listeners won’t buy into it. What exactly is your purpose in telling this story?

  • A new way of thinking about something?
  • An improved relationship?
  • Building a shared vision for the future?
  • Introducing yourself to a group for the first time?
  • Motivating your team?

Do listeners understand the purpose?

  • Sometimes you can explain the purpose before telling the story.
  • At other times, it’s best to ask them what they understand from it after telling it.
  • In the long term, what effect has the story had on people’s behaviour?


4. Your audience

Exactly who are you audience? What’s their relationship with you? What do they know or need? What’s their mood or expectation? How can you connect with them and engage their deep attention?

  • What does your audience want and need? What is the right bait for them?
  • Start where they are in their reality and build a respectful trusting relationship.
  • Observe them – they will listen to what you are saying, then go off on an inner journey to connect with something inside themselves. But soon they will return to listen once again.
  • Stories appeal to people with all kinds of learning styles.
  • When connecting to very varied, large audiences, it’s usually a good idea to use stories which are more universal than particular.
  • It is essential that you have the listeners’ complete attention before you start.
  • Frame the topic before you begin.


5. Frames and reframes

Painters choose the frame for their pictures with care. The right frame brings out the best of the painting. The wrong frame can destroy its impact.

  • Choose the frame for your story with care and creativity.
  • Framing focuses your audience on the messages you want them to think about.
  • The meaning of each story will depend upon the context in which you tell it, who you are, and who you tell it to.
  • Reframing allows us to see the world differently, by revealing a new angle or perspective on our habitual ways of experiencing reality.


6. Story types and structure

It is important to choose the right type of story for your purpose and know how to construct it to achieve the most powerful results.

  • Each type of story has its appropriate context.
  • Different types of story require different structural considerations and different ways of telling.
  • Structure is the glue that holds a story together and the basis on which to improvise with style and sparkle.


7. Who am I?

This type of story is particularly powerful in the following contexts:

  • To introduce yourself when meeting people for the first time
  • In crisis situations, when difficult decisions have to be made
  • In one-to-one situations, including coaching.


8. Who are we?

Use this type of story to express the identity, vision, purpose, sense of service of the organisation, division, team or group.

  • Keep it positive and truthful.
  • Spotlight individuals.
  • Keep it specific and real, but avoid dry facts.
  • Keep it short and simple.


9. Sharing information

This type of story is excellent for disseminating information or knowledge, and to promote new ways of thinking or doing.

  • Be succinct.
  • Link the story to universal patterns.
  • Set it in a clear context.
  • Tell it in an informal atmosphere.


10. Transmitting values

This type of story has a generalised, timeless quality – hypothetic yet credible. It can be used to stress or demonstrate what is important to you and the organisation, the ethos of the organisation and how these values can be lived and demonstrated with integrity. Topics:

  • Something that makes you proud to work for your organisation
  • A time you faced and overcame some adversity, a challenge, a dragon
  • A turning point in your life
  • Someone you admire, perhaps a leader or teacher whose values you connect with – what qualities or values does he or she embody?


11. Motivating (making change possible)

Used to introduce change or a re-focusing of ideas and action, this type of story can get buy-in for the change and motivate the troops to participate actively.

  • It must be based on something that has already successfully happened – a true story that can be checked and convince doubters and sceptics.
  • It must connect to the vision and have a happy ending.
  • It can work well if it’s a Hero’s Journey story.


12. Teaching stories

Use this type of story to let others know, not only what you’d like them to do, but, much more importantly, how you would like them to do it. In one way or another, most stories are teaching stories.

  • It can be positive or negative (as in a warning story).
  • It demonstrates the underlying reason or purpose for doing things in the way you suggest.
  • Make it human.


13. Warning stories

For obvious reasons, these tend to be negative tales rather than positive ones. They are similar to teaching and information stories.


14. What’s in it for me?

Tell this type of story when you want people to change, do things differently, buy in to a new process and so on, and you don’t want them to be cynical about the reasons you’re asking them to do it. Before telling them how they’ll benefit, be up-front and tell them first how you’ll benefit.

  • Be open and honest about your goals and values.
  • Distinguish between healthy ambition and dishonest exploitation.
  • The best of all possible worlds is a triple win: a win for yourself, for others and for the wider community or the planet.


15. Illuminating visions

Future stories are one of the hardest types to get right, simply because the future is so uncertain and so difficult to anticipate with any degree of accuracy. Therefore, keep the story vague-ish and metaphorical.

  • If at all possible, set the story in the near future.
  • If not, use multiple scenarios rather than one brave prediction.
  • Consider playing with the time line. Look back from future to present, from present out to future and from present back to less good past. Create the impression that the journey is inevitable.


16. Simple metaphor

Use this type of story when you want to give people something to think about. When used appropriately and at the right time, a metaphor can often endow you with a sense of gravitas and wisdom because it is so timeless and universal.


17. Classic stories

Classic stories are drawn from the great body of tradition handed down over centuries within and between countries and cultures.

  • They tend to be metaphorical and universal, so it is important to create a clear frame when using them.
  • It is possible to change elements within them in order to adapt them to the purpose you have in mind.
  • Stay with the essentials, but keep the timeless or metaphorical quality.


18. Preparation and practice

It is important to do this, but not too much. You’ll need to prepare both your content and yourself.

  • Choose stories that are meaningful for you.
  • If possible, arrange the seating to create the ideal atmosphere.
  • Rehearse during the previous days.
  • Create a story skeleton as a memory aid.
  • Get in the right state beforehand.


19. Performance

Three elements are essential to effective storytelling:

  • Connect to your values and beliefs
  • Be yourself
  • Connect to your highest purpose.


20. Response-Ability

This is the art of engaging your audience with both your content and the relationship you build with them. It is the recognition that storytelling at its best is always a two-way process. To engage with your audience

  • Breathe deep down into your belly area
  • At the end of each idea, and especially of each sentence, pause to let your communication sink in
  • Engage first with yourself – if you’re not engaged with yourself, no-one’s going to engage with you
  • Once you’re engaged with yourself, establish eye contact and engage with your audience
  • Connect to your emotion and follow that.


21. Feedback

The best storytellers rely on their feedback loop with the audience and respond accordingly. Continue to develop your storytelling skills by working with the four types of feedback:

  • Watch skilled storytellers and model them
  • Observe the audience for non-verbal feedback
  • Do a self appraisal after each performance
  • Afterwards, listen to feedback, solicited and unsolicited.


22.Where can I find stories to tell?

Stories are everywhere. Just start to look for them:

  • In books, newspapers and movies
  • In everyday events
  • In your own life
  • In the lives of famous leaders and teachers.


23. Some general applications

Because they connect at different levels, stories lend themselves to a wide variety of uses:

  • To change mood, state or energy levels
  • To tap the unconscious
  • To introduce new concepts or change
  • To disturb a limiting point of view.