Storytelling for Business

by Nick Owen

Motivating (making change possible)

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


  • Short and to the point
  • Based on a sound change plan
  • Must be based on something that has already successfully happened, a true story that can be checked and convince doubters and sceptics
  • Positive tone: if there’s bad news to deliver, deliver it first – straight and stark – and then move quickly on the positive.
  • Invite the audience to visualise a more desirable future.
  • Include the following:
  1. What is the specific change to be made?
  2. Who is the hero/star of the story? This makes it a Hero’s Journey story. The hero’s journey incorporates one of the most powerful of human archetypes.
  3. Give key details of actual context – date, place and setting. This makes it concrete and tangible.
  4. Is the central character a typical representative of the audience; if not, can s/he be adapted to be so?
  5. Will the audience identify with the central character’s perspective?
  • Does the story adequately get across the key change idea?
  • Does the story make clear the likely negative consequences if the change plan is not adopted?
  • Does the story have a genuinely positive ending?
  • Does the story clearly and powerfully make the point you want it to?

Denning, whose work has been influential on the above ideas, suggests it can also be useful to include such phrases as:

  • Imagine ...
  • What if ...?
  • Just think ...
  • I’m wondering just what ...

Frame: a culture resistant to change and innovation

Purpose: to get people to see new possibilities and opportunities by taking different perspectives and thinking outside the box

Like many of us, Dr Spence Silver, didn’t always succeed in his professional life. Mostly he got it right, but sometimes he screwed up big time. He was a researcher at a large manufacturing company and part of his job was to invent new glues. His greatest failure was to invent a substance that was decidedly inefficient: it hardly stuck at all. It became quite famous – for all the wrong reasons.

So well-rehearsed was this story in the company that people were still debating it five years later. So much so that a new-product development researcher named Art Fry suddenly had a Eureka moment. The world of traditional thinking was turned on its head. Wondering how to respectfully dog-ear his church choir hymn book, he realised the ‘failed’ adhesive could be just the ticket for a bookmark. And so it was that the Post-it® Note was born. Silver’s shocker turned out to be 3M’s greatest triumph.

Even so, it took a lot of effort to overcome the intransigence and traditionalism of some board members. But once those little notes got out on the street, nothing was ever quite the same again. Imagine a world without Post-its. Imagine what could happen if we started here in this company to look again, and in completely new ways, at some of our rejected products. Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with the product. We just haven’t considered the right CONTEXT for it. YET!


Frame: let’s not think we’ve reached perfection; let’s not be complacent

Gandhi was once asked what he thought of western civilisation. He said he thought it would be a good idea.