The Power of Storytelling in Business

Man skipping rocks

“Persuasion is the centerpiece of business activity,” Bronwyn Fryer writes in Harvard Business Review. “But despite the critical importance of persuasion, most executives struggle to communicate, let alone inspire. Too often, they get lost in the accoutrements of companyspeak: PowerPoint slides, dry memos, and hyperbolic missives from the corporate communications department.”

Thankfully, companies are exchanging dull PowerPoint slides for engaging stories. For instance, eyeglass seller Warby Parker begins its company history page with a problem: Glasses are too expensive. It then explains how the company is passionate about its solution and how it can help people around the world who lack access to glasses.

Business storytelling is a popular and promising trend that, for many, has become a best practice. Telling a story may be the most effective way for companies to persuade their audience and connect with others.

Why Tell a Story?

The corporate narrative provides the framework for getting everyone on the same page, according to Alan Berkson in ZDNet. “It is a story that embodies the essence of your business in action, comprised of more than just products and services, and more even than your mission statement,” he writes.

Business leaders can tell a story that eclipses what any mission statement can do. A story helps others — internally and externally — understand why the company is so important.

Internal Audience

A clear narrative helps people inside a company appreciate the vision of where the company is headed and empowers them to use their own creativity to help it get there, according to novelist Mohsin Hamid, in an interview with Fast Company. This is especially true with younger workforces of employees who are more likely to respond to methods of empowerment than “marching orders.”

“You have young people who are used to being managed in a different way or not managed at all,” Hamid said. “To have people like that, to have creative thinkers in your company who are the people who are going to innovate and come up with new ways of doing things—to excite and attract and motivate and direct those people—you need something very different in your toolkit, which is really more about storytelling than it is about simply commanding.”

External Audience

“People are not inspired to act by reason alone,” screenwriting lecturer Robert McKee told Fryer. Although conventional rhetoric can be effective in the business world, statistics, facts and quotes from authorities are often not good enough.

A more powerful way to persuade people is by uniting an idea with an emotion. A compelling story weaves information into the act to stimulate emotion and energy.

Business leaders “won’t be heard unless they’re telling stories,” author Nick Morgan told Harvard Business Review. “Facts and figures and all the rational things that we think are important in the business world actually don’t stick in our minds at all.” A story creates an emotional experience that the audience will remember.

When to Tell a Story

There are three important moments when a company should tell stories, according to Hamid.

  1. At the beginning. “If you’re a new company, or if you’re a company entering entirely new territory, you have to explain what you are internally, because nobody knows,” he says.
  2. When new leaders arrive or when a company is acquired. “After that event, storytelling is very important to articulate what the new direction is,” he says.
  3. When a company has trouble growing. “Companies that have a legacy but can’t see where the future growth is coming from very often have a heightened awareness of story, because they need to articulate the way out of what seems to be decline,” he says.

What Makes a Good Story?

Capturing Attention

“Attention is such a scarce resource,” neuroeconomist Paul Zak told Entrepreneur. “You need to grab someone within the first 15 seconds. People have to care about what’s going on; stories need to be of human scale. For instance, ‘Jane Smith was a customer of ours for the past 20 years. Last year she left us.’ That’s a good opening.”

Any story or narrative needs a dramatic arc. Some sort of conflict or tension needs to arise, apart from other core elements of a story such as setting the scene, building action and, after the struggle, a resolution.

McKee defines a story as an expression of how and why life changes. It starts with a relatively balanced life situation. But then there’s an event that throws life out of balance, and the story describes what it’s like for the protagonist to meet and deal with the events and ultimately discover the truth.

Connecting to the Reader

“It’s about connecting,” storytelling coach Andrew Linderman said to Entrepreneur. “You need to be vulnerable and connect to the vulnerability of others.” Within the story’s beginning, middle and end, storytellers need to be specific, honest and personal.

When McKee helps people turn their presentations into stories, he starts by asking questions. “I kind of psychoanalyze their companies, and amazing dramas pour out,” he says. “But most companies and executives sweep the dirty laundry, the difficulties, the antagonists, and the struggle under the carpet. They prefer to present a rosy—and boring—picture to the world.”

The problem with painting a positive picture is that people don’t take it truthfully. “You can send out a press release talking about increased sales and a bright future, but your audience knows it’s never that easy,” McKee says. This can actually create distrust with the audience. But by placing problems in the foreground, storytellers can show how they’ve overcome obstacles. Readers connect with vulnerability and emotion in a story.

Other Tips

Carolyn O’Hara and Morgan offer advice for developing the ability to tell stories in Harvard Business Review.

  • Start with a message. Ask who the audience is and what you want to share. Settle on your ultimate message and figure out the best way to illustrate it.
  • Mine your own experiences. The best storytellers use their life memories and life experiences to illustrate their message. The key is to show vulnerability.
  • Don’t make yourself the hero. You can be a central figure to the story, but the ultimate focus should be on people you know, lessons you’ve learned or events you’ve witnessed. The purpose isn’t to celebrate how great you are or to showcase your decisions.
  • Highlight a struggle. “A story without a challenge simply isn’t interesting,” O’Hara writes. Conflict is necessary.
  • Keep it simple. Not all stories need to be epics. Focus less on the details and more on your key message.
  • Practice makes perfect. Practice your stories with friends, loved ones and colleagues to hone your message into an effective story.

Reaching Your Audience

Storytelling is a powerful marketing tool that helps a business connect to its employees and target audience. Alvernia University’s online MBA prepares students for success with skills and knowledge in marketing, accounting, management, research and more. Learn the latest theories and trends that drive business today. This program takes place in a fully online learning environment.

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