The Art of Storytelling in Business

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“Having spent my life believing in the dream of reason, I was startled to find that an appropriately told story had the power to do what rigorous analysis couldn’t: to communicate a strange new idea and move people to enthusiastic action.” — Stephen Denning, author of The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling

Let’s continue to explore artistic processes as a means of inspiring and helping catapult you and your organization to positive business outcomes and a more inspiring work environment.  I’d like to examine here an art that is a regular practice in the business landscape, bringing it front and center for a deeper look: the art of storytelling.  

While tuning into the Olympics this year, I realized that my interest in each competition — my “buy-in” — was significantly enhanced when the background stories for individual athletes were featured. Their personal beginnings, struggles, challenges, and unflagging perseverance connected me in a way that was more intense than simply witnessing their skills in their particular sport. I became invested in their stories. A powerful and emotional human connection was being forged within me.  This made the competition more thrilling to watch. 

Establishing this type of emotional connection with stakeholders through real and engaging stories can also work powerfully in professional organizations.   

We all know that numbers speak volumes and metrics and analytics are critical to revealing what is transpiring in an organization. The right data tells a story which can help define organizational strategies.  It can aid in determining if there is a need to add resources or improve systems, realign or eliminate personnel, change processes, or even pivot the overall vision or mission to meet current business trends in the community (as many organizations were forced to do during the pandemic).

Numbers provide vital details to business leaders, but they are rarely the best tool to positively engage the workforce, attract clients, and retain employees and customers.  

Within an organization, storytelling can be used to motivate staff to purpose-driven action by engaging them emotionally with the overall mission, or aligning them with a specific concept, program, or strategy.  Stories can also provide a useful tool to help quickly head off and address misconceptions or confusion that may arise within organizational departments or teams and which can wreak havoc on morale. 

Leaders who create an internal culture that encourages storytelling offer an environment in which their employees can internalize and “feel” those stories in a way that resonates with them and helps to guide their performance. 

These stories can — and should — involve those that address failures as well as successes.  Leaders who are prepared to discuss their own failed efforts and shortcomings can prepare their employees to embrace mistakes to better prepare for future successes. Think of the Olympics stories. Those that reveal failures and obstacles overcome are the ones we really root for.  Also, as your employees get to know you as a human being, and not just as their superior, they can get a real sense of the values you cherish (not just the what, but also the why).  This provides the impetus to forge a personal connection that can build trust in your leadership.  

Externally, powerful organizational narratives, like strong marketing campaigns, can be used to encourage customers to purchase a product or engage your services.  A truly compelling narrative can drive customers to a business in ways that can lead to organizational success stories. These success stories can breed more success stories leading to a cycle of storytelling which can form a comprehensive historical narrative to inform and guide an organization. You now have a vision-affirming foundation that can help to refine direction, establish a winning culture, and stimulate growth. 

So, how do we begin?

Stories can be communicated verbally, in writing, or through visual means, or can combine elements of each of these.  Oftentimes these messages are direct and information based, such as a company-wide email announcing the addition of a new client, process, staff member, etc.  Even these routine communications can be created in a way that allows for a connection to the material.  

But when there is a need to convey larger ideas or to inspire your audience to action, adding creative components by utilizing storytelling techniques, can bring even simple ideas to life, and make them more present, and personal to the receiver.  Here’s where it becomes an art.  But it is one that anyone can master with some practice. 

Not everyone is gifted as a writer. I’ve written creatively and in business settings for years and these skills continue to evolve.  For example, this blog has been edited and revised many, many, (many) times before it was published.  And, even when the work feels done, my heart always beats a bit faster when I prepare to hit the “publish” button! (What did I forget? Does this concept even make sense??). 

As with writing, not everyone is gifted as a presenter or public speaker. I’ve been a performer and have had countless opportunities to speak to groups either in a public setting, or in a presentation for clients or staff.  No matter how intimate the group, there are always some butterflies.  That’s normal and indicates that we care about getting it right. We want others to be engaged and interested in what we have to say.  

So, if you are not confident in how to do this well, remember that both of these skills can be enhanced — like any art — with practice!  If you are new at this, or would like to get better at it, practice with a friend, family member, or trusted co-worker.  Have them read what you’ve written and ask for specific and genuine feedback on how it affected them.  

For a spoken presentation, let them be your audience. They may offer feedback, ask questions, or you may receive insight simply from watching their expression and/or physical demeanor.  These clues will help you improve your storytelling capabilities. Live theatre productions include dress rehearsals or preview performances in front of an audience for a reason.  Are they laughing at the jokes?  Are they fidgeting — or worse — dozing? Do they applaud at the appropriate places?  And so on. 

I recall having to do a presentation in my Master’s program a few years ago.  It was a three-minute “elevator speech” Powerpoint presentation designed to provide an overview of my capstone (thesis) project.  It needed to be concise and hit all the points, but it also needed to engage the listener. The presentation would be graded and would be “performed” in front of my respected peers as well as the course’s professor. 

I worked earnestly on this project, pulling together a few slides to add structure and provide some humor, and then came up with a script to work from.  I practiced it over and over again to get comfortable and to refine it.  I then asked my twin sister to watch and listen and provide feedback.  

She was nice about it, but it was flat and unengaging and I stumbled. A lot. So, more practice ensued. At this point, I realized I had to find a way to really personally engage with my topic and think of it as a story I was eager to tell.  

This approach really helped.  And, the class presentation went even better than I had expected.  Though I had rehearsed intensely, the final product felt free and almost conversational.  I got a good grade, but what I had learned about engaging storytelling was even more important.  I had to firmly believe in what I was talking about, not just because it was being graded, but because I had formed an emotional and personal connection to the material. 

Traditional storytelling at its finest requires the ability to weave a tale that arrests the attention  of its reader or listener in a way that makes them eager to continue reading or listening.  Or they are inspired to feel something powerful and emotional. 

The same can happen in business storytelling. 

In the workplace, stories come in all sizes. They can be as grand as a full-scale marketing campaign, a press release, or presentation before a large group at a conference.  Or as simple as a brief recounting of a successful interaction with a client during a staff meeting, or sharing an individual or a team’s struggles and how they surmounted them during a project post-mortem.  

So, how can we as individuals most effectively reach people with our stories? 

As I experienced with my presentation, you have to be personally connected and care about the story you are telling.  Authenticity and honesty are key factors in attracting others to your story.  We are not writing fiction here.  Truth has power! 

Humor is also very useful in welcoming people in.  If your listener is laughing, they are in a positive place to receive the ideas they are hearing, even if they include negative elements or those that are instructive in nature.

If you are going to speak to a group, do take some time to practice what you are going to say. But if your story sounds too rehearsed (as with my Master’s presentation), it can feel manufactured and people will tune out.  Once you become comfortable with the material, you can (and should) be prepared to go “off script” to add thoughts that come naturally in the moment.  

Social responsibility and involvement in causes that are important to the global community can drive engagement.  Businesses may take a “greener” approach to their operations and can highlight this both in their marketing and through internal policies and practices. A culture of responsibility is built that can attract both employees and customers.  Similarly, companies who value diversity and spotlight it outwardly as well as internally can earn the respect of their community and provide an emotional connection through their “story.”

I’d love to dig even deeper into this topic with you, but, because this is a blog and not a book or a workbook, we won’t have the space to explore the specifics as deeply here.  I’m continuing to learn more through some great resources.  You may want to check out the book from which the quote appears at the top of this blog.  It provides some excellent ideas and tools for achieving success in business storytelling.  Here’s the link: The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling

And please share your own narratives and success stories and how they had an impact in your organization!  I’d love to include them in a future blog.  

4 thoughts on “The Art of Storytelling in Business

  1. Judith Wagner

    Hi Elizabeth, As always, your blog posts make me think. It reminded me that once I read that feature articles in journalism should begin with an individual’s story illustrating the phenomenon that the piece is intended to convey. I see it all the time in wash post and NYT. All the stories about Afghanistan, for example, begin with an individual family or person to suck you into the larger issue. – corruption, status of women, etc I hope you will follow up this blog piece with an example from your job experience. That is, how to go from a specific story about, say, a customer interaction to the larger point about a management policy, or system, etc. I don’t think I ever used the technique in my speeches. I was always too insecure to get human. I thought from the top down. Not from the story up. I am sure it took away from the strength of my presentations. I do know that I drew lessons from my experiences, which I could tell as stories, about how to respond to certain situations. For example, as a 13 year old at the beginning of a summer at our sea shore house, I knew nobody. Had no friends to go swimming with, etc etc. cried in my bed for 3 days. Finally it got so bad that I decided to walk down alone to the yacht club teen dance (where I knew nobody), cause complete rejection couldn’t be worse than a summer crying in bed. At first it was baaad…then a boy asked me to dance, and all of a sudden the girls came up to talk to me. I was accepted (50’s style). Strange, stupid story, but it told me …when you are lonely and isolated, you have to pick yourself up and go looking for human interactions. So, at 13 I was able to generalize from an experience (or my internal story) to a life long mode of action. The story I remembered spoke powerfully to me, and I still think of it from time to time, especially these days in a new, sort of alien environment. So, while I appreciate everything you wrote ..especially about the process of rehearsing, and role of humor, etc. the concept needs fleshing out with a “how-to” real life business-related example. Next blog. Love, Judy

    Sent from my iPad

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    1. Thank you so much for sharing your story! It’s the perfect example of how human choices lead to action and how those stories (even those that seem personal and private to you) can be used to inspire others. I agree that some examples would be very useful in really bringing this topic to life. This particularly post ended up more conceptual than real-life based. Stories from my own, or others experiences — like yours — would be beneficial to make this topic really sing! Thanks for starting the ball rolling on that and stay tuned!

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