Why storytelling is good business - and how to do it

Storytelling in business
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Chris Hirsch
Toastmasters International
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Once upon a time, long, long ago…  It was a dark and stormy night... It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...  

Familiar story openings evoke an immediate emotional response. Perhaps you feel a sense of relaxation or comfort followed by the excitement of anticipation.  Who are the characters? Where have they come from? What happens next?

Evolutionary psychologists tell us that as human beings we are born to tell and listen to stories. We do it naturally and unprompted in most daily conversations. But are we telling stories purposefully to improve our business?

Peter Guber, Hollywood movie producer, executive and storyteller illustrates the power of stories. In his book Tell to Win he reminds us of the importance of statistics, data, instructions etc. but adds “stories have a unique power to move people’s hearts, minds, feet and wallets in the storyteller’s intended direction”.

What makes a good business story?

Often people respond by talking about the detail of the content and, perhaps, how important it is. However, I’ve come to a different view. I now see that a compelling story has little to do with the content. What is important is the structure.

A good structure will capture attention, create tension and build to resolution.  This is significant as even a small anecdote can be made powerful and effective if it’s structured well.

How to structure your stories

Successful stories broadly follow the same basic structure

  • Begin with scene setting (Once upon a time in America two students drop out of college……)
  • A problem is discovered (… they have no money to manufacture their innovative product commercially…)
  • Tension rises as the problem can’t be solved (…they get an order but only for fully assembled items…)
  • The tipping point is reached (…they explore every option to get credit – and fail…)
  • Resolution is achieved (…a far-sighted credit manage at a parts wholesaler throws them a life line…)
  • And finally there is a new status quo (…Apple 1 hits the shelves and is profitable)

The key is to use this structure to present your business story in a compelling fashion that touches your audience and encourages your clients (or staff) to take action. A word of caution: your story must be authentic and based on reality. Above all it must not just be a sales pitch.

What’s the story – the WHY of your business?

A good starting point is to consider the ‘why’ of your business. In fact, while you are at it, go the whole hog and consider Rudyard Kipling’s piece of wisdom: “I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew): Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.”

Nearly every business solves a problem and the above questions will help you realise clearly what problem or problems you are solving. This is not as obvious as you think. For instance, in my firm’s role as chartered wealth managers and financial planners, the problems we solve are complexity and uncertainty.  The resolution or destination we are guiding people towards is a combination of security and peace of mind.

So in financial services we are telling stories that help people to understand their own financial situation and to feel comfortable making the decisions that will affect their future - the ones we all need to make but often procrastinate about.  This short explanation is a story in itself.

For your own business, think of clients you are most proud of helping, employees who’ve been successful – it is their story you need to tell.  For a great example, go to YouTube and watch Patricia Fripp showing how a Gap executive learned to tell a motivating story about a young Gap employee and sell himself as a credible leader in the process.

Storytelling to solve a problem

Storytelling is a highly effective means of communicating with others. But it goes further than that because we also think in narrative ourselves.

If you have a problem to solve, turn it into a story. Most problems involve other people so I challenge you to make them the hero of the story and make yourself the guide. Think of a positive ending first, so you know the outcome you aiming for then use the structure outlined above.

By doing this you are automatically looking at the situation from the other person’s point of view and trying to think how you can solve their problem. This can be an effective and enlightening process.

Not only do stories help us make sense of the world, they can elevate our thoughts and make us believe (even if it is only temporarily) that anything is possible. It’s no surprise that stories are enjoyed in business by employees as well as to customers and suppliers.  Dry facts about a company product can be transformed into a compelling reason to buy with a well-chosen story.  Remember what happened next after Apple 1?

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