Storytelling In Business Part 1 – Stories Are Not Just For Marketing

Storytelling makes us human. As a species we crave narratives, they help us transcend the “here and now”. Stories are a key factor in how we have ended up where we are today.

But storytelling and business? They are not two concepts that blend together for most people.

When you think of storytelling, you think of the last great film or series you watched. When you think of business, you think about spreadsheets or numbers.

But it may surprise you to know that storytelling is a vital part of business. In fact good storytelling helps a business to function, grow and succeed. 

So let us tell you a story…about storytelling.

Window with neon sign saying "what's your story".
Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

Storytelling Is Not Just For Marketing

In our last post we spoke about video advertising where there was, naturally, a focus on storytelling.

Storytelling is at the core of good marketing. In fact, marketing does not exist without good storytelling. So we will come back to that in part 3.

But the stories that a business tells to itself are as important as the stories it tells to everyone else.

Here are a few examples of how stories can help a business function outside of marketing and acquisition.

Change in white text with a black background.
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Dealing With Change Internally

A story is, in and of itself, about change.

Think of Frodo Baggins in “The Lord Of The Rings”. He is safe in Bag End and then there is an incident, his life gets turned upside down and by the end of the third book/film his issues are resolved.

There is change at every step, from a starting point of equilibrium.

Change is constant in business and some staff can fear that change. So storytelling is a tool that companies can use to help educate staff about the change, express the reason for it and generate buy-in. You might even be able to shift skeptical staff into change advocates.

However you should also remember that there is a time for narrative and there is a time for sticking to the facts. Good business storytelling shows an awareness of when to use different tactics to explain the motivations behind a change.

Now we know that a good story can provide a framework to explain the how and the why behind any big change in a business. But who should tell that story?

A person playing a guitar and signing outside.
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The Ballad Of The Storytellin’ Business Leader

There are lots of CEOs around. Many of them are very good at their job. But a CEO who cannot tell a good story cannot be a great CEO.

It is a CEO’s job to explain to their organization why things happen. As established above, stories are a very effective way to do that. In most organizations staff may not even see the CEO for 99% of the time. So those CEO’s really need to craft effective narratives when they go in front of their team. 

If they cannot do that things can go wrong very quickly. Which is when shareholders might start asking questions.

A CEO has to be able to tell a story. But so do other leaders throughout the company. If you need a famous example of this, look no further than Amazon.

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Storytelling Built Amazon

Amazon, as an organization, prioritizes writing and storytelling far more than just about any business you can name. As they are one of the biggest companies on the planet, it very much works for them. 

Strong writing structures and storytelling influence Amazon internally. Internally, you cannot have a meeting with other Amazon staff without a document that states exactly why that meeting is necessary. Reports, meeting agendas and project ideas have to be written down on the infamous “six pager”. Amazon staff have six pages to express what they require, no more than that. Powerpoint is banned and meetings start with 15 minutes of silence where every attendee reads the required documentation.

Amazon also uses PRFAQs for new projects, working backwards by using a press release to ideate an imaginary product.

Amazon started off selling books, so it’s no surprise that they value writing and stories!

A pencil with a blank piece of paper to illustrate the start of planning a story.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

So, How Do You Build A Story?

So we have established that businesses run on stories. But how do you go about constructing a good story? Here are some basic techniques to remember when planning the stories you want to tell.

Storytelling In Business – Basic Narrative Structure

Narrative structure theory has been around since before Aristotle. There are lots of different ideas around that touch on how you should construct a story. But for storytelling in business purposes we will keep it simple and use the “5 W’s” (which are now attributed to Aristotle…). This is because it is the easiest structure to remember and an easy one to use.

Who – Who is driving the story and who is affected. Who loses out? Who is leading things?

What – What is happening or what has happened? What does it mean?

When – When did it happen? When can the reader/viewer be updated again? When will effects be felt?

Where – Where is the story happening? Where does the reader/viewer go to find out more?

Why – Why should the reader/viewer care? Why is this important?

You can use this narrative structure in almost everything. A speech, a sales deck or even a video advertisement. It’s simple and effective. But despite its simplicity, it can be hard to master. So get experimenting!

You may have noticed that the 5 W’s are also featured in the onliness statement, from Marty Neumeier’s 2006 book, Zag. We are using them at MAQE to help people work out their ideas for microenterprises.

Storytelling In Business – Basic Emotional Structure

People make decisions based on emotions. There is a reason some ads are heartfelt, some are funny and some address issues we all care about. They are designed to elicit an emotion and drive you to make a decision.

But you cannot make people feel everything. If you think of an advertisement that has made you feel something, it is likely one or two different emotions within the ad.

One of the basic rules of storytelling in business is to narrow your emotional focus down to one or two emotions. Begin your story planning by picking one or two emotions that you want to elicit. Here is a list that covers the broadest emotional responses you want to elicit.

Humor – That’s funny!!

Anger – That Makes Me Angry

Awww – That’s Cute

Amaze – That’s Amazing

Crazy – That’s Crazy

Eureka! – That’s Made Me Get It

Finally – That’s Made Me Feel Seen And Agreed With

Empathy – That’s Made Me Feel For You

Great! – That’s Great News For You And For Me

Humor is a tricky one and not for the faint of heart. If you are a business leader who is brave enough to experiment with humor you might find you fall flat on your face a lot, at least initially. But, humor aside, pick one or two of these emotions from the list. As an experiment you could write a mock business speech where you pick two emotions to elicit and send it to a friend. You will get some good feedback.

Image of a gavel to illustrate storytelling in business rules.
Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

Quick Rules For Leadership Storytelling In Presentations

If you are in a leadership position and are looking for some hard and fast rules for presentations, speeches or meetings you will not go far wrong with this list of basics.

Be Open To Good Stories

Grateful customer emails or reviews, how your product or service helps people, if someone in your organization has done something incredible. All of these are good stories. To be a good storytelling leader, you need to be open to them. There is a reason you can just send an email to Tim Cook, he’s looking for a good story to use. Set up an email address for that purpose and be approachable to your staff and customers. You can then use these stories in internal or external briefings and events.

A List Is NOT A Story

If you find yourself saying “here are 8 things that are really important” then you are not telling a story. It is a listicle.

Do NOT Say “let me tell you a story about..”

Do not start your business meeting with the first line of the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” intro music. You are drawing attention to a storytelling device, which breaks immersion. That is fine in a Deadpool movie, not good in an early morning quarterly briefing.

Do NOT apologize for your story

This can be a trap that well-meaning leaders can fall into. They might say “sorry but I’ve got a story about this…”. They should stop right there. You are telling your audience that you don’t value your story. Also you’ve taken the time to try and craft something fun, don’t ever apologize for that.

Image of a piece of paper with a checklist on it.
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Quick Actions – Storytelling In Business Do’s and Don’ts

These rules hold true across all the materials and meetings you might encounter at your business. Whether its a presentation, a strategy document or a speech at an event.

Do experiment with Storytelling by using the “5 W’s” in everything – Speeches, sales decks, emails, presentation decks…everything

Do pick two emotions – Pick the two emotions you want to bring out and work backwards

Do measure responses from your tests – Ask people what they like or did not like.

Do create an open channel for your customers to get in touch with you – Read their stories and use them.

Do be a ruthless editor – Amazon writing works because they cut everything down to essentials. This is great for internal business storytelling.

Do NOT over explain when it is not necessary – You do not need to add twenty layers of context to a story. It is boring and most people can put things together themselves. Some things need more context, most things are fine with the essentials.

Again to repeat, Do NOT ever say “let me tell you a story” or “our story begins with” – It breaks immersion in a business setting. It’s fine for movies and books, but your business is not a lore-filled tolkienesque world-building exercise.

Read on for part 2 of our storytelling series! We will look at how to use storytelling on your website, your product/service pages and your sales deck structure.

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Talk to MAQE

Do you want to be able to tell better stories in your organization to help deal with change? Talk to MAQE. We can help you make your organization more Agile and help your staff feel good about the changes you are making. Get in touch via [email protected].