Storytelling is Serious Business for Businesses Serious About Reaching Goals

October 21, 2021

  • Serious business people often think they have to stick to serious business facts to make their points. But introducing storytelling to presentations and meetings is an effective way to deliver a message to an audience rather than lecturing them.
  • Think about your business goals and choose stories that support what you want to do right now. They have to be true, though.
  • As with any other business skill, you can learn to tell stories. There are eight questions to ask yourself to help craft a business story your audience will connect with.

There are two general attitudes towards storytelling in the business world: skepticism and awe. 

Those in the first group believe that storytelling belongs at the campfire or the bar, not the boardroom. And those in the second group think that only certain people — possibly those with some kind of storytelling degree — are allowed to tell stories at a professional level.

Paul Smith wants you to know that both of these attitudes are misguided. If there’s such a thing as a storytelling expert, Paul is one. Having spent over a decade as Director of Market Research at Procter & Gamble, Paul is now a speaker, and author of books including “Lead With a Story,” “Sell With a Story,” and “The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell.”

He argues that business leaders — and employees — can absolutely learn how to tell great stories, and that doing so has significant benefits for a company’s culture and success.

Based on Episode Two of For Your EARS Only — Wiss’ exclusive 10-episode private podcast — here’s Paul’s masterclass on why stories should be part of your presentations and meetings, how to tell business stories that advance your aims, and the 10 types of business stories.

Stories get your message across more effectively than a lecture

You’re probably great at presentations. You probably have your slide transitions timed to the tenth of a second, your fonts consistent across every heading, and the perfect amount of text under every bullet point. 

But even the most beautifully crafted presentation can send its audience to sleep if you don’t give them a reason to stay engaged.

Which is where stories come in. 

Humans are hardwired for stories. We remember information better when it’s in story form, because a beginning, middle, and end connect the dots better than Slide 1, Slide 2, Slide 3.

Stories encourage members of your audience to forget for a minute that they’re even supposed to be learning. “Let me tell you a story” is so much more captivating than “And now let me present the data from Q3.”

In business, we often think that veering from the Clear Hard Data equates with being unserious. But people in business are still people, and a well-timed, well-told story will strike a chord with them as soundly as anyone else.

Paul’s 10 types of business story

The stories that work in business probably aren’t the same as the ones you tell your friends at Happy Hour. Depending on your friendship group.

Business stories should have an end goal besides entertainment. In “The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell,” Paul identifies 10 types of stories that can be helpful in business. 

The first four lay out where the company plans to go:

  • Where we came from: The founding story
  • Why we can’t stay there: The case-for-change story
  • Where we’re going: The story behind the vision
  • How we’re going to get there: The story of the strategy

The next four are about the company’s identity, which can help you inspire staff and market to potential clients:

  • What we believe: Lay out your corporate values
  • Who we serve: The story of your customers
  • What we do for our customers: Your sales story
  • How we’re different from our competitors: The marketing story

The final two are more philosophical:

  • Why I lead the way I do: The story that summarizes your leadership philosophy
  • Why you should want to work here: The story you tell potential hires

Who should tell stories?

By the way, business storytelling isn’t just for leaders. People at every level of a company can benefit from learning to express their ideas through stories. 

This skill can help marketing explain the brand philosophy to customers; enable the finance department to justify a change to the budgeting approach; and reinforce the customer service team when it trains new hires.

In some cases, different people within the same organization will tell a different story that supports the same end goal. 

Take the vision story — where we’re going — for example. Even if you have a very clear overarching company vision, different departments have their own specific goals. This may shift the focus of the story they tell, but the message should be the same.

Which stories should you tell?

Paul recommends looking through the 10 types of story and selecting the ones that will best serve your business goals. 

For example, if you’re scaling and have recently added lots of new employees, focus on solidifying company culture by crafting your founding story and a story about your corporate values. 

Once you’ve picked your top three or so, go out and find those stories. This will be easier for some than others: there’s only one founding story, but there could be lots about why someone should work at your company.

During your research, think about whether you’ve experienced anything that speaks to the point you’re trying to make. Talk to your coworkers and contacts. The stories have to be true: no fictionalizing allowed. 

How to tell great business stories

Now you know the theory, this is where the fun starts!

First of all, understand that storytelling is less like rolling your tongue and more like playing the guitar: It’s not an innate ability some people have and others don’t. Some people are naturally better at it than others, but it is a skill that you can learn and practice.

When crafting your stories, Paul recommends asking yourself eight questions:

  • Why should your audience bother listening to your story? Briefly lay out the purpose of your story upfront, so people understand why you’re about to tell this particular story.

The next five questions will help you fill out the heart of your story:

  • Where and when did it take place?
  • Who’s the main character and what did they want?
  • What was the problem or opportunity they ran into?
  • What did they do about it?
  • How did it turn out?

The final two questions position your story within the context of your business goals:

  • What did you learn from the story? Draw a conclusion.
  • What should the audience do now? Make recommendations.

That seems like a lot to answer, but keep in mind that as effective as stories are as forms of communication, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. 

Paul recommends using 10% to 15% of your presentation time on storytelling. If you’re presenting for an hour, that’s only six to nine minutes. 

Speaking of time, as your company evolves, so will the stories you tell about it. Keep coming back to the stories you craft, and reworking them so they meet your new goals. In the case of your company, it’s a good thing that you don’t know how the story ends yet.

This article is based on an episode of For Your EARS Only, the limited-run, 10-episode podcast series created exclusively for Wiss clients.

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