Storytelling In Business: How Can It Benefit You?

Kelsey Ruger8 ResponsesCreativity

Have you ever wondered how you can make your presentations more dynamic? Do you want to relate to your audience so that your message is more memorable? Maybe you want to add more drama or humor to your presentations. If so then storytelling is definitely the way to go.

Take a moment and think back to the last time you read a book that you simply couldn’t put down? How did you feel? Do you remember the story? The characters? Now think about a time you were inspired to work hard or keep going after reading an autobiography or success story? That feeling of exhilaration and energy you felt is the result of a powerful story. In a business context, leaders can use these types of stories to educate, engage, inspire and encourage employees. You know your story hit the mark when it helps your audience connect the dots between the rational and emotional in situations where they might not otherwise be engaged or interested.

To illustrate this, before you watch the clip below let me present the facts of the scene:

  • 4 junior high aged boys are traveling across their county to see something interesting
  • They come to a railroad bridge that spans a large canyon with a river below
  • They decide to cross despite the possibility of danger
  • Two of the boys narrowly miss being run off the tracks when a train does come through

Big difference right? The scene presents the story on a level that is hard to reach with simple facts. Something else to note: The context of this scene in the movie doesn’t affect its meaning because the scene presents what is called a universal truth story. Universal truth stories are used to communicate widely understood values, beliefs or situations that are understood regardless of race, ethnicity, religious beliefs or gender. Ultimately this is what you want to achieve when you pick a business story.

We’ve all experienced loss, fear, doubt, change, and complexity. Sometimes it’s easier to put those experiences in perspective when we see them through the eyes of a character in a story. Your stories should make it easy for the audience to empathize with what happens to the characters based on their own life experiences.

There is however a problem with all this. We have been taught in school and business that facts rather than narrative should drive our decision process. Most people don’t keep track of situations, stories and anecdotes that they can use later to explain work issues or problems. Here are some reasons why it’s important to start using meaningful stories in your work:

Stories help people cope with change

Change is an inevitable part of work life. Whether good or bad most change brings some level of discomfort to the workplace because the unknowns of change are perceived as bad. When things change a story can help people understand that change doesn’t always mean doom and/or loss. By relating to their fears, uncertainties, confusion and anger you can help your audience craft a new more positive version of their stories (more on the bad stories we create later). When crafting a story about change don’t just ask what happened. Ask yourself “what will make people understand the change?“, “how did change affect the character in the story?“, “how can I illustrate that the change wasn’t the end of the world?

Stories get rid of the FUDs

Fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUDs) controls the average person more than they will admit. Fear of failure, rejection, ridicule or the unknown keeps many people from pursuing things they would likely find success in. When we feel afraid our instinctual reaction is to run or fight. We naturally want to do whatever it takes to preserve our sense of ‘safety’. A story in these situations can help people to fight their natural instincts by presenting a character who overcomes their fear without suffering a great loss. Many times the characters in these stories are far better off after facing down their fear.

Stories help make the complex simple

If you look at one of my presentations you will see I am not a fan of the ‘stuffed data’ slide. I learned a long time ago that the majority of people simply tune you out when you drone on about data item after data item. We live in a complex world that has taught us to incorrectly rely heavily on facts and figures when communicating meaning in the modern workplace. The rule of thumb here? No one cares about your facts and figures as much as you do. Throw them out in favor of a story that explains what those numbers mean and why that meaning is important. A simple, memorable universal truth story about a person who solves a problem by taking a certain course of action will always serve you better.

Stories persuade where facts can’t

We live in a world where the best storytellers get what they want. They understand that the stories we hear and tell daily influence us on a very deep level. They also know that relying solely on organizational, product or technical knowledge isn’t enough in today’s complex business environments. When faced with an opportunity to persuade, if you can’t make it meaningful for your audience, what you talk about doesn’t make much difference. Stories will work because when compared with other persuasion methods, they allow your audience to come to the desired conclusion on their own.

Stories produce mental images

Visual communication is a fundamental part of human history. Indigenous cultures used images to communicate and record history. You see it in primitive cave painting, the hieroglyphics of Egypt and the notes and sketches of such great thinkers as Leonardo Da Vinci. This tradition has helped shape language, history and and culture around the world. On top of that, a full 80% of our brain is dedicated to visual processing. If you can find a way to activate your audience’s imagination and create a strong mental image, the impact of your story will be multiplied. Visual imagery can help capture ideas and significantly improve the ability to learn and comprehend a subject. Start using visual words like imagine, think, picture, or when was the last time. Now that you have read that look at the first line of this post again.

So the next time you have to give a speech or presentation remember the benefit of using a strong narrative to get your point across. P.S. Check out Lessons From The Emporium for another universal truth story.

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In This Article

We’ve all experienced loss, fear, doubt, change, and complexity. Sometimes it’s easier to put those experiences in perspective when we see them through the eyes of a character in a story.

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Comments & Opinions

Robbie VorhausWednesday, March 3rd 2010

Hi, Kelsey,
wonderful post, thank you.
storytelling allows us to express our internal truths in ways humanity understands.
what’s so important about storytelling in business is that when we simply talk facts, we leave it up to the audience(s) to interpret our message.
storytelling, w/ it’s common themes, structure, cadence, and characters, is like a trojan horse because our truth is carried across the threshold, where ordinary communications is blocked at the door.
let’s keep in touch and i remain your new fan,

rv

Brad PecotWednesday, March 3rd 2010

Even though this article is about storytelling in business, why can’t it parallel to storytelling in life? Many people face the same types of challenges at work that they do in their personal lives. This is why I believe every person should read. You will find similarities between other stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, to your own story.

    Kelsey RugerTuesday, March 9th 2010

    @Brad I use stories for nearly every teaching situation. Metaphors work really well too. There is actually a Metaphor dictionary that you can get to see some of the common stories that we use everyday.

Sean BennettWednesday, March 3rd 2010

Thanks for the great post Kelsey! I may want to use some portions for a later presentation, if you don’t mind. As a producer of multimedia communications and working with gov’t/corp/nonprofit clients, it never ceases to amaze me how they continuously want to include data point after data point in videos and multimedia productions. Some do end up getting it, but for some, it’s like fighting tooth and nail to simplify, simplify, simplify! They rave about it when they see examples of successful techniques…then resist when it comes to their own material. I’ve used your “rule of thumb” before and it’s definitely true…”no one cares about your facts and figures as much as you do.”
Thanks again for the great post & the creative motivation!

@BrigitLawMonday, September 27th 2010

Hi Kelsey, thank you for your great post. I also like metaphor dictionaries, especially regional/local ones.

I am developing a workshop for architects, they have great stories to tell but many don't, they traditionally stick to telling the facts and figures of their design. Imagine a video like the train & 4 boys one in the setting of a construction site …

Another challenge I am facing is to get government officials of the EU to use storytelling to connect internally and externally. Should be possible if they are willing to understand better what their funding is achieving. Stories about EU funded innovation projects have great potential because of their high drama factor.

Looking forward to read more from you!

Chris EkblomWednesday, January 25th 2012

Very informative post Kelsey, thank you for sharing. Storytelling bedazzlement is essential for conveying meaning and illistrating your point. I agree with several points you make in the post-especially when you talk about ‘activating your audience’s imagination’.

How often do we find ourselves at a presentation being bombarded with pie charts and graphs? Tell us a story not a statistic!

Thanks again, looking forward to your next post!

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