The Art of Business Storytelling

Kelsey RugerMar 1, 20107 ResponsesCreativity

When it comes to communicating an important message, people really don’t care about the facts. They care about the things that touch, move and inspire them. Facts just can’t do that.

Stories have been used since the beginning of time to share knowledge, human history, and ideas. Sure they contain facts, but that’s not what makes them work. Stories work where facts don’t because humans don’t always make rational decisions. We generally make decisions based on emotion, and then look for the facts that support those decisions.

If you want to communicate powerful messages in business, there are two things to keep in mind. First, you should use stories to craft engaging and personal experiences that relate to the overall point you are trying to make. Second, don’t rely only on facts. Remember, facts matter most when the audience is rationalizing a decision that has already been made on an emotional level.

What do you do when facts don’t matter

Even though we are exposed to stories every day, learning to tell them isn’t easy. While we are comfortable with the role that stories play in television, film and writing, we don’t always understand the power of storytelling in business.

I was recently working with a client on how they can communicate their story, when I was reminded of an instance when I used a story to connect a business idea with the needs and desires of the audience.

….

In 2004, about a year after I had moved back to Houston I was asked to speak to a group of students about career development. There were about 20 students in the room, and I had been fielding a variety of questions on resumes and interviewing when one of them asked, “As a manager what are some things that you believe matter most to you?” It was a good question that I hadn’t expected anyone to ask. I knew that my answer would include two things “employees are appreciating assets” and “and don’t profess values you don’t really have”, but saying those would create an instant crisis of credibility. This group of students was at the University of Houston, right smack in the heart of Enron country. There was even the possibility that there was a student or two who had family members that had been affected by the scandal. There was little possibility that I could say anything about “values” combines with “value your employees” without their eyes glazing over. After a few seconds of thinking I told them the following story:

When I graduated from college I thoughtI was on top of the world. I had been in the top 10% of my high school class, done well in college, and was one of only a few college students that had been hired by the consulting firm I was working for. I hadn’t experienced a lot of work failure at that point in my life, so I felt pretty good about how I was progressing. Then it happened. I made a costly mistake. It wasn’t one of those ‘oh snap you deleted the database or lost a bazillion dollars’ mistakes, but it was big enough to be noticeable. When my manager called me to talk about it, I was pretty nervous. Would I be fired? Would I be taken off the project? I fully expected some yelling, lots of teeth gnashing and maybe even a a statement like “bone headed move” thrown in. What happened not only surprised me but totally affected the way I felt about managing and leadership. He started by saying ‘Today, was educational for both of us…’, he said, ‘That was a pretty big mess up you made today, but I’m not going to scream and yell about it. I have always believed that employees are appreciating assets, that you can make both positive and negative investments in. Yelling or chastising would be a negative investment at this point. You made a mistake, you know that, and I know you understand how to process it to avoid a similar problem. The best thing I can do is throughly explain why it’s a mistake, the impact it has on the company and your co-workers, and then give you the freedom to make it again.’ Yep, he said that and I looked at him with the same puzzled look you have right now. He was giving me the freedom to mess up again so that I wouldn’t fear taking the risks necessary to excel in the position. Then I remembered the first day I met him when he said “I have a few beliefs that I live by, the biggest is that I will invest in employees because they are a more important factor in company success than most people give credit for. Plus smart, confident, employees make for better results all around.” I guess he really did believe that. That story sums up two things I think are important…

Take a moment and think about what you just read. It was a story about telling stories. Annette Simmons would call this a “Values In Action” story. Regardless of the type of story, it serves two purposes. It communicates on a level that most adults can understand and it gets you to stop evaluating “facts” and ask questions like “what happened next?” or “does this apply to me?” I wanted you to participate, so I had to draw you into the experience. Storytelling is fundamentally a collaboration between the teller and the listener. It helps you to connect with the message on a very personal level.

Over the next few days I will be sharing some of my thoughts on storytelling in training, business and presenting. I want to cover:

Until then, what are some of the best business stories you have heard?

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In This Article

Even though we are exposed to stories every day, learning to tell them isn’t easy. While we are comfortable with the role that stories play in television, film and writing, we don’t always understand the power of storytelling in business.

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Comments & Opinions

Julie PippertMonday, March 1st 2010

Great article — you hit on the main thing I’ve always preached to employers and clients about communication: you MUST engage your reader, whether it’s teaching them how to use a piece of software or trying to persuade them.

Sometimes that’s through my own storytelling. Sometimes it’s by asking them to tell their stories, then discussing how “this” applies to that. Telling and listening.

One of the best stories I’ve ever read — cover to cover as if it were a suspense novel — was Whale Done. That’s an especially timely reference as we all watch SeaWorld respond to the recent tragedy of losing trainer Dawn Brancheau. The book explained the animal behavior techniques SeaWorld uses as a large direct correlation and metaphor for more positive interaction in all human relationships. You can apply it to parenting, managing, and so forth. I spent a lot of time using the book itself as a reference point for many of my own stories. More stories within stories.

Jillian FortinMonday, March 1st 2010

Brilliant post, Kelsey. Storytelling’s not only a powerful communication tool, but it’s a huge trust-builder as well. Thanks for this!

Brian DoucetMonday, March 1st 2010

I really enjoyed this post, Kelsey and I look forward to this week’s follow-ups.

Jodi HendersonMonday, March 1st 2010

Thanks for another great post, Kelsey. I never really thought about storytelling before, but I am now!

Sal BaldovinosMonday, March 1st 2010

Very good read. Looking forward to the next in the series. Great quote: “Smart, confident, employees make for better results all around.” from your old boss.

Andy NguyenTuesday, March 2nd 2010

Good post, looking forward to more story-telling. =)

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