Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash

Business storytelling is the act of using story as a way to interact with others to convey business values and/or business information. I like to say that “story is the best unit of memory” (tweetable) and that’s because the goal of business storytelling is to help information stick, both internally among various teams and leadership, as well as externally in alignment with marketing, sales, customer service, and other parts of a company.

Stories to Tell

There are three types of business stories the way I teach it:

  • Mission stories – stories that help people understand and align with the mission of the organization. “We work to give every mother the tools she needs to raise compassionate athletes.”
  • Belonging stories – these are stories that inform people that they are in the right place, so to speak. “Moms of athletes don’t always agree, but they all want their kids to have what they need to thrive.”
  • Growth stories – part motivational talk and part “corrective” language, this helps employees stay aligned with the mission of the organization. “While we want you to sell as many coaching packages as possible, it’s important to work within the budgets and schedules of the mothers you’re supporting.”

One doesn’t have to be any kind of master storyteller to make this happen. Remember that the definition of story is simply “an account of people an events.” While I’ll show you some story structure as it applies to business storytelling, essentially the spirit of your work here is to learn that a story helps people remember important information better than most any other tool.

Business Storytelling Approach

The goal of every story you tell should be to convey information in a memorable (and maybe even repeatable) way. Because these are business stories, and the goal isn’t to become some kind of master storyteller of fairy tales or something, let me give you a few more details to consider:

  • Clarity – Business stories must be succinct and clear. There should never be a surprise. Instead, people need their information to be straightforward and understandable.
  • Brevity – The attention span of people these days is diminished from stress, from too much information, and from a shift in how we prefer to consume knowledge. Create brief stories. Snacks more than meals. And seek to be as brief as possible while staying clear.
  • Metaphors – To craft a compelling story, sometimes an easy tool is a metaphor. “Life is a stream. It flows in one direction and when we step out of the water, we can never get back in at the exact same moment.” That sort of thing is a metaphor.

The first two should be used all the time. The last is a tool you can use more as a condiment than a meal. (A metaphor.) “Think of metaphor as a condiment, not a meal.” <– that’s a tiny business story to remind you how to use metaphors in your writing. (Not much in the “account of people and events” department, but we’ll stretch the definition a little.)

Content Marketing Thrives on Compelling Stories

I’m working on a project with my friend Saul Colt. The goal is to help physical stores and galleries all across Canada to build online storefronts to enable these organizations to sell online. While brainstorming ways to earn more sign-ups for this project, I came up with two different ideas (stories) that complement the project and can be told as content marketing (in this case, on Instagram).

The project is called “shopHERE powered by Google” and because I want to encourage more people to sign up, I proposed storytelling elements that are a play on “shop here.” The first is built around regional business pride and uses the hashtag #myshopishere . The second is about women-run businesses and the uses the hashtag #shopHER (minus the e. Get it?) They’re meant to be quite relatable (as good stories are).

If I didn’t tell you much else about the campaign, can you imagine the kinds of photos people will take for ‘My shop is here?’ Pizza places. A favorite nail salon. Maybe a cool pawn shop would be part of it. And of course ‘Shop her’ is about empowering women owners, like an auto body shop, and an MMA gym, and so on.

The projects are content marketing designed to drive awareness and signups to the shopHERE powered by Google project, but the STORIES are about regional pride and woman-owned businesses. Make sense?

Storytellers Invite Their Listeners to be the Protagonist

The power of storytelling works best when it becomes a collaboration between the creator of the story and the consumer of that material. The reader or listener or viewer best experiences compelling storytelling when they are invited to tell the story from their perspective and participate in it themselves.

Star Wars has stuck with us better than many other media properties because the stories are bigger than the main characters. Even if you don’t want to be Luke or Leia, you can decide if you want to be an Imperial Tie fighter pilot or a rebel scout or someone else in the captivating stories that follow.

Story, as it turns out, works best when it is a collaboration.

In business, this can happen in branding. On the day I wrote this to you, Nike’s website has a tag line that says “Where All Athletes Belong.” They’re pushing inclusivity and this goes beyond a marketing strategy and instead pushes deep into the fabric of their brand stories overall. It matches.

Story Structure is a Powerful Starting Point

You’ve watched a TED talk before, I presume. Reserved to no more than 18 minutes (there are very few exceptions to this online), presenters are trained and drilled in how to craft stories that start with cores of data visualizations or case studies and add an emotional connection to the material. Sometimes these are funny. Other times, they make us see what we thought we fully understood in a new light. And even other times, we simply enjoy the experience and go along for the ride.

The structure of TED, the little details, how it all gets wrapped together into a compelling narrative is worth understanding for your future business communications as well. I recommend Talk Like TED by Carmine Gallo, a book that is every bit as useful today as the day it was published.

How to Get Started

With business storytelling, you might be thinking: “Okay, I don’t disagree with you, Chris, but I’m not sure what to do now with this information.” Fair enough. I’ll help.

  1. Write a story of what your product/service is and who it helps. The agile user story template works well for this: As a <type of user>, I want <some goal> so that <some reason>. Being able to answer this succinctly helps you see your business more clearly.
  2. Work on a few sentences around this: The type of people who buy from us are ___ . They like __ and they don’t want ___ . (This is a belonging story.)
  3. If you were hiring a new employee today and she will be working from home, what story does she need to know that sums up the culture of your organization? Are you sticklers for timeliness? Are you a very collaborative company? Are the rules cut and dry and there’s not really a lot of flexibility? (Remember, this isn’t always a bad things: franchises must follow the systems that are in place.)
  4. Write a few sentences around the ideal customer experience. “If everything went flawlessly, a customer would start on our website and click here. And then…”
  5. At a team meeting, host an exercise around “A meal we used to have at home.” Have people write down some details or a paragraph to explain something about food that inspires at least a little emotional attachment.

End Clearly and Strong

Another detail. For whatever reason, it seems that the art of ending a story is lost on the world. The best endings point to what might come next. In many ways, the best endings are beginnings. This piece ends with me offering help, which might lead to a beginning. Your stories might end in different ways. But “stopping” and “creating an ending” are vastly different efforts and exercises. You want to end clearly. Like this.

If You Want More Help

My core business at StoryLeader™ is dedicated to improving your success with expressing yourself within (and outside of) your organization. I help you convey your intentions, clearly express your business goals and values and needs. And I’m an expert at turning that terrifying blank page into something you can run with and complete on your own with confidence. Never hesitate to drop me a line either by email ([email protected]) or by just filling out my contact form.

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