Business Storytelling

Using Stories to Inspire

Learn how to tell stories that will help you sell products, build trust, or inspire your team.

© iStockphoto

How many times have you been enthralled by a good story?

Maybe you stayed up late to read a novel that you couldn't put down, or watched a movie that you couldn't switch off? Perhaps you pushed yourself harder because you heard a story about a colleague's success, or you changed your opinion after reading a distressing story in a newspaper?

Stories can change the way we think, act, and feel. They can form the foundations of an entire workplace culture, and they have the power to break down barriers and turn bad situations around. Stories can capture our imaginations, illustrate our ideas, arouse our passions, and inspire us in a way that cold, hard facts often can't.

Stories can be powerful business tools, and successful leaders use them to engage their teams. So, if you want to motivate others effectively, you need to learn how to tell a good story.

In this article, we'll look at business storytelling – we'll explore when you should use stories, and we'll think about what kind of story you should tell to get the results you want.

What is Business Storytelling?

People tell business stories to communicate and connect with employees, customers, colleagues, partners, suppliers, and the media. Business stories differ from regular stories, in that you tell them with an objective, goal, or desired outcome in mind, rather than for entertainment.

When you tell a story well, it can create an intense, personal connection between your audience and your message. Effective stories can change our opinions, they can inspire us to achieve goals that we didn't think were possible, and they can show us how we can change things for the better.

When to use Stories

You can use stories to achieve a number of different goals. For example:

  • Sundar has just started leading a new team. His team members see him as an outsider, and they don't trust him. He tells several stories about his past leadership roles, and explains why he's enthusiastic about this new position. He also discloses personal information, such as where he grew up and what hobbies he enjoys. His honesty helps his new team to see him as a real person, not as a stranger, and they begin to open up and trust him.
  • Amy, a sales rep, meets with a potential client who knows little about what her organization offers. She tells a story about how one of her products helped reduce another client's supply costs by 20 percent. The new client is impressed with the product's effectiveness, and places his first order.
  • Elsa asks her team members to attend a workplace safety class, but they're not convinced that this is a good use of their time. She recounts a story from a recent trade journal about an employee at a rival organization who was badly injured using the same machinery that her team members use. The story convinces Elsa's team that the safety class could help prevent injuries.

Types of Stories

In her book "Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins," author Annette Simmons identifies six structures that you can use to tell business stories. Let's look at each one below.

1. "Who-I-Am" Stories

These stories explain who you are as a person. They tell others about your dreams, goals, accomplishments, failures, motivations, values, or history.

"Who-I-am" stories are essential to build trust  . Tell these stories when you join a new team, or when you need to establish a connection with a stranger.

2. "Why-I-Am-Here" Stories

"Why-I-am-here" stories communicate why you're here, and their aim is to replace suspicion with trust. People want to know, "What's in it for me?" but they also want to know, "What's in it for you?" These stories explain that you don't have a hidden agenda, and that you'll both get something fair out of the situation.

For example, people may be asking themselves if you are passionate about what you do, or are you financially motivated? And are you here for the right or wrong reasons?

You can use "why-I-am-here" stories in fundraising, sales, and situations when you need to build trust quickly, or where you want to reassure someone that you're on a level playing field.

3. Teaching Stories

Teaching stories create an experience that transforms listeners or readers. They show how a change in their behavior, perspective, or skills can lead to meaningful results.

You can also use teaching stories to illustrate a situation, such as a best- or worst-case scenario.

4. Vision Stories

Vision stories inspire people, and encourage them to feel hope or happiness. Here, you convince your audience that their hard work and sacrifice is worth the effort. You need to link their actions to a specific, valuable, and worthy outcome.

Use vision stories when you need to motivate people to change their behavior. They can inspire people to overcome the frustrations, obstacles, and challenges that come with change, so that they can achieve a worthwhile goal or ideal.

5. Values-in-Action Stories

Values-in-action stories reinforce the values that you want your audience to demonstrate or think about. These stories can be positive or negative. For example, you can tell stories that demonstrate integrity, compassion, and commitment, or tell ones that highlight attitudes that you don't want to see - for example, cynicism, a slapdash approach to quality, or a weak work ethic.

6. "I-Know-What-You-Are-Thinking" Stories

"I-know-what-you-are-thinking" stories allow you to address others' objections, suspicions, questions, or concerns before they voice them. With these stories, you need to anticipate your audience's point of view, so you choose a story that deals with their unspoken concerns.

When you tell this type of story, you validate the audience's perspective or worries. This allows them to feel that you're on their side, and that you identify with their emotions. These kinds of stories are valuable in sales, negotiations, or pitches to key stakeholders  .

From ‘Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins: How to Use Your Own Stories to Communicate with Power and Impact' by Annette Simmons. © 2007 Annette Simmons. All rights reserved. Published by AMACOM Books. www.amacombooks.org.

How to Tell a Persuasive Story

A good story is like a recipe – certain "ingredients" need to be part of the mix for it to be a success. All great stories have three essential elements: context, action, and result.

These three elements make up the CAR framework, which Paul Smith wrote about in his 2012 book, "Lead with a Story." In it, he examines how leaders can use this simple structure to tell better business stories. Let's look at each element in detail.

Context

Smith wrote that context is the element most neglected by leaders. Without context, your story may confuse or bore your audience.

The context provides the background information that listeners or readers need to make sense of your story. It should also spark their interest and make a connection, so that they care about what you have to say.

Context needs to address four key questions.

  • Where and when does this story take place? – Establish the "when" and "where" of your story, and clarify whether it's fact or fiction.
  • Who is the main character? – This needs to be someone who your audience can connect with. In most cases, you are the main character.
  • What does he or she want? – Explain what your main character wants to accomplish.
  • Who, or what, is in the way? – Every story needs an obstacle or villain. This can be a person, an event, or a challenge.

As you think about how to tell your story, plan how you'll answer these four questions. It's also important to be authentic  , especially when you tell a personal story.

Example:

Tony's company has just had the worst third quarter in its history. At the annual town hall meeting  , Tony needs to boost his team members' morale, and inspire them to work harder in the fourth quarter to make up their losses.

"When I started this company 10 years ago," he begins, "I didn't know how to run a business. I figured I could do everything myself and succeed."

"I was dead wrong. I worked 15-hour days to keep up with it all. I wanted to grow the company, but I quickly realized that I didn't know how, and I couldn't do it alone."

Action

Every great story has action: ups and downs, setbacks, conflicts, failures, and battles. The action is where we experience defeats and learn lessons.

In your story, your main character must "do" something. Ideally, he or she will experience a setback, failure, or problem along the way. Obstacles create tension and forge an important connection with your audience, because everyone experiences them daily.

Example:

Tony continues, "All of you know how stubborn I am, so I tried to go it alone. But I started to lose clients because I couldn't keep my promises. I didn't have time to bid for work, so my competitors got ahead, and I lost even more clients. This put enormous pressure on my family because I was never home. I knew that if things continued this way, the company would go under in a matter of months, and that I might lose my family. I needed help."

Result

At the end of your story, you reveal your main character's fate. You also need to explain, subtly, what the audience should have learned from this result. What is the moral? Why did you tell this story?

Example:

Tony wraps up his story.

"Once I realized I had to ask for help, I did. I put some major projects on hold, and started to look for great people to help me. I handpicked each of you because you're the best at what you do. You have the skills, knowledge, and experience that I lacked."

"This company is the success it is because of all of you. Every company has its ups and downs, just like I did when I first started this business. But I believe in all of you, and I believe that we will turn this problem around next month. So, let's focus on the future, and think about how we can help one-another succeed."

Tips:

Great storytellers know that a powerful story is only part of what inspires people to listen. Follow the tips below to become a better storyteller.

  • Listen – The best storytellers are also the best listeners. Brush up on your active listening   skills, and give others your full attention when they tell a story.
  • Practice – Rehearse your story before you tell it. Even if you practice on your own, just once, in front of a mirror or video camera, this can improve your storytelling.
  • Create an experience – When you tell a story, you create an experience for your listeners. Appeal to all five senses; don't just tell them.

Key Points

Business storytelling is the art of using stories to communicate and connect with employees, customers, suppliers, partners, and anyone else involved with your organization. The purpose of business stories isn't entertainment. Rather, they have a specific goal or desired outcome.

To tell a great business story, it's important to be authentic. Use stories that tell other people more about who you are, and why you're here. And, don't be too afraid to tell stories that show failure, poor judgment, or mistakes on your part. When you're prepared to appear vulnerable in front of others, you can quickly establish trust and rapport.

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Comments (18)
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi amcinla12,
    Welcome to the Club and thanks for sharing your reference to Annette Simmons about story telling. I've taken a look at the online tool and it looks great as it provides a clear structure that is easy to follow. So basically a formula where you just plug in your parts of the story to make a powerful statement!

    Storytelling is something I use in my workshops and training sessions, and I know the power of a story!

    If there was one story that really stood out for you, which one would it be and why?

    Hope to see you around and if there is anything I can help you with, just let me know.

    Midgie
  • amcinla12 wrote Over a month ago
    I love Annette Simmons. Her work is quite inspiring!
    Our company has developed an online tool to help employees share their workplace stories: lmpartnership.org/storytelling
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    I wish you much success with story telling. Please do let us know about your achievements!

    Have you also found Better Public Speaking : http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/PublicSpeaking.php It's a great article full of links to more resources that you can follow-up with.

    Dianna
  • maamari08 wrote Over a month ago
    Great topic that I was looking for improving my presentation skills.

    I need such article and courses that help me to improve my telling story skills. Telling story is very important in my job as it is has a strong impression to the people around you. This skill is entrance for other skills which are listening, presentation, and communication.

    Hopefully, I will be one of the best story teller.

    Good luck to all 
  • James wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Everyone

    We’ve given this popular article a review, and the updated version is now at
    http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/BusinessStoryTelling-new.php

    Discuss the article by replying to this post!

    Thanks

    James
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Aniruddha

    Welcome to the forums - it's great to 'hear' your voice here.

    We're so glad that this article made you aware of the power of story-telling. Also being a voracious reader, I know that you must have collected a wealth of stories over the years...use them to your advantage! Let us know if you were able to put your new found knowledge about story-telling to use.

    We'd love to hear more of your experiences and ideas on the forums - if you need any help around here, please let me know - I'd be only too glad to help you where I can.

    Best wishes
    Yolandé
  • anibp wrote Over a month ago
    Wonderful. After reading through the article, I felt like looking into a mirror and realized that I have rarely used this skill in my job or now business if at all. This in spite of being a voracious reader for past 25 years, having read umpteen number of stories myself with few of them leaving a great impact. Today I realized the meaning of "the gap between the cup and the lip". This article was of great help and hopefully life changing.

    Thanks a million.

    Aniruddha
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    That's great to hear WF! Glad it was so successful for you. And it's a tremendous lesson for all of us to be on our toes and ready to give a quick and concise description of what we do, what we are working on, he impacts, etc... Being able to share information and help others create as robust an understanding as we have is a real skill. I hope it contines to work well for you.

    Cheers!
    Dianna
  • wfigueroa wrote Over a month ago
    It's interesting how you often have to be "ready" to learn about a particular subject. I had read this article before and didn't really comprehend how I could apply this. Well, after a meeting with dept managers yesterday and the great facetime with these leaders, I found myself open to new ideas on improving the way I communicate and how I'm perceived within the company. This article was both timely and valuable.

    Many thanks for Mind Tools!

    WF
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Lorir,
    Great to hear that this article on storytelling made sense to you. Where do you have opportunities to tell stories and for what purposes?

    I also want to thank you for posting, because as I re-read the article is was a good reminder for a short toastmasters speech I am delivering this evening. Although I have practiced what I will say, I think telling a story will create more impact! So, back to the drawing board for me to see what story I can tell and how I can weave that into my speech!!

    Midgie
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