Storytelling in Business: Using narrative to build your brand

Looking for ways to capture an audience? Try telling a compelling story.

Human beings are hard-wired for narrative. It starts with the nursery stories and fairytales we hear as children. By the age of 4, most people understand the basic Aristotelian arc: beginning, middle, and end. We know to anticipate — and yearn for — the moral or the happily-ever-after.

According to business experts such as Stephen Denning, author of The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, we never lose that yearning — which means narrative is one of the best ways to convey information, even in the business world.

“Leadership involves inspiring people to act in unfamiliar and often unwelcome ways,” Denning says. “Mind-numbing cascades of numbers or daze-inducing PowerPoint slides won’t achieve this goal. Even the most logical arguments usually won’t do the trick. But effective storytelling often does.”

The biggest problem with brand storytelling, Denning goes on to say, is that many business stories are poorly told. They lack setting, detail, complexity, or a lesson learned. Good storytelling is a skill that must be honed and practiced. Narrative is effective, but only when it’s well designed.

Luckily, there’s a storyteller inside each of us. Once you know the rules for storytelling in business, the rest is easy.

Engage yourself, then your audience

It’s as simple as this: you have to care about your topic — genuinely — before you can convince others to engage. Find an emotional hook. For example, if you’re promoting a newly approved drug to pharmaceutical reps, tell a story about a patient with a particular condition who benefited from the therapy. Then move on to supporting facts such as prescribing guidelines and possible side effects.

Keep it relevant and real

Sometimes, however, we go too far in the direction of spicing up our stories — filling them with unrealistic action and color. This can alienate an in-the-trenches audience, whose members may see the rhetoric as irrelevant to their day-to-day business lives. Be sure to keep your narrative bold but real: if your company markets financial services, don’t begin your story with a vignette about, say, fine wine. Seize what’s real and run with it.

Paint a rosy but feasible future

Constructing stories with elaborate, lofty, and some may say unreachable endings is a mistake. Rather than making specific promises that may some day be proved wrong, evoke your organization’s strategic vision by describing what it may look, sound, work, and feel like, and give your audience a fairly defined (but not inflexible) path to reach it. If your goal is a better reputation in the field, for instance, talk achievements, not awards.

Feather your plot with failures

Business people sometimes complain that the stories they hear from VPs and execs are too pie-in-the-sky. “Negative stories can be more powerful than positive ones,” writes Denning. “The fact is, people learn more from their mistakes than from their successes.” If your company is falling on hard times, consider revealing it. And if errors were made, describe them and, if appropriate, apologize. By addressing your weaknesses — and how you are resolving them — you’ll win more votes of confidence than if you dance around the truth.

Know when narrative is unnecessary

Now that “story” has entered the business lexicon, the term is starting to be overused. Marketing executives may ask for storytelling even when what’s called for is something else entirely: persuasion, information, or a simple how-to. Like any other rhetorical device, narrative is best reserved for those times when it’s the best tool to get the job done. Namely, when emotion will nab the presentation, strategy session, bid, or sale.

If that’s the case, simply start at the beginning. And tell it like it is.