Storytelling in Business

See also: Writing Marketing Copy

Some authorities will tell you that business writing should always be concise, crisp and serious. These authorities suggest that there is no place in business writing for stories, metaphors, analogies or even adjectives. This may be true when you are writing a report for your Director. However, it is very much not true of business writing more generally.

There are many different forms of business writing. For some of these, such as reports and business cases, storytelling may not be appropriate—although that is not necessarily true. For other forms of business writing, including blogs and press releases, the whole point of the medium is to tell a story.

This page describes when and how to use stories in business and provides some tips about how to craft a compelling story to hold your readers’ attention.

Why Storytelling Matters

Storytelling goes a long way back into human history. It seems likely that humans were telling stories long before they were writing them down. Our ancestors used stories as a way to remember and pass on important ideas, often affecting our long-term survival.

This is why stories matter in business.

We are hard-wired by thousands of years of evolution to remember them—because people who remembered important stories survived longer. In effect, this means that when you tell a story, your audience is more likely to remember it and you, than if you simply explain something factually.

Telling a story is also a very good way to make a point in a very gentle way.

A story does not lecture people, it merely ‘is’. It is also usually not about the person hearing the story. People can therefore take on board the point of the story without feeling defensive.

Stories also result in an emotional response, which helps us to connect as people. There is evidence that we process stories in a different part of our brains from facts. Combining the two therefore engages more of the brain—and makes it more likely that we will remember.

Case study: Storytellit

Storytellit is an app designed to help small businesses tell stories on social media.

The owner of the business, Dave Kerpen—who clearly understands the importance of stories—told the story of buying the domain name in an article on LinkedIn.

He explained how the auction for the domain name ended at 4.30pm on Thanksgiving Day, just as his family was sitting down to dinner. However, every bid extended the auction by five minutes—so he sat there bidding while his turkey went cold, and his family wondered if he would ever join them!

The discussion in the comments section showed how much the story resonated—and had prompted people to download the app.

To make the right connection, you have to tell the right story at the right time—and in the right way.

The Right Time: When is Storytelling Appropriate?

How, though, can you decide whether storytelling is appropriate for a business document?

In some ways, every business document does tell a story, and uses techniques from storytelling. For example, minutes of meetings tell the story of the meeting. They do not necessarily give a ‘blow-by-blow’ account of the meeting, but describe the events and main points made, in a logical order.

We also use structures from storytelling in business writing, including:

  • The classic ‘beginning, middle and end’ structure is common in business documents, because it helps people to read and understand the flow; and
  • We draw a clear conclusion, including a ‘call to action’ if appropriate, so that the important point remains in readers’ minds.

Both these come from storytelling—and are entirely appropriate in business writing.

Press releases and storytelling

Press releases are a bit of a ‘special case’ in terms of storytelling.

When you write a press release, you are essentially providing factual information. However, you also have to think about how journalists will use it—which means thinking about the story.

Ideally, you want your press release to show the journalist the story to tell—which means telling them that story.

You can find out more about this in our page on how to write a press release.

This page mainly discusses the use of stories (which here includes metaphors or analogies) to make a point in business writing.

This is likely to be most appropriate in presentations and blogs.

The main use of storytelling in blogs and presentations is to draw in your audience and make a personal connection.

You therefore need to use stories at particular points, such as:

  • The start of your blog or presentation, as a ‘hook’ to keep people reading; or

  • Anywhere that you may sense that you are losing your audience and need to reconnect.

The Right Story: How to Choose Your Story

In business, you want to make a connection with your audience—but you want to make the right connection to drive them towards buying your product or service.

Your story must therefore be personal to you. It needs to offer something of you to your audience, to build that relationship. You want to humanise yourself and make yourself feel real to your audience. Your story must therefore be true, and you must be sincere about its impact and why it matters to you. Most people can detect insincerity extremely quickly—and do not like it.

The story must also resonate with your audience.

It must therefore hit their ‘pain points’ (the challenges they are currently encountering in business), and also be relatable to their lives.

The story of Storytellit (see box above) is painfully relatable because we have all experienced that clash of work and family. We have all had to decide how much personal time we are prepared to sacrifice for something that mattered at work. The addition of a major national family-focused festival is the icing on the cake in storytelling terms. We probably all have a picture of our own families sitting round the table at an event like that—and can therefore all smile at how much that auction mattered to the writer. The story drives action because we see how much it mattered, and therefore think that it may be worth our while too.

Think carefully about the point your story is going to make—and particularly how it is going to make your audience think and feel.

In other words, you need your story to answer the question ‘What happens next?’

The Right Way: Storytelling Techniques

We all know people who just cannot tell stories. They start, and then they ramble, and include too much irrelevant detail. Before you know it, the point of the story is lost. Everyone else starts to shuffle their feet and look away, and eventually moves on.

These people are telling stories in the wrong way.

But how can you tell a story that is compelling? The approach varies slightly, depending on whether you are telling a story in person, or writing in a blog. However, there are some common rules.

1. Use the ‘beginning, middle, end’ structure

Our brains really do seem to be wired to think in threes. Using the ‘beginning, middle, end’ structure helps our brains to organise what we are hearing or reading.

  • The beginning should hook in your audience and give them a reason to keep reading.
  • The middle is the ‘meat’ of your story: the real content.
  • The end draws the story together, and basically makes your point or tells your audience what to do next. Crucially, it means that your audience is not left asking ‘but what happened next?’

This structure is so familiar to us that hearing or reading it actually releases oxytocin, the ‘trust hormone’, in our brains. In other words, using this structure will help your audience to trust you.

Keep it simple in both form and language

The best stories are short and simple. This makes them easy to understand and remember.

Use simple language, and avoid jargon and clichés (see box).

A word about clichés

Clichés are words or phrases that have been overused in writing and have therefore become weak, or even meaningless.

Research on brain activity shows that most people simply screen out clichés when they see them.

In other words, the cliché might as well not be there at all.

Find another way of putting it.

3. Be humble—and focus on your customers

Stories need heroes—and those heroes are your customers, not you or your business. At best, your business is helping the hero to achieve what they want.

Some of the best stories make a point against the storyteller. By making themselves the butt of the joke, these people can show that they have a sense of humour and build a connection. They also allow their audience to show weakness—essential if you wish to understand the challenges that they are facing.

Be humble and remember that you don’t always have to look good.

Remember, too, that people dislike being patronised. Making the point that you are not always right avoids this problem, which is especially important when you are considered expert in your field.

Combine facts and stories

Storytelling is most memorable when it is combined with facts.

This is because stories and facts engage different parts of your brain. When you tell a story, your listeners actually experience it to some extent, feeling the relevant emotions. Adding facts then engages a different and more logical part of the brain.

Most decisions are made using a combination of logic and emotion—so it is helpful to combine them at an early stage.

5. Be clear why it matters

Perhaps the most important aspect of storytelling is to be clear why your story matters.

This is why it needs to be personal—because you have to explain why it matters to you, and therefore why it should matter to your audience.

In business blogs, the stories that you want to tell are about how your product or service helped someone, and preferably someone you know. It’s both personal, and important—and this will come across very clearly.

Finally, Be Yourself

This above all: to thine own self be true.

Shakespeare, Hamlet

We are primed to detect insincerity faster than almost anything else. That follows in both the choice of story, but also in the way that you tell it.

Your storytelling needs to be authentic.

You therefore have to work on developing your own voice and style for storytelling. Storytelling is a skill like any other. It needs practice to develop.