Storytelling at Work
What It Is, How to Do It, and How It Can Boost Your Impact
I want to tell you a story about a man who changed the world. His work had an incalculable impact on humanity—our innovation, our communication, our daily lives—at a global scale. It’s no exaggeration to say his work changed the course of history… and you’ve probably never heard of him.
Our story starts in a small, sleepy town in Iowa, the kind of place easily overlooked on a map, where a resourceful, creative man was born during the Twentieth Century. Even at a young age, his natural curiosity and ingenuity drove him to create, explore, and push boundaries. A tinkerer through and through, he was always building something—and getting up to a fair amount of mischief in the process. One thing was clear, however: this man wasn’t keen on blooming where he was planted. He saw possibility everywhere he went, in every challenge, puzzle, or seemingly unsolvable problem that he encountered.
It’s no wonder, then, that when the man first became interested in a new area of semiconductor research, he saw endless possibilities where others, including his contemporaries, did not. After getting his Ph.D. in physics from MIT, he bounced between companies for a while, ultimately ending up at a California-based startup, where some of this new research was taking place. However, his exploratory, free-thinking approach clashed with the system around him. Upper management was overbearing and militaristic, and the company lacked faith in its employees. The environment did not lend itself to innovation, and without innovation, there would be no realizing the vast breadth of possibilities this new area of development represented.
Others at the startup felt similarly. Eventually, the man and several of his coworkers decided to leave, securing funding from a well-established and respected East Coast company to found their own startup in Mountain View, California. There, the hero of our story realized that the key to innovation lay not in the rigid hierarchies of East Coast companies, but in fluidity. Employees needed the ability to create, experiment, and make decisions without the burden of peer reviews, committees, approvals, and micromanagement. This required a relaxed company culture. One without snobbery, power trips, and luxury trappings. One where the workers weren’t plebeians and the executives weren’t emperors. This became the man's personal leadership philosophy: to empower his workers, give them the agency to make decisions without having to jump through hoops, and to work with them, not against them.
Over the course of the next decade, the new company continued to break ground and became incredibly profitable. However, the hero of our story was growing restless. He felt that the startup’s East Coast-based parent company lacked the vision and focus to continue competing successfully, as other companies were beginning to crowd the market. Alongside one of his other cofounders, he created yet another Bay Area startup based on the management style, pioneering spirit, and vision that he knew would allow them to innovate and build effectively in a changing landscape. His down-to-earth style set the standard for servant leadership, and his work went on to shape countless lives, opening the door for the technology that society runs on today.
The year was 1968. The company was called Intel, and it eventually produced the first widely-successful chipsets, graphics cards, and more, going on to supply microprocessors for the majority of the world’s computers. The man’s name was Robert Noyce, and it’s no exaggeration to say that he made the tech industry what it is.
THE POWER OF STORY
At this point you’re probably wondering why I started an article about business communication by talking about the founder of Intel. The reason is simple: I did it to illustrate the power of a good story.
Over the last five or so years, storytelling has been gaining traction as a technique for improving professional communication across a wide variety of industries and roles. This buzz is well-warranted. From cave paintings to myths to bestselling novels and blockbuster movies, stories have held our collective interest for thousands of years.
Take a moment to think about the most impactful speech, meeting, or presentation you’ve ever attended. What do you remember most clearly? I’m willing to bet it was a story—whether a lesson, an anecdote, a journey, or a cautionary tale. As humans, we’re wired to do more than just tell stories; we’re wired to listen to them. Well-told stories resonate. They make an impression and stick in your memory. They draw you in and get you invested in a message in a way that no graph, slide deck, or list can. They can be entertaining, tragic, enraging, or inspiring, and, when used correctly, they can act as a highly-effective vehicle for your message. Add them to your arsenal, and you will be able to leverage your existing communication skills in even more meaningful ways.
A quick Google search will yield dozens of articles about why storytelling is important for business communication, but few discuss how to start applying it in your everyday interactions. That’s why I wrote this article.
The good news is, you don’t have to be a Stephen King or a J.K. Rowling to use storytelling principles in your work. During my time as a writing consultant, I have helped founders, VCs, product managers, and executives use stories in their work to gain attention, make their ideas stick, make more convincing arguments, and achieve more leverage in their professional interactions. At the heart of this practice is a simple framework, one that takes inspiration from Shawn Callahan’s excellent book, Putting Stories to Work. Seriously, it’s great. You can find more information about Callahan's book, as well as some other amazing resources that I used to prepare this article, at the bottom of this page. Check them out if you want to learn more.
Effective business storytelling, at the end of the day, is actually fairly simple. It all comes down to three basic steps:
IDENTIFY stories that you can use to take your meetings, presentations, sales efforts, and negotiations to the next level.
ANALYZE the stories you find, looking for archetypes, morals, and entertainment value.
APPLY the stories you’ve gathered in strategic ways.
Of course, these are just the basics, but without a mastery of this foundation, you won’t have the tools you need to use storytelling effectively.
So, what does this look like in practice?
You can’t be a storyteller if you don’t have any stories to tell. This brings us to the first step in the process: gathering stories.
It’s important to note that when I talk about stories in the context of business communication, I’m not talking about fiction, fables, or fairy tales. I’m not talking about stories you make up. I’m talking about true stories that actually happened. This is critical, because in order to have convincing business interactions, you need to be able to establish trust and credibility.
“But what if I don’t have any stories worth sharing?” is a question I often get.
My response is always the same: “You would be surprised how many interesting things happen around you every day. You just need to learn to recognize them.” How many bizarre, funny, entertaining, heartwarming interactions do you witness in your day-to-day? How many have you already witnessed? These could be events that have happened to friends, coworkers, managers, family members, or even celebrities. They don’t have to be perfect. They don’t have to be polished. They just have to be interesting.
Professional experiences are always a good place to start this process. Think back to memorable things you’ve done or witnessed in your career, whether positive or negative, tragic or comic. Possibilities might include past successes for your team or your product; cautionary tales about unsuccessful competitors; customers who used your products in creative or inspiring ways, or major hurdles that you or your colleagues overcame through hard work and perseverance. They could be wins, losses, words of warning, or bits of company lore. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. If you’re not sure where to start, consider tapping your development, marketing, or sales teams for stories of customer wins, or parsing your customer reference database for inspiration.
There’s no need to overthink the identification process. You don’t even have to do a dedicated search if you don’t want to; just keep your eyes and ears open and take note of anything that jumps out at you. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “Is this a story I could imagine recounting to someone else, in any context?” If the answer is yes, then add it to your list. It doesn’t even have to be work-related. It could be something you witness on your morning jog or something amusing your kid says at the breakfast table. Spend a few days simply observing your day-to-day world, at home and at work, and you will become more sensitive to the events unfolding around you all the time. You’ll start seeing stories everywhere, once you know how to identify them.
Let me give you an example of what this looks like. A few years ago, my family and I were taking a walk in Manhattan, just south of Union Square Park. We were on our way down University Place when we caught sight of a flower shop with the following sign posted in the window (you can find it at the top of this page):
MUST HAVE A CLUE
There was no further information about the position itself, the job requirements, or what exactly it meant to “have a clue.”
We thought the sign was hilarious—not just because of its classic, New York-style exasperation, but also because of the questions it raised. What was the story there? What could have possibly happened to make the manager feel the need to add “must have a clue” to their advertisement? Were they sick of dealing with people who were always late? People who didn’t listen to directions? People who shirked their responsibilities? The possibilities were endless, and the ambiguity was exactly what made it so entertaining. You could fill in the backstory of the sign however you liked, but the level of aggravation behind it was crystal-clear.
This story will always stick in my mind, and it gets laughs whenever I recount it to others. I didn’t have to seek it out; I just stumbled upon it as I was going about my day. This is how you will find some of your best options—all you have to do is practice observing the world around you.
Keep in mind that the stories you collect don’t necessarily have to have happened to you personally. In the workplace, the stories you hear from others are often the most useful, because the mere fact that they made their way to you indicates that they’re either memorable, relevant, or both. If someone around you recounts a story of their own that sticks with you, don’t hesitate to add it to your list (just remember to get their permission before using it).
Once, when I was discussing computer graphics with my father, he recounted a story from his time working at Fujitsu during the late ‘80s. This was, of course, a time when 3D graphics technology was still in its infancy, and the hardware capable of generating dynamic 3D images was not only specialized, but also prohibitively expensive.
My father worked as a data visualization researcher at Fujitsu’s San Jose location, where he and the other researchers were experimenting with early virtual reality hardware and stereographic imagery. Their goal was to find ways to more effectively display the results of supercomputer simulations to scientists. One of the team's creations was particularly cutting-edge: a VR display of a particle collision using data from a high-energy physics simulation, rendered with expensive, state-of-the-art hardware. Around the same time, the research team also purchased a 3D workstation from Silicon Graphics. As a learning exercise, my father used it to generate a 3D model of the Fujitsu logo that could arbitrarily be rotated around using a mouse.
Not long after, several high-level Fujitsu executives visited the San Jose location to check on the progress the researchers were making. My father showed them the brand new SGI workstation and the logo he had made to test it. He then showed them the cutting-edge VR display of the particle physics simulation. The executives nodded their heads thoughtfully. Then, instead of asking follow-up questions about data visualization or virtual reality, they said, “That’s great, but could you bring up that rotating logo again?”
Both of these examples are stories that I encountered organically, without actively looking for them. I discovered them simply by keeping my eyes and ears open.
Once you start thinking like a storyteller, you will start amassing a collection of stories that you can use in your work communications. Be sure to document them somewhere that’s easily-accessible. Spreadsheets are a great place for cataloging stories, since you can easily organize or color-code them based on genre and context. You might also consider using a notes app that allows voice transcription, which will enable you to spontaneously summarize stories and ideas as you encounter them. Remember, it’s okay if you’re not yet sure how you’ll be able to use them—that comes later. For now, your goal is just to collect as many as you can.
You may be wondering how long this identification phase lasts. In a perfect world, it lasts as long as you plan to keep telling stories. The goal of this process isn’t to be a one-and-done solution or a box you can check off. To get the most value from it, you’ll want to make this practice a long-term endeavor. Some of the stories that work for you now will stop being relevant or attention-grabbing months down the line, especially if they deal with topical or industry-specific themes. The trick is to learn to think like a storyteller, which means always keeping your eyes peeled and adding to your list so that you never run out of fodder. (HINT: This gets easier the more you do it.)
Start with an easy goal—say, five or ten stories—and keep expanding your catalog, even after you move on to the next step in the process. Remember, the more ideas you compile, the more options you will have in your communication toolkit, now and in the future.
Once you've put together an initial list of possibilities, the analysis phase can begin. This step involves assessing the stories you’ve collected, organizing them, and determining which ones are suitable in which circumstances. So, how is this done?
Firstly, you need to figure out what types of stories you’ve collected. Are they sprawling epics? Life stories? Humorous asides? A good place to start is with length. For your purposes, you will be dividing them into two broad categories: narratives and anecdotes.
A narrative is what you think of when you think of a biography or an inspirational speech: something long, sweeping, and full of twists and turns. The Robert Noyce story I told at the beginning of this article would be considered a narrative. These longer stories tend to be used less in day-to-day communications, and more in formal settings with large audiences—think in terms of keynote speeches, awards ceremonies, pitches, and seminars. Narratives tend to be trickier to analyze and are harder to use in daily communications.
An anecdote is compact, a single event, or short series of events, that can be easily and briefly summarized (think of my Fujitsu and “Help Wanted” examples above). When you're starting out, anecdotes will be your weapon of choice for day-to-day communication. They're snappy, to-the-point, and easily digestible. They don't require a lot of emotional investment from your audience. Most importantly, they're easy to tell and retell, which makes them perfect to have in your back pocket during your day-to-day interactions.
Start by going through your list and marking which of your stories are narratives and which are anecdotes. Once you have them categorized, now comes the tricky part: identifying takeaways. This means analyzing each of your stories and figuring out what the core message is. Is it a lesson? A cautionary tale? An example of successful collaboration? A simple scenario that illustrates a complex topic? A demonstration of a specific strategy or principle? If you could sum up the lesson or "point" of your story in one sentence, what would it be? Jot down a few ideas for each story.
This is where you have to get creative. The best lessons may not be obvious at first, and they may not jump out at you the first time you consider what a story might mean. Think in terms of relevant, actionable takeaways that you can take out of the story context and apply to other situations. (HINT: There may be more than one.)
What might be the moral of the “Help Wanted” story? Be clear about the requirements for a role when you start interviewing candidates? Being qualified for a job on paper isn’t the same as being qualified in practice? Maybe it’s advice for prospective employees: don’t go into a role without having all the information—or a willingness to learn and adapt. These are truisms, simplistic messages on the surface, but the quirks of this particular story—New York, a flower shop, the wording of the sign—are what make them stick.
The beauty of anecdotes is that they’re often flexible enough to accommodate multiple messages. Even the Fujitsu story could be about more than one thing—the potential for your audience to surprise you, for example, or the notion that sometimes creating something cutting-edge is less important than creating something that’s just plain cool.
Once you understand the lessons of the stories you’ve collected, you will be able to apply them in new contexts: emphasizing the importance of something, inspiring your team to overcome a hurdle, illustrating your reasoning to your stakeholders... Your imagination is truly the only limit.
Now that you have identified and analyzed a handful of starting stories, you can begin experimenting with applying them in your communication. Easier said than done, I know. But you don’t need to start giving TED Talks overnight; instead, start small, with everyday, low-stakes workplace interactions. Whenever you find yourself wanting to make a more convincing or impactful statement or argument, ask yourself, “What stories do I have in my back pocket that illustrate the message I’m trying to communicate?” I’m talking about examples that you can use to support your statements and arguments.
Remember, you don’t have to have a story ready for every possible situation. All you have to do is look for opportunities to use the anecdotes you’ve already collected in order to support your point in regular conversation. For example, if someone proposes a certain product, approach, or feature during a meeting, you could whip out an anecdote about a competitor who tried to implement the same thing, or a customer who reacted strongly to a similar concept. This low-stakes approach is a great way to start to get comfortable with on-the-fly storytelling. Don’t worry if you don’t recount the stories perfectly every time or make a mistake when you’re applying them. Keep experimenting, and take note of what works and what doesn’t. The more you do it, the easier it will get. I promise.
Once you’ve gotten used to using stories in your everyday conversations, you can start applying them in higher-stakes scenarios. When you know in advance that you will need to make a convincing argument or important proposal (say, for example, pitching to investors), you can—and should—give some deeper thought to your strategy. Your first step in these scenarios is to ask yourself, “What do I need from the stories I use here?”
Start by thinking about the context: Who is your audience? Is it big or small? Internal or external? Are you speaking with people you know, or with people you’ve never met before? What message are you trying to convey? Are you trying to build trust? Inspire? Convince? Are you trying to simplify a message? Empower your team?
After you’ve identified your objective, peruse the stories you’ve collected for ones that will help you deliver your message convincingly and effectively. Look for parallel themes, contexts, conflicts, or outcomes. If you’ve found a couple of options that you think could work, consider practicing them in low-stakes settings in order to gauge your audience’s reaction. If a story doesn’t feel like it’s landing, then it may not be the best fit for your needs. You can always go back to the drawing board.
NOTE: There may be times when you simply don’t have the appropriate story for a certain situation, and you’ll need to keep looking until you find the right one. This is why it’s important to treat this as an ongoing hobby, not just a one-and-done exercise. By making it a habit, you will discover more and more stories you can use, leaving yourself with more and more stories at your disposal.
Once you’ve decided on a story that fits your objective, you can strategically work it into the interaction you have planned. Maybe you open a product pitch with a story about the problem you’re trying to solve for your users—and how that problem has affected you personally—in order to get your audience emotionally invested and help them understand the reasoning behind the product. If you’re giving an orientation to a set of new hires, you might try using a narrative—for example, the story of the company founder—to illustrate a vision or set of ideals, like I did with the Robert Noyce story above. The potential applications are limitless. If you have an argument you want to make or a message you want to deliver, there will always be a story to supplement it—the trick is simply finding the right one.
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
Needless to say, this process takes time and practice. The more frequently you put stories to use, the easier it will be to identify and apply them in future contexts. There will be a learning curve at the beginning, but this is normal, so don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t feel like it’s coming naturally at first. Remember: stories are universal. If you can enjoy them, then you can learn to tell them. Start small, using anecdotes to support your argument in everyday conversations, and gradually work your way up to narratives and bigger, more important interactions. As you get more comfortable in the role of a storyteller, you’ll start to see the benefits in your professional life—in your current role and beyond.
The purpose of this article is to give you a starting point for incorporating stories into your work. It’s far from a comprehensive guide, but I hope it serves as a helpful primer for you as you begin this process. Stories are a tool worth mastering, no matter where you work or what you do. When you take the time and effort to find, understand, and apply them, the results will speak for themselves.
If you’re interested in learning more about the art of business storytelling, check out some of the resources cited below, which are an excellent starting point.
Callahan, Shawn D. Putting Stories to Work: Mastering Business Storytelling. Melbourne: Pepperberg Press, 2016.
Fryer, Bronwyn. 2014. “Storytelling That Moves People.” Harvard Business Review. August 2014. https://hbr.org/2003/06/storytelling-that-moves-people .
Hart, Jack. 2012. Storycraft : The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction. Chicago, Ill.: University Of Chicago Press; Bristol.
“Improve Your Storytelling Presentation Skills and Get Your Ideas Adopted.” 2017. Duarte. April 14, 2017. https://www.duarte.com/presentation-skills-resources/storytelling-presentation-skills/ .
Merla, E. (2009). Storytelling is for kids— and project managers. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2009—Asia Pacific, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.
Newbold, Curtis. 2021. “Giving P.O.W.E.R.F.U.L. Presentations: ‘W’ Is for ‘WEAVE in the Stories.’” The Visual Communication Guy. April 21, 2021. https://thevisualcommunicationguy.com/2021/04/21/giving-p-o-w-e-r-f-u-l-presentations-w-is-for-weave-in-the-stories/ .
“Personal and Business Storytelling Are NOT the Same.” 2018. Award-Winning Training & Coaching | the Presentation Company. December 10, 2018. https://www.presentation-company.com/blog/personal-and-business-storytelling-are-not-the-same/ .
“Robert Noyce.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, May 2, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Noyce .
Sinha, V. (2021). Introduction to Storytelling and Pitching. Paper presented at Virtual Experience Series (VES)—October, 2020. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.
Wolfe, Tom. 1983. Review of The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce. Esquire, December 1, 1983. https://classic.esquire.com/article/share/58ff278a-21da-4ee4-a446-b7f451b90275?source=nl&utm_source=nl_esq&utm_medium=email&date=021021&utm_campaign=nl22906083&utm_term=ESQ_Esquire_Membership_CLASSIC_PAID .