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The Basics of Business Storytelling

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, from our innovation to our communication to the technology that powers our lives. It’s not an 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 you might overlook on a map. There, a resourceful, creative man was born during the 1900s. 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, though: He wasn’t keen on blooming where he was planted. He saw possibility everywhere he went, in every challenge, puzzle, or seemingly unsolvable problem he encountered.


Maybe it's no wonder that when the man first became interested in a new area of semiconductor research, he saw endless possibilities where others 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 semiconductor research was taking place. But the man's free-thinking style clashed with the system around him. Upper management was overbearing, and the company lacked faith in its employees. The environment did not lend itself to innovation, and without innovation, there would be no realizing any of the 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 to found their own startup in Mountain View, California. There, the hero of our story realized that the key to innovation was not the rigid hierarchies of companies on the East Coast, but flexibility. Employees needed to be able 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 work with them, not against them.


Over the next decade, our hero's startup continued to break ground and became incredibly profitable. However, our hero was getting restless. With other companies starting to crowd the market, he felt that their East Coast-based parent company lacked the vision and focus to continue competing. Alongside one of his other cofounders, he created yet another Bay Area startup based on the management style, pioneering spirit, and vision he knew would lead to success in a changing landscape. There, his down-to-earth style set the standard for servant leadership, and his work shaped 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 he made the tech industry what it is today.

The Power of Story

At this point, you’re probably wondering why I started a post on 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 various industries and jobs. The buzz is well-earned. From cave paintings to 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 witnessed. What do you remember most clearly? I’m willing to bet it was a story, whether a lesson, an anecdote, 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 help you persuade your audience. Add them to your arsenal, and you can make your communication more meaningful and effective.


A quick Google search will give you dozens of articles about why storytelling is important for business communication, but few of them discuss how to start applying it. That’s what this post is for.

The good news is, you don’t have to be a Stephen King or a J.K. Rowling to use storytelling in your work. In my consulting work, I've taught founders, VCs, executives, and other business leaders how to use stories to...

  • Make their ideas stick

  • Bring attention to their work

  • Make more convincing arguments

  • Improve their professional interactions

...and more.


At the heart of this 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.

The art of business storytelling

All right, all right, enough with the intros. You came here to learn how to use stories to improve your work.

At the end of the day, the process is fairly simple. It all comes down to three basic steps:

  • Identify stories 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 mastering this foundation, you won’t have the tools you need to use storytelling effectively. So, what does this look like in practice?

Identify

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 in the context of business communication, I’m not talking about stories you make up. No fiction, fables, or fairy tales here. What you need are true stories that actually happened. This is critical because, if you want 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?”


This 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 have a happy ending. They just have to be interesting.


Professional experiences are always a good place to start. Think back to memorable things you’ve done or witnessed in your career, whether positive or negative, tragic or comic. They could be wins, losses, words of warning... the sky's the limit! Some examples include:

  • Past successes for your team or your product

  • Cautionary tales about unsuccessful competitors

  • Customers who used your products in creative or inspiring ways

  • Major hurdles that you or your colleagues overcame

  • Bits of company lore that you find interesting


Feel free to get creative. If you’re not sure where to start, try 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 this. 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 telling 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 funny your kid says at the breakfast table. Spend a few days just observing your day-to-day world, at home and at work, and you'll start to become more sensitive to the events unfolding around you. Once you can identify them, you’ll start seeing stories everywhere.


Let me give you an example. 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:

Help wanted sign from an example business storyelling anecdote
Help wanted. Must have a clue.

There was no information about the position itself, the job requirements, or what exactly it meant to “have a clue.”


We thought the sign was hilarious. What was the story behind it? Was the manager sick of dealing with people who were always late? People who didn’t listen to directions? People who shirked their responsibilities? The ambiguity was what made it so entertaining. You could fill in the backstory however you wanted, but the aggravation behind it was crystal clear.


This story will always stick in my mind, and it gets laughs whenever I tell it to others. The thing is, I didn’t have to look for it. I just stumbled on it as I was going about my day—and that's how you'll find some of your best stories.

Keep in mind that the stories you collect don’t have to have happened to you. At work, the stories you hear from others are often the most useful, because the simple fact that they made their way to you shows that they’re either memorable, relevant, or both. If someone around you tells a story of their own that sticks with you, don’t hesitate to add it to your list (just remember to get their permission).

Here's an example of a story I was given by someone else: Once, when I was discussing computer graphics with my father, he recounted a story from his time working at Fujitsu during the late ‘80s. At the time, 3D graphics technology was still in its infancy, and the hardware capable of generating dynamic 3D images was not only specialized but also insanely expensive.


My father worked as a data visualization researcher at Fujitsu’s San Jose offices, where he and the other researchers were experimenting with early VR hardware and stereographic imagery. Their goal was to find more effective ways to display the results of supercomputer simulations to scientists. One of the team's creations was especially cutting-edge: a VR display of a particle collision using data from a high-energy physics simulation, rendered using expensive, state-of-the-art hardware. Around the same time, they 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 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 rotating logo he had made to test it out. He then showed them the cutting-edge VR display of the particle physics simulation that the research team had been working tirelessly on. 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?”


These stories both came to me organically, and the same thing will happen to you during this first step of the process. Once you start thinking like a storyteller, you will end up with a collection of stories that you can use in your work communications. It’s okay if you’re not sure how you’ll be able to use them yet. For now, your goal is just to collect as many as you can.


Pro Tip: Be sure to document them somewhere that’s easily accessible. Spreadsheets are a great option because you can easily organize them based on genre and context. You might also consider using a notes app that allows voice transcription so you can spontaneously recap stories as you run into them.


To get the most value from this step, you’ll want to make story-hunting a long-term project. 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 subjects. The trick is to always keep your eyes peeled so you never run out of stories. Start with an easy goal—say, five or ten stories—and keep expanding your catalog. The more ideas you compile, the more options you'll have in your communication toolkit.

Analyze

Once you've put together an initial list of stories, the analysis phase can begin. This is when you assess the stories you’ve collected, organize them, and figure out which ones can be applied in different situations.

How is this done?


First, you need to figure out what kinds of stories you’ve collected. 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, epic, and full of twists and turns. The Robert Noyce story I told at the beginning of this post 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 interactions.

An anecdote is compact. It's a single event, or a 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, direct, 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 daily interactions.


Start by going through your list and marking which of your stories are narratives and which are anecdotes. Once you have them sorted, now comes the tricky part: identifying takeaways. This is when you figure out what the core message of each story is. If you could sum up the "point" of your story in one sentence, what would it be? Think in terms of relevant, actionable takeaways that you can apply in other contexts. Some common examples include:

  • Lessons

  • Warnings

  • Proof of principles or strategies

  • Examples

  • Simple scenarios that explain complex topics

What might the moral of the “Help Wanted” story be? 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 at least a willingness to learn and adapt. These are simplistic messages on the surface, but the quirks of this particular story—New York, the flower shop, the wording of the sign—are what makes them stick.

The beauty of anecdotes is that they’re usually flexible enough to have multiple takeaways. Even the Fujitsu story could be about more than one thing—the potential for your audience to surprise you, for example, or the idea 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.


Apply

Now that you have identified and analyzed a handful of stories, you can start 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 want to make a more convincing or impactful statement or argument, ask yourself, “What stories do I have that illustrate the message I’m trying to communicate?”


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 ones you’ve already collected 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 do the same thing or a customer who reacted strongly to a similar concept. This low-stakes approach is a great way to get comfortable with on-the-fly storytelling. Don’t worry if you don’t tell the stories perfectly every time or if they don't always land. Keep experimenting, taking 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 (pitching to investors, for example), you can—and should—give some deeper thought to your strategy. Your first step in these situations is to ask yourself, “What do I need from the stories I use here?”

Start by thinking about the context. Some questions to consider might be:

  • Who is my audience?

  • Am I talking to a large or small group?

  • Are these people in my company or external?

  • How well do I know these people?

  • What message am I trying to convey?

Your next step is to 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, try practicing them on a few different groups to gauge your audience’s reaction. If a story doesn’t feel like it’s landing, then it may not be the best fit. You can always go back to the drawing board.


Pro Tip: There may be times when you just don’t have an 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.


Once you’ve decided on a story that fits your objective, you can strategically work it into your speech, pitch, or presentation. 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. 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 Robert Noyce's story. Don't be afraid to think outside the box. If you have an argument you want to make or a message you want to deliver, there will always be a story to support it. The trick is just finding the right one.

Bringing it all together

The purpose of this article is to give you a starting point for using stories in your job. It’s not a comprehensive guide, but I hope it's helpful as you begin this process. This can take time and practice, and there will be a learning curve at the beginning. That's normal, so don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t feel like it’s coming naturally at first. Start small, using anecdotes to make your point in everyday conversations, and gradually work your way up to narratives and bigger, more important interactions.


Remember, stories are universal. If you can enjoy them, then you can learn to tell them. And when you take the time 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 the resources below. They make an excellent starting point.


Works cited:

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