How to rethink 3 concerns that hold back storytelling for business

Part of the Effective Communication series from Pinch Yourself Communication

Most human beings have a natural desire and ability to tell stories – right up until the moment they step in to a business environment, it seems.

When we meet with friends and family over coffee or a meal we automatically share stories about things that have happened to us since we last caught up. Yet in business, bland corporate speak can often prevail.

So why this blockage in the office and how can we overcome it to harness the power of storytelling for business?

There are many things that can hold people back from telling stories in a business environment.

For example:
I’m afraid of what people will think of my story
I’m more comfortable conforming with conservative modes of corporate speech
I’m afraid of exposing my true self and being vulnerable
I don’t have any stories
I don’t know how to tell stories
Does storytelling belong in business?

We’ve previously touched on the first three issues in a recent piece on authentic communication: Why authentic communication is like learning to downhill ski so that leaves us with the final three concerns.

© Pinch Yourself Communication_Effective Conversation Series
READ MORE about authentic communication on the Pinch Yourself Communication blog: Why authentic communication is like learning to downhill ski

Let’s rethink three concerns that can hold back storytelling for business

1. Does storytelling belong in business?

Storytelling may sound like something that belongs in school or in the movies, but it can be an important tool for leaders and business people.

The science in recent times has been confirming what human beings have understood implicitly for millennia – that storytelling helps people to listen, understand and retain key pieces of information.

Indigenous Australians, for example, have passed down information, culture, values and wisdom for tens of thousands of years through sharing ancient songlines.

Studies show that stories activate the brain and evoke an emotional response that has the power to change behaviours and bring people together. (See: Berkeley University of California | Princeton University Neuroscientist Uri Hasson | Dana Foundation )

Stories help us to make sense of things, so that ideas and events are connected in a meaningful way, with a clear sense of cause and effect.

When you apply that to what leaders need to achieve within their teams, it makes perfect sense that storytelling is a valuable business tool.

Some of the world’s most successful political and business leaders have understood and used this potential to connect with audiences and lead change.

Content marketing and owned media strategies, which are a critical plank of marketing and public relations in the digital era, employ storytelling in various forms – oral, written, visual and musical.

2. I don’t have any stories

We all have stories. Stories involve the re-telling of experiences and events in a narrative structure. With practice, it becomes easier to identify experiences that have the potential to be used as stories for business.

You can start by actively observing your day-to-day experiences at work and outside the office, and if something feels like it has potential for a story, make a note of it.

Every leader should have a handful of go-to stories that help sum up the story of why they do what they do and their philosophy on business, as well as stories that help convey the business purpose, vision and strategy.

Stories can include your own personal stories, stories about things happening within your own business that help exemplify the strategy or culture in action, and stories about your competitors or inspiring organisations to learn from.

A good communications professional can assist with identifying and preparing your stories.

3. I don’t know how to tell stories

While most people do naturally tell stories in their private lives, it’s important to invest some time and preparation to get it right in a business context. Here are some tips to help get you started:

  • Start with thinking about why your business exists and what your purpose is – this is your primary story and should help inform all other stories.
  • Write your story down, practise it out loud and test it with someone you trust.
  • Make it about people – either yourself or others – and share enough detail about the individuals involved so that people can relate to them.
  • Most stories follow one of a small number of narrative arcs. One of the most common and effective is a three act structure which starts with a status quo (business as usual), an inciting incident (a threat or trigger for change) then leads to the escalation of issues or a series of challenges, and finally a resolution (things are resolved but something has changed.)
  • Be authentic.
  • Think about your audience and what they are interested in.
  • Remember that the purpose is to stimulate conversation – don’t provide all the answers and interpretation.
  • When you’re ready to go, don’t announce it as a story – just tell it.
  • Above all, keep it simple. The best stories are easy to follow and understand.

Know that by taking the lead on storytelling, you can not only help engage and mobilise colleagues, you may also become a role model to help others move beyond the corporate speak to a more effective way of communicating.

Remember, a story should take your audience to a different place from where it started, preferably through a challenge, threat or experience that brings about a change in either behaviour or thinking.

That’s why stories lend themselves to business purposes: every organisation and every individual in their career has to navigate change and overcome obstacles and risks, big or small, in order to be successful.


Got a great story to share about storytelling? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below














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Mairi Barton is a strategic communication and public affairs leader who has influenced and delivered outcomes at the highest levels of the Australian corporate, government and non-profit sectors. Mairi is the founder and Chief Executive of strategic communication agency Pinch Yourself Communication. She is an award-winning former journalist who served in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery in Canberra. Mairi enjoys photography and posts to her Instagram gallery: @pinchmyself