Storytelling for business: what is it and how do you do it?

February 18, 2021
We have not just grown up with stories – to inspire, to learn language and teach morals – we have evolved with them. Opening our minds through creatively placed words is part of our make-up.

For some, storytelling in business can be an uncomfortable concept.

For decades, millions of professionals honed their presentation skills, trained themselves to be confident and informed on their topic, some even illustrating it with graphs and moving elements in the form of slide transitions and other PowerPoint animations.

Things were clear cut and comfortably businesslike until some bright spark came up with the idea of transforming business communication by reverting to the classic nursery school wind-down: storytelling.

To some, it doesn't seem mature or accomplished to revert to such a simplistic communication style, and that could be why people can seem uncomfortable with it.

But actually, it's not childish, its Neanderthal. Cavemen painted their stories on their cave walls. Old wives tales and folklore got passed down by word of mouth and families have long relayed their ancestors' wisdoms with a story that might start: "When I was a lad, my Dad used to say to me…"

We have not just grown up with stories – to inspire, to learn language and teach morals – we have evolved with them. Opening our minds through creatively placed words is part of our make-up.

And if that weren't enough, there is a strong business case. Take advertising as an example. "Harvey and Rabbit" is an example of a story within a story: the pet dog in the TV licensing advert uses the remote control to play a film to his owner, arguing why he should be allowed to keep his smelly cuddly toy. It's got everything from cloud shapes to dog dancing. It's funny, emotive, makes you warm to the dog and the people behind the advert because you can relate; you are human and so are they.

Silliness isn't a pre-requisite. This is not carpet time at infant school and twee voices are unnecessary. Take the advertising example again but this time, the Red Cross or many other charities. They use real people and real lives to highlight humanitarian crises and illness and they do so for the same reason as the Harvey and Rabbit advert: to strike a chord and relate to real people.

Penn State College medicine researchers found students who participated in storytelling exercises were more sympathetic to their patients' conditions.

Stories give structure. There is a beginning, middle and end at the very least. There is characterisation, description and tone of voice suited to the audience. Ultimately, you are leading your readers or listeners to a conclusion, which will be the point your character reaches their objective.

So how can you use storytelling?

Businesses have been getting creative, sharing their reason for being or their 'About Us' in story form. Telling your customers where you have come from, why you got started, what inspires you: these are all great reasons for using creative writing instead of a bland chronology of events.

Within a company, a tale can be spun from imagining your offering as a story, with your target market personified as your lead character and their experience with your company depicted creatively. Add in competitors as anti-heroes and obstacles for your lead to overcome.

Storytelling can also be used in the day-to-day running of a company. In the early stages, before you have got used to the less formal way of working, you could chose to swap formal report meetings for a "Tell us what happened this week" style of gathering.

Less paper and PowerPoints, more telling, describing, detailing. This way, the language used becomes more important. There is room for a dramatic pause or anticipation-building.

In the wider world, Kickstarter and Just Giving pages show the acceptance of storytelling in everyday life and its use for financial gain. Your clients and audience are already getting used to putting their lives into a story and presenting it to the world, with a little persuasive writing here and heart-touching detail there.

What do you need to do?

Understanding any given problem within a story framework can help you plan your way out. Know how to use characters, intrigue, pacing, pause, language and tone of voice and you will create inspiring communication.

Research a story plan that suits your chosen subject. If you need to keep it short, stick to understanding the beginning, middle and end that underlines where you are, your projected journey and the destination.

Freytag's Pyramid is a more detailed pattern to follow. This pattern was Gustav Freytag's description of dramatic structure in ancient Greek and Shakespearean stories. There are five points: starting point (or exposition), rising action (the drama builds when you add a complication, or the matter that needs resolution), climax (this is the turning point), falling action (moving towards a conclusion), and lastly denouement (or moment of release).

Storytelling fits the buzzword criteria in terms of the sudden peak of interest it has seen. But we think it's here to stay. It allows people to speak from their own experience and add colour to meetings and to how a company presents itself.

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