Storytelling in Business: It Should be a Little Scary

My quest has been a challenging one: to inspire my colleagues and clients to become better storytellers.

Over the past few years, I’ve coached and cajoled peers, clients and executive teams to respect the essence — and the power — of real storytelling. I want them to become better communicators by becoming better storytellers. I want them to appear more authentic, honest and transparent. I want them to leave their audiences rapt, inspired, transported!

Along the way, I’ve been mocked, ignored, politely dismissed. Many listeners have agreed; very few have converted. This might take a while.

That’s how this story begins. And the great thing about a story is, you don’t have to succeed, you just have to try. I’m trying.

There is joy in storytelling, for both presenter and audience. For the teller, crafting and delivering a good story can be liberating in what it reveals and rewarding in the wisdom gained and imparted. For the audience, stories generate empathy, transparency and trust. Countless studies have shown that storytelling affects the listener on a visceral level and leads to better understanding, resonance and retention.

Storytelling is a word I hear a lot in discussions of business communications these days. Most companies are looking to appear more human and authentic; storytelling is a powerful tool in that respect. Thing is: I hear the word a lot, but I don’t hear a lot of actual storytelling.

In this essay, we share our take on Storytelling and how businesses can benefit from using more and better storytelling in marketing and communications. We’ll also offer a two-part “crash course” in storytelling, revisiting the basics and providing some practical exercises for telling better stories in business.


Trying to agree on a definition of storytelling is like trying to define Truth or Beauty; we can probably get halfway there together, but then it gets tricky. To me, what makes story such a powerful thing is its ability to forge human connection by affecting emotion, intellect and behavior. Good storytelling can make you laugh or cry (all at once), feel elation or anger, inspire you to drop everything and change your life’s direction.

To do that, though, demands that the storyteller share honest and authentic aspects of their experience, personal impressions that might be silly, scary, embarrassing, mistaken, surprising or unpleasant—elements of the universal human condition that make us vulnerable.

“The fact of storytelling hints at a fundamental human unease, hints at human imperfection. Where there is perfection there is no story to tell.” — Ben Okri, author and poet

In my opinion, it’s that vulnerability that makes it hard for real storytelling to exist in business: What company or representative is willing to be vulnerable in front of peers, bosses, subordinates or competitors? What company would call attention to an imperfection?

We’ve been taught and trained to always put the best face on our businesses and careers, in order to impress customers, shareholders and others. So when it comes to business communications–be it a PR or digital campaign, an event or presentation, an HR or community initiative–we tend to eschew story for narrative.

What’s the difference between story and narrative?  If a story is a beautiful pearl, then a Narrative is like a string of pearls. Communications and campaigns are Narratives born of stories.

 “Just Do It” is a narrative built of inspiring stories about athletes both famous and not. A product launch is a Narrative that, ideally, combines the stories of those who invented it, built it and those who benefit.

Narratives inform an audience. Stories affect an audience.

If narratives can indeed be constructed out of a series of stories, that creates a lot of opportunity to tell even better stories in the service of stronger narratives.


PART ONE: Revisiting the Basics of Storytelling

Start with character.

The main character (the protagonist) might be you or your team, your boss or your company. No matter who (or what) it is, it’s important to impart personality and recognizable human qualities into the protagonist. Strong characters come from the heart.

Defining character will breathe humanity into the purpose of your project. Are they (you) sly and clever, mighty and heroic, relentless and unstoppable, nurturing and curious. Be yourself, and help the audience understand who you are, and quickly.

You might want to consider an archetype to help you define what your character represents, their strengths and weaknesses. The 12 Jungian Archetypes can inspire some deeper thinking. Can your protagonist play the role of Caregiver, Explorer or Sage?

Your story might involve other characters (antagonists and others). For instance: customers, bosses, guess, researchers, users and partners might have roles. To ensure their role is constructive to the story, flesh out their motivations, needs and rewards as well. Or grant them an archetype. You might find that they can play a more significant role in your story than a mere cameo.

Again, I doubt you’ll want to turn your communications strategy into a medieval passion play, but a smattering of the familiar and classic can deliver intrigue and impact.

What’s at stake?

Being clear about the stakes is vital. If nothing’s at stake, or if the stakes aren’t very high, why should I as a listener care? Is the protagonist questing for survival, a promotion, a scientific breakthrough, a better mousetrap? Make the audience understand why this is important, and let them know what happens if he/we achieve this end, and what happens if we fail.

The greater the obstacle, the stronger the story, potentially.

What’s standing in our way?

As with stakes, be clear about the obstacles that lie ahead. It might be a new competitor, an economic factor, a recent strategic misstep. It might just be uncertainty. In crafting your story, this is where you can introduce something scary, something that scares you and should scare your audience. (This is not intended to be a scare tactic, but rather an acknowledgement of a legitimate peril that lies ahead.)

Now that we know the obstacles, we can steer our quest toward overcoming it, through lessons, persistence, ingenuity and other tools.

 Think of structure.

The fundamentals of story structure date back to Aristotle and before. Even if you don’t go full storyteller in your business communications, merely contemplating some of these fundamentals can inspire stronger, more resonant content creation.

In considering structure, think about how your protagonist will get from the here-and-now to the there-and-next. It shouldn’t be easy; no good story lets its characters off without some rigor. The protagonist needs to be challenged in order to learn and grow and change, and to ultimately receive their prize (or not).

In its simplest form, a story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Readers of Elizabethan playwrights will recognize the five-act structure. More modern stories tend to rely on three-acts. Regardless, story formula usually comes down to this:

  • Set-up, introducing protagonist, their world and objectives/stakes, leading to an inciting incident
  • Confrontation, wherein the protagonist encounters the obstacle and is tested in the pursuit of their goal
  • Resolution, as the protagonist overcomes everything to succeed. Success might not be winning, but merely gaining knowledge or experience. That’s the great thing about story is that the protagonist doesn’t have to win, they just have to try.

Most screenplays adhere closely to the 30-60-90 rule, where each stage refers to minutes and page numbers. Next time you watch a movie, check your watch the first time the main characters kiss or rob their first bank; it’ll likely be almost exactly at the 30 minute mark.

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey goes deeper into each act to architect a 12-chapter story, with titles like Meeting with the Mentor, Crossing the Threshold, Ordeal, Resurrection and Return with the Elixir. George Lucas cleaved closely to this construct in scripting his “Star Wars” series.

Even if you don’t have time, space or patience for three acts or 12 chapters, push yourself to veer from the linear and let your characters show and prove themselves to the audience. This story arc (or character arc) is another fundamental of good story; it shows what our protagonist is learning and reveals how they’re growing. What’s more, by stretching your story in surprising ways, you will keep the audience engaged, invested and loyal to your plight.

Embrace a storyline.

It took Christopher Booker 34 years to write The Seven Basic Plots, and it shows. To condense:  most of the seven involve a quest of some sort, whether in search of love, to slay the dragon, to seek redemption or to achieve enlightenment.

Any of these plotlines could translate to business; just replace the word “homeland” with “company,” “dragon” with “competitor,” and “the hero” with “we,” “me,” “I” or “us.”

Two of Booker’s other plots are Comedy and Tragedy. Both can be tricky devices in business communications. We can probably agree that Tragedy sometimes has a role in communications, but I’d doubt that any professional would want to tap into it except when absolutely necessary.

And while there is likely universal agreement on what is Tragedy, defining Comedy is much more complex and elusive. There is a risk in injecting Comedy into business, because most Comedy requires a foil of some kind; the audience needs to laugh “at” something. It might be a competitor or a willing and self-deprecating manager. But such Comedy can also be construed as mean-spirited or too “inside.” Done right, Comedy can return big rewards.

Know your audience.

It’s good to understand who they are, their needs, motivations and how you want to affect them with your story.

But this is important: This is your story. Resist the urge to craft stories that pander to an audience or to betray who you really are. Authenticity and honesty are key. Surrender those and, well, you’re not being a good Storyteller.

One other thing is true: Every story is a love story.

That’s obvious between Rick and Ilsa, Wall-E and Eva, Elio and Oliver. Think about it next time you’re at the movies or you pick up a new book, especially if it’s not a romance. There will always be a love story at the core of the story, whether it’s the protagonist’s love of country, love of money, love of family, whatever. When you peel back one more layer, you will find that country, money and family are merely the representations of another entity within the story. Remember Rosebud?

PART TWO: Five Steps to Better Business Storytelling

  1. Make it personal. Think of an experience that relates to the business messaging at hand. What did you learn, how did you become better, what is the lesson you can share? Here are a few examples of personal angles you can bring to a business story:
  • A hobby like restoring old cars that teaches you about precision or reverence for history or a medical emergency
  • A recent outing that afforded you time to share with your kids, wherein you got caught in the rain or encountered a grizzly or reached a summit for the first time
  • A time you got lost and, in order to get un-lost, you had to communicate in a new way, learn a new skill (fast) or do the most terrifying thing you’ve ever done
  • An epiphany from your childhood when you overcame a fear, learned a neat trick you do to this day or met a friend who changed your life
  • Or, more generally, think about a time when you were way too confident or well under-prepared or so far outside your league. Why did it happen, what did you learn and how did you grow?
    Audiences are hungry for this connection, and they will go as deep as you are willing to take them. This depth of sharing can prove a liberating exercise for even the most polished storyteller.

2. What’s at stake? What are you (and maybe the audience) at risk of losing? What can be won? The stakes should be high on both ends, but attainable. You can always raise the stakes by adding a new twist or revealing a detail, but you can never lower them.

3. What will/did you learn? How did you grow? This is where you create a character arc. As a storyteller, it’s your job to make this journey interesting and rewarding. Introduce challenges, obstacles and surprises that force the protagonist to learn, grow and overcome. These challenges are represented by an arc; the more hyperbolic the arc, the greater the change for the protagonist and/or the world.

4. Choose better words and lose the business-speak whenever possible. Words like “innovation,” “transformation” and, increasingly “intuitive” aren’t as powerful as they used to be. Replace every instance and derivative of these words with more distinct, relatable terms. Or better yet, regard each of these instances as an opportunity to tell the story of the people and the work that is empowering these innovations, et al.

And of course, avoid clichés like the plague. (That’s called irony, I think.)

5. Be fearless. At least in the first draft. Then edit until you’re almost comfortable. Always leave enough to make it a little scary for you. That’s where the best stories come from.

Are you ready to become a better Storyteller?

InVision brings decades of experience to the crafting of stories for our clients – as individuals and executives, teams and companies, and even products and brands. We also bring objectivity and a willingness (and passion) to dig deep to uncover the right topics and triggers that lead to great Storytelling and even stronger Narratives.

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