Storytelling for Business

by Nick Owen

Know what you want

When using business narratives and stories, it is essential that you are clear about your purpose for doing so. What exactly is it that you want to achieve?

  • A new way of thinking about something?
  • An improved relationship?
  • Building a shared vision for the future?
  • Introducing yourself to a group for the first time?
  • Motivating your team?

There are hundreds of good reasons for using stories in a business context. But unless your audience can see real purpose and value in your story, and how it specifically applies to them, they are unlikely to pay full attention to it or buy into it.

So first be clear about your purpose.

Then make sure you have chosen a story that is not only appropriate for that purpose but which adds some extra value to your communication, giving it something which would not otherwise be there. This could be humour, creativity, curiosity or a particular kind of energy – an added dimension of some sort.

Is your purpose clear?

It is often useful to make the reason for telling the story explicit to your listeners before you tell it. This helps them to listen to it within the context to which you want to draw their attention.

Sometimes you can use the story itself to set the frame. Afterwards, ask the listeners what the relevance of the story might be to them in the context of Project X or whatever. This may be an even better technique than telling them what the story means. Stories allow a space for listeners to do their own thinking about the issues at hand, which is a powerful contribution when developing an open culture of mutual inquiry.

As you tell the story, pay attention to how the audience are receiving it. Hold eye contact, notice the non-verbal communication, check you are moving them towards the outcome you want.

At the end, find appropriate ways to check they got the meaning you intended. Have you achieved your purpose? There are many ways of doing this, such as discussing the implications of the story in relationship to the particular context, asking for people’s interpretations, working on various context-related activities and noticing their non-verbal responses. In the longer term, note whether people have changed their behaviours, attitudes and so on in relation to the context and content you wanted them to think about and act upon.