Character Study: 8 Big Mistakes Corporate Storytellers Make

February 1, 2017

As communicators, we know that storytelling is one of the most powerful tools we can use to break down walls with our target audiences, build trust and influence people to act.

There are many approaches to storytelling, but I teach a simple formula: A story is a character in pursuit of a goal in the face of some challenge or obstacle. How the character seeks to resolve that challenge drives the narrative.

But even when those essential building blocks are present, sometimes our stories just fall flat. Here are the most common problems I see in corporate storytelling and how to fix them.

1. Unrelatable characters

Great stories start with relatable characters. Your audience must be able to see something of themselves in your story’s protagonist. It could be a similar circumstance — they work in the same industry or department, for instance.

Or it could be values, struggles or aspirations they have in common. You don’t have to be a Jedi Knight to relate to Luke Skywalker; you just have to understand a desire for adventure, justice, love or a sense of identity.

And, of course, the character must be a specific individual. This is the problem with the typical, dry corporate case study. It’s written from 30,000 feet up — from an institutional perspective.

Bring your stories down to the human level. If a problem exists in an organization, then it must be affecting actual people.

2. No conflict

Conflict is the heart of every great story. Without sufficient conflict, you get a story like this: “Our client was having a systems-integration problem. We put together a team of experts who applied their know-how and our tested methodology to resolve the issue to the client’s delight.”

When everything goes as expected, there isn’t any drama to hold the audience’s attention. We need to hear more about the client’s struggles — how they tried different approaches but were thwarted.

Or perhaps there was a hitch in the plan — a problem the team hadn’t encountered before or a hurdle they weren’t sure they could overcome.

If your story doesn’t have strong conflict, then it’s not a story. Keep digging.

3. Low stakes

For a story to work, there has to be something important at stake — a serious problem that cries out for action.

There’s a big difference between an issue that causes your character a minor inconvenience and one that costs tens of millions of dollars. Go big with your stories.

4. Lack of emotion

Emotion fuels stories. It’s what makes stories resonate. When your audience feels something, they are more likely to do something (to act in the way you want them to act, buy, get on board, change their behavior, etc.).

So your story must provoke an emotional response that your audience can relate to — the frustration over long waiting times, the disappointment of a blown opportunity, the joy of victory.

Find the emotional core of your story and make sure that it’s clear to the reader.

5. Unnecessary exposition

To grab your audience from the start, jump right into the action: “I stood there, petrified, as the CEO chewed me out in front of the whole group.”

Once you have their attention, you can give a little background to get them up to speed.

Think of it as the difference between a movie like “Gone With the Wind,” where we have a series of title cards introducing us to the story, versus any James Bond film, which starts with a chase or a punch in the face.

And whatever you do, don’t begin with: “This is a story about…” Show, don’t tell.

6. Insufficient scene setting

Give your readers a sense of time and place. (Remember the “when” and “where” from the classic “five Ws” of who, what, where, when and why.)

But don’t go too far. “California in the late ‘70s” says plenty without telling us the day of the week, the weather and the street corner you were standing on.

7. Too much truth

We’ve all heard the saying “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.” That doesn’t mean you should lie, of course. It just means that not all facts have moved the story forward.

Novelist Matthew Dicks talks about the “four lies of storytelling.” Omitting details that aren’t relevant to the story, compressing time and even changing the order of events are all fair game in order to create the best possible audience experience.

Just be careful. It’s one thing to cut the clutter of nonessential information; it’s another to undermine the fundamental truth of the story. Where to draw the line?

A good test is to ask yourself if someone who actually witnessed the story would recognize it as truthful.

8. No clear turning point

Strong stories have clear turning points. It’s all about cause and effect: “When the project failed, Sam got the idea for a whole new approach.”

But in real life, there are many twists and turns along the way. Maybe Sam shopped his idea around, and then it went through a couple of committees and some pilot testing, and then was shelved for a while, and then later refined.

We don’t need all those details. (Unless your story is about corporate bureaucracy.)

Your job as a storyteller is to focus on the one or two turning points that have the most impact.

Be ruthless in refining your stories

The biggest challenge in crafting and refining our stories is to stand outside of ourselves — to look at events not just as they happened, but also from the audience’s perspective.

Which details will resonate with them and which will distract from your point? What is the best way to order the events? Which points do you amplify or mute?

This is especially difficult with stories that we’ve personally experienced. It’s hard to divorce ourselves from the everyday facts and to view them objectively. But that’s the key to discovering and communicating the actual truth of our stories.

And when you’ve mastered that, there isn’t a limit to what you can accomplish with your storytelling: close a sale, build your brand, rally a team, win over a skeptic — maybe even get out of a speeding ticket.

There isn’t an end to what stories can do — for you, for your brand and for your business.

Rob Biesenbach

Rob Biesenbach works with leaders who want to persuade, sell and compel — anytime, anywhere, and in front of any audience. He’s helped hundreds of CEOs and other executives plan and deliver their most important presentations. He’s also an in-demand speaker and trainer, an award-winning consultant, a bestselling author and a Second City-trained actor.


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