Primary Source: The Power of Storytelling in Business

February 1, 2018

Let’s reimagine a famous Biblical tale for a moment. Moses is wandering the desert when God speaks to him. He tells Moses he has heard the cries of his people in Egypt and wants to know how Moses will lead them out of captivity. The next day, Moses returns to God and shows him a PowerPoint presentation packed with maps, directional charts, compass settings, seasonal climate trends and a breakdown of costs.

God is so overwhelmed by all the data that he sends Moses back to the desert, telling him he does not have what it takes to lead the Israelites to a land of milk and honey. The people are forced to wander for another 40 years.

Despite its context, this reimagined interaction between Moses and God occurs quite often in the workplace, where we’re treated to endless slides from people who mistake presentations for engaging storytelling. Stories connect with people on emotional levels. If you can make them feel, then you can make them care. When you move people to care, you are better poised to drive outcomes.

When I suggest that business people incorporate storytelling into their talks and communications, many push back, claiming it’s not their strength. I beg to differ. No matter who you are, you are a storyteller. You have been sharing stories since you were a child. You shared them on the playground, after summer vacations, in the workplace and at home with your family. You have it in you. For professionals, the challenge is sharing stories effectively in the workplace.

Think back to your favorite teachers: What was it about them that held your attention? Chances are, they engaged you with stories that added context to their lessons and made them relatable. Stories are far more interesting than just hearing someone rattle off information.

In business, stories can motivate customers and stakeholders. When your audience identifies with a story, it helps them feel more emotionally connected to the subject.

A man named John provides a great example. As a sales rep for a global company, one of his tasks was to excite current customers about a new product.

I happened to shadow John on a sales call one day. Despite his likable, exuberant personality, the experience wasn’t pretty. He spent most of the time showing the client a demo on his iPad. When the client asked specific questions, he fiddled to find the right slide on his device rather than engaging her.
She finally managed to get some answers after asking him, “Can you give me an example of how this product could benefit my employees?” The client felt engaged because she could now visualize how his product might solve problems at her office.

Connecting with your listener

Research shows that people are more likely to remember a story than a statistic. In a program at Stanford University, students were asked to give one-minute speeches that contained three statistics and one story. Only 5 percent of the listeners remembered a single statistic, while 63 percent remembered the stories.

Research also shows that certain areas of our brains light up when we hear stories. Stories generate ideas and thoughts, and motivate people to act. In fact, people are more likely to donate to a cause when they’ve heard a compelling story about it.

Look no further than YouTube, Pinterest or Facebook to understand how stories have transformed the way we communicate today. By posting content that includes video, images and music, companies can quickly make emotional connections with audiences — inspiring everything from buying habits to how you wear your hair. However, simply using digital content will not increase brand loyalty or enhance your marketing efforts. It takes an old-fashioned story that keeps listeners on the edge of their seats to help you shape your outcome.

In my former life, I spent nearly two decades as a television news reporter. Reporters are storytellers. Early on, we learned that for a story to be effective, it must engage all the senses. Listeners need to see what you saw, hear what you heard, smell what you smelled and touch what you touched. They need to be part of the experience.

Here are some tips to help get you started as a storyteller in your business. Begin with T-O-T, which stands for “The One Thing.” What is the one thing that you want your listeners to take away from your story? In business, stories should not be told just for the sake of sharing a story. They should be insightful and inspiring.

Balancing your narrative

Putting too many details in a story can overwhelm listeners, so strive for simplicity and balance by keeping these five things in mind:

  1. Begin with the problem, conflict or challenge that was faced.
  2. Describe obstacles and struggles encountered along the way. How did you or the other people in the story feel? Were you scared? Excited? Apprehensive? Details that evoke emotions will keep listeners connected.
  3. What was the “aha moment” in the story that led to a different way of thinking or that changed behavior?
  4. What was the story’s outcome? How was the problem solved? People will often apply your story to their own life.
  5. If you’re using PowerPoint while telling your story, then limit words on the slides and use visuals whenever possible.

Practicing your storytelling

Tell your story as you would to a friend. If something in the story excited you, then be animated as you tell it. If you were concerned, then your voice should be shakier. Our gestures, facial expressions and eye contact should be natural, not planned or stilted. By applying the same candor when telling stories at work, you will enhance your executive presence.

Storytelling takes practice. Test your tales on trusted friends before taking them prime time. See where you get laughs. Watch the expressions on your listeners’ faces to learn what works and what doesn’t for different audiences. Look for points in your story where you can create memorable lines that make your points.

If you struggle to remember stories, then try keeping a notebook. When something interesting happens, jot it down — even if you don’t know the message that story may offer at the time. True stories told from personal experiences are often the best teachers. People want the real you. There’s no better way to share what you or your business stands for than by allowing others to peek inside. 

Karen Friedman

Karen Friedman is a business-communication expert, executive coach, speaker and author of the books “Shut Up and Say Something” and “Ordinary People: Extraordinary Lessons.” She heads Karen Friedman Enterprises ( in the Philadelphia area. Follow her on Twitter @karenfriedmane.


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