5 More Mistakes Corporate Storytellers Make

February 1, 2018

[twin design]
[twin design]

Storytelling is arguably the most powerful form of communication we have. More than facts, data and ordinary information, stories persuade. Yet many of us struggle to create compelling stories for our organizations, brands, clients or ourselves.
In last year’s Writing and Storytelling issue of Tactics, I outlined eight mistakes that corporate storytellers make. This year, I’m back with five more, and they all share one central theme: simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. Storytelling does not have to be difficult or complicated, but too often, we make it hard for ourselves.

Here are some common hurdles we put in our own way when telling stories, and how to overcome them.

1. We make stories too complicated.

Look online and you’ll find no shortage of storytelling methods — a 10-part process, a 15-step formula, etc. At one of my workshops, a participant said he had attended a seminar that taught eight ingredients for storytelling, but he couldn’t remember any of them.

I prefer to keep it simple, with a three-part structure: A story has a character pursuing a goal while facing some challenge or obstacle. How the character resolves that challenge drives the narrative. The structure is similar to one I learned at Chicago’s famed Second City training center.

Undoubtedly there are other elements to a story — a turning point, climax, denouement and more — but character, goal and challenge are the three legs of the stool. Start with them.

2. We put too much pressure on ourselves.

TED Talks have distorted our storytelling expectations. We watch these master storytellers reduce audiences to tears or send them into fits of laughter and think that our own stories have to pack the same emotional punch. But remember, TED speakers are the best of the best. Tens of thousands of people compete for just a few coveted spots at the annual events.

So give yourself a break. Not every story has to be a home run. Singles and doubles often win the game.

3. We suffer from hero worship.

Storytellers and audiences are naturally drawn to “larger than life” protagonists — historical figures, sports heroes, characters from literature and film. Resist the temptation.

Such stories may create momentary buzz, but they lack staying power. Nelson Mandela was an extraordinary person. His tenacity, courage and conviction are an inspiration. But will his story help a company recover from a disappointing quarter?

The most effective characters face situations and circumstances similar to those of your intended audience. If you’re communicating to employees, then a story about another employee is likely to resonate. Talking to customers? Tell them about another customer in their niche.

Keep it simple by seeking out everyday heroes for your stories.

4. We realize that our stories are unoriginal.

Another problem with telling stories about major figures like Abe Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi or Steve Jobs is that audiences have probably heard those tales before. Even worse: The stories could be wrong.

For years, speakers have regaled audiences with the anecdote of the Chevy Nova. According to (urban) legend, the car flopped in Latin America because the name means “no go” in Spanish. But it turns out the story itself is a non-starter. In Spanish the words “no va” may literally translate to “not going,” but native Spanish speakers would not interpret “Nova” that way. They’re more likely to think of “nueva,” meaning “new.”

Tall tales abound on corporate stages and in executive communications. For the record, Lincoln did not hastily scribble the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope during the train ride from Washington, and the Great Wall of China is not the “only man-made object visible from space.”

5. We fear getting personal.

The richest source of genuine, original stories is your everyday life. Look to simple moments that provoke a nod or smile, an acknowledgement of a shared experience or universal truth: You got stuck in traffic. Your baby or pet kept you up all night. On the way to a big job interview you dumped an entire venti coffee on your suit. These are the kinds of everyday experiences that people relate to and which help you connect with your audience.

But some leaders I work with are reluctant to tell stories from their own personal experiences. They worry that others won’t care about their lives — or worse, that audiences will find their stories self-indulgent or egotistical.

But there’s a big difference between a story that’s all “me, me, me” and one that’s relatable, attuned to your audience’s needs and offers takeaways they can use. Personal stories show people who you are and what you stand for. And because these stories are yours alone, they’re practically guaranteed to be original.

Some examples: What’s the best lesson you’ve learned from a parent, friend or mentor? What has been your greatest disappointment or triumph? What do you love about your job? What frustrates you or makes you proud? What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Done right, personal stories create genuine connections with your audience. People are much more likely to believe you if they believe in you.

A great story can tear down walls, build trust and influence people to act. The first step is to get out of your own way. 

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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