“Once Upon A Time…” – The Role Of Storytelling In Business Communication

Business Storytelling Can Be Effective If Done Correctly
Business Storytelling Can Be Effective If Done Correctly

By Dr. Jim Anderson

In the eternal quest to communicate better and have our message “stick” with our audience, a powerful tool is often overlooked by us technical types. A good story, told at the right time, in the right way, to the right audience can have a lasting effect that can transform an organization. Proof of this can be found on the business best seller list over the past few years: “Who Moved My Cheese“, “Zapp: The Lightning of Empowerment“, “A Message From Garcia“, etc. have all proved that everyone loves a good story. Ah, but as always, the devil is in the details. Done wrong, a story can backfire and send your career down in flames. Let’s see if we can discover how to tame this wild stallion so that we can ride it to career success.

We’ve got lots of ways to communicate information, why bother with stories? We all know how to create and use analytical charts and their associated graphs (3-D pie chart anyone?), written reports, etc. A story is the right tool to use when your standard tools just aren’t working. Joseph Badaracco, a Harvard Business School professor, says that “People don’t simply hear stories. It triggers things – pictures, thoughts, and associations – in their minds“. The end result of all of this triggering is that a story can communicate your point in a very powerful way that fully engages your audience.

As always there is a catch. The catch to storytelling is that you need to know where to draw the line between making a dry business story more compelling by embellishing it and changing the story into an outright lie. I can’t even begin to stress just how important this rule is. An embellishment is when you transform “I took the test on a hot day” into “As I walked to the most important certification test in my life, the hot Texas sun felt like it was hovering just 10 feet above my head and the melted asphalt splashed as I walked though it.” See? You’ve made a dry story just a bit more interesting. A LIE would be when you say “I worked at ACME products for over 10 years in the Coyote specialty division where I invented the first rocket powered shoes.” If you weren’t there for 10 years or if you didn’t invent that, then that’s a lie.

In order for your story to have the impact that you want it to have, it has got to ring true with your audience. If your audience doubts even one part of your story, then they will spend the rest of the time looking for other holes in your tale. However, if your story is true and contains a powerful message that your audience can both picture and feel, then you will have accomplished what very few other communicators can do — you will have gotten your message across.