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The Elements of Business Storytelling

The Elements of Business Storytelling

Jimmy Guterman
November 14th, 2014

Casa Thomas Jefferson, Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/ctjonline/582863942

This is the first in a series of posts about business storytelling.

Everyone loves a great story. Great stories entertain us, help us get out of our own heads, help us learn, help us make meaning of the world. Probably farther back than when we started drawing animals on cave walls, stories have brought us together and made us feel something. Right now, many think we’re in a golden age of storytelling. The quality of television stories is said to be the best it’s ever been, videogames have sprouted complicated and realistic stories, and the word is full of companies who want to tell effective stories about its products, its services, and itself (and consultants who want to help them do it). You can’t go far in a bookstore without being told we are wired for story or that stories make us human

That’s all true. In business, the right story can help you sell. Screenwriting teacher Robert McKee differentiates business storytelling from fiction storytelling. In what McKee calls a “fiction-told story,” the story has three movements: it must hook the interest of the audience, then it must build and sustain and progress involvement over time, and finally it must pay off with satisfying experience for both intellect and emotion. The audience is passive; the author does all the work.

But in business stories, which McKee calls a “purpose-told story,” the story is practical, brief, and active. The teller and listener are engaged in an exchange that ends in some positive action taken by the listener. Unlike the three movements of fiction, McKee maintains that a business story has six movements (the three of fiction and three more):

  1. hook interest for head and heart 
  2. express need or threat 
  3. build curiosity and involvement
  4. show path to fulfillment
  5. pay off
  6. call to action

For these steps to work and the story to be effective, McKee is stating that a business story must identify something compelling that the listener wants to change, and then convince the listener that the storyteller’s solution is the right one for him or her. Without that, what you’re left with is mere advertising, pitching without presenting real reasons that people should act. People may still act; much of what we buy we don’t actually need, after all. But successful business business storytellers ask themselves key questions:

What is the story in the service of?

How is this story good for the listener, not just the teller?

Have you made this a story people see themselves in or want to be part of? 

The business world is full of people and companies who think they’re telling stories but are really just pitching. Like a fiction storyteller, identify the audience and satisfy them. But then figure out how the story can be a vehicle for you and the listener to do something together. Nancy Duarte writes in Resonate about how every story starts with a relatable hero. What are you doing to make your listener, not you or your offering, the hero?

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