When I chose my career in communications, I remember my dad scoffing a bit. He said, “You are a writer. You should be doing something with writing.”
Little did he know (and honestly, me too) that my entire job would eventually be writing—and other multi-media storytelling. I would go on to launch a blog that is now 17 years old, publish two books, and consult executives around the world on how to best tell their stories via the internet.
It is my passion, but I also understand it’s not the passion of everyone. I guess that’s good, or I wouldn’t have a job. But even if it’s not your passion, you must become proficient at storytelling, particularly if you’re a leader.
That doesn’t mean you have to write your business stories, but you do have to be able to tell them and capture an audience—during your one-to-ones, during team meetings, during all-hands, and on stage.
Some of the world’s best leaders—from Winston Churchill and Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Brené Brown—are also some of the best storytellers. To be an effective leader, you must build trust. And to build trust, you must be able to engage an audience through storytelling.
Five Essential Business Stories
My friend Nick Westergaard is a professor at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, where he leads the Story Lab program. He recently wrote an article for Harvard Business Review about storytelling in business.
I read it and thought, “This is great. I should write an article on the same topic.” And voila! Here we are!
Storytelling is hands down, one of the best ways to build trust among employees, customers, prospects, investors, and other stakeholders. It provides an insider’s view into the person as a leader, and it engages the hearts of the receivers.
It helps leaders demonstrate the vision, inspire action, challenge the process, enable others to act, and engage the heart. After all, people are more likely to remember something if told through a story and if it moves them.
But not all business stories are effective. Nick says five types of business stories lead to outcomes:
Let’s go through each of them, and I’ll give you some examples of how you might use them in your own organizations.
The Trust Story
Many “trust” stories exist that most organizations already use: case studies, testimonials, and company origins, as examples.
But what if you took your trust stories a step further and shared a story where the company took a stand or made a decision based on its values, even if it was a difficult choice? Or when the company faced a challenge or made a mistake but took corrective action, prioritizing customer trust over immediate profits?
One of my favorite “trust” stories harkens back to the Steve Jobs days. Ah, I miss that man. After the iPhone 4 had reception issues, Jobs held a news conference. Instead of denying the problem, he acknowledged it, provided data on its scope, and offered free phone cases to those affected.
Another one I love from recent years is when Starbucks faced a period where its quality and customer experience were meh. Howard Schultz decided to close all U.S. stores for a day to retrain employees in the art of espresso making. I remember it was a huge deal because every store was closed. You could not feed your Starbucks habit that day. However, it created a completely different level of trust among team members and customers.
When working on your trust stories, keep in mind that:
- Authenticity is key. Don’t fabricate or embellish. Don’t hide facts or lie by omission. Hit it head-on and provide backup in your stories. We use this storytelling tactic in crisis communications for this very reason.
- Make it relevant. The story should be relevant to the audience who is receiving it. For instance, if your manufacturing plant has a fire, the stories you provide to customers will differ from those in the community who are directly affected.
- Continuously update. As your company evolves and faces new challenges, collect and share new business stories that reflect this journey.
The Teaching Story
A “teaching” story is a narrative that imparts wisdom, insights, or lessons in an indirect and often metaphorical way. It teaches the audience using examples and insights from the storyteller’s business or personal experience.
For instance, a CEO might share a personal story about a challenging time in their life and how they navigated through it, emphasizing the importance of persistence and adaptability. Or an employee might share how they started in a very junior role and climbed the ranks due to hard work and dedication.
Back in the day, before Amazon bought Zappos, Tony Hsieh (may he rest in peace), the founder and CEO, spent a year on the road to promote his book, Delivering Happiness. I saw him speak in Chicago, and he told a story that has always stuck with me (see, it works!). He said their customer service reps were given some autonomy in how to help customers, including a daily stipend they could spend.
One rep received a phone call from a man whose father had just passed away, and he needed to buy shoes. As a mechanic, he’d never needed dress shoes and was overwhelmed by the options that Zappos provided. He just wanted someone to make a decision for him. The customer service rep got some information from him—shoe size, suit color, address, and the like—and said he would send several pairs of shoes to try on. He could keep the ones he liked and send the others back, for free.
This act of kindness is something most companies would never do, but it didn’t end there. The rep then took their daily stipend and bought some flowers to be delivered to the man the next day.
That story still makes my heart happy, all these years later.
When crafting and using teaching stories in business:
- Keep it authentic: This one will be a common theme for all types of business stories. An authentic story resonates more than a fabricated or exaggerated one.
- Know your audience: Tailor your story to the listener’s needs and context.
- Encourage reflection: After sharing the story, allow time for reflection or discussion, amplifying its effectiveness.
- Use relatable characters: People connect more to stories where they can see themselves in the characters or situations. I think we can all see ourselves in the Zappos story.
The Action Story
An “action” story is a narrative that primarily focuses on recounting events and actions taken by individuals or groups, often leading to a significant outcome or realization. This story demonstrates initiative, problem-solving, resilience, and innovation, showcasing how challenges are navigated, and goals are achieved through decisive actions.
The characteristics of action stories are event-driven, outcome-focused, engaging and motivational, and instructional.
For instance, a CEO might describe how they navigated the company through a crisis, outlining the strategic moves and resulting positive outcomes. Or a comms team might publicize a story about the company’s rapid and comprehensive response to a product defect, highlighting its commitment to customer safety and satisfaction.
One of my favorite case studies of an action story is something we all studied in school—the Tylenol crisis from the 80s.
In 1982, Johnson & Johnson faced a severe crisis when seven people in Chicago died after taking Tylenol capsules that had been tampered with and laced with cyanide. News of the deaths quickly spread, creating panic among consumers and leading to a nationwide scare. The reputation of J&J was at stake, and there was a real risk of Tylenol being permanently tarnished.
The CEO immediately informed the public and issued a nationwide recall of Tylenol capsules—around 31 million bottles, amounting to more than $100 million. The company was transparent and proactive in communicating with the public and the media, providing regular updates and warnings. They introduced tamper-evident packaging, subsequently setting a new industry standard for consumer product safety.
Due to their effective and ethical handling of the crisis, Tylenol eventually regained its market share and consumer trust.
And, as you know, the response to the Tylenol crisis is still heralded as an exemplary form of crisis management. All because they handled the crisis well and told the story in a way that included the event and the outcome, and was motivational, educational, and instructional.
When crafting and telling action stories, think about the following:
- Be authentic: Share real and genuine business stories that reflect the company’s values and identity.
- Create relatability: Ensure the story resonates with the audience by making it relevant and relatable.
- Incorporate details: Provide enough details to make the story compelling and vivid but stay concise and focused.
- Highlight lessons learned: Clearly outline the takeaways and lessons that emerge from the actions taken.
- End strong: Conclude with a powerful message or a call to action that leaves a lasting impression.
The Values Story
A values story is a narrative that embodies and illustrates the core principles and ethics that a company stands for. They are meant to showcase and reinforce the organization’s values, often acting as a guideline for expected behaviors and decision-making processes within the company.
The characteristics of value stories are value-centric (of course), inspirational, illustrative, and engaging.
For instance, you might share a story about a long-time employee who consistently embodies the company’s values in their daily work and interactions, showcasing the expected behaviors and attitudes. Or maybe you share monthly or quarterly stories celebrating employees or teams who have lived out company values in remarkable ways.
A great case study on the values story is how TOMS launched their “one-for-one” campaign, which provides a pair of shoes to someone in need for every pair that is bought. This has become the cornerstone of the brand’s identity because it reflects its commitment to social responsibility. It also has been copied over and over again by companies such as Thrive Causemetics, Warby Parker, Bombas, and more.
But you don’t have to be those big brands and give away something with every sale. You can craft values stories by doing the following:
- Be authentic: I know, I know. This has been the first thing in all of my story lists. Be authentic. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.
- Be relevant: Another one that continues to come up. If you’re not relevant, no one will care.
- Simplicity is best: The narrative should be straightforward and easy to understand, making the value it represents clear and compelling.
- Engage the audience emotionally: help them connect with the characters in the story and the values being demonstrated.
- Call to action: End with a call to action, encouraging the audience to reflect on and embody the values presented in the story.
Values stories serve as a mirror reflecting what a company stands for, acting as a beacon to attract like-minded individuals, employees, and consumers, while fostering a strong and cohesive internal culture.
The Vision Story
The last type to use in business is the vision story.
It is a story crafted to articulate and convey a company’s future goals and aspirations, outlining a compelling picture of what the organization seeks to achieve in the long term. It serves as a guiding beacon, providing direction and inspiration for employees, stakeholders, and customers alike.
A vision story should be forward-thinking, inspirational, strategic, and engaging.
You are likely already using some form of a vision story in investor presentations, employee onboarding, marketing materials, ad campaigns, PR efforts, social media, and more. This is probably the most used story type in the work that we do. But that doesn’t mean it’s done well. If you’re going to tell a vision story, reflect on how to do it in a way that excites and motivates people.
Love them or hate them, Amazon is one of the best cases for a vision story. Jeff Bezos had an incredible vision of creating an “everything store.” Amazon started out as an online bookstore (do some of you even remember that?), but he always had the vision to expand into other product lines. He frequently communicated his vision of Amazon as a customer-centric company, using technology to offer more products and convenience.
Amazon is now one of the largest retailers globally, embodying his early vision of an expansive, customer-focused company—and pretty much every one of us uses them.
If you want to craft vision stories, follow these tips:
- Be clear and concise: Clearly articulate the vision without being overly verbose or complex.
- Incorporate emotional elements: Engage your audience emotionally, making them feel part of the vision.
- Align with company values: Ensure the vision story reflects the core values and principles of the organization.
- Be inspirational: Craft a story that inspires and motivates your team and stakeholders to take action.
- Provide a contrast: Briefly outline the current state and contrast it with the envisioned future to highlight the transformation.
I didn’t include authenticity in that one because, at this point, it goes without saying! Be authentic.
Because storytelling isn’t first nature for most people, I thankfully have a job. But there are lots of ways you can get started without hiring a professional to help you. In their book, How to Tell a Story from The Moth, provides some really great prompts:
- Tell us about a time you realized this work was important to you.
- Tell us about a time you knew you had to leave home.
- Tell us about a time you had to stand up for what’s right.
If you have to present data to a group of people, there is nothing more boring than sitting through charts and graphs and charts and graphs.
I learned this lesson the hard way when our team was crushing results for a client, but the CEO didn’t understand how our work was driving real revenue. As I dug into what was going on (after being very frustrated), I discovered that the slides we sent him every Monday were just charts and graphs. We weren’t telling the amazing story to go along with the data.
If you find yourself in the same position, and I venture to guess many of you do, tell stories with your data:
- Open the slides with a story about the previous week’s or month’s or quarter’s work.
- Drop your data in throughout one larger story.
- Use a story to illustrate one critical point of data.
This is clearly a passion of mine, but also…it works! Get really good at telling business stories, and you’ll reach your goals every time.