6 ways to avoid a common business storytelling blunder

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —March 5, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling

You want a persuasive story with impact, right?

So your natural response is to gather all the details you need to paint a vivid picture, add some emotion, and throw in a good twist. Then you craft your story. When you’re happy with it, you practise telling it – you practise, practise, practise.

And then you feature the story in your presentation.

Well, I’ve seen people do this and it comes off as an overly elaborate and inauthentic performance.


The last thing you want your audience to feel is that they’re simply watching a performance. What you do want them to feel is that you’re sharing an experience with them, just like what happens when people catch up informally over lunch. That’s when you hear what’s really happening.

People in the business world are rightly sceptical about performances.

How to tell a story without giving a performance

Here are 6 ways to keep your story conversational and authentic:

  • Know the point of your story and jettison everything that slows you down in getting there. Business moves fast, and to move fast you must travel light.
  • Give the briefest set-up possible. If you’re telling a story that starts with a trip to your mechanic, begin with ‘I was dropping my car off at a garage this morning …’ No need to add that it was going in for a tune-up and you suspected the brake pads needed replacing – unless, of course, those are vital elements of the story.
  • Start with a sentence that tells the audience the point of your story. Here is an example:

Often people don’t really know what you mean by business storytelling.

About six months ago I was in Singapore chatting with the internal comms manager of a pharmaceutical company. She’d never heard of business storytelling and was bemused by the idea.

After listening to me for a while, she said, ‘But does it work cross-culturally? Say, in Japan? I reckon if a CEO told a story in a meeting there, everyone would be confused. They’d say: “Are we in the meeting? Are we finished?”. They wouldn’t know what was happening’.

I posed a simple scenario to the comms manager. ‘Tell me if you think a CEO in Japan would say this in the middle of an important meeting of their direct reports: “Last week something happened that will change our business. I’d like to share it with you …’’’

The comms manager said, ‘Sure, I can see that happening’. I told her, ‘Well, he went on to tell a story’.

The penny dropped for her. Now she could see that we tell stories all the time at work, that it’s a natural way for us to share what we know. And most importantly it doesn’t have to an expansive, performed story.

  • Start in the middle of the action. Instead of starting your travel story with how you packed your suitcase, start with how you were asked to adopt the brace position as your plane plummeted.
  • Don’t write out your story in full. This will kill the story because you then start to believe that’s the best way to tell it. Storytelling is contextual – where, when and why you tell a story is as important as what happens in the story. It is necessary to record the stories you plan to tell orally, but do this in the form of dot points.
  • Make the story relatable. In other words, tell a story people can relate to. At work, most people have bosses, but few have crochet circles. So avoid crochet stories. (Thanks Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, for that one.)

If you want to succeed in changing minds, inspiring people to do things they never before believed they could achieve, you need to show that you care, that you are the real deal. You cannot be labelled a poseur. Instead, you have to be an authentic business storyteller.

Rather than spending hours crafting the perfect story, which of course just does not exist, concentrate on telling your story and help it evolve into an effective anecdote. This will require you to shift your gaze from yourself and your story to your audiences. This simple change in focus will help you to be a better communicator and a better leader.

So get out there and find and tell stories and don’t take it too seriously.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Jay Golden says:

    Very nice points. I agree about starting where the real action begins. Sometimes it’s a good practice to startin the middle and back up later for context if need be. Thanks!

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