Mastering business storytelling with 4 vital disciplines

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —January 26, 2016
Filed in Business storytelling

When I started writing Putting Stories to Work I was inspired by David Allen’s How to Get Things Done. I liked how it gave you a process to achieve a goal. David helped you achieve stress-free productivity, just as his subheading promised. My goal is to help you master business storytelling and the process has four steps: discover, remember, share, refresh.


Storytelling mastery


If you have been reading this blog for a while you’ll know that I believe that business storytelling is impossible until you can tell the difference between a story and a non-story. You need to get great at spotting stories. It starts with the story spotting framework which you’ll need to commit to memory (it’s very simple so that won’t be difficult) then get out there and spot stories. Practice is essential to all the steps in mastering business storytelling and it all starts with spotting stories in the wild. When you’re at work see how many stories you can see and notice where they’re told. Where are the story-rich locations? Where are no stories told? These story deserts could point to an opportunity to stand out and have an impact.

One of the things you’ll notice is that we tell stories all the time in informal settings, down at the cafe, dinners, catching up with friends, yet very few are told in formal business settings except when exceptional leaders are talking with their people. Business storytelling pioneer, Steve Denning, calls storytelling the secret language of leadership. That’s because the very best are master storytellers yet very few reveal what they are doing. Your ability to spot stories will give you the key to seeing how it’s done.

There are lots of ways to find good stories to tell which I cover in Putting Stories to Work, such as using photographs, noticing your own stories, timelines, good questions, published stories, scientific experiments (one of my favourites), movies, podcasts, business books. Stories are everywhere and they can be used to make a business point.


Our memory has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. It’s evolved to increase the likelihood of our survival in a pre-industrial age. As a result, our memory has some stand-out features. We remember what we feel. A strong emotion is a good indicator that we should remember what caused it. Consequently we have a terrific memory for times when we were angry, scared, sad, joyous, and disgusted. By the way, I remembered that list of basic human emotions by remembering the characters from Pixar’s movie, Inside Out.


Which brings me to another characteristic of our memory, we remember images, especially moving images that are doing things we have never seen before. Have you ever tried to learn a language like German and got stuck on word genders. Gabriel Wyner, in his amazing book on learning a language Fluent Forever, did so he came up with an ingenious way to remember genders. He starts by imaging all the masculine nouns exploding. ‘Tree’. Kaboom. It explodes and splinters fly everywhere spearing everything it it’s path. Feminine nouns catch fire. Your ‘nose’ spews flames scorching everything in your path. Neuter items shatter like glass. Red and sparkling shards of your ‘horse’ smash to the ground. It turns out we remember images exceptionally well.

Why is this important for storytelling? Because stories that contain emotion and are visual are more memorable, more effective, than ones that are not. If you want to improve a story, help people see what’s happening and help them feel what’s happening and they wont forget it.


A business story is only a business story if you have a business point. And because business people can be a little impatient it’s a good idea to share your point (put don’t give away the punch line) at the outset so they know where you are taking them. I call it a relevance statement. For example, say I want to share a story that makes a point about the how you need to love doing something before you will become great at it. I might say something like, “You can’t get good at something unless you love it. It’s the only way you’ll do the practice.” And then I might tell the story of the great Australian tennis star Evonne Goolagong Cawley.

Once when I was driving to meet a client, I caught a radio program on Evonne Goolagong. In it, Evonne said she grew up in the small New South Wales town of Barellan, where she was attracted to tennis at an early age. No-one in her family had ever played tennis before, so they didn’t know much about the game. But the local townspeople appreciated her talent and funded her early participation in competitions. Evonne remembered that whenever she headed out the door to play in a tournament, her mum would say, ‘Have a lovely day dear’. And when she returned home, her mum would ask her, ‘So did you have a lovely day?’ Never once was she asked about the score, about whether she’d won or lost. So Evonne just focused on enjoying herself. She had that attitude throughout her career and felt that her desire to practise and play was driven by how much she loved the sport.

A big part of knowing what to share is learning some useful story patterns. There are many but the ones I share in the book are:

connection story which helps you connect with new audiences by showing something of your character;

clarity story which explains why something is happening or why a decision has been made;

influence story which is designed to change minds and counter anti-stories; and

success story which is all about sharing a success at a human scale.

While story patterns are important and are great for set pieces such as conference presentations and town hall meetings, the majority of our stories are what I call topic stories, that is they are a story told off the cuff to make a point about something a leader should have a point of view on. Here are some topics a leader should have at least one story to illustrate their viewpoint: customer service, strategy, purpose, innovation, persistence. I list 34 in PSTW. And they become a significant part of your story repertoire.


Stories can get tired and there comes a time when you need to refresh them. You know when a story needs refreshing because you are getting sick of telling it or your audience is getting sick of listening to it.

An acclaimed comedian only really shot to stardom after he refreshed his entire collection of jokes each season. And with each iteration his storytelling became better and better. He also chose to start a set with his best bit so he was forced to tell equally as good jokes after that.

In business storytelling we are not doing a performance so we don’t need to be as brutal. But when we feel it’s time for a story to go or at least be parked for a while, then we need to start the story mastery process over again and discover new stories to tell.

Of course the story mastery process is not as linear as I seem to be suggesting. Anytime we are discovering stories, refreshing them, remembering and sharing. The main point is that you have to do all four to master business storytelling. It’s a lifelong practice and like Evonne loves her tennis, you need to love finding and sharing stories to make a business point. And even if you don’t love it at the outset you are very likely to learn to love it because of the amazing impact it has in helping engage and inspire the people you are working with.

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:

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