Storytelling has been ingrained in our society and our humanity since the dawn of time. Parents and grandparents have always told stories that embodied their culture. The wisdom of the ancients is captured and passed on in stories.

Most great religious texts contain some form of story. Yet in business, the value of this powerful communication medium is only now being understood, especially by three groups of people:

•   Forward-thinking leaders, who realise the best way to articulate their vision and values is in stories;

•   Clever communicators, who are aware that embedding a key point in a story is the most likely way it will be heard and retained; and

•   Smart salespeople, who know that the best way to deal with a client objection is to tell a story about a similar client.


Not a fairy tale but a fable

Much of the resistance to storytelling in business comes from the perception that it is childish: “Storytelling is what I do with my kids!”

Yet, it’s because we learned some of our earliest lessons through stories – before we could even read – that the story format is so powerful.

Now in business, we are not telling fairy tales — fanciful stories designed to entertain and amuse. What we are telling are more like fables — short stories with a message at the end.

The format remains the same. While you might not start with the words, “Once upon a time in a land far, far away…”, if you start your business story by mentioning the time and place it will have more credibility.

You probably won’t end with, “…and they all lived happily ever after!” But, if you are telling a story to a client to have him change his mind, then make sure it has a happy ending!


The “great” story

History is made by the great stories: brave humans who overcame adversity to inspire the world. The stories of Nelson Mandela, Lim Bo Seng and Malala Yousafzai should be known by every school child.

But, in business, these stories, while inspirational, will often fail to get the changed attitude or behaviour that we seek.

This is because these individuals are so exceptional that most of us can’t relate to them. So, the most effective stories are often not the “inspirational hero” stories, but those featuring ordinary characters that people can relate to.


Put listeners in the story

The most effective story is one where the listeners can easily imagine themselves as one or more of the characters.

This makes it easy for them to put themselves in the story.

They create the scene in their mind faster; they are engaged more because it seems so “real”. Most importantly of all, they are more likely to see the message of the story as being relevant to them.


The business story – same but different

Some people say: “I haven’t got time to tell stories. My clients say they are busy and they just want the information. They will get annoyed at me if I start telling them stories.”

This is understandable, so remember these three points:


•   Give them what they need to know — not just what they are asking for. Sometimes there are issues, implications, consequences that they need to understand and the most effective (and efficient) way to do this is through a story.


•   Be time sensitive. A business story needs to be shorter. So, you use only the bare minimum in set-up and narrative so your listeners will understand the message. This is why success in business stories can often be dependent on your choice of story. If it takes too long to explain in the set-up, then it won’t work because you will have lost your audience before they see the relevance.


•   Don’t “signpost” your story. Whatever you do, don’t start with, “Let me tell you a story”. Your listeners will switch off. Just start straight away with, “I had a client in a similar situation just last month”. You’ll have them hooked immediately — and they will want to find out what happens.


Storytelling is an ancient activity, but that doesn’t mean it is out of date. In today’s noisy, information-overloaded business world, being heard and remembered is harder than ever.

Using the ancient art of storytelling to cut to the chase and deliver your message directly will give your business the edge.


Article by Kevin Ryan, managing director of Training Edge Australia and an international speaker, workshop leader and author with Training Edge International. He is conducting a one-day workshop on “Storytelling for Business Professionals” on Nov 7. For more information, e-mail or visit