Business storytelling–I already do this

Recently, I was presenting on the power of business storytelling at a professional services firm. I had been brought in with the brief that the team members needed to humanise their content. Clients had been complaining about drowning in data and not feeling a connection to the solutions. The professional services team members were even accused of being ‘robotic’ in their client interactions.

In my presentations, I demonstrated why storytelling is important and got participants to experience the power of storytelling and explore the missing piece in their practice (it’s high energy, fun and practical). At the end of this presentation, one of the audience members said, ‘We already do this. We have always shared stories about our work, our war stories.’

My jaw almost hit the ground! Here is what is happening when leaders think they already use storytelling:

  • Leaders who use storytelling tend to be an anomaly; they are the exception rather than the rule. If you, as a leader, are using stories that are brilliant, you cannot make the assumption that this is happening across the board in your company (especially based on what clients are saying).
  • The word ‘story’ is a very loose label. Often, leaders think they are sharing stories when they might be sharing case studies or a series of facts. Labelling something a story does not make it one!
  • War stories or stories about how we do things can frankly be boring for your clients. These are not tailored around your audience and their needs, so they are not invested in these stories. I call this asymmetrical storytelling, where the audience doesn’t see the story the same way as the narrator.
  • Even if you are using storytelling in business, there is always room for improvement. Are our stories short, purposeful, crafted for an audience? Is there impact in their delivery? Are we measuring our ROIs and building our library of stories?
  • Finally, to answer this, I want to share my model:
    in terms of storytelling, some people are amateurs. They have no idea how to use storytelling. Some people are apprentices, and they have just started learning. With proper skills, training and practice, some people become masters. They influence and have impact with their stories. These are like black belts in karate. Finally, you have story artists. Think Brene Brown or Ken Robinson; they are the like the Karate Dans. Interestingly, in Karate and storytelling, even the Dans never stop learning.



Inspire Artist
Influence Master
In training Apprentice
Insipid Amateur

Business storytelling―how to segue into a story

Imagine if you walked into a business meeting where no one knew you and immediately launched into your content without shaking hands or introducing yourself. This abrupt start won’t set you up for success. In the business world, handshakes and introductions are rapport-building ways we connect before we get down to business.

Similarly, when using business storytelling, leaders I work with grapple with how to launch into a story. Sentences like ‘Let me tell you a story’ feel amateur and may send the wrong message to your audience. What leaders need when using business storytelling are story segues.

Christine Nixon, when she was Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, was masterful at this. She would share a PowerPoint slide that was dense with strategy points and then say, ‘For example, just yesterday, I was taking to a farmer named John in Gippsland…’ and then proceed to tell John’s story. Phrases like ‘for example’ or ‘to illustrate the point’ are good examples of segues. I also use ‘I would like to share…’ and then share the story.

You want segues that are authentic to how you normally speak, so they don’t sound forced or contrived. You also need to have a few segue sentences up your sleeve for variety. So, over to you, what are some story segues that will help your business storytelling shine?

Business storytelling – I’m afraid it won’t work

One of the biggest challenges leaders face when using business storytelling is the fear that it won’t work. When we tell a personal story, we feel vulnerable, and the stakes are high, thereby creating pressure points around success. We seldom apply this same pressure test to data that we might use! (That’s just a sideways rant  🙂 )

Fear of failing might be a way of sabotaging our use of storytelling altogether. Is this an easy cop-out? What if it doesn’t work? This is the standard bogeyman that every stand-up comedian faces every day.

One lesson we can borrow from them is that they always test their material. With business storytelling, we can test our stories with friends, family members and even a supportive colleague before using it at that important pitch.

But, for me, important work to ensure success happens before the testing stage itself. When we draft a story, we always draft it with a purpose and audience in mind. Answering the question, ‘How does this serve my audience?’ helps us stay on track with our stories. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to keep your stories short. This works for both you and your audience.

When you deliver a story, you are often greeted by silence.
As leaders, we might misinterpret this silence and react with ‘OMG, it didn’t work.’ In business storytelling, silence is the equivalent of a standing ovation at the end of a performance. Silence means your audience is thinking about what you have said, and you can use the silence to sit back and savour the sweet taste of success.

Business storytelling best tip―go personal

Business storytelling is defined as storytelling with a purpose and for results. But, sadly, sometimes the very word ‘business’ in business storytelling can do it a disservice. The term ‘business storytelling’ makes people assume that all your stories have to be about business. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Let’s face it, most business stories (hmmm, there is no polite way to say this) are boring! Some of your stories can be about business, yours or others. It’s important, however, to make some of your stories personal.

Business storytelling is about humanising us—allowing us to make an H2H (human to human connection) at work. There is no more powerful yet simple way to do this than through personal stories. You can occasionally use business stories, but successful storytellers know to always go personal.


Two young gold fish were swimming along and they met an older fish, who said  “Morning, boys.  How’s the water?” One of the young gold fish looks over at the other and said “What the hell is water?”

Yamini Storytelling Goldfish


This was a story shared by the late, great David Foster Wallace a brilliant American writer.  Wallace said the point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.

That is why the new kid on the block, has the bright ideas, or new recruits see so much opportunity for change or innovation.  So how do we in our daily environments make the invisible (water) visible?

  1. Get a mentor or a coach who can see what you can’t see
  2. Run your business issue past a friend or trusted advisor from a completely different industry.  If you are a scientist, ask an artist’s opinion.  If you are an economist, work with a poet.  Get someone who has a completely different perspective and discipline to you
  3. Cultivate the mavericks in your organisations, the rebels and the people who always play devil’s advocate – remember they can see the water, where most people can’t.  So no matter how irritating they might be, they have a valuable view point to contribute.

What are your strategies for seeing the water?  Please comment I love hearing from you.

Changing the narrative in business storytelling ― Phil Knight and Shoe Dog

Just this morning, I was reading Shoe Dog: A memoir by Phil Knight, the creator of NIKE. It’s packed with personal and professional insights and stories.

As you might know, in the 1990s, there were many damaging reports on Nike’s use of Asian sweatshops. In his memoir, Phil Knight shares how he and his team decided to make changes to mitigate the effects of this ugly legacy. Their effort to increase wages backfired in one country, as the government did not want factory workers to earn more than doctors. Knight and his team then looked at other ways of improving working conditions.

The ‘rubber room,’ where shoe uppers are attached to the soles of shoes, is the most carcinogenic area in shoe factories. Nike invented a new bonding agent that removed 97% of the toxins found in bonding glues. Surprisingly, Nike even shared this invention with its competitors.

In terms of business storytelling, multiple narratives exist within any business context. The best way to create positive narratives is through actions, particularly those by leaders.


Just yesterday morning, the alarm went off and I hit the snooze button,  I then had a goose bump moment thinking about what my friend Rachel had just said to me the day before.  But before that goose bump moment my mind was racing with a 100 excuses on why staying in bed was a better option than going to the gym.  Too cold, too dark, too cosy, I just went yesterday, I will go in the evening…

So, often to motivate myself I say just give it 10 minutes and then stop.  This works because the hardest thing is often starting, and once you start and have momentum you actually find it hard to stop.

Other times I plan a reward, like catching up with a friend for a coffee, after cracking that complex proposal.  But none of those strategies were relevant that morning, when the choice was gym or sleep in.

But coming back to Rachel and the goose bump moment.  I remembered how she had just said the previous day “You never regret going to the gym, but you always regret not going”.  So the thought of regret propelled me out of bed.  And Rachel was right.   At the end of boxing class I felt so glad I went.  In an ironic twist I got a text from Rachel saying she had slept through her alarm!

What about you?  What motivates you to get out off bed?  I would love to hear your ideas.


In a classic clip from an old I Love Lucy episode, Lucy gets a job in a chocolate factory and she and her friend Ethel are placed on the assembly line.

The draconian supervisor tells them: “Girls, this is your last chance. If one piece of candy gets past you unwrapped, you are fired!” The production line starts slowly and they carefully wrap candy, remarking how easy it is. Then the assembly line starts to speed up, and they can barely keep up.

They start stuffing their mouths with candy and Lucy calls out to her friend in despair: “I think this is a losing game.” They hear the supervisor returning and hide the remaining candy in their mouths, under their hats and even down the front of their dresses. Their mouths are bulging. The supervisor returns. Seeing the empty conveyor belt, in a moment of perfectly-timed comedy, the supervisor shouts to the conveyor belt operator “Speed it up!”

This famous scene has been parodied by many other TV shows.  What makes it funny even now is the relevance of this message to our modern lives. So often we keep up the pretence of being on top of stuff, and the pretence can work for some time, but exacts a heavy toll.

Somewhere along the line, for a lot of us in business, work became synonymous with worth and ‘busy’ became the currency to measure this worth.

Author Julia Cameron says there is a difference between purposeful, zestful work and work for work’s sake; not in the hours we put in but in their emotional quality.

Three things we can all do to improve the emotional quality of our work lives is to ask for help, stop being a hero/martyr (only I can do this) and draw a line in the sand (I don’t look at emails on Sunday or take business calls after 6pm).

Just as an alcoholic gets sober by abstaining from alcohol, we need to abstain from the idea that we’re only at our most productive when we’re putting in frantic 12-hour work days. There’s far more merit – and reward – in purposeful, contemplative work.

How do you improve the emotional quality of your work? Please share, as always I love hearing from you.

Business Storytelling: why it’s much harder than it looks

Warren Buffett, often speaks in folksy aphorisms. I guess, in modern terms, we would refer to them as tweets. He famously said about investing, ‘…is simple but not easy.’

Interestingly, this is the most common feedback I get from clients all over the world. Not about investing, but about storytelling. Storytelling is much harder than it looks.

So, to borrow from Mr. Buffett, storytelling is simple but not easy. When you hear a story, part of its success is that it seems simple, even effortless. Simplicity means that the audience ‘gets it.’ You understand the story and the point it is making. Consider this gem from the late, great David Foster Wallace, a brilliant American writer.

Two young goldfish were swimming along and they met an older fish, who said, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” One of the young goldfish looked over at the other and said, “What the hell is water?”

Wallace said that the point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous and important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.

When we look at Wallace’s story, it’s relatable (most of us are familiar with goldfish; some of us might even have goldfish at home). It’s also short. A couple of sentences. And, most importantly, in a business context, it is purposeful. These are essentially the hallmarks of an effective story. These are also the very features that make a story seem simple.

So, what then makes a story difficult to craft? The very thing that makes it simple–making a story relatable, short and purposeful!

For a story to work in business, it has to be relatable. It must be about people, usually a single person (always people, not teams or organisations) to which your audience can relate. Your audience then immediately identifies with the story.

Business people often struggle with keeping their stories short.
My rule of thumb is that a story in business should take you under two minutes, which requires a lot of thinking, crafting and redrafting to nail.

And, perhaps the hardest thing to do well with storytelling is to land your stories on purpose. The power and juice of a good story lies in how you link it to a message (purpose). But, it’s important to do this in a way that is elegant and delightful and not clunky. This is difficult, even for story ninjas.

It may seem easy to come up with stories that are simple, short and purposeful, but they are actually difficult to craft and deliver.

The second most common feedback I get from clients is one of regret. Please don’t let that be your regret.

What is the NEW currency of change?

How do we persuade people to adopt our ideas, listen to what we have to say and even be inspired to act?

If you lived in 16th century Venice, the answer would be easy. You would do it through fear, as suggested by diplomat and political theorist, Niccolờ Machiavelli.

Successful, smart leaders in the 21st century know that hard power (fear, command and control, yell and tell) is not the way to create long-lasting, sustainable influence or change.

In the 1990s, Professor Joseph Nye introduced us to the idea of soft power–creating change through connecting, consulting and collaborating.

Most leaders know that soft power is how we get people on board. Think of soft power as sowing seeds and planting a garden—worth the long-term results but difficult for the impatient.

However, research informs us that over 70% of change efforts in organisations simply fail. So, using just these two tools (hard power and soft power) will make many of our change efforts unsuccessful.

The new currency of change is as old as time yet is the contemporary tool of our time. It is business storytelling. A purposeful, authentic story in business can influence, persuade and motivate people. Here’s an example from a client on what this looks like.

John Kotter, the leading authority on change, declared, ‘Change leaders make their points in ways that are as emotionally engaging and compelling as possible. They rely on vivid stories that are told and retold. You don’t have to spend a million dollars and six months to prepare for a change effort. You do have to make sure that you touch people emotionally…’

Simply stated, hard power informs, soft power invites and story power inspires.

Not for a moment am I suggesting to share one story, and you will instantly influence 100% of the people. No one story can do that, and no one deserves that level of influence; you would never want to have a bad idea in that case. But, over and over again with clients, I have seen that purposeful stories, crafted and shared with authenticity, inspire and create and power and mandate for change.

The currency of change has changed. Are you trading in this new currency?

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