Why ‘A Dalmatian ate my burrito’ holds the secret to brilliant business storytelling?

“A dog ate my lunch,” my client Jen recently tweeted. She then replaced it with, “A Dalmatian ate my burrito,” and Twitter immediately exploded! People loved it. Why?

What separated those two tweets and transformed “ho hum” into “ha ha?” The magic happened when she was specific―a Dalmatian (not just any dog) and a burrito (not just a generic lunch).

Being specific is the key to good business storytelling. Relating a specific moment in time, a specific event, a specific person. There―have I said the word “specific” enough times?

This sounds easy but is a stumbling block for many professionals when using business storytelling. We are often good with the abstract and the general. Yet, for your story to resonate, it has to be concrete and specific.

JFK, the president of America in the 1960s, nailed this when he said: “We want to put a man on the moon and bring him safely back to earth by the end of the decade.” Very concrete and specific. Dan and Chip Heath, in their bestseller, Made to Stick ponder what JFK would have said if he were a modern-day CEO. They think he probably would have said, “Through strategically targeted aerospace initiatives and team-centered innovation…” (abstract and general).

Being specific, like the tweet above creates emotion (makes people feel something) and sensory data (paints a picture). People can visualize images in their mind’s eye centered around what you are saying. Being specific is the key to business storytelling success.

Business storytelling success secrets for presentations

Leaders often ask me, “How do we use business storytelling effectively in our presentations?” Smart, successful professionals know that stories can make your presentations memorable. Here are my top business storytelling techniques for presentations.

It is important that every story you relate links to a message. Otherwise, you are wasting your audience’s time by being self-indulgent. Your stories are there to help your audience connect and remember your messages, so use your stories purposefully.

There is a humor drought in most organizations. In fact, in any other context, a drought of this magnitude would be declared a global emergency. If you want your business storytelling to rock your next presentation, make sure some of your stories are funny. Watch any TED talk by Ken Robinson, who is a storytelling master. Even the most serious story should incorporate at least one funny line.

Magic happens when you share a purposeful, funny story that is also personal. This is a trifecta. The holy grail of business storytelling.

There is a scene from The Matrix, a 1999 science fiction film, in which Neo (Keanu Reeves) points to a helicopter and asks Trinity, “Can you fly that thing?” She replies, “Not yet.” Then she calls Tank and says, “Tank, I need a pilot program for a B-212 helicopter,” and he uploads it into her brain!

Isn’t this every presenter’s dream? Where your presentation is so good that people immediately get it and remember it? While we don’t have a Tanks program, using business storytelling well is our best bet yet. Stories are like Velcro for your audience’s brain.

What are some business storytelling techniques?

Leaders new to business storytelling often struggle with mastering techniques essential for success. Here are my top 5 business storytelling techniques that will turn a business storytelling apprentice into a master.

Clarity on purpose

The most important business storytelling technique is to be clear on the purpose/message of your story. When you are in the pub or sharing stories with your friends and family, the stories don’t really have to have a purpose. In your personal life, people are more forgiving. However, for your stories to succeed in business, they must be purposeful–this helps your stories land on a message. Having a clear purpose also helps you, as a storyteller, find and share the right story. Purpose is like the foundation block of your storytelling. Get this right, and your story is set up for success.

Does it serve the room?

At a recent networking event, I met an entrepreneur who had set up a new business. When I quizzed him on his target audience, he replied, “Anyone with a pulse, really!” In storytelling, that is a sure-fire way to fail. Every story has to be carefully designed with an audience in mind. Is it going to be for your customers, your channel partners or your suppliers? How does your story serve them? None of this is easy to do, but this business storytelling technique guarantees that your story will resonate with your audience.

Sharp and short

Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway won a bet by writing the six-word story, “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” Poignant.

In business storytelling, short and sharp is best. Perhaps not six words, but a rule of thumb is that most of your stories should be under two minutes long. This time frame ensures you are punchy, and your audience stays with you for the whole duration. Importantly this lets you dodge the terrible curse of diminishing returns, which is when, after a point in time, the more you put into something, the less you get back. By keeping your stories short, you maximise their impact. This sounds contradictory, but would you rather leave people wanting more or wondering when you will be done?


A powerful business storytelling technique is to use personal stories to land a business message. It sounds counterintuitive as the field is called business storytelling, so we feel compelled to use stories about business. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Conversely, in this realm, the personal packs a punch. The minute you share a story that starts with growing up on a farm, or being on a holiday in Canada, your audience is hooked. They are intrigued and want to know what happens next. Business stories about business are boring and predictable―a death knell for any storyteller. So go personal and reap rich rewards.


There is, unfortunately, an earnestness that has seized the whole business-storytelling world. The gravitas common in company announcements, meetings and presentations is now seeping into storytelling. With the exception of some stories that will merit a level of seriousness, the most important thing we can do is to have fun with storytelling. Share stories that you enjoy telling and that are meaningful to you. We once heard a CEO squirm his way through a story about his childhood. It was very uncomfortable for the audience, and it later turned out that he had been persuaded to share the story by a well-meaning advisor.

There’s an ancient Hopi Indian proverb that says “He who tells the stories, rules the world.” So, are you ready to rule your world?

What is business storytelling?

Business storytelling is storytelling with a purpose and for results. Let’s look at an example.

Two salesmen were sent to Africa in the 1900s to see if there was any opportunity for selling shoes. They wrote telegrams back to Manchester, one of them writing, “Situation hopeless. Stop. They don’t wear shoes.” And the other one wrote, “Glorious opportunity. They don’t have any shoes yet.”

This story, shared by Benjamin Zander at the start of his TED talk, had the audience roaring with laughter. Zander links this to his message. There’s a similar situation in the classical music world, because there are some people who think that classical music is dying. Yet, there are some of us who think you ain’t seen nothing yet. He is passionate about classical music, but knows most of his audience will probably roll their eyes at the mention of this genre. So he uses the most powerful tool in the book, storytelling.

This is an example of business storytelling that is purposeful (links to his message), tailored around an audience and delivers Zander results. The surprising thing about business storytelling is that your stories do not have to be about business! That would be boring. Business storytelling, whether it involves parables like this one or personal stories, is about engaging people’s hearts and emotions.

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.

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