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

July 10, 2017

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.

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