Storytelling in business – a primer

By | 07/21/2016

Storytelling in business is so hot right now.   There are numerous HBR articles on business storytelling, TED talks on business storytelling, and keynote lectures at conferences.   Storytelling has been embraced as a way to address the modern challenge of making good decisions in an environment of complexity and information overload.    Most of the storytelling concepts are as old as Aristotle, but refreshed by recent advances in media and neuroscience.   This article provides an overview of these advances and how they provide a new perspective on some very old rules for effective business communications.

Why is business, normally thought of as the domain of rational tools like balance sheets and production schedules, even interested in stories?   Basically, purely rational tools are losing their potency.   Modern business is facing an unusually high level of uncertainty.  Faced with so many disruptive factors – economic, political, demographic, and above all technological –  business leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to make good decisions, or indeed at times to make any decisions using traditional rational management approaches.    Such indecision can lead to delay, uncoordinated actions and wasted effort.

The “big data” revolution should help us but but too easily it can make things worse.  Each new data source potentially adds new scenarios and issues to be considered.

It is easy to get overwhelmed with too many choices, like the fabled Buridan’s ass, starved to death because unable to chose between two equal piles of hay.   But of course, we don’t starve to death.  When faced with too many possibilities it is the rational part of our self that gets overwhelmed.   At that point our intuitive side – emotional, impulsive, the home of fundamental certainties and secret obsessions – steps in and says “just do it”.

Somewhat ironically, the study of artificial intelligence has emphasised the importance of intuition in human intelligence and decision making.    Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard, described in his book “How the Mind Works” the challenge of “the frame problem”:

Imagine a robot designed to fetch a spare battery from a room that contains a bomb.  Version 1 removes the battery, but it fails to be concerned that it is attached to the bomb.  Version 2 is programmed to consider all side effects of its actions, but whilst it computing that removing the battery won’t change the color of the walls, the bomb explodes.  Version 3 is programmed to distinguish between relevant implications and irrelevant ones.  It sat there cranking out millions of implications, sorting them into relevant and irrelevant, as the bomb ticked away.”

Pinker went on to say “emotions are the mechanisms that set the brain’s highest level goals”.  Machines may not have the common sense required to make general decisions, but people do, and it’s because of intuition and emotion.

Emotions may set the brain’s goals, but it is an uneasy leadership.  The two different aspects of the brain, rational and intuitive, work to different tempos and are often hard to reconcile.   As the philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote “The heart has its reasons that the mind knows not.”     This human duality is in turns sublime and frustrating.  Nobel-prize winning economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his book  “Thinking, Fast and Slow, described the mind as having two separate modes of thinking, the effortlessly intuitive and the deliberately anayticial, and how this separation leads to bad decisions because of perceptual biases.

But there is one activity that has been successfully appealing to both the rational and intuitive sides to our character simultaneously since time immemorial, and that is storytelling.

Consider the elements of a well-told story as described by Lisa Cron in her book Wired for Story:

  • Good stories must trigger empathy. A good story needs to make the audience feel the same emotions felt by the protagonist in order to to fully understand the story.  The audience’s constant unspoken question is:  if this happened to me, how would I feel and react?
  • Stories require  logic and consistency.   Good stories follow a clear and believable cause-and-effect trajectory from start to finish.  Satisfying conflict is established by contrasting what the audience thought was going to happen with what actually happened.    A story will fail if the audience does not understand and accept why events are progressing as they are.

In recent years there have been a couple of developments that have provided new insights into the ancient art of storytelling:  Disney and neuroscience.

Anyone who has watched shows like The Sopranos, Game of Thrones or The Wire knows how good modern television can be.  There are many reasons for this new golden age, but a key one is the strength of the storytelling.   The roots of this renaissance can be traced to 1985, when the Disney writer Christopher Vogler adapted an analysis of story arcs in mythology, The Hero with 1,000 Faces, into a simple guide for writing stories.   Stories using the guideline have a strong hero going through change in order to overcome a challenge and emerge both victorious and transformed.   Disney used this new approach to make “The Lion King”, and never looked back.

The heros journey 1

Figure 1: the Hero’s Journey

Writers have continued to use and adapt the ‘hero’s journey’ framework to write engaging TV.  Dan Harmon, the creator of shows like “Community” and “Rick and Morty”, describes his approach here.  HBO and Netflix have successfully codified the rules of good storytelling to such a degree that we now daren’t watch the latest new series for fear of being sucked into a binge-watching time sink.

Neuroscience may have provided some new insight to how the structure of stories helps the brain address both the rational and emotional.    Apparently – I say apparently as I can’t find the original source – neuroscientists have identified 3 chemical changes in the brain during a well-told story:

  1. In the first phase, an engaging conflict or dilemma is set up for the protagonist. The brain releases cortisol, a stress hormone which helps people focus and ensures the audience is absorbed in the story.   This focus can help the audience engage with the rational aspects of the story.  As the conflict plays out the brain releases oxytocin, a nurturing hormone, creates empathy with the protagonist.
  2. In the second phase, the protagonist triumphs and the conflict is resolved. The brain releases dopamine at the resolution, giving pleasurable feelings, almost as a release and a reward to the audience for persevering through the stressful first phase of the story.   The dopamine also helps embed the story in memory.

How does any of this help managers be better communicators and decision makers?    Here then are some suggestions and principles for storytelling which you could apply to any presentation – written or spoken – which is required to drive a decision.

1.Ensure that your presentation has a clear narrative. A common mistake in presentations is to give too much detail because ‘the audience will expect it’.   When telling an engaging  story, you only include detail that progresses the narrative.    If detail doesn’t progress the narrative, it isn’t included.

Lisa Cron identifies the following the elements of an effective narrative:

  • The protagonist’s issue. What is the protagonist’s goal, and what aspect of their character do they need to change or overcome in order to achieve that goal?
  • The theme. What universal truth does the story tell us about what it means to be human?
  • The plot. What are the events that force the protagonist to deal with their issue?

How would you summarise Gone With the Wind in two sentences?  This is how Lisa does it:

It’s about a headstrong southern gal whose unflinching gumption allows her to ruthlessly buck social norms and survive a war [the theme].  But in her quest to keep her family estate, Tara, the one thing she mistakenly believes matters most [the plot] her gumption causes her to spurn the only man who is her equal [the protagonist’s issue].”

Managers are often encouraged to perfect their “elevator pitch”, a 3 minute summary of their presentation that can be delivered during a trip in an elevator.   Try using the issue/theme/plot structure to ensure your elevator pitch is both clear and compelling.

And then move to the appendices anything in your presentation that’s not essential to progressing that narrative.

2.Give your presentation a protagonist, preferably but not necessarily human. Who is the protagonist/hero in a business case to launch a new product?    I reckon in most business presentations the business itself is the protagonist.   Similar to a human protagonist, a business has goals, faces obstacles and must undergo changes in order to win.    Your audience can usually engage with the business as the hero of your story, especially if they are employees of that company.  According to Dan Harmon, in a well-written story they could even engage with stationery as the hero:

I can pick up this pencil, tell you it’s name is Steve and go like this *breaks it in half* And part of you dies just a little bit on the inside. Because people can connect with anything.” Community, Series 1, Episode 1

Ensure that your presentation is centred on the protagonist by writing in the active voice.

3.Structure your presentation in (at least) 2 parts. When making recommendations intuitive managers can tend to jump straight to the solution. If you’ve read this far you will know that this is not the best way to present an idea, because Disney and neuroscience have shown us that people engage with a story in 2 distinct sequential phases:

  1. The set-up, where protagonist is faced with a problem,
  2. The resolution, where the protagonist learns how to change and triumph.

Here’s a diagram which summaries the structure and flow of the 2 parts.

The heros journey 3

Figure 2 The 2-part story structure

Make sure that your presentation follows these 2 distinct parts.

  • In the set-up, set out the rational facts of the problem, selected in order to illustrate the underlying nature of the problem, i.e. the theme. At the end of the set-up, the audience should understand your interpretation of the problem and be ready for the solution.
  • In the resolution, start by presenting the solution. Explain why it is appropriate, then move back into rational specifics by describing what needs to be done to implement the change and what the future should look like with the solution successfully implemented.

This 2-part structure shouldn’t contradict other more detailed guides on how to structure business communications, such as the well-regarded Pyramid method, with its 4 parts Situation/ Complication/ Question/ Answer.   Most effective approaches have at their base  the 2-part structure.


In modern business, managers are continually asked to make good decisions in an environment of increasing complexity.   In order to do that, we need to embrace and coordinate the rational and intuitive sides of our selves.   Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, said:

Reason alone will not serve. Intuition alone can be improved by reason, but reason alone without intuition can easily lead the wrong way. They both are necessary”.

Storytelling is a good structure for addressing both the rational and intuitive aspects of modern business challenges.  If you can tie together your facts and recommendations into a compelling narrative,  odds are your solution will be sound.

One thought on “Storytelling in business – a primer

  1. Ruth Smith

    Great blog Michael!
    A Hero’s journey can be used to engage an audience through it’s own transformation… A really useful way to look at, and support individuals and groups through change.


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