Tag Archives: story

Story hunting – your business secret weapon

Last year I was covering a tech conference for a business magazine. I met a young woman who’d just done a disastrous public pitch for her fledgling tech company. She’d walked on stage, frozen, fluffed her lines, sat down – then got back up and struggled through to the end. But it wasn’t really clear what she was trying to sell.

Afterwards I got chatting to her. She wanted to make  low cost devices to improve the safety of women on public transport in India. A sort of rape-alarm-meets-internet-of-things. She’d grown up in Delhi and experienced the sexual harassment women put up with if they travel alone on buses and trains. This mattered so much to her that she’d given up a well paid job to try and solve this problem.

Brilliant, I thought. What a great story. Could I interview her for my article? I got out my microphone and asked – “so why have you given up a well paid job to start your own company?” – expecting to get this incredible story. “Well,” she said, “it was such a good value proposition.” On she went, jargon on top of jargon, like a struggling Apprentice candidate in Lord Sugar’s boardroom. After a minute, I stopped recording and begged her to tell me the real story – but she really struggled. If it had been a live radio interview, I’d have pulled the plug on her.

It made me wonder – why do so many smart people talk such rubbish when they talk about their work? It’s not just business people. Teachers and social workers, artists, all have their own weird jargon. But business language is pretty consistently bad. Perhaps it’s a form of status anxiety. Other business leaders talk like this, so I should too. Or you think “This is strategy, it’s important stuff. It doesn’t need embellishing with emotional guff or once-upon-a-time storytelling.”


But in a crazy, noisy world, stories can help you find your voice – your personal voice and the voice of your business. Better still, stories come loaded with emotion, acting like glue, fixing information into our memories. Like Maya Angelou said, people forget what you say and do but they never forget how you made them feel.

Here’s what stories need. Without these elements, you are just reading out facts and opinions (yawn).





1. Stuff happens: We don’t tell stories about projects or companies or strategies or multi agency approaches. People tell stories about people doing stuff. This is the Who, What, Where and When of the action, with a beginning, middle and end.

So when you’re hunting stories, listen out for: “Last week…” “When I was in the Manchester branch…” “I met this woman called…” “And then…” “After all that…”

2. People care: if stuff happens AND it provokes an emotional reaction, then it’s probably a story. If it made people happy, sad, angry, proud, frustrated then they are much more likely to remember it than if it simply engaged their rational brain. This is the How of the story – how did it make you feel.

So listen out for: “I felt…” “I was so…”

3. The moral: for business stories, there has to be a moral to your story, otherwise it’s just chat. You’re not telling stories to entertain people, you want them to DO something different: buy your product, join your company, embrace new ways of working. A useful business story goes like this: stuff happened, it provoked this reaction and now we’re going to do this. So listen out for: “I realised…” “I learned…” “That’s why…”

Let’s try this out on a real story, and let’s add some bonus elements: Irony and Twist.


Back in the 70s, US journalist Ross Gelbspan was covering a conference on climate change and over-population. Looking for an angle on a dense academic subject, he realised that one of the speakers on the stage – Donella Meadows – was herself pregnant. What a wonderful irony, he thought, “she had found hope in the midst of all this doom and gloom.” This was the angle Gelbspan built his story on. Except that when the story came out, Meadows got in touch, saying “I’m not pregnant…” Decades later, Ross Gelbspan still cringes when he thinks of his mistake.

  • Stuff happens: journalist makes a mistake.
  • People care: he is mortifyingly embarrassed (so are we, just listening to it).
  • Moral of the story: never ever assume a woman is pregnant unless her waters are breaking right in front of you. Check your facts.
  • And the bonus ingredients:
  • Irony – the idea of someone campaigning against over-population adding to the world population by having a baby.
  • Twist – the sudden gasp when our understanding is turned upside down. She’s not pregnant! Oh no…!

If you want people to understand why fact-checking matters, tell them that story. Better still, go out and listen for the stories all round you, from your colleagues and customers. Become a story hunter and it will be your business secret weapon. 

Credit: Ross Gelbspan’s story is in Being Wrong, by Katheryn Schulz

More on using Irony as a creative tool here. More storytelling and presentation tools here.


Image from Pixabay.com

Hey, I’ve got a great story…

Now, I’ve bought fifteen seconds of your attention. You’re hooked by the promise of a great story, with action and heroes. But why do stories work on us like this?

I’ve just finished two days storytelling training with a large media company and I’ve never known sessions to go so well. These were all professional storytellers but it was like everyone instinctively got it and still wanted to learn more.

Now I think I know why. So let me tell you a story…

Think of a time when you were new in a job. You settled in to an established order and tried to follow what people around you were doing. But then you found problems you couldn’t resolve, things that didn’t make sense. Surely there had to be a different way to do this? You tried, but nothing worked at first. You kept trying. Gradually a shape emerged from the chaos. After a lot more trying, you established a new and better way.

I’m describing the classic hero’s journey, from Homer’s Iliad to Homer Simpson. I’m also describing the way our brains make sense of a confusing world: assemble evidence, spot things that don’t fit, resolve problems by finding a new theory. It’s thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Or…

Act One: the world has an established order but something doesn’t fit

Act Two: the problem can’t be ignored, you have to act

Act Three: through trial and error you realise what needs to change

Act Four: you struggle to put this new knowledge into action

Act Five: a new order emerges where everything makes sense

And we all live happily ever after. At least, until the next problem emerges.

This is the story of Hamlet, Jane Eyre and Breaking Bad, and it’s the story of your day at work too. It’s the story of anyone trying to make sense of their world. This is why storytelling works – for professional writers or anyone who needs to communicate with passion about their work. We tell stories in the same way as we make sense of the world and our own place in it. This is why, a few seconds in to any conversation about work, I find myself telling stories to make my point.

“All of our storytelling theories have one thing in common,” writes John Yorke*, who has studied dozens of them. “All revolve around one central idea: the incomplete is made complete, sense is made.”

“Storytelling is the dramatisation of the process of knowledge assimilation.”

So long as you remain curious about the world or determined to change it for the better, you will be hooked by stories.

I think, therefore I am… a storyteller.

*Into the Woods, How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them, by John Yorke

Click here if you’d like to watch the storytelling training I delivered last week.