3 things that help apply storytelling to business

You will have heard about using storytelling business. It is impossible to doge it in recent years because it is making a resurgence. You may even be applying it in pockets. Applying it consistently and at scale needs more than content in a few places. You need to seize it, and weave it deeply into your strategy. In this post, we cover why that is important and a few tips and approaches you may not have considered.

First, an Aesop’s fable: The boy and the nettles

A Nettle stung a boy. He ran home and told his Mother, crying, “Although it hurts me so much, I only touched it gently.” His mother replies “That was just why it stung you,” she then added “The next time you touch a Nettle, grasp it boldly, and it will be as soft as silk to your hand, and not hurt you in the least.

That is how you need to treat storytelling in business. Grab it. Seize it. Never let it go.

Failed parenting

A wise woman once said to me “All parents should be shooting for a solid B-.”

“B-?” I questioned.

“Yes. B- “She replied. I was confused and must have looked it. She continued. “Yes. Parents put too much pressure on themselves to do an amazing job. It is just not realistic to put yourself under that amount of pressure. Life is messy. You are never going to get an A+. Not consistently. Besides there are plenty of other pressures you must deal with. So, set realistic goals.”

The woman was a child psychologist. I am a parent. Sufficed to say I took her advice to heart.

Now, this woman was not saying ‘Be a bad parent’. She was saying ‘give yourself permission to be human.’ Important differentiation.

It is possible to score lower than a B- as a parent. We can scream and shout disciplinary statements at our kids. Throw them in time out. But if we do not work with them to navigate through the issue de jour then they will never learn. Their defenses will only push them away from us and force them to find ways to justify their behavior. And inevitably, they will act up in the same way again. The true mission of parenting is to get our children to think for themselves and do so in a way that ‘plays nice’ with the rest of humanity.

 “Other parents are the worst.” Says Drew Magary in this NPR interview.

Of course, we are always very good at grading other parents much lower than ourselves. Go on, admit it, you have done it too <sheepish look>.

Which leads to point #1 - Failed storytelling

How many times have you heard someone rattle on about storytelling in business but never hear them tell a story? Has it happened in your own company? Have you done it?

That is the equivalent of shouting at your child and throwing them in their room.

You do not have to be an A+ storyteller. Getting a B- consistently and at scale will be enough for amazing results.

Luckily, storytelling is a learnable skill and we all have innate, deeply rooted talents in it. In The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall explores the fundamental humanity of storytelling. It is very much a part of what makes us tick.

Fiction is an ancient virtual reality technology that specializes in simulating human problems.
— Gottschall.

You may have already applied storytelling in areas like case studies or advertising. The questions I have for you are:

  1. Do you proactively find, harvest or create stories for your business to use?
  2. Do you integrate stories across multiple media and campaigns?
  3. Are you applying it broadly across your organization - beyond marketing?

If you are answering yes to all the above – congratulations you are well on your way to applying storytelling in business. Now, be honest – are you doing it with a regular rhythm, consistently? In my experience, both in the corporate world, non-profits and agencies there is a lack of consistent application.

Why? Because storytelling is hard.

Point #2 – Storytelling is easy. It is also Hard.

How can something be both easy and hard at the same time? How can something which is so fundamental to how we have always lived, over countless generations, be difficult? There is hope when we think of the other things in life that we had to add skills around to be good at. Reading, writing, hunting, painting. These are also very fundamental human activities. We spend our whole lives learning to manage relationships, be productive, learn skills to become successful and play nicely with the world.

Not knowing everything about a subject is OK. It is possible to learn how to apply it. To refine how you apply it and to become good at it. Repeat after me “B minus!” However, it does take practice and the will to succeed. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Do you have the will to apply storytelling in your business? 

In the eBook “The Definitive Guide to Storytelling in Business” I set out to create a simple 101 guide to use storytelling.

Point #3 - Putting theory into action

An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory
— Friedrich Engels

Learning is step one. Then you need to apply that learning. When you apply it, you learn how your application went and can refine moving forwards. One of the benefits of today’s world is the ability to measure and tune and improve the stories we develop.

Above, we talked about how storytelling is often used in pockets of organizations but not broadly. I would encourage you to think big. For example, in our narrative assessment we look across your organization (and outside) to analyze and score across these pivots:

  1. Founders & Mission: why are you in this business?
  2. Outbound: Advertising, Promotions, Events
  3. Inbound: Social, Blogs, Web, Customer Stories (Case studies)
  4. Process: How teams work together to ideate, create and publish.
  5. Water cooler talk: Employee attitudes, rhetoric.
  6. Partners & customers: What do 3rd parties think you stand for?

When your narrative stars align, you not only figure out which stories to tell you can actively make stories.

To understand your place in the market and the storyscape that your company exists in, read more in this blog.

What next? Putting modern business storytelling in action

After you have the theory and the practice aligned you still have much work to do.

The good news is that you can use the best practices in modern narrative and marketing to engage with customers in meaningful ways. When customers feel meaning in what you do they will come back, repeatedly.

Another benefit to an inclusive approach to storytelling is that you will be able to embark on a transmedia storytelling strategy. Transmedia, according to good old Wikipedia is defined as:

Transmedia storytelling (also known as transmedia narrative or multiplatform storytelling, cross-media seriality) is the technique of telling a single story or story experience across multiple platforms and formats…
— Wikipedia

One of the most famous examples of Transmedia storytelling is Star Wars (did I mention I met George Lucas, twice?). Before you rail on at me for using an “entertainment example” in a blog about storytelling for business allow me to say three words.


Do you think Elon Musk re-invented the electric car from the ground up? Do you think Steve Job’s iPhone used completely original ideas? In fact, there is a quote on that latter…

Good artists copy. Great artists steal.
— Steve Jobs

Steal the approaches of transmedia for your business.

You see ‘stealing’ is not really stealing in this case. It is building on the work of others.

“I like to think of it as standing on the shoulders of giants... much of what we do has been done but we are able to lean on proven methods and add our own spin.” – Dave Hill Jr.

In short, this kind of “stealing” is ok.

Please do not steal actual real stuff from real people.

It looks like I am going quote crazy right now. Here is another then I promise I will get back to my point, and wrap up.

Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung. Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game. It’s easy. Nothing you can make that can’t be made. No one you can save that can’t be saved. Nothing you can do, but you can learn how to be you in time.
— The Beatles, all you need is love.

You can learn how to play the game. You can learn how to apply transmedia storytelling to your business. Just as a child learns to place nice in the world. You did, didn’t you? Airbnb is cited as an example here. Salesforce call out General Electric and Volvo (truck division) in this post. The Volvo Van-Damme video is as good today as when it came out – if you have not seen it watch it now! Goosebumps! Sweaty palms!

As the Beatles said it is about learning to play the game. By applying transmedia to your business strategy and you will start to apply integrated stories and experiences for your customers. You will become a true story maker.

Those who make and tell remarkable stories play nicely with others.

A final thought

As you work to apply storytelling across your business you will also be working on your go-to-market strategy and execution. Friend and GTM coach Dave Hill Jr. is a great resource (we often collaborate) to make sure you are doing everything you need to for GTM. From org design to what I like to call “strategic operations” – getting the important parts of your GTM efforts running properly, Dave Hill Jr can help.

Likewise, you will also need to execute like a ninja through all the diverse channels that exist today. From ad-word buys and SEM to SEO and even direct mail (you know, the stuff where trees die). To do this another collaborator of mine that I recommend is Lazar Marketing. They work with everyone from start-ups looking to get apps off the ground to Fortune 500 companies navigating and executing well in this complex landscape.

Have you tried applying storytelling in business?

How successful or otherwise have you been?

Answers below, or on a post card, or over on twitter. Looking forwards to continuing the conversation!