Business Storytelling Basics: Six Essential Strategic Questions that Lead to More Meaningful Connection

I remember the first time I went to a networking event, ready to tell the world about my new business. I had my handsome business cards and my freshly ironed button down. I’d even shined my shoes. (I never shine my shoes.) Inserting myself into a conversation, I waited patiently until it was my turn to speak.

I took a deep breath and said, “Hi, I’m Jordan, and I’m the founder of Transformational Storytelling.”

Brows furrowed. “Storytelling?,” said a man who looked like an insurance broker. “So what does that mean? Do you read stories in libraries to kids?”

[Cue heartbreaking Debbie Downer music.]

No, I didn’t read stories to kids then, and I don’t now. But I still get that same response a lot. Even though storytelling has become a popular business buzzword, many people still don’t know exactly what it means.

Is it a fancy way of saying marketing?

Does it have something to do with social media?

It’s presentation skills and public speaking, right?

Well, yes. And no. In this article, I’m going to introduce you to the basics of business storytelling.

(By the way, if you’re interested in more nuggets like this, you can sign up for my storytelling newsletter right here.)

Can you define Business Storytelling in one sentence?

Let’s start with a simple, one sentence definition of storytelling:

Storytelling is the process of infusing information with emotion in order to create meaning for a particular audience.

Wait a second. Say what? I think I’m having a panic attack.

Don’t close the tab just yet! I got you. Let’s take this slow. Let me say it again:

Storytelling is the process of infusing information with emotion in order to create meaning for a particular audience.

But that’s not the way I think about storytelling. What about all that beginning, middle, end stuff I learned in high school?

That stuff is important too, if you want to write a novel. But most of us aren’t aspiring to that kind of storytelling.

However, what we can all see clearly is that storytelling has changed over the last ten or so years. Why? You might have heard of this thing called the Internet.

A hundred years ago, we had just a few forms for storytelling: novels, films, newspapers, theatre and the arts, plus a few others. That’s about it.

How many storytelling forms have you personally consumed today? Texts, social posts, Instagram stories, podcasts, YouTube videos, Netflix shows… Twenty? Fifty? A hundred?

So what we mean by storytelling has changed?

Exactly. Consider your own business. I’ll bet that you’ve seen a substantial change in the information you share and the modes that you use to share it. Your whole business might not have existed with the information and forms available just five years ago.

When you multiply that by all the information that’s available right now — and projecting forward into the Internet of Things and all the data that will create — we can clearly see that the information is less important than the narrative that’s created around it.

That’s what storytellers do. We structure information

Here’s a simple set of definitions of what storytelling means now:

  • A Story is a structured, meaningful sequence of information
  • A Storyteller is the person who structures the information
  • Storytelling is the process of creating that structure. Or, in other words, the process of infusing information with emotion in order to create meaning for a particular audience.

You’re blowing my mind a bit here.

Bro, I got you.

So Business Storytelling is about making information more emotional? But I’m in the <INSERT VERY SERIOUS BUSINESS INDUSTRY HERE>. There’s no emotions in my work.

So let’s reframe this slightly by making a key distinction.

The distinction is between information and meaning.

Here’s an example. Imagine you were hungry and you wanted to find the nearest restaurant. What would you do? Probably go straight to Google Maps. This is the kind of task where an algorithm excels. Google Maps can answer the question of where is the nearest restaurant? just about instantaneously.

But imagine you wanted to ask a different question. Like, what’s the best restaurant nearby? Now Google Maps is screwed, because that question is loaded with qualitative judgements. Does best mean most expensive? Highest rated by other people? Highest rated by critics? Best based on your past preferences? Best based on what your friends like?

The Internet is full of start-ups trying to answer a question that can’t possibly be answered, because “best” means something specific to your current context. Put different, best means something different to you than it does to anyone else, and it will mean something different to you in ten minutes.

That’s a simple way to distinguish between information and meaning.

This is turning into a tree-falling-in-the-woods kind of conversation.

Welcome to life as a storyteller. In organizations, we also need to distinguish between information and meaning.

Imagine this conversation in a boardroom:

“Our cash reserves are running out. What are we going to do tell our employees?

“Employee trust levels in executives are currently hovering at 74%.”

In this case, the information doesn’t help enough. That’s because meaning comes from the combination of information with emotion.

There are all kinds of meanings that we try to create in organizations each day. For example,

  • Understanding
  • Trust
  • Credibility
  • Alignment
  • Urgency
  • Differentiation
  • Hope
  • Outrage
  • Desire
  • Engagement
  • Transformation

None of these meanings can be created by information alone. You would never say to someone: you can trust me, I have a Harvard degree. Even if that’s true, it’s a non sequitur. Trust requires the combination of information and emotion.

How would you create the emotion? You might tell an anecdote about a time you faced a similar situation. You might refer me to someone else you helped go through a situation like mine. You might display a level of attention and interest in me that would create a feeling of trust. There are myriad ways to do this, and we all do this in our own way on a regular basis.

So Storytelling is the process of infusing information with emotion in order to create meaning for a particular audience.

Got it.

OK. Talk me through the process part.

Well, we know that meaning doesn’t come suddenly. It might take a startup founder a number of tries before she finds the pitch that gets people on board. Just like a comedian, an activist or a politician needs to take time to test out their material.

That’s what I mean by process. There are many different ways to design a process. Having a process is the important part of being an effective communicator.

So if I’m in Finance (or Sales or Innovation or any other organizational Function), I can benefit from being a business storyteller?

As long as you want people to pay more attention to what you’ve got to say, understand it better, spread it around their own professional networks and make a meaningful decision based on it, then yes.

Woah, you got way deeper than I expected at the beginning of this article. But you promised me six essential questions. Can you give me a tactical framework I can use to do this well?

Sure. Remember, here’s storytelling in one sentence:

Storytelling is the process of infusing information with emotion in order to create meaning for a particular audience.

This sentence leads us to a series of strategic questions we can ask each time we make any kind of message for any kind of audience:

  • Who is my audience, and how can I know them deeper?
  • What meaning do I want to create for them?
  • What series of emotions will create that meaning for them?
  • What information do I include, in what form & structure?
  • What’s my process for infusing information with emotion?
  • How can I improve my own communications skills through the process?

That’s a brief intro to Business Storytelling. Got questions? Get in touch.