Business Storytelling's Dirty Little Secret

“Story is not a tool, it’s an event.”

I’m going to say this right up front – most leaders and organizations don’t know how to make business storytelling a successful endeavor, either personally or for their organization. I’ll be even more radical – many business storytelling practitioners are in the same boat. They don't always know how to make storytelling a successful endeavor for the long haul. It’s the blind leading the blind. This is business storytelling’s dirty little secret.

I’m not saying I have all the answers. But I will share with you what I’ve figured out so far: your success with business storytelling rests in how you think about it. For example, I recently had a call with a CEO who wanted help telling his stories. I asked him about his company, his objectives, how urgent an issue this is, etc. His goal was to be more influential and have his company gain more market share, and to reach these targets soon. These are great goals. But here’s how the conversation went:

CEO: “I just want you to help me know the structure of a story.”

Me: “Well, I can tell you that, but knowing the structure of a story won’t make you a great storyteller.”

CEO: “But if I can know the structure of a story, then I’ll be able to write and tell a story successfully.”

Me: Hmmmm, I think. Maybe this guy just doesn’t know what storytelling requires. “I can say that every person I’ve coached says the same thing. So I share a story structure with them. Then I ask them to tell me one of their personal experience stories. Every single time -- they don’t like how they crafted it or told it, even though they knew the structure of a story. So I can give you a story structure, and it won’t help you." 

"What does work is 1:1 story coaching where you experience finding your unique voice, style, and qualities of excellent storytelling while practicing stories with real live people. You will have at least 7 leadership mind shifts doing this work that will bring you ongoing success and last a lifetime. And in order to make these needed mind-shifts into experiential storytelling so you are successful – where transformation can really occur – that requires a certain commitment, depending on your goals.”

CEO: “Knowing the structure of a story is all I really want to know because that’s all I really need.”

Me: OK, by now I feel like I’m talking to a brick wall. So I say, “Then the best suggestion I have for you is to pick up a copy of my book Business Storytelling For Dummies where several story structures are shared.”

CEO: “I don’t have any more questions.”

Me: “I wish you all the best, then.” Wow, I’m thinking. What he wanted is NOT a roadmap to success. Ay yi yi.

Common Experiences

Along these same lines is another common experience I also have, which points to the same problem. When I deliver my Stand Out Storytelling introductory workshops in companies I always ask participants if they’ve ever taken a storytelling workshop before, or been to a presentation on storytelling. Inevitably hands go up. I then ask for their take-aways from the workshop or presentation. Very few can remember any. Those that do name “story structure” as their take-away, but can’t tell me what that is.

Even worse is when I’m brought into a company who says they’ve already had a beginning storytelling workshop, and now want some advanced work. When I ask participants about the previous workshop they attended, I get blank stares and comments like, “What storytelling workshop?” or “I don’t remember much about it.” Another "Ay yi yi" moment.

So what’s happening here?

It boils down to faulty thinking: individuals, companies, and practitioners focus on story crafting, not the story experience. It’s going right back into, “Tell me the structure of a story, and I’ll be a great storyteller!” This is like saying:

  • Tell me how to read a financial statement and I’ll be a great leader.
  • Tell me about the brushes, paints, and canvas and I’ll be a great artist.
  • Tell me how to structure an interview and I’ll hire great talent.


What’s needed is to place your storytelling attention on the right syll-ABLE; ABLE being ‘experience’. Yes, knowing story structures and essential elements is important. It’s just not where you start or what to pay the most attention to.

Of course in my coaching and training work with people we eventually tackle structure and elements. But the lived experience of storytelling comes first. Structure and elements come later. Because frankly, if you embody the lived experience of storytelling and get thoroughly grounded in that, you will always be a phenomenal storyteller. Structures and elements become secondary simple tools to know you’ve checked all the boxes.

We Live In The Experience Economy, Not The Information Economy

Focusing on story structures and essential elements is a holdover from the Information Economy. We’ve been in The Experience Economy for at least a decade, however. Now we are Mapping Experiences. Which is why today so many companies are gearing around creating experiences for people, not just sharing information with them. Because information has a short shelf life -- but experiences last a lifetime.

Over and over and over again, I’ve seen how story crafting workshops – even those when people say, “Wow! Best workshop ever!” are quickly forgotten. It’s one thing to take a storytelling workshop with a lot of information and activities about the information. It’s a whole other event to immerse people in the experience of storytelling during a workshop or coaching so they can replicate that at any time. Experiential storytelling sticks.

Oh, and BTW – one experiential workshop won’t make you a master storyteller. I know you know this -- it’s just a reminder :). Being successful at storytelling is a practice, just like going to the gym or meditating. You don’t get good at tennis without regular coaching and practice. Your regular practice takes you on a journey, revealing lessons and insights you might never have reach, and actions you might never have taken. Even after 20+ years as a business storyteller I still take storytelling workshops, not only to continue honing my skills, but to also continue my storytelling journey and all the marvelous transformations I gain. Woo hoo!

When my clients come from the place of experiential storytelling, their confidence soars. They transform themselves and transform others. They become master storytellers who have much greater impact and influence; they leave a lasting legacy. Now who wouldn’t want that?

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Up Next: The 7 Mind Shifts Leaders Need To Make To Be Incredible Storytellers and Achieve The Results They Desire

Karen Dietz is a veteran in business storytelling, creating stories that inspire, influence and impact the bottom line. She coaches and trains leaders through her Transformational Storytelling System. Wiley published her Business Storytelling for Dummies and she opened the 2013 TEDx Conference San Diego. Clients include: Disney, Princess Cruises, Citrix, nonprofits, and entrepreneurs