Friday, May 27, 2011

The Mythology of Business Storytelling, Part One.

The backlash against any business fad begins slowly. Hype buries the good ideas that are contained within a business movement. For example, when people discover that you can't manage people in just one minute or that there really isn't much fun in throwing stuffed toy fish around the office, the genuine value (read that "the work") of a concept gets abandoned with trappings and hype.

Storytelling and other forms of story expression can work well in business and non-profit organizations. I have seen this played out repeatedly since I began this journey of coaching and training back in 1985.

Of late, I am seeing the rumbling of hype-backlash in the discussion, teaching and preaching of business storytelling. Here are the first three types of buildup of which I think we all need to be aware. I will take on more in the next post. I have gathered these myths from personal experience, social media, blog posts and email.

By the way, "a myth" does not mean "a lie." Myth is truth covered in an agenda.

Myth 1: Storytelling is instant corporate relief.
In tough economic times, everyone is looking for that quick fix to make business work or to grow donations to a non-profit group. The challenge with story, and especially delivery via storytelling, is that it actually takes real work to develop. It takes training to do it well. When you look at how storytelling is being discussed today, do you often see a discussion about the amount of focused work it requires?

Is there a return on investment (ROI) when using storytelling? Yes, there is, but it comes slowly and requires a long-term commitment. (I have written before about what storytelling won't do for a business.) A one-off dive into story work is represented via such slogans as "This year, our company training focus is 'Storytelling!'" Short-term investment reduces the authentic stories of your real customers and employees to gimmicks. Gimmicks have no genuine ROI.

Myth 2. "You must believe in your story."
I have seen variations of this on Social Media more than once, with the emphasis on the word "believe" as an otherworldly transcendence into the metaphysical. Your IT and accounting departments are most likely filled with people who are not going to buy this whole "storytelling" thing. Throw in some Matrix-movie-like dream-world discussion and you will lose both departments. You do not have to believe in metaphor or transcendence in order for a corporate story to be effective.

Your corporate stories must be true and sincere, but they do not have to be magical. Storytelling, done well, creates "deep listening." Many people think that deep listening must be magical. The reality is that in our instant-everything and low-imagination world, we have forgotten that people used to listen like that all the time.

By the way, I do understand the attraction. It sounds like fun to tell stories instead of doing marketing or selling! It is fun to talk about the transcendent nature of storytelling and the stories used within storytelling- but do not make acquiescence to those ideals as a requirement for corporate storytelling. I do not understand 25% of what my technology-guru brother is talking about in regards to computers, but I sure know how to use this word-processing program.

Myth 3. "Storytelling in business is a different type of storytelling."
Like all myth, this has truth at its core. The truth is that every time you speak to a different audience, the experience of the story you are telling changes, even if the teller and the story are the same. I can tell the same story to an audience of entrepreneurs and an audience of 12-year-olds and the experience will change.

Where this myth is false is not understanding the "mechanics" of all storytelling. All storytelling uses the same skills, such characterization, pacing, crafting and gestures. For example, while my characterizations in a story for 12-year-olds might be much broader than the same story told for business leaders, characterization still is used. Knowing how and when to use gestures is as important in a presentation to your nonprofit supporters as it is to "Mother Goose Story Time" in the public library.

Finally, all business stories must be properly crafted in order to be impactful on the listener. It is not enough to just want to use story and storytelling- you must spend the time to construct the story. That crafting process is the same for any setting.

Remember, not every conversation you have should be labeled as storytelling. Sometimes small talk is just small talk. Sometimes a call to customer service is just a phone call, not an epic journey.

I am already at what looks to be the world's longest blog post. I will post part two sometime over the weekend.

PS. I have been asked, "Sean, who died and left you in charge of storytelling?" All I am opining on is what I see from my unique vantage point of experience and practiced approach both on and offline. I could be wrong about all this. Do not believe everything you read on the Internet.

Or, I could be right.

(Read Part Two at this link now.)
The is official blog for K. Sean Buvala, storyteller and storytelling coach. Illustration in this blog comes from and is used under the Creative Commons license. See Sean's storytelling training workbook at


  1. Sean, I think you're spot-on. I'm curious about Myth 3, and your explanation. I agree that every conversation or encounter isn't a story or an epic journey. I'm interested in what else you think. For me, the truth at the core of Myth 3 is that for business audiences a story can be effective without necessarily having overt drama that an outsider or generalist would perceive as "quest"-worthy or truly challenging. That's because scope and scale in the business arena are defined in specific ways that often require specialist knowledge to understand. In my experience, when business storytelling has proved most effective in a B2B arena it's in settings when domain knowledge is matched by story craft. Does this jibe with your experience?

    1. Thanks for your comments. I believe that we are in agreement. I think it comes down to “intention” and “crafting.” Storytelling is an intentional craft and art. One must intend to use it in order to use it in any given circumstance. Storytelling in a business setting does not happen accidentally. Conversation, conversely, can happen accidentally. A story must be created with beginning, middle and end. A story can be presented simply (or with complicated specialist speak) and still be a story.