Why we should be wary of the fashion for business storytelling

These days everyone in the business communication world seems hooked on “storytelling,” right?

And of course, this story telling phenomenon is part of the touchy-feely, let’s-get-down-to-real-human-to-human brand of communication that the internet and its associated offshoots have engendered in the last few years.

Communications experts far more qualified and experienced than me have published articles, books, blogs, speech excerpts and umpty-dump other expressions of their sincerity claiming that telling a good story about your business and its successes is the way forward in getting customers and stakeholders to uphold your values and think you’re a bunch of really good guys.

Stories for marketing purposes

I know I’m a cynical old goat, but to me much of this story telling stuff stinks to high Heaven of boring old case histories – glammed up with a bit of magic, sprinkled with a little fairy dust, and told to inspire customers, stakeholders and whoever else with what basically amounts to “this is what we achieved way back here for customer X, so we could achieve the same or better for you.”

Don’t get me wrong; I love a good story. And that’s the point. What makes a story “good” from a marketing point of view?

Stories in a marketing context, like case histories, are only of interest to existing and potential customers when they expose – and pretty damned quickly, too – what’s in it for the reader/viewer/listener. That’s because he or she wants – nay, needs, and rightly so – to know why they should be reading or listening to this story. It’s the old line – “what’s in it for me?” So if your story is going to work, it should relate itself to its audience ASAP.

Stories as part of the company folklore

Cuddly stories about companies and their histories are useful PR. For example, there is the story of what I assume was a boozy session in a pub back in 1967 when one of the UK Heinz ad agency creatives hummed up the lyric “a million housewives every day, pick up a can of beans and say, Beanz Meanz Heinz.” “Beanz Meanz Heinz”(minus the un-PC housewives bit) went on for over 30 years and became a true icon of British pop culture.

Similarly, the story of John Pemberton’s recipe for an (originally) alcoholic drink with an embarrassing connection to the naughty coca plant is a much-loved part of the Coca-Cola empire.

The bad news, though, is that unless you are Heinz, Coca-Cola, Ford, or some other humongous corporation, the story of how your grand-mammy baked hundreds of blueberry pies in her rustic kitchen and started off your local catering business isn’t going to impress more than just your friends and family.

Where these stories are potentially useful, though – in my view, anyway – is in strengthening and deepening relationships with stakeholders like employees and share(stock)holders, provided that they add value to the company’s ethos and commitment. An interesting anecdote about how the firm was founded told at the company’s AGM, or an amusing story about the company’s early beginnings told at a staff party or informal meeting, can go a long way to breaking ice and giving stakeholders a greater sense of ownership.

If you like the idea of business storytelling (and please don’t let me put you off…) there are numerous sites all over the internet which show you how to go about it … such as this one in the USA, this one in the UK …and articles such as this one in Australia.

For now, let me leave you with my own favorite business story … which reminds me how grateful I am to be self-employed…

The American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellow fin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, “Only a little while.” The American then asked, “Why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” The Mexican said, “With this I have more than enough to support my family’s needs.” The American then asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?” The Mexican  fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life.”

The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should  spend more time fishing; and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats. Eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor; eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles and eventually New York where you will run your ever-expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?” To which the American replied, “15  to 20 years.”

“But what then?” asked the Mexican. The American laughed and said that’s the best part. “When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.”

“Millions?…Then what?” The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

Make sure  you write your business stories right:

“Super Speeches”…how to write and deliver them well

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English




  1. Thanks so much Karen – glad you found this article useful!