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Business storytelling

Are you afraid of digitization or do you see it as an opportunity? As a reader of the microTOOL blog, probably the latter. Lucky. You’re not the unemployment office, a real estate agent, used car dealer or a travel agent. It will be difficult for them. Okay, the unemployment office will still have their administration tasks for supporting the unemployed financially and socially. But the others? Their future is uncertain.

Business Storytelling

An aspect of digitization is that knowledge and abilities can copied and scaled over and over again. Earlier, only travel agents knew where hotels were in any location and only they could book hotels and flight. Today, anyone with internet access can do that. You don’t even need a computer. A smartphone with a one-euro contract will do the trick. Professional knowledge and technical abilities are important, no question. Someone has to program internet platforms and conceptualize mobile apps, but they are no longer the decisive factor that give a business its competitive edge. Today, everyone has access to more knowledge and skills. Does this business offer the best price for the best quality? I’ll just quickly check on my phone right now.

At the same time, we are living in the age of information overflow and shorter attention spans. Instead of reading this four-page article maybe you prefer to watch a three-minute video. Preferably two minutes. Understandably, because this immense flow of information demands quick reactions and therefore – an advantage of digitization – you are able to do this. These days we’re much better at filtering information than our parents’ generation. Every tweet, every WhatsApp message… a three-minute video? Okay, but if it’s not interesting after thirty seconds, next! We have the luxury of being able to say “next” these days. Because in the time it took to make the assessment, you already have three new tweets in your timeline. So when you are talking to other people, for example during a business presentation, you have to overcome one challenge above all. You have to increase their short attention spans by making sure they evaluate you as interesting. Otherwise, they will pretty quickly think, “next!” New tweets are waiting.

Trying to do this with technical knowledge and skills alone can be difficult. Think of a travel agent… their professional knowledge can easily be copied, scaled and is always available. You had a one-nil lead if you were in a position to establish and maintain contact. These days – digitization, information overloads and short attention spans – you have a two-nil lead if you command these skills. When communicating with other people, storytelling techniques were and are the most important tool in establishing and maintaining contact – that is, winning the game.

What the right story needs

A good story needs a hero. The hero is the central object and provides three essential advantages:

  1. A hero makes the story personal

There is a huge difference between speaking about things like products, methods, customer segments, user profiles or partner structures and speaking about individuals with personal missions, who deal with risks, suffer setbacks and finally celebrate their success. A hero makes the story personal.

  1. A hero makes us feel something

Association only becomes interesting at the point when empathy is established. You can’t really get excited about a product that has an innovative algorithm or a particularly innovative interface, but it’s fascinating that someone was brave enough to go against all conventions, recommendations and prognoses to try doing something differently and that they have been very successful in it.

  1. A hero is an element of visualization

You don’t think in business plans, concept documents or source code. You think of a team of software developers who talk to each other, fight with each other, have fears and in the end enjoy their success together.

A good story needs not one hero, but two. To put it more accurately, two versions of the hero. The hero has to experience a change over the course of the story. No change means no story. The most popular question since the beginning of humankind has been “What will happen next?” How does the hero solve the current problem? How will she overcome the final challenge? And of course, will she conquer the heart of her beloved? These are the conflicts that make a story interesting and keep the audience tense and attentive. The past is not tense. It is over. Your audience want to learn something about the future. Who is the hero? Many people mix up storytelling with self-portrayal. Your customers, partners and employees are not interested in the past. They want to know what will happen next. They are interested in the future! And their own future.

The hero in storytelling, especially in business storytelling, is always the public. You have to tell their future. Their future regarding the good things that will happen to them if they follow your recommendations and use your services or buy your products. The hero alone – or the two versions of the hero – is not enough for good business storytelling. Another important aspect of a good story is the adventure that the hero experiences. So, their path into the future. And an adventure is only an adventure if there is a risk of failure.

Many business presentations that at least once describe the public’s future and not the past of the business selling a service creates a scenario that is positive and successful. When describing an adventure it is less about the public’s attention span as it is about personal credibility. No one will believe that you just have to buy this product, use this service, implement these five measures and then everything will be fine. That’s the most beautiful hotel in Tuscany, according to the travel agent? Do you believe them? Remember, this is the information age!

It can be difficult to get your audience excited about the next active step into the future. Because there are multiple paths from the past into the future. This means it is sometimes complicated to make a decision. But that’s what we always have to do in a business context: make decisions about the best strategies.

“Strategy is about making choices” – Michael Porter

A good story describes an adventure that the hero has to overcome. And a very good story convincingly reminds us that the hero might die in the process. If you would like to use business storytelling in your presentations, then have a look at the future of the audience and be honest about the difficulties and risks that lie ahead. 

Conflict and solution

Many presenters make the mistake of limiting storytelling to emotional anecdotes and examples. Turnover, customer statistics, market prognoses, correlations and risk evaluations are decisive factors for business decisions. They are your leverage to rationalize your messages and show that your vision of the audience’s future is not just empty words. Data, facts and figures provide a reason for both conflicts and solutions in your business presentation. The great art of business storytelling is to present them in a way that keeps the audience attentive, continually evaluating you as “interesting” and most importantly so that they will accept the change that you are proposing.

It’s exactly the same for a good story. If it’s concrete and we know who has what intention, then the story is entertaining and exciting. This means you should be concrete with data, facts and figures! If you’re talking about turnover then show the relevant tables, statistics and graphs. Tables, statistics and graphics for personal development and product tests and marketing tasks belong in another folder, maybe even in another presentation if they don’t obviously reference turnover.

Tell the right story in the right way

Answer the following questions when preparing your next presentation:

“What so you want to convey, how and to whom?”

Who: Who is the audience, or the hero, of your story?

What: Describe the path to the future, the adventure and all its challenges, that your hero/audience needs to overcome.

How: What are the numbers, data and facts that substantiate these challenges and, above all, why is it important and worthwhile for your hero/audience to accept them?

The goal of business storytelling is to establish and maintain contact. This means knowing – as in a good story – HOW you will talk about WHAT and, most importantly, with WHOM.

To learn more about Stefan Marc Wagner’s activities as a coach, trainer, speaker or consultant, visit his website at

Stefan Marc Wagner besitzt mehr als 10 Jahre Erfahrung in der Unternehmensberatung und Projektarbeit für Großkonzerne und Behörden. Sein Ansatz „Analyse – Experimente – Kommunikation“ verbindet klassische Beratungsmethoden mit innovativen, agilen Vorgehensmodellen.

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