7 Deadly Sins of Business Storytelling

Business storytelling is an art, you can set to work honing it for maximum impact. Learn more about the 7 deadly sins of business storytelling.
February 14, 2011

When it comes to persuasion, companies traditionally appeal to left side of the brain, using logic and reason. However, persuasion occurs just as much (if not more) through emotion. Daniel Pink, author of Drive, writes, “Right-brain dominance is the new source of competitive advantage.” Tapping the right side of the brain allows for deeper engagement by uniting an idea with an emotion. The best way to do this? Tell a compelling story.

Before you craft your story, ask yourself: “Who is my audience and what is my goal in engaging them?” Are you persuading someone to invest in your company? Are you trying to sell an idea to your co-workers? Do you want to inspire people to help a cause or save someone’s life? Start with a deep understanding of your audience, and ensure your story has a clear and powerful meaning -- to them. Then you can set to work honing it for maximum impact.

While the reason you are telling a business story may be quite different from the reason you tell a story at a party, the same techniques apply. Too often, company stories come across as dry and flat because they fall prey to these seven deadly sins:

1. Chronology. Unless you’re telling the story about the proper assembly of an IKEA bookshelf, your story probably shouldn’t begin at the beginning. Chronology matters much less than having your story follow an interesting arc. Events need to build, one after the other. Your story should describe increasing risk and increasing consequences until the final, inevitable conclusion, but not necessarily in the exact way that the audience expects.

2. Telling. Show, don’t tell, is the most fundamental maxim of storytelling, and for a good reason. Your audience should see a picture, feel the conflict, and become more involved with the story -- they’re not receptacles for a series of facts. If you tell a story as though you were not there, it distances your listeners. Describe what is happening as if it were in front of you. As Mark Twain said, “Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.”

In practice: Go to the page on your company’s website where you describe what you do. Does your “About Us” section include only lists and categories? Is the information purely factual or are you using stories to help illustrate who you are?

3. Jargon. Filling a story with technical terms, acronyms and superfluous words will only serve to lose or bore your audience. Hippocrates (if you’re in medicine you may know him as “The Oath Guy”) wrote: “The chief virtue that language can have is clearness, and nothing detracts from it so much as the use of unfamiliar words.”

4. Pulse-free. People connect with other people, so make sure you focus on the real-life characters of your story. It doesn’t matter if your organization designs computer hardware or sells medical devices, human beings are still driving the action. So concentrate on the people involved. Personalize the protagonist of your story, making him seem real enough so that the audience feels a stake in what happens next.

5. Fabrication. Your story needs to be authentic. A major cancer center in Washington asked a customer named Audrey, who happens to be a triathlete, if they could use her photo in a cancer awareness campaign. When the bus and magazine ads appeared, much to Audrey’s surprise (and her large network of friends, family and fellow athletes), she was positioned as a cancer survivor.

How much more powerful would this campaign have been if the featured image was that of an actual cancer survivor? For everyone who knows Audrey (or heard her story), this reputable institution now has tarnished credibility. The power of appealing to emotion is detailed in Wharton professor Deborah Small’s groundbreaking research. She shows how the use of statistics by non-profits, as opposed to a vivid “identifiable victim,” results in lower giving. People want to hear and be moved by real stories.

In practice: Make stories a part of your organizational culture. For example, insist that staff meetings start with a story instead of a progress report.

6. Bulletproof. Engaging stories do not chronicle a straight line to success. Imagine if Rocky won every fight… yawn. Hone in on your protagonist’s problems or barriers to achieving her goal. What is standing in her way? By incorporating moments of vulnerability or doubt, you create empathy and lend authenticity to the story.

7. Proprietary. Companies with a stranglehold on what the corporate story is, and who can tell it, miss a world of opportunities, especially at a time when social media makes it easier than ever to connect and share. Stories told by employees and by customers are significant assets. Recognize the value in stories from internal and external sources, design ways to collect them, and allow your customers, advocates and employees to also be storytellers.

In practice: Create an internal storybank, or database of stories, where employees and even customers can write and submit stories complete with titles. These stories are then keyworded, so that people looking for stories can easily find them. Employees looking for stories can reach out to the authors. Nike, Apple and eBay harness stories as tools to crowdsource ideas, such as what consumers are really passionate about. They do this as a way to give employees language and initiative to tell personal stories of meaning, and to amplify and distribute brand initiatives in story form.

This article is based on material from the book, The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways To Use Social Media to Drive Social Change, by Jennifer Aaker (@aaker) and Andy Smith (


Jennifer Aaker is the General Atlantic Professor of Marketing at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. Her research spans time, money and happiness. She is widely published in the leading scholarly journals in psychology and marketing, and her work has been featured in a variety of media including The Economist, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, BusinessWeek, Forbes, CBS MoneyWatch, NPR, Science, and Cosmopolitan

An experienced tech marketer, Andy Smith is a principal of Vonavona Ventures where he advises and bootstraps technical and social ventures with guidance in marketing, customer strategy and operations. He has served as an executive at Dolby Labs, BIGWORDS, LiquidWit, Intel, Analysis Group, Polaroid, Integral Inc. and PriceWaterhouseCoopers.