Is there room for storytelling in business settings?

This post first appeared as a guest blog on the Corporate Executive Board.

Is storytelling appropriate in business? Is there a place for incorporating an engaging tale in the commercial world? I believe there is, but after sharing my ideas about storytelling in the boardroom and beyond for the past year, I encountered many who disagree.I am no longer surprised when someone sends me a disparaging note expressing disgust when I encourage incorporating a fairytale or fable to get a key point across in a business environment. Critics say, “Business is moving way too fast to endorse storytelling; it’s a waste of time.” True enough – no one has time to waste.

This year, the familiar red holiday coffee cups at Starbucks have a matching sleeve that reads: Stories are Gifts – Share. Anecdotally, I realized that many people are doing just that – sharing their stories. So, I decided to conduct a little (albeit unscientific) study.

I have been tracking the number of stories I hear per business day for the past three months. You may be surprised to know that I made at least two hash marks in my notepad each day. On average, my colleagues shared 10 stories per work day. The all-time high was 48 stories.

The day I heard nearly 50 stories taught me a lot. My schedule included financial meetings and a training seminar gone wrong. The droning analysts, offering spreadsheet after spreadsheet, nearly put everyone to sleep. No one at the front of the room told a single story all day; it was all stats, facts and rules. So, why all the hash marks then? During breaks, storytellers came out of the woodwork! With a pent-up demand for engaging conversations, everyone naturally relied on storytelling to overcome the day’s monotony.

What do I remember most from that day? What I learned at the snack table during breaks.

To be memorable and engage your audience effectively, you have to collect stories and factoids. You may think the best stories you hear are random, but they are usually shared by those with a repertoire of ideas that they re-tell many times, but rarely in the same way. To be relevant, you have to tailor stories to your audience.

Keep a keen ear out and you will be able to collect stories and factoids to help make you a great teller of tales. Think about the potential analogies and comparisons to business problems you can draw using these examples:


What do Spider-Man, the X-Men and Iron Man all have in common? Other than being films and superheroes, they are all the intellectual property of Marvel Comics, a company that filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1996, but is now valued at over $4 billion. Marvel turned it around by focusing on what built their company – storytelling! They licensed their products to some of Hollywood’s top studios. Today, comic books account for over 5% of source material for new movies and comics have become the highest grossing film genre in recent years.


In 1999, was just another online retailer trying to corner the shoe market; they did “almost nothing” in sales. Ten years later, they have grossed over $1 billion. How did they do it? They focused on the customer experience and made sure they shared their story with potential clients. Zappos engaged customers and built trust by offering free shipping both ways, a 365-day return policy and a call center that has no maximum call time goals (the current record is 8 hours and 3 minutes). Zappos is now on a 20+ city tour to spread their message across the country. Who says there is no time for storytelling in business?

While you collect stories and factoids, make sure some tales in your repertoire are personal; don’t get too consumed with ensuring all of your ideas directly relate to business. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could get to know your co-workers better via the occasional personal story?

Our interest in and affinity for storytelling extends from the cave-dweller days. We are storytellers by nature, and we like to share. So take Starbuck’s advice. Your co-workers and customers will thank you.

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photo by Katrina Snaps

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