Why Business Communication Is All About Great Story-Telling

Published August 3, 2016

You can never have a party without Joe. Also, a party can’t really start until Joe is drunk enough to talk about macro-economics, super computers and the critically endangered Diceros bicornis!

Did you just ask – “who’s Joe?”  Well in your circle, maybe he is known as Bob. Or he could be Ken… what’s in a name? What matters are the stories. The world is never tired of good stories and good story tellers are never short of friends.

In the case of business, replace friends with investors, customers and employees.  To run a business successfully you need investors who are willing to bet on your plan, customers who are ready to buy your product and certainly employees who would help you run your business. And till the day Artificial Intelligence finally takes over, all these parties would be humans. Guess what? Very few humans mind good stories. The investor who eats numbers for breakfast, the super-ambitious employee and your competitor’s lead customer – may not have time for your bullet points, but will surely not mind a good story.

In the words of legendary ad man Bill Bernach –

“The truth isn’t the truth until people believe you, and they can’t believe you if they don’t know what you’re saying, and they can’t know what you’re saying if they don’t listen to you, and they won’t listen to you if you’re not interesting, and you won’t be interesting unless you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly.”

While Bernbach’s quote accurately defines good advertising, I would personally edit the advice and limit it to “interesting” when I am talking about stories that are fit for all forms of business communication beyond traditional product advertising. When it comes to product-advertisements it is acceptable to use creative techniques (including and not limited to exaggerations) to demonstrate the value of a product. The same amount of creative liberty may-not be available for your investor pitch or your new-joinee memo. In-fact if you are in a business which has a high involvement sales procedure, you may have to be careful about your product collateral too.  However, that is not a reason to not have a good story at all.

Popular wisdom intertwines “story-telling” with “imagination” so tight that people prefer reports over stories when dealing with facts and numbers. Consequentially, those delivering facts and numbers refrain from story-telling to keep things simple.  Things do stay simple that way — no doubt — but they stay impersonal too, and the compelling key drivers may all be forgotten by the time the meeting is over. In the same meeting had you told a great story you had a better chance to stay remembered.

So the question is what makes a story great? In my humble opinion a great story is a concoction of credibility, empathy and the ability to make the audience visualize. Some bit of humour, included in the right proportion surely makes things better. Most importantly, the story should be candid enough to keep the room engaged and shouldn’t be so long that the audience has to move on even before the final punch is delivered.

For all the above reasons I am personally a big fan of John Oliver’s “last week tonight”. Even when talking about topics that are relatively complex and niche, he ensures that he can reach out!  His episode on “Debt Buyers” (a typical example of a not so interesting topic) enjoyed 6Million+ views on Youtube. If you search the word “Debt Buyers” on Youtube, you will note that the second most popular video on the topic is the one uploaded by “Alabama Consumer Protection Lawyers” and guess how many views this video received? A relatively dismal 27,000!  Well of course John Oliver is a celeb and can afford significant amount of digital marketing spend but the difference is too stark to attribute solely to such factors.

The bottom-line is simple; your audience may meet you and quite a few of your competitors in a short span. The facts and numbers may all look good on your slides but the same may be applicable for your competition too. To stand out you’ve got to be remembered. You have a high chance of being remembered if your audience enjoyed their time with you. That can happen easily if you can be that drunken Joe without whom a party can’t really start!

About The Author

Anirban Sengupta headshot
Anirban is a core-team member at Lifkart (an Early stage Indian Construction Start-up). Prior to the current gig he worked for about 5 years as a pricing manager at Cypress Semiconductor. He holds a BE in Electrical Engineering from National Institute of Technology , India and an MBA in Marketing from Symbiosis Centre for Management and Human Resource Development (SCMHRD), Pune, India.