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The power of storytelling in business

We humans have been communicating through stories for upwards of 20,000 years, back when our flat screens were cave walls.

We’ve loved stories from an early age and we often want to hear the same tales, see the same movie over and over. Why? Because they trigger our emotions. Even though we’ve heard the story many times before, we laugh at the same funny bits, shudder at the same scary scene, and relish the hero’s triumph when it all works out OK in the end.

In some cultures, storytelling is critical to their identity. For example, in New Zealand, some of the Maori people tattoo their faces with mokos. A moko is a facial tattoo containing a story about ancestors, family tribe and cultural identity. A man may have a tattoo design on his face that shows a particular design to highlight unique qualities about his lineage. The design he chooses signifies what is part of his ‘true self’ and his ancestral home.

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Think about your own favourite story. As you replay it in your mind, your brain works hard to trigger the old, familiar emotional responses whilst releasing the requisite hormones: cortisol for the tense or scary bits, oxytocin when something cute or affectionate happens, and dopamine at the happy ending. Neurologically, emotionally, and physically, we relive our stories when we retell them. Our brains are wired to create a narrative.

Legendary American lawyer, Moe Levine often used the “whole man” theory to successfully influence juries to empathise with his clients.

Seeking compensation for a client who had lost both arms in an accident, Levine surprised the court and jury, who were accustomed to long closing arguments, by painting a brief and emotionally devastating picture instead:

“As you know, about an hour ago we broke for lunch. I saw the bailiff come and take you all as a group to have lunch in the jury room. Then I saw the defense attorney, Mr. Horowitz. He and his client decided to go to lunch together. The judge and court clerk went to lunch. So, I turned to my client, Harold, and said “Why don’t you and I go to lunch together?” We went across the street to that little restaurant and had lunch. (Significant pause.) Ladies and gentlemen, I just had lunch with my client. He has no arms. He has to eat like a dog. Thank you very much.”

Levine reportedly won one of the largest settlements in the history of the state of New York.


Good storytelling helps people better understand what you’re saying and remember the information more clearly. It is also more likely to lead to a favourable response, which is particularly desirable if you’re pitching for investment or looking for business case approval. Stories also reach the parts facts and analysis don’t: our hearts. That’s why they can inspire and motivate us so much. Your pitch, presentation, or report is far more likely to succeed if you can trigger the right emotional response in your audience at the right time.

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A storytelling approach helps your audience grasp and retain your key point or message, but it can also help demonstrate the ways Finance can support other teams’ activities and ultimately foster collaboration in an otherwise siloed organisation.

A few years ago, I led the finance team at Millward Brown, a powerhouse market research firm in the advertising industry. Most staff members were very intelligent researchers who seemed not to care much about the money side of things. People’s eyes would glaze over at the very mention of anything Finance.

Every quarter I had to stand up and talk to them about how the business was doing financially, encouraging them to spend less or sell more of their services. I thought that since they were researchers, they would like loads of detail, so my first presentation was basically columns of numbers with explanations alongside in a tiny font nobody could read. People actually fell asleep. My boss was not happy.

The next time, I had one slide with a few key numbers on it. I talked about those numbers, telling the story of how we hit or missed our targets, naming the people involved and highlighting their contributions and achievements. I also told the story of what our performance so far was going to mean for the rest of the year and what impact it would have on the business as a whole and the team as individuals. Who isn’t interested in what their bonus will be? This time people were engaged and motivated. They asked questions and made good suggestions for improving the numbers.

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Engaging people through this type of storytelling approach opened up the lines of communication, and staff members began to contribute ideas about saving the company money, improving sales, and improving performance. Realising that Finance staff weren’t there just to say “no” to requests, colleagues began to seek my help in crafting a narrative around their business cases and began to understand that involving Finance right from the beginning increased the likelihood their case would be approved.

A finance team is built on a combination of knowledge, technical, analytical and story-telling skills and experience. Finance need to look forward, towards the many possible outcomes for their business, in order to be most effective in their operational roles. This means looking beyond what happened over a month/quarter to investigate the story behind it and consider what it means for the future. It’s in this area where we as finance leaders can deliver true business insights.

It’s not enough to say we spent more on sales than we budgeted. It’s more compelling to say instead that you combined sales, marketing financial and other data to prove you spent more overall, but that company profitability is much better in one channel than another. Now you’re sharing a larger story that sparks a discussion on more efficient allocation of resources.

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Here are my tips for telling a good business story:

  • Set the scene. State your why…what your aim is, or what you’re asking for, at the beginning of the story. That establishes the context for everything that follows.
  • Ditch the detail. You have to do the work and your supporting data has to be available. But don’t drone through pages of facts and figures. Your audience can check out all the background later or ask for clarification if they need it. Include only the really important details, and get to the point quickly.
  • Stick to the 10-20-30 ruleYour presentation should contain no more than 10 slides, last no longer than 20 minutes, and feature font no smaller than 30 points.
  • Focus on the benefits. Everyone listening is wondering, “What’s in it for me?” So be clear about the good things in your report, proposal, or business case. Draw their attention to the positive impact your presentation will have on the company, division/department, people, and stakeholders involved.
  • Talk about the problems. A story without difficulties is just plain boring; we like to hear how our heroes overcome adversity. So, talk about the challenges, too, but make sure you can say how they can be mitigated or overcome.
  • Pull on the heart strings. Who didn’t cry in The Notebook when Noah and Allie died holding hands? Your heart strings were pulled and you felt something. Whether you feel sad, happy, scared, or content, feeling something makes us feel more alive, which is why it is critical to make your listeners or readers feel. None of the facts and figures matter until you have some sort of emotional connection.

By turning what happens into stories we make sense of the world. In business stories help us manage the chaos and turn it into something we can understand and follow. Stories bring life to data and facts. They help us make sense and order out of a disparate collection of facts. They make it easier to remember key points and can paint a vivid picture of what the future can look like. Stories also create interactivity—people put themselves into stories and can relate to the situation. People also make decisions and change behaviour using the emotional side of their brain. So when giving a presentation or pitch, weave a story around the data to keep the audience engaged and spark the emotional side of their brain.

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