The Art of Storytelling in Business-How to Persuade with Story


Once upon a time.

Does that phrase ring a bell with you?

What do you expect now?

A story?

You loved that phrase when you were a child, didn’t you? Your mother or father was going to tell you a story.

We all love stories, and share them in our lives every day.

Some might just be gossip, some might be a juicy tale from work, some may be dramatised and acted out on our tv screens-Coronation Street, Eastenders, Emmerdale, Fair City-, some may be shown online or on big screens in the cinema, some may be consumed on Netflix.

But the human brain seems hardwired, from time immemorial, for story.

Neuroscience tells us that the human brain is not hardwired to retain facts or data, but is easily able to retain stories.

Religions have been built on stories and parables. Early man communicated with story through cave drawings.

What are the elements of a good story?

What role, if any, has story in your business?

Robert McKee is one of the foremost experts in story in the world. He is a Fulbright scholar and one of the most sought after screenwriting lecturers on the world.

He was interviewed on RTE radio’s “The Business Programme” on a Saturday morning recently.

What struck me about what he had to say about the role of story from a business’s perspective was as follows: it is virtually impossible nowadays for one business to differentiate itself from another.

One solicitor/accountant/management consultant/dentist/manufacturer of widgets can be pretty much like another, because of the ease nowadays with which one business can copy another and provide the same goods and services as the competitor. For example, if your business is in manufacturing there is nothing that cannot be outsourced to China or other low cost manufacturing countries.

These products and services are easily duplicable.

So, how do you differentiate yourself?

With story.

No two people or businesses have the same story. Each person’s and business’s story is unique.

Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, has banned the use of Powerpoint presentations for meetings by Amazon executives instead insisting that executives come to meetings with a 6 page story, in order to make meaning out of life and their business.

McKee’s use of story in business is based on replacing the use of rhetoric-the use of data and Powerpoints alone and inductive logic-with story in order to persuade and move people to action. The use of rhetoric is like the use of science to build an argument with one important exception: science will include all data whereas rhetoric will leave out the evidence which is negative in terms of supporting the argument.

Story is a different type of logic-the logic of cause and effect- because it allows, unlike the use of data alone, the use of all the forces of life-social, physical, inter-personal relationships, family, friends- to explain why things are the way they are, and to make sense out of life. It does this by allowing the reader to step back and look at the inter-related forces which shape events in life and influence the future.

Story doesn’t exclude data though; it includes data within the story to explain how and why what is, is.

And it is the telling of story with the consumer or client as star/hero-at the centre of the story- which allows you use story to market your business and have the consumer choose you because you are different.

And because you/your business/your brand, as mentor, allow your client/customer become the hero of the story.

Story as a tool of persuasion

McKee tells us that there are 3 ways of persuading:

  1. Rhetoric-use data, PowerPoint, facts leading to a deductive conclusion: “therefore”. But you will have left out everything negative, and the audience know you are distorting the truth and being selective with your data
  2. Coercion-use seduction, abuse, bullying. But coercion is short term and won’t work in the long term because once you turn your back the old behaviour will resurface
  3. Story-take all the facts from rhetoric and all the emotions from coercion and tell a story which stars you/your business as an underdog, admitting to the negative, to setbacks, and ultimately succeeding-the hero’s journey.

There has to be negative, though, in any credible story. And the mistake many businesses make is in telling only the positive, and ignoring setbacks, hurdles, and failures which had to be overcome.

4 elements of a good story

McKee says there are 4 critical parts to a good story:

  1. Trouble and strife

The starting point of all stories is a moment of disruption. A negative event throws the protagonist’s life out of balance, hooking the audience’s curiosity: How will this turn out?

How will he restore the equilibrium? Will he be able to restore things? Will he be changed as a result?

  1. Where’s the underdog?

For a story to engage the feeling side of its audience, it must draw them into empathy or identification with a protagonist who, like the audience, is up against very powerful forces of antagonism.

  1. Don’t star yourself

The line between autobiography and bragging is thin. Therefore, at those times in business when you must talk about your life, try to tell your story from someone else’s point of view.

If you were to talk about your university years, for example, tell the story of how an inspirational professor opened your eyes to a profound truth. Make the professor a star and you a lucky bystander.

  1. What do you want the reader/listener to do?

Start with the action you want your listener to take.

Then ask yourself: “What kind of story would trigger that action in that particular person?”

From there you follow your imagination and the arc of the story back to the beginning: “What event would throw my protagonist’s life out of balance and launch a series of actions aimed at that trigger action?”

With those two posts in the ground, you build a bridge of story to suspend between them.

Here’s a link to Robert McKee’s article on story on LinkedIn, which is strongly recommended.

In summary, a story will have the following 5 stages:

  1. An inciting incident for the protagonist-can be by accident or design-which must hook audience /readership; the Quest then is for the protagonist/hero to restore balance involving objects of desire
  2. Progressive complications
  3. crisis
  4. climax
  5. resolution

Another way of looking at the stages of a good story is provided by Conor Neill, an Irish guy teaching about persuasion and communication at IESE business school in Barcelona ( This blog is well worth checking out.

  1. Begin stating the moment in time
  2. Introduce the situation and key characters
  3. Something out of the ordinary occurs
  4. Allow the tension to build – pause, add detail to the complication
  5. Resolve the complication

4 elements which must be clear

  1. What’s the goal of the story?
  2. Grab attention with a hook
  3. Engage-what makes the story compelling? Is there a protagonist with conflict?
  4. How is story enabling action?

Greg Power, a Canadian expert in communications for 30 years gave a TEDx talk about the power of story. (Check it out here).

3 attributes of great stories:

  1. Irresistible-make it dramatic and remember, drama is about conflict
  2. Believable-cultural relevance-how do they see the world? What are their beliefs/motivations?
  3. Unforgettable-feelings drive decisions; unconscious mind driven by emotions; emotions are oragnised as story narratives

Emotional narratives rule and are easily recalled, unlike facts and data.

What’s your story?

Have you a compelling story that people will relate to?

Have you failed? That’s a good start for a compelling story that people can easily relate to.

So, what’s keeping you?