The human mind is programmed to remember and respond to stories. For thousands of years, our minds have used stories to understand the world around us and share our experiences. Today, stories are a means of entertainment, a source of inspiration, and a method of connecting with one another in more deep and meaningful ways.
When we think of stories, we typically think of blockbuster films, podcasts, songs, and even whispered urban legends. But how do stories play into the world of businesses and nonprofits? While this practice isn’t much more than harnessing the power of captivating stories, business storytelling remains a mystery to many.
It’s likely due, in part, to the misconception that storytelling doesn’t belong (or doesn’t have value) in a corporate or nonprofit setting— but this simply isn’t the case. In this guide, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about storytelling in business and the world of nonprofits so that you can drive action through human connection.
What is Business Storytelling?
Business storytelling is the act of humanizing the operations, activities, and benefits of an organization using well-crafted, engaging, and relevant stories. The goal is to avoid communicating with its target audience in a way that’s overly sales-y, technical, or uninspired.
Why is Storytelling Important in Business?
- It Sharpens Your Competitive Advantage
Did you know studies have shown storytelling can increase perceived product value by as much as 2,706 percent? No, that massive percentage is not a typo! The story your organization tells truly does shape the thoughts and feelings of your target audience.
This is a major point to consider in terms of brand positioning and market share. The more favorably you are viewed by the masses, the more difficult it will be for your competitors to sway the mind’s of potential donors and investors in their favor. Remember, 70 percent of organizations are investing in content marketing (which often revolves around storytelling) so your competitors are almost certainly utilizing this strategy, or they’re in the process of implementing it.
The key here is not to wait until you’re behind the curve. The sooner you establish a meaningful relationship with your target audience, the lower your churn rate will be, and the more optimally you’ll be situated in your corner of the market.
- It Turns Your Team Members into Proud Brand Ambassadors
Did you know that 73 percent of employees who work for purpose-driven brands say they find their work to be engaging? While only 23 percent of those who work for profit-driven organizations say the same?
Storytelling is a vital part of communicating your purpose in a way that’ll resonate with your teams. Stories have been proven to activate the release of oxytocin in the brain— a chemical which results in feelings of trust, empathy, bonding, and emotional well-being. When you use stories to inform your team of the difference your organization is making, the positive change you’re contributing to, or the goals you hope to achieve, you make it easier for them to become invested and more deeply engaged with your vision for the future.
Not convinced yet? It’s worth noting that organizations with highly engaged employees generate 26 percent more revenue than those without— a very compelling reason to invest in storytelling for business.
- It Helps People Understand the “Why” Behind Your Work
It’s almost impossible to meet the needs of your audience, scale your organization, and strengthen your brand reputation if you haven’t clearly and persuasively communicated your greater purpose.
Your audience has to understand your motivations and overarching goals in order to connect with your mission or value your intentions. Stories allow organizations to breathe life into the reasoning behind their actions, humanizing their efforts and making their brands more approachable.
- It Makes Your Organization More Sincere and Likable
Building on our last point, business storytelling techniques produce many of the same outcomes we experience when we tell stories in our personal lives. Think about it— if a stranger told you a story about a time they overcame adversity in their life, you’d likely leave the conversation with more empathy and compassion for them, right?
When organizations tell stories they give their target audience an opportunity to develop feelings of belief, confidence, and intrigue. People are more likely to donate, buy memberships, or feel passionate about something that they feel on a deep and emotional level.
- It Clarifies Complicated Concepts and Adds Context
You never want to leave supporters or stakeholders confused after communicating a piece of important information— but it can happen if you present a lot of statistics and data without providing context.
Stories connect the dots for your audience and give meaning to the metrics and measurements you’ve gathered. Without a narrative that lets people know why the numbers matter, you’ll face an uphill battle in terms of getting your audience on board and having them understand the bigger picture.
How to Use Storytelling Techniques For Business
- Decide on a Central Message
The most profound stories have a key principle or theme that is being shared with the reader, viewer, or listener. This same approach should be taken with business storytelling. You don’t want to convolute your message with multiple points or long-winded segways that leave your audience struggling to follow along.
When deciding on a central message, carefully consider what takeaways would be most valuable to your audience. What do they care about? What challenges are they experiencing? What do you want them to think or feel after hearing your story? Remember, your story isn’t a sales pitch— it’s an opportunity to evoke strong emotions and establish a lasting impression.
- Do Away With Unnecessary Details
This is another key aspect of storytelling businesses and nonprofits should keep top of mind. More often than not, the simplest messages are the most memorable. Try to keep duration to a minimum, if possible (without omitting pertinent details or leaving gaps that might impact your audience’s ability to understand your core concept, of course).
It helps to ask these three questions while writing your story:
- 1) Is this relevant to my central message?
- 2) Does this enhance my story? Or bog it down?
- 3) Is it easy to comprehend when I read it out loud?
- Find a Unique Point of View
One way to make your business storytelling memorable is to seek out perspectives other than your own. If you’re telling a story about your positive impact on low-income communities, for example, you could have a resident you’ve helped share their experience. Remember, stories are more impactful when they’re being shared by the people who are directly being affected. If all of your stories are told from the perspective of your leadership or executive team, you’ll risk seeming sales-y or overly corporate.
Think about your organization’s employees, stakeholders, donors, volunteers— all of the people who make what you do possible. What are their stories? How can they help your audience view your mission through a different lens? What unique value can they bring to the narrative? These are the questions that will help you find the right angle for your story.
- Use the Present Tense
Writing or speaking in the present tense is always best when using storytelling in business presentations or nonprofit marketing initiatives. The present tense makes your story seem as if it’s happening right now, which will pique the interest of your audience and provide a more immersive experience. The immediacy of this approach to storytelling, along with how authentic and real it makes a narrative sound, is incredibly beneficial for organizations that want to enrapture their audience and motivate them to become involved in some way.
Past Tense Example:
Arnold took three buses to work each day, and another three back home— where he shared a two bedroom apartment with five of his family members.
Present Tense Example:
Arnold takes three buses to work each day, and another three back home— where he shares a two bedroom apartment with five of his family members.
- Adhere to a Logical Structure
Without structure, it’s a lot harder for your audience to follow along with your story. Structure gives a story a logical order and ensures there aren’t any plot holes or timing issues, providing a natural rhythm to your narrative that makes sense to listeners or readers. In fact, whether we realize it or not, we’re all conditioned to expect a story to follow a particular structure.
The typical story structure is as follows:
This is the first portion of your story. It lays the foundation of your theme or topic, helping your audience understand how things began or what the underlying catalyst is for the events that are about to unfold. It also gives them the opportunity to get to know the main characters on a deeper level so they can become fully invested in their journey.
This act is all about overcoming challenges, facing adversity, or navigating through times of change. It’s the most dramatic part of your story and should be rooted in strong emotions like fear, uncertainty, distress, disappointment, bravery, or conviction. Think of this phase as the nitty-gritty portion of the story, where the main character(s) are in the midst of a problem or major undertaking. Try to elaborate on the gravity of the situation while still incorporating moments of hope and perseverance.
Every story needs to come to a point of resolution. Ideally, the point of resolution will be satisfying to your audience in some way. You want your readers or listeners to connect with the lesson or moral of your story in a way that uplifts, inspires, motivates, or enlightens them. Storytelling business presentations are not the place to use Hollywood cliffhanger endings. Instead, you want to leave your audience with a clear solution. It’s important that they leave the story with an understanding that strengthens their loyalty to your organization or makes them feel more connected to your mission.
Business Storytelling Examples to Inspire
- The Malala Fund’s Video Campaign
The Malala Fund is dedicated to providing educational opportunities to young girls around the world. The foundation created promotional videos to tell their story. They not only told the story of real people, they also showed their work in action.
This example video opens with a real woman in Lebanon talking about her daughter and her passion for ensuring she has access to education, immediately establishing an emotional connection with parents. She then shares her own story and the stories of other young girls in Lebanon.
Once she has established a deep emotional connection with viewers and explained the importance of the Malala Fund’s mission, she starts explaining how the fund works and how it helps girls all over the world. She emphasizes that many places aren’t providing any education to girls, creating a sense of urgency. This encourages the viewer to take action.
- Charity: Water’s True Story
Sometimes business storytelling is exactly that — a written story. Charity: Water is an organization that uses donations and volunteers to provide clean water to those in need. The team at Charity: Water asked volunteers to describe their experience, which turned out to be a very powerful written story. Esther Havens and Taylor Walling wrote about installing a well in Rwanda, the people they met, and how the work they did changed the villagers’ lives forever.
The piece focuses on a young boy named Jean Bosco and his village. This in-depth look at a real child dealing with the very real effects of the water crisis is a powerful way to demonstrate the urgency of Charity: Water’s mission. In addition to a well-written story that is both beautiful and touching, the piece is complemented by high-quality photographs to immerse the reader fully in the experience. There are photos of Jean Bosco, the village, the well, and the clean water they were able to provide.
This piece demonstrates so clearly all that we take for granted, moving readers by showing how people around the world struggle for the most basic necessity: clean water. And because the piece is written from the volunteer perspective, it creates a sense of trust in readers.
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