Cheat Sheet

Business Storytelling For Dummies

From Business Storytelling For Dummies by Karen Dietz, Lori L. Silverman

Successful businesses have discovered the power of storytelling and its ability to affect the bottom line. A good way to start building your business stories is to use the time-honored storyboarding technique. There are usually a few ways to tell the same story — the one you choose may depend on the circumstances of the telling, the audience, your intent and goal in telling it, and other factors. Sometimes it can be a challenge to “pull” stories out of your organization so that they can be structured and polished for your purposes, and you may need to use story prompts to dig out the storytelling gold that exists in any company or organization.

Storyboarding Your Business Story

Storyboarding is a nonlinear way to craft and learn your business stories. Here are the steps to creating an effective one. If you’ve been crafting your stories in other ways, try this approach for variety. It may stimulate a more creative flow.

Steps Instructions Comments
Step 1 Grab a pad of Post-It notes, a stack of 3 × 5 cards, and something to write with. If your story is very long, it can help to break up sections by using different colored 3 × 5 cards.
Step 2 Start with an image or a trigger word. What’s the first image that brings your story to mind? What’s the first image you want to convey to listeners? Some images may be too complex to draw. But a simple trigger word generates an image in the mind. So feel free to generate a mix of images and trigger words.
Draw the image or write the trigger word on a Post-It and stick it to a 3 × 5 card. This isn’t about art! Just scribble what you need to so you can remember the image or word.
If you don’t like what you drew or the selected word, rip off the Post-It and write a new one. That’s a lot cheaper than recycling 3 × 5 cards.
For stories to be authentically shared, don’t memorize them by rote. Spend time figuring out the images and trigger words you want to convey and put them in the order you want so you can share the story. Having a solid launch makes the rest of the story easier to tell.
If you can see the image, you can convey it to your listeners. The job of the storyteller, when telling, is to feed the listener images to feast on. Focusing on images is an easy way to both remember the story and trigger the experience in your listeners’ minds. When you’re re-experiencing the story, your listeners can experience it with you.
Step 3 Continue through the rest of the story. Keep drawing images and/or scribbling trigger words until you’ve gone through the entire story. By the end you should have a full image deck. Don’t worry about how many cards you have at this point. Just get the images down in the order you think they go in. The size of the deck can get large if it’s a long story. Rubber band sets of them together if you need to.
Step 4 By yourself, review the story and eliminate extraneous details. Keep it simple. Boil the story down to its essential images. In the first pass you might create a card for every piece and detail of the story. That can easily become overwhelming. Now is the time to start winnowing down the pile to make it manageable and easier to remember.
Step 5 Speak the story out loud. Rearrange the images as you need to. You may also find that an image or trigger word you discarded becomes important again. Add it back in. Likewise, some other images can be eliminated. Once you start speaking the story out loud, the order of the images may change. This is normal as you recall what happened and figure out how the story wants to be told.
Step 6 Images need transitions to get the listener from one place in the story to the next. Solidify these transitions. Write them out, if necessary. These are usually very short — typically a simple sentence. It can often help to memorize these transitions. Transitions help get you to the story’s key message. If you’re clear about them, then you have flexibility in how you share your experiences. They allow you to tell the story in different ways to different audiences while still remembering the steps you took to get to the key point.
Step 7 Practice, practice, practice. Practice the story out loud. Get used to hearing your story being spoken.
Take your image deck out for a walk, telling your story out loud as you work through your cards. Or speak it while on a treadmill. Time your story as you practice and walk with it.
Share your story with a trusted partner.
In this step you’re learning to tell the story by moving from image to image, and using your transitions to get from one place to another.
As you speak it out loud and with trusted friends, make further adjustments as you figure out what’s working and what you want to fix.
Speaking your story out loud as you walk or use a treadmill are terrific ways to build the story into you physically, while training you to tell it in spite of distractions. This is how you begin to know physically what 10 minutes feels like. Or 3 minutes. If you only have 3 minutes or 10 minutes to share your story, building in this internal time clock is invaluable — especially when a clock or timer isn’t available. And how often do you glance at your watch when telling a story? Hardly ever. If you do this physical step, you won’t need to.
Step 8 Practice and tell your story without the cards. Yeah! You’ve arrived. You know your story. You know the order of the images so you can tell it well and with confidence. Your transitions flow and the key message and following action steps are delivered flawlessly.
Now you can tell that story in different ways by simply reordering the cards, finding new transitions, and maybe even sharing a different key point and/or action steps.
Just keep having fun!

11 Story Structures for Business Storytelling

If you want to develop and deliver a memorable story to your business audience — whether your listeners be employees, stockholders, or customers — you need to consider how to shape your storytelling. Here are some ways in which you might build your business story for maximum impact.

Name Structure Comments
“I’m Better Off” Main character gets in trouble, then gets out of trouble, and ends up better off for the experience. Story of struggle and redemption — of losing everything and gaining something better in return. A bankruptcy, being let go from a job, losing a home, or making major mistakes and recovering from them.
“Highlight Both Loss and Gain” Main character falls in love with a business or opportunity or is doing work that fulfills their dreams — loses it when something puts those dreams on hold — and then regains it. This is a very common business story. What makes it different than “I’m Better Off” is that there’s a dream that starts the story, which is followed by loss.
“The Cinderella Down-and-Out Story” The main character is in a bad spot. A special helper provides gifts, but then the character loses their good standing. Eventually that good standing is restored, and the character gains incredible bliss. The most popular story in Western civilization. In business, this could be a story of dissatisfying work and living in desperation. Then a mentor comes along and transforms the person’s life, but circumstances still hold the character back. These are eventually resolved which leads to the character’s dreams being realized.
SHARES Start with a setting (“I was sitting at my desk . . .”), followed by the hindrance or obstacle that’s creating a problem. The action that was taken is given next, followed by the result. The teller then provides a statement evaluating the experience (“this made me think about . . .”), ending with suggested actions. This is a very useful structure to use when time is limited. It’s particularly helpful during interviews. Or in e-mail newsletters and on blogs where space is short.
PARLAS Start by presenting the problem. Then work your way through the action taken to solve the problem, what the result was, what was learned in the process (“what I learned from this was . . .”), how that learning applies to today, and ending with suggested actions for your audience. This is a very useful structure to use when time is limited. It’s particularly helpful during interviews. Or in e-mail newsletters and on blogs where space is short.
CHARQES Start with laying out the context — what was happening and why. Then the challenge is presented, what action was taken comes next, followed by the result in quantifiable numbers. After this, the teller gives an evaluation of the experience and finally provides suggested actions to take. This is a very useful structure to use when time is limited. It’s particularly helpful during interviews. Or in e-mail newsletters and on blogs where space is short.
CCARLS Start with the context of the issue (similar to CHARQES). Then the challenge is presented, the action that was taken is brought in, and the result is provided — along with the lesson. Suggested actions are given at the end. This is a very useful structure to use when time is limited. It’s particularly helpful during interviews. Or in e-mail newsletters and on blogs where space is short.
“Open with an Opportunity” Present a possibility — a dream, a promise — based on what’s known to be true today. Follow this with the obstacle that’s preventing this possibility from happening, how others have already helped to (partially) remove the obstacle (if indeed that’s the case), and the action steps your audience can take to overcome it. This is a powerful structure for nonprofits and companies involved in social change.
“Speak to the Why” 1. State a problem that the product or service addresses.
2. The first “why” is: Why is that important? Because . . .
3. The second “why”: Why is that important? Because . . .
4. The third “why”: Why is that important? Because . . .
5. The fourth “why”: Why is that important? Because . . .
6. The fifth “why”: Why is that important? Because . . .
7. The ultimate “why” is: Because . . .
Use in marketing to get at a product or service story. Example:
1. Our product makes stinky sneakers smell better.
2. Because stinky sneakers turn people off.
3. Because when they’re turned off to you, they won’t want to hang around you.
4. Because if they don’t want to hang around you, you can’t get to know them.
5. Because if you can’t get to know them, you can’t date them.
6. Because if you can’t date them, you won’t get one to marry you.
7. The ultimate “why”: If you have smelly sneakers, you’ll never find your mate (and never get married).
“Leverage the Underdog” 1. Describe the significant struggle that the person has experienced.
2. Insert a hint of hope.
3. Share the moment of deliverance from the struggle.
4. Provide the key message.
5. Reference back to the implied action steps or attitudes if this can be done appropriately.
6. Show how your organization is celebrating the success.
People love underdogs. Think Superman, Spiderman, and other favorite heroes who experience deliverance. Hint: We’re all heroes who’ve experienced deliverance. And many of your customers are underdogs who have overcome and persevered. Hope is the ultimate message.
“Present-Future” 1. Start out by painting the picture of the current reality.
2. Introduce the first turning point — the urgent call to do things differently.
3. State what could be.
4. Outline what is (based on another part of step 1).
5. State another example of what could be.
6. Outline what is (based on another part of step 1).
7. State another example of what could be.
8. Outline what is (based on another part of step 1).
9. Introduce the second turning point — the call to action — and articulate the finish line and problem resolution. These are action steps that will resolve shortcomings in the current reality and bring about the future.
10. End on a higher plane. Have proof of a happy ending to share so folks know their hard work, dedication, commitment, and perseverance will pay off. They’ll have a greater commitment to taking action knowing it won’t be easy, but worth it.
This structure is very useful when presenting a project that you want people to support or become a part of. And it’s a great structure to use when launching change.

Different Types of Business Stories and How to Find Them

Organizations use and tell lots of different types of stories, many of which are listed here. Each type is appropriate for various unique uses and applications. Story prompts are things you say to someone else in order to draw out the story.

Name and Definition Possible Story Prompts or Steps to Craft These Stories
“Your founding” stories: Moments in your life that made a huge difference in who you are today. Sometimes people talk about these as I finally realized who I am or Here’s when I began to feel comfortable in my own skin situations. “An event surrounding your birth may be of huge significance. Enlighten me about a time like this.”
“Share with me a memory about an early childhood situation that defines you to this day.”
“Tell me about an event that has profoundly shaped you as a person.”
“Tell me about that moment when you just knew you needed to pursue the career or business you have today.”
“Organizational founding” stories: Every organization has a unique founding story about its inception and which problem it originally was focused on solving. This type of story includes stories about the founder and/or key leaders. Ask the founders: “Tell me about that moment which motivated you to start the organization. Or about a problem that you couldn’t solve that led you to start this organization. Or about an experience that compelled you to conceive this organization.”
If it’s your own company: “Tell me about that moment when you clearly knew you had to open your own business. Or about an experience you had earlier in life that led you to create this organization.”
If your organization has been around for a long time: If no one recalls how it started, dig into archives and old newspaper clippings.
If you work for a government agency: The founding story may be buried in legislative materials or the creation of a law. Go find that stuff and piece together the story. If you can, interview those who may have been involved at the time.
If the company has completely reinvented itself: “Tell me about the event or situation that was a key turning point in the organization.”
For existing products and services: Figure out who was responsible for their creation. “Tell me about the situation, or series of situations, that caused you to invent XYZ.”
If you’re working on a new offering or innovation: Keep track of what sparked the effort. Then craft a story about it.
“What you stand for” stories: Stories that relay what you value and prize the most. They may come from experiences in your personal life or within a work setting unrelated to where you’re employed today. “Tell me about a situation that caused you to realize you hold strongly to a specific value in life.”
“Paint for me a picture of a time in your life where you were very clear about what’s essential to your ethical well-being.”
“Enlighten me about a time when a principle you hold became non-negotiable for you.”
“What the organization stands for” stories: Stories that depict how core values are embodied in your workplace. These aren’t stories to say that your organization has values. Convey what’s done to actualize these values. If you’re an entrepreneur wanting to distill what your firm stands for: Identify up to ten values that are critically important to how you want to run your firm. Then systematically collect stories of how your organization embodies them.
If you have feedback from customers, members, patients, clients, and so on: Pull out situations that appear to exemplify the values these individuals feel are important in how your organization interfaces with them. Craft stories around these experiences.
If your organization has been around for several years: Ask long-tenured employees: “Tell me about a time when the business operated in such a way that what’s highly prized came to the surface.” Or: “Tell me about a time when qualities we most prize came through in our interactions with customers.” Or: “Tell me about a time when what we most prize about our business products or services was clearly demonstrated.”
“What you do” stories: Stories about memorable moments in your work life that define how you spend your time told in a way that allows others to experience what you do as an individual. These stories include both successses and failures. “Tell me about a time when you were influenced by a mentor or coach and how that shaped the way you view your work.”
“Paint me a picture of a memorable moment in your career that’s impacted your perception of the work that you do.”
“Enlighten me about an event that’s profoundly impacted you as a person and how this is reflected in your work.”
“Tell me about the personal legacy that you’re leaving through the work that you do.”
“Tell me a story about your work that reflects its ultimate importance.”
“What the enterprise does” stories: Stories about the why of what the organization believes in (this isn’t to make a profit). “Tell me a story about the why behind what you, as staff, are collectively paid to do as an organization.”
“Talk to me about a customer challenge that demonstrates what drives your business.”
“Enlighten me about a situation that demonstrates the impact your organization has on the lives of individuals or the community.”
“Visualize and tell me about a specific moment in time that revealed to you and your colleagues the importance of the work you all do.”
“Personal vision” stories: An image of a possible, attractive, and desirable state not yet realized. (This is a type of “future” story.) Consider journaling stories related to the following prompts. Then step back and observe what they’re telling you in sum total:
Tell yourself about a time when you truly expressed your passions. Or paint a picture of what you see yourself doing for the rest of your life. Or create in your mind’s eye a story about what you envision your legacy will be.
“Personal scenario” stories: Whenever you have a decision to make, you roll through multiple options. You can craft stories around these scenarios. (This is a type of “future” story) Select a complex decision that you need to make — an issue that has significant consequences or is fuzzy somehow. Brainstorm at least three options. For each option, craft the story of what the outcome would look like if it were to be realized. Then step back and figure out which story best depicts the outcome that best suits the situation.
“Dream” stories: A personal story about the future of a project, business, product, service, or enterprise. (This is a type of “future” story.) If you’re a leader, your job is to offer people a dream and allow them to articulate their version of it. Sometimes these dreams emerge from seeing what’s possible in the future. Sometimes the dream comes from the past — a video of a talk from a leader who has since died, an unrealized project, archived materials, or the organization’s founding.
“Organizational future” stories: The story of the future that you and your business’s customers, by being in relationship with each other, create to bring about a difference in the world. It’s a story of the better future that you’re advancing together, along with what you’re doing now to achieve it. This story is based on the organization’s vision, strategies, and goals coming to fruition at some future specified date. It expands a vision statement into a full-blown situation, with characters and conflicts that are overcome. To aid in doing this, you may want to conduct interviews with future-thinking customers, vendors, and others who know your organization, and the difference your products and services are making and could make in people’s lives.
“Project-specific future” stories Similar to an organizational future story, a project-specific future story is based on what life will be like when the vision and project plan are fully implemented and operationalized.
“Organizational-based scenario” stories Consider the approach used by the 2020 Media Futures Project. You can download several reports that outline their approach.
“Your personal success” stories “Share with me a memory about a time when you achieved a major personal success that was unexpected.”
“Tell me about a time when you set out to do something and found success beyond your wildest dreams.”
“Enlighten me about a time in your personal life when you stumbled into a wildly successful situation.”
“Tell me about a time when you consciously decided to become successful at something and, against all odds, reached your goal.”
“Organizational success” stories If you’re an entrepreneur: Talk to your customers. Pull the stories out of them by saying: “Tell me about a significant success you were able to achieve with the assistance that you received.”
If you have customers, members, patients, clients, and so on: Draw out testimonials and thank yous and turn them into success stories. You may need to re-contact these individuals for more input.
If your organization has been around for several years: Go back into the archives and search for past successes that no one is talking about anymore. They are timeless. Craft stories around them and make them visible. They may be just the spark that’s needed internally to motivate a stalled team and externally to boost sales.
If you have long-tenured employees: Have them tell you about a memorable success that they helped create. Or a situation that was highly successful that didn’t get enough air time. Or about a rock star employee sparking a significant business success.
If you have sales professionals: Ask for their favorite success stories — the ones that turn prospects into buyers.
“Overcoming personal barriers” stories “Share with me a memory about a time when you overcame a major life hurdle.”
“Tell me about a time when you found yourself surrounded by so many obstacles that you thought you’d never be able to dig yourself out — but you did.”
“Enlighten me about a time in your personal life when you stumbled into a wildly successful situation.”
“Tell me about a time when you consciously decided to become successful at something and against all odds reached your goal.”
“Overcoming organizational barriers” stories “Tell me about a time when an employee saved the day.”
“Tell me about a major obstacle on a project and how it was resolved.”
“Enlighten me about a situation where a group went the extra mile to satisfy a customer.”
“Build me a story about a huge, unexpected challenge that arose and what was done to rectify it.”
Go back through the organization’s archives and find situations where the entire firm or a single brand offering was compromised and what was done to overcome that. Then craft stories to help others appreciate these situations.
“Your memorable customer” stories “Share with me a memory about an experience that made you say, ‘Wow. That was awesome service.’”
“Tell me about a time when you were shocked at how a customer issue you were having was resolved.”
“Enlighten me about a situation in your personal life when an employee went above and beyond the call of duty to delight you.”
“Your organization’s memorable customer” stories: Stories about people you work with day in and day out and how they solved a customer’s problem, went the extra mile, overcame an obstacle to meet a customer need, and the like. These stories may also come from your customers. From employees: “Tell me about a time when a customer used our product or service and had a huge win. Or a situation where a customer used our product or service and saved the day in their company or were able to overcome a significant obstacle.”
From customers: “Tell me about a time when you used our product or service and had a huge win. Or a situation where you used our product or service and saved the day in your company or were able to overcome a significant obstacle.”
Stories from sponsors, funders, or supporters: Stories of how their contributions made a difference to them and to your organization and include the results that came from their support. 1. Share stories (not statistics and information) with them about how their actions led to specific results.
2. Ask them for the story of what led to their support. Listen delightedly.
3. Ask them what that support or funding has meant to them.
4. Ask them if they’d be willing to share their overall story with others so that additional people might also support your program, project, organization, or nonprofit. This story is not about the kind of support they provided or how much money they gave. It’s really about how they worked together with you to create an amazing result.
“Now” stories: These stories bring together pain points, opportunities, and obstacles to heighten urgency and stimulate action right now when seeking support or funding. Gather stories from end users about their pain points. You’ll have to decide whether you start with these or with a story about the compelling business value opportunity. Be careful about how you relay data here.
“Your” stories: These stories highlight why you are passionate about solving a particular problem or supporting a cause. These stories disclose the risks of not moving forward. They may include end-user input about the dangers of remaining at status quo. If people don’t know who you are and why you’re involved, they won’t know why you’re asking for resources. Nor will they have a reason to trust you.
“Our” stories: These stories of inclusion put forth what you and the sponsor, supporter, or funder can accomplish together. (This is a type of “future” story.) Convey what’s made possible by working together that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
“Back” stories (from consumers): Stories that build their reputation and yours as well. Request customer stories.
Reach out to folks who comment about your organization on social media.
Create online communities for people to exchange stories
Find existing online communities and seed them with story prompts.
Seed a conversation and allow consumers to actively join in and co-create the rest of the story.
“Back” stories (insider stories): Stories about what makes your organization tick and challenges it has faced and overcome — and/or stories associated with a product or service’s entire life-cycle, from beginning to end. This set of “supply chain” stories also reflects your organization’s values. Here’s how to find the story behind your product or service offering:
1. Reveal the inspiration or “a-ha” moment behind creating the product or service. Tell the story about the idea that created it or the need or issue that caused it to be brought into your business to sell.
2. Relay stories about how consumers can use the product or service in their lives
3. Tell stories about how a product is made or how a service transpires. Share pictures that document these processes. Place them on your firm’s website or in a retail store. Knowing the story behind age-old processes that are used to create the offering makes it desirable on a very different level.
4. Show the workmanship and quality inherent in the product if that’s what helps makes it special. If people only see a photo of a scarf or a pile of rugs, it might not be of interest to them or worth the money.
“Target market” stories: Stories about the market segments you serve and/or stories about the prospect’s organization. Get intimate with the biggest pain points and what’s changing in the industry, the solutions that potential buyers are seeking, as well as the opportunities that exist within these segments in the future:
1. Personal stories, based on experiences you’ve had with products or services offered within the market segment — or those of your family or close friends.
2. Stories that you specifically craft after reviewing industry-specific or demographics-specific information on each target market.
3. Stories from current customers in the markets you want to continue to serve, or even one customer in a new market.
Learn everything you can about the prospect’s organization in the time you have available. What’s its founding story? Are there any stories about its core values in action? What folklore is often shared about the enterprise? What stories are current in the news media?
“Target audience” stories: What you know about the prospect(s) you’re meeting/chatting with What can you learn about the people you’ll be speaking to? Their likes and dislikes? Where did they grow up and go to school? Who do they know that you may also know? What hobbies do they have? Find stories that relate to what you learn. Social media sites are a great resource to find this kind of information. Reach out to friends and colleagues who may know these people.
Stories about past failures (for use in prospecting) There are two types of “failure” stories: those about prospects who chose not to embrace what your organization has to offer (especially those who elected to do nothing) and those customers who didn’t fully utilize, follow, or implement what you provided to them. Why do you want to tell these stories to prospects? The first one speaks to the risks of doing nothing. The second is an opportunity for you to talk about what can happen if customers misuse a product, don’t properly implement a service, or ignore your advice. It’s also a chance to talk about how you recover customers when things go awry.
Stories about pain and urgency (for use in organizational change) “Ain’t it awful” stories: These are real stories of the struggles and challenges that people face because of broken systems, inefficient processes, marketplace threats, consequences for customers, and so on. Connect these struggles to the organization’s potential fate. These stories reinforce the fact that maintaining the status quo isn’t workable. Distress about the way things currently work provides motivation, more so than the vision of what’s possible.
“From the future” stories: Go into the future. Do an environmental scan looking out five to ten years. Identify trends, threats, and wildcards — highly unlikely events that would have huge impact if they were to happen. Craft stories for your change based on this information.
“Change is possible” stories: Stories about people surviving a personal or organizational change that’s significant to them. “Tell me about a time when you were faced with an unexpected change in your life and what you did to get you through it successfully.”
“Tell me about a time in your life when you greatly resisted a change and, when you embraced it, many opportunities presented themselves.”
“Tell me about a time when a group you were part of (in the organization or elsewhere) went through a big change that no one thought could be accomplished — yet it was successful — and what made that possible.”
“Identify what needs to get done to solve problems” stories (for use in organizational change) 1. Evoke stories about the challenges people face around a specific issue.
2. Learn how they currently get around or overcome those challenges.
3. Gather their best ideas to solve the problem.
“Pinpoint and mitigate risks” stories (for use in organizational change) “Tell me about some of the risks you’ve experienced that we might need to address if we change XYZ.
“Tell me a story about a risk you think could possibly happen during our change effort.”
“Tell me about a time during another change effort at the company when you stumbled upon an unforeseen risk and what happened as a result.”
“Obtain the resources you need in a change” stories (for use in organizational change) “Tell me about an experience you’re now facing with this change that requires resources that weren’t budgeted up front.”
“Now that you have the resources you need, tell me about how they made a significant difference in moving this change forward.”
“Tell me about a situation where you shared resources outside your group to create a win-win for everyone.”
“Adapt as we go” stories (for use in organizational change) Stories about course corrections that happen once the organization gets deep into the change.
“Best practice” stories (for use in organizational change) “Tell me a story about something that happened in [xx] phase of the change that really made an impact on you (or your team or department).”
“Tell me about the most important (or significant or moving) story you’ve heard about this change project.”
“Tell us about a situation in which you gained a personal insight about this change that will continue to influence how you approach your work long-term.”
“Tell me a story about a specific action that you (or your team or department) took that really helped to solidify the change.”
“Tell me about something that happened in this change that you would suggest not repeating in a future change initiative.”
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