Business Storytelling For Dummies
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Why do some people persevere and others give up? What is it that makes some businesses or organizations succeed against all odds? These are stories of overcoming barriers and obstacles. People love to feast on this type of story because they give us courage, hope, and heart to do the same ourselves.

Your stories of overcoming barriers

On September 2, 2010, the New York Times reported the story of Ms. Cha:

In her 60s, Mrs. Cha’s envy of people who could drive led her to get a license in the small county of Wanju, south of Seoul, South Korea. She took hundreds of driving tests, five days a week, investing more than five years of her life in achieving this goal. It cost her five dollars every time she took a test.

Not only did she study constantly and receive tutoring, she got up at 4 a.m. to take three different buses to the testing center.

Mrs. Cha wanted a driver’s license so bad she retook the written portion of the exam 950 times. She still had to pass two driving skill and road tests — she failed at each of them four times, taking her to a total of 960 tries to get her license, achieving her goal at age 69.

Why did she persevere? She wanted to take her grandchildren to the zoo and not wait hours for buses. Her steadfast desire and stubbornness gave her strength to overcome all obstacles. Ultimately, not only was Mrs. Cha awarded a license, Hyundai, South Korea’s leading carmaker, presented her with a $16,800 car after hosting an online congratulatory campaign. She’s also appeared in a Hyundai commercial.

You may not be Mrs. Cha, but you have personal stories like hers. Stories of times when you overcame a challenge. Perhaps you didn’t have to persist as much as she did — or maybe yours were even more difficult.

An example of this type of story and its relationship to business is at the end of the March 5, 2013 New York Times article “Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s Start-Up Machine,” by Nathaniel Rich. He reflects on the last thing Paul Graham told him on Demo Day, a day when 47 firms pitched investors for money.

Graham is the director of a camp called Y Combinator, which helps create startup companies. Rich tells the story of the amazing things Graham did to overcome his fear of flying to help the reader understand what fuels Graham’s enthusiasm for the work that he does.

Like Graham, your personal stories of how you persevered to overcome trials and tribulations have a place at work. Use them when you coach or mentor others, when giving performance feedback, and when inspiring individuals and groups to achieve an audacious target.

In fact, these stories are how some professional speakers get started. A significant obstacle is put in their path, they find a way overcome it, and they’re hired to talk about it as motivational speakers to sales organizations, leaders, or groups of employees.

To identify this type of story in your past, try these on for size:

  • Share with me a memory about a time when you overcame a major life hurdle.

  • Tell me about about a time in your life 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.

Your organization’s stories of overcoming barriers

If you’re an entrepreneur or small business, periodically share the obstacles you’ve overcome in your business journey when the right situations presented themselves.

If your firm has had a major scare — as Johnson & Johnson did back in 1982, when seven people died in Chicago suburbs after taking poisoned Tylenol — it’s important to tell stories throughout the experience. As Johnson & Johnson learned, stories about overcoming obstacles — the immediate recall, the reward offered for the murderer, and so on — can enhance your reputation and build customer loyalty.

People like to be reminded that we’re all fallible, that everyone makes mistakes. It’s one thing to tell a client that you maintain quality parts; it’s another when they hear and experience how your quality has really been tested. Learning from the failures or mistakes and the wisdom of others is psychologically satisfying. People appreciate and respect those who’ve grown from their mistakes and can share the lessons they’ve learned.

Here are a few ways to find these organizational 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 them. Then craft stories to help others appreciate these situations.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Karen Dietz, PhD, is a 25-year veteran in business storytelling consulting, training, and leadership, and organizational development. Lori L. Silverman offers business storytelling training, keynotes, and consulting. For 26 years, she's advised enterprises on strategic planning and organizational change.

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