These days, there’s a big push to embrace storytelling in business communications. Companies are hiring acting coaches and improv troupes to help liven up their dry, monotone communications. Kudos to these thespians and comedians who are teaching storytelling through this lens – one that teaches us how to incorporate our personal experiences and weave them into presentations. The idea is that bringing more of our natural storytelling ability into our work will help us inject emotion into our ideas and make a more authentic connection with our audience.
While this may be true, what these personal storytelling skills lack is an explicit framework to address a business need. There’s a big distinction between writing a movie script…and drafting a corporate narrative. Yet still, many of us will confuse business storytelling and personal storytelling. So let’s clear this up.
What is Personal Storytelling?
Personal stories are often a powerful, inspirational, and emotional type of communication (like a graduation speech, keynote address, or a sermon.) These stories can be anything from introductory ice breakers, like telling a joke, to a deeply personal memory that taught a powerful life lesson. The point of sharing personal stories is to humanize yourself, lower audience defenses, and build connection. Something like:
- I was living on the streets just five years ago…today, I run a growing non-profit
- My life turned upside down when I was diagnosed with cancer. I had to ask myself, “What really matters in life?”
- As a firefighter who sees homes get destroyed daily…recovering a pair of shoes means much more than anyone could imagine…
When we articulate a personal experience, something amazing happens. We transfer our emotions – the fear of failure, overcoming obstacles, or simple doing good in the world – into our audience. When we tell personal narratives and share life lessons, we are authentic, inspiring, and motivational.
What we aren’t doing in personal storytelling is solving an everyday business problem. This is where business storytelling comes in.
Business Stories Are About Your Audience
The most obvious ways to understand how business storytelling is different is noticing who the story is about. Corporate stories are rarely about you – they are about your audience. The focus is squarely on your customer, colleagues, or the decision-maker you are intending to motivate. And again, the goal is to always solve a business need.
Business Stories are not Generally “Resolved” Like a Personal Story… And That’s the Point!
Oftentimes, the point of the story is to present tough news such as revenue loss or a high personnel turnover. Unlike personal storytelling, the “resolution” has yet to occur (so the audience can’t vicariously experience your triumph). With business storytelling, the resolution is your prescribed strategy, next steps, or call to action that will solve the conflict you have just demonstrated. Unlike personal storytelling, you don’t get to celebrate triumph over adversity…yet. The emotional response you’ll stir from your audience (which will make them care about your ideas) comes from carefully laying out relevant context, the conflict, and then your strategy and recommendations.
Do Personal and Business Storytelling Ever Intersect?
Yes! Good personal and business stories both strive to humanize ideas and make them relatable. Business storytelling might start with a personal story to demonstrate that “we” (presenter and audience) have had similar experiences.
For example, say you work for a major athletic company and you just completed a marathon. It would not be a far stretch for you to discuss the incredibly breathable, waterproof jacket that kept you dry for 26.2 miles. But, even if you get a little personal for a few minutes, you must shift yourself out of the limelight and bring things back to your business story arc quickly. The point is to always connect back to the recommendation or update you are delivering.
This can be tricky…especially when dealing with decision-makers that go from meeting to meeting. There is little time for too much abstract narrative. Personal stories should be brief and drive home the ask, recommendation or update.
Here are some major differences between personal and business storytelling:
|Personal Storytelling||Business Storytelling|
|Communication Type||Keynote Address
|All business communications such as sales presentations, data findings, quarterly reviews, emails, etc.|
Life Lesson. Conflict introduced and Resolved
|Current business problem yet to be resolved|
|Desired outcome||Inspired, Receptive Audience; issue is resolved||Recommendations are accepted, updates are presented|
|Pronouns used||“I”, “Me”||“We”, “Us”, or named character such as “Meet Joe”|
“Storytelling” is a huge buzzword in business. It can mean a lot of different things to different people. Before you hire an entertainment-oriented trainer, beware of the difference between personal storytelling and business storytelling. You can tell always tell a personal story in a business setting, but if you need to build a strategic narrative to solve a business problem, corporate storytelling is the way to get there.
Curious about how to structure your next business story? Check out The Presentation Company’s corporate storytelling workshop for teams here.