When Storytelling Doesn't Work!

Updated: Sep 12, 2020

Storytelling is not the panacea for weak business communications. It’s also not the only way to connect with customers or staff. And sometimes, storytelling can even make foes out of friends.

If you’ve worked with me, you know that I love to include stories in sales communications, especially when putting together complex deals. I’m a storyteller through and through.

But here’s when storytelling is just blah, blah, blah:

When It Doesn't Align To Reality

You tell brand stories about diversity for example supported by images across your website and brochureware showing people of different ethnicity and colour. But if in reality, 90 per cent of your employees are white and mostly male, this type of storytelling only hurts your company’s reputation and share price. Same goes for companies extolling the virtue of sustainability (very popular right now) but are then caught damaging the environment. No story will fix that mess.

What you should do instead: Be real. Tell truthful stories about your values; otherwise, the marketplace will see your stories as another form of ruthless manipulation, and they will not trust you.

When It Is Sanitised

The biggest culprit here is customer success stories. No one believes them. Firstly, they don’t read like the reality of implementing new technology. Everyone knows it’s difficult and risky, so why write success stories that read so breezily positive! Customer success stories are so sanitised today they don’t even sound like stories anymore; they’re thinly disguised bland brochureware.

What you should do instead: Let your clients tell the success stories. Don’t censor their warts and all experiences with you. Let them say it like it is. This type of raw honesty is much more welcome and will attract more clients to you than fake positivity.

When It Isn't Contextualised

You get up to do the introduction to the prospective client’s executive team at the beginning of a two-hour-long sales presentation. You want to warm up your audience and get them to connect with you, so you start with a story. It’s an amusing story, but it has no connection to the client, their challenge or even to your solution or sales offer. Your audience of busy, important people is annoyed. When are you going to start talking about the offer and the price? They feel like you’re wasting their time and not taking their problem seriously.

What you should do instead: Pick a story that is emotionally meaningful to your audience, something relatable. Make sure you also connect the story to your proposed solution. Most importantly, keep your story brief.

For example, you’re presenting integrated healthcare software to senior hospital staff. Instead of jumping straight into the solution overview, you start with a story about a man suffering from a terminal illness getting the run around from hospital to hospital and having to wait for hours before being looked after. You segue to, “However, if hospitals had an integrated solution like ours, terminal patients wouldn’t have to suffer the emotional stress of long waiting times.” In a few minutes, you’ve emotionally connected with your audience and prepared them to pay close attention to the technical presentation that will follow.

When It Gets In The Way Of Fixing A Problem

Whatever your role, client-facing as an account manager, or an internal team leader don’t get side-tracked by your story or other people’s story. When it comes to business problems, it’s usually about systems, processes or people. So, when someone starts talking about one of these problems, they never stick to facts, they tell you a story that’s playing inside their head informed by their biases, values and experiences. If you’re trying to help someone and they dive deep into the story: the characters, the conflict, the time and place, and so on, you could be sitting there for a long time listening to the story, and nothing gets resolved.

What you should do instead: First, become highly attuned to key themes hidden in the story. They will come out as words or statements the speaker repeats. If the speaker gets emotional in certain parts of the story, this is also a clue of the underlying issue.

When you sense that a crucial theme has presented itself, respectfully interrupt and take charge by empathetically asking questions, like, “What do you think is the real issue here?” “What’s really going on?” “What do you think is the underlying problem?” “How do you think you’d like to resolve this?” “What’s the best way to move forward?” How can we fix this?” or “What’s the next step we need to take to fix this?” “Who is the right person to fix this?”

Because when it comes to problem-solving, the story isn’t that important. What’s important is a mutual understanding of the critical issue or theme, addressing it and moving towards improvement.

And, if you’re visiting a prospective client and they’re drowning you in the story of their business problem, the same thing, stop and ask thoughtful inquiry questions that focus on the key themes. Then work to collaborate with the client to solve the problem or come up with a solution.

What if you’re the one caught up in the drama of your story? Start paying attention and notice if the listener seems overwhelmed or confused. Take a breath and ask yourself, “What is the key theme, issue or purpose of me telling this story?” Because at work, the story is not as important as figuring out the problem, getting to a resolution and doing great work!


Yes, storytelling can be powerful, and if you need someone to guide you on how to tell an excellent corporate or sales story, I can help. But let’s use storytelling for the right reasons, and let’s do it in the right way.

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