Chris Hirsch, Toastmasters International, looks at how story telling can help businesses sell to their customers.

We live in a world of stories. Whether it is the stories that lulled us to sleep as a child, the heroic tale of the underdog in our newspaper, or the success of a start-up business, we are reassured and inspired in equal measure.

Stories help us make sense of the world and they can also help us to cut through a plethora of competing information to make decisions.

When I ask: “what makes a good story?” The typical reply is that the content has to be interesting, exciting or amusing. This couldn’t be further from the truth. A compelling story has little to do with the content and everything to do with the structure – which drives the story, builds the tension and creates a satisfying resolution.

The structure of successful stories

How does this work? The scene is set (Once upon a time there were two college dropouts……), a problem is perceived (… no money to make their new computer commercially…) leading to rising tension because a solution is not obvious (…the Byte Store will buy but only fully assembled equipment …), then there is a climax or tipping point (…despite trying everywhere they couldn’t get credit to fulfil the order…) followed by the resolution (…parts wholesaler’s credit manager impressed by tenacity does a deal) and finally you have a new status quo (… and Apple 1 is made, delivered, and makes a profit).

Constructing your own business stories

Unfortunately, unless your business is niche, you are not likely to get ahead by telling fairy tales or stories about American corporations.

The key to telling a compelling business story is to use the structure in a way that inspires your clients to take action. But make sure that your story is honest and truthful. Above all it must not be a sales pitch.

Nearly every business solves a problem and the first step is to identify what that problem is. For instance in my firm we manage investments for individuals but the problems we solve are complexity and uncertainty. The resolutions we offer are security and peace of mind.

Now, for your own business, think of the clients or customers you are most proud of helping – it is their story you need to tell.

Always construct the end of the story FIRST – it’s easier to start a journey if you know the destination. Paint a picture of how the client felt after you had helped them. Now go back to the beginning of the story and set the scene, explain how you helped them realise that they had a problem, describe how this was affecting them, outline the long-term consequences of inaction and how they can resolve the problem with your help – and how wonderful the new status quo will be.

Make the hero your client or someone they can identify with. Never make yourself the hero – it is their story, you are just the guide and remember that the story must have a moment of tension around which the story pivots.

Communicating through stories

Storytelling is a highly effective means of communicating with others. But it goes further that that because we, ourselves, also think in stories.

If you want to solve a problem, construct a narrative around it – turn it into a story. Most problems involve other people so I challenge you to make them the hero of the story and make yourself the guide.

By doing this you are automatically looking at the situation from the other person’s point of view and trying to think how you can solve their problem. This can be an enlightening process.

Once you start thinking in stories the uses can be quite surprising and fun. If you’ve had a bad day, structure it into a story and at least you will realise where it all went wrong. If you have a good day, do the same.

Storytelling is an old fashioned and very human communication tool. That’s what makes it so powerful. Data can persuade people but it cannot call them to action. Stories can go where logic, numbers and analysis cannot: our hearts.


Christopher Hirsch is from Toastmasters International, a non-profit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations. Headquartered in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, the organisation’s membership exceeds 345,000 in more than 15,900 clubs in 142 countries. Since 1924, Toastmasters International has helped people of all backgrounds become more confident in front of an audience. There are more than 300 clubs in the UK and Ireland with over 7,500 members. To find your local club: Follow @Toastmasters on Twitter.

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