Fiction and business writing seem to operate in separate worlds, two genres with as much in common as fishing and pole vaulting.
Yet mixing storytelling into your business communication is not like combining oil and water. Business writing can—and sometimes should—tell a good story, especially when your goal is to persuade readers to act.
Why should I tell stories?
Stories resonate both mentally and emotionally.
Ask Jennifer Aaker of the Stanford School of Business. When her marketing students shared what stood out from a series of business pitches, only 5 percent recalled a statistic, but 63 percent cited a story. (Chances are you will soon forget this statistic, but you will remember a funny thing that happened at the grocery store.)
The lesson? If you want stakeholders to engage with, trust, and—ultimately—invest in a business idea, present it as a story.
How can I tell a better business story?
Incorporate some of these storytelling elements.
Follow the golden rule of creative writing—show, don't tell. Rather than telling a potential client that your business values community outreach and volunteerism, give a quick, concrete story or example that shows those values in action.
Telling: Altruism is at the center of our business culture.
Showing: Twice a month we offer paid time off for volunteering at local non-profits.
Use this strategy in application letters, résumés, business proposals, and more.
Rising and Falling Action
Good stories sustain interest through rising and falling action. Your business idea, product, or solution has likely evolved in a similar fashion, with ups and downs, successes and failures, along the way.
While your message should highlight success stories, don’t ignore setbacks. Being honest about false starts humanizes your business. If you can show what you learned from a bad situation and how you adapted or improved, you build trust, empathy, and credibility—emotional appeals that move readers to act.
Check out Basecamp's "About Us" page for a good example of rising and falling action.
Business was great and we were busy. But we were disorganized. With so many concurrent projects, things began to slip through the cracks.
Projects dragged on too long. We dropped the ball on key deliverables. We had some major miscommunication (“Wait, who said that? We did? When?
Where?”). . . .
So we started looking for a project management tool. We needed something to help us communicate ideas, organize the work to be done, and present work to stakeholders. Simple as that.
We tried a few tools, but they were complicated and too hard to use. So we slowly slipped back to using our old standby—email. Our problems continued.
Frustrated, we decided to build our own simple project management app. A few months later we had something ready. We started using this tool with our existing clients.
Immediately projects ran better! We regained the sense of order and calmness we’d been craving.
As Basecamp's story shows, most compelling stories include tension and conflict. Audiences naturally want to see how or if conflict gets resolved. You can take advantage of this dynamic through a problem-solution organizational pattern. Start out by clearly stating a problem or unfulfilled need, showing its seriousness and potential human consequences. Then show how your idea, product, or event solves the problem.
Data is an essential ingredient in much business writing, but numbers don't humanize situations; stories do. Readers want to know, “How does this data impact me or my business?” To answer this question, present your data as a story—either written or visual, or a combination of the two.
For a visual story, create a graph, a table, a video, or an infographic. For a written story, share a concrete example of how the data impacts real people. If the data shows growth or opportunity, tell a short story of someone benefiting from it.
Engaging comparisons anchor unfamiliar (or unclear) ideas to something familiar. Check out how Malcolm Gladwell’s metaphor clarifies a leukemia treatment plan.
Their solution was to use multiple drugs simultaneously that worked in very different ways. . . . Methotrexate worked by disrupting folic acid uptake, which was crucial in the division of the cells; 6-MP shut down the synthesis of purine, which was also crucial in cell division. Putting the two together would be like hitting the cancer with a left hook and a right hook.
While storytelling can make your workplace writing more compelling and convincing, stories are not always needed. Assess key parts of your communication situation—purpose, audience, medium, context—before launching into a story.