As I pointed out last week, it vastly improves any presentation if you replace the bullet lists with a story, defined as "a series of actions that overcome obstacles in order to achieve a goal."

While any story is better than an bullet list, some stories are more interesting than others. They command an audience's attention, communicate a message both clearly and memorably and thus help the audience to make a decision.

Please note that while stories are appropriate for presentations, they're too long-winded for sales emails and elevator pitches. With that proviso in mind, here are the rules:

1. Ask permission before telling a story.

Audiences are more receptive if you ask if it's OK to tell a story. The answer is always yes, but the formality of asking permission puts the audience into a "listening" mood. There's neuroscience behind this, but we'll leave that for another time. Examples:

Wrong: "I once worked for a company that..."

Right: "Do you mind if I tell you a little story? (pause for implicit yes) Great. Once upon a time, I worked for a company that..."

2. Anchor the story to a particular time.

Stories seem out of context when there's no specific time when the sequence of events begin. That's why the first 10 seconds of every movie either contains visual images that tell you when the story is taking place or words to that effect.

Wrong: "I once worked with a company..."

Right: "Do you remember the dot-com boom years? Right in the middle of all that craziness, I worked with a company..."

3. Anchor the story to a particular place.

Similarly, stories seem formless unless there's a location where the action takes place. Again, that's why the first 10 seconds of every movie sets up the starting location as well as the time. Classic example: "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..."

Wrong: "I was having dinner with my boss and he started telling me..."

Right: "Picture this: my boss and I were sitting in this fancy French restaurant..."

4. Feature a hero your audience identifies with.

The most common mistake in business storytelling is to make the story about you (or worse, your firm) rather than about your audience. The hero of the story should either be your audience or people similar to your audience.

Wrong: "XYZ corp. was founded in Boston in 1979 where we soon made software history by..."

Right: "The management team in this company was a lot like you guys: plenty of experience and industry knowledge, but skeptical of new technology..."

5. Use concrete words rather than abstractions.

Unfortunately, many business people are in the habit of using vague words that sound impressive and business-like but are divorced from experience and emotion. These abstractions weaken a story by making it vague.

Wrong: "The software was designed to enable users to utilize all the functionality they needed to empower their customer base."

Right: "Our customers loved the fact that they could now tell their own customers exactly when their order would arrive."

6. End the story with an emotional win.

In every story, it's not the achievement itself that's important; it's how the hero (and the audience that's been along for the ride) feels when the goal is achieved. Focusing on the achievement is like Prince Charming checking "rescue damsel" off his to-do list.

Wrong: "In the end, they doubled their ROI in three months."

Right: "Doubling the ROI meant that, rather than declaring bankruptcy, he were able to turn his lifelong dream into reality."

To pull it all together, I've put the same business message (more or less) into three different formats: 1) the typical bullet list outline, 2) a basic story told with abstractions, and 3) a story that's concrete and vivid. Notice the difference:

The Bullet Outline

"Lead nurturing consists of the following key elements:

  1. A software system that tracks customers through the pipeline.
  2. A process that enable salespeople to check on nurture status.
  3. A methodology for creating content for our best customers.
  4. [etc.]"

As you can see, the outline is static. There's no time sequence and no sense of anything happening. As a result, it's hard to see why any single element is important.

The Basic Story

"Here's how we implemented our lead nurturing system. First, we examined customer requirements that examined how we could empower salespeople to cultivate better opportunities. Then we looked at how that empowerment impacted our sales process.

"We changed the system so that it was easier to track the opportunities through the lead nurturing cycle. As a result, we were able to increase the number of customer entering the sales pipeline by almost 30%."

The above is definitely a story and it's more effective than the bullet outline. However, the story is flat and full of vague abstractions. As a result, the story sounds trivial and unimportant.

The Crafted Story

"Rather than tell you all about our product, let me tell you a story about how built up our own pipeline, OK?

"About two years ago, when we had just moved to our new offices, we realized that if we didn't get more customers, we'd run through our venture capital in less than a year. Now, I'm sure you can imagine what that felt like because from what you tell me, you're in much the same position yourself.

"Anyway, we had a lot of visitors to our website, but not very many were signing up to try the product. At the time, we had only a vague idea of what "lead nurturing" was about. All we had was a sign up page where prospects could get a free white paper.


"With the new system, we had so many opportunities flooding the pipeline that we had to double our sales staff. The numbers were so good that year that we were able to keep most our seed capital in the bank and three firms were bidding against each other to see who would be our next investor.

"When we got to that point, it was like a huge weight fell from my shoulders. I knew right then that we were going to make to the next level. And I truly believe that if we implement the same system in your company, it will work as well or better than it did for us."

Notice how the story is now anchored in space and time, thereby brings the audience into the action. It uses clear, vigorous language and avoids the biz-blab. Finally, it wraps up with an emotional punch.