The Boyhood of Raleigh 1870, Sir John Everett Millais, The Tate Gallery , London
Ideas for Leaders #324

Storytelling for Entrepreneurial Endeavour

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Key Concept

Good stories can increase legitimacy and persuade investors and valued employees to commit to your organization. At the same time, an inauthentic story could be worse than none at all. In this Idea, six strategies that executives can employ to create, refine and deliver their stories are outlined. Read on to learn more.

Idea Summary

In a popular article published by Harvard Business Review in 1999, the authors proposed that those who use stories as part of their management and strategy technique tend to become team leads, small business innovators, and CEOs. Whether the story is about the “two Steves” of Apple Computers who worked out of Steve Job’s parents’ garage to start a multi-billion dollar company, or of Jamsetji Tata who created India’s Tata Group by buying a bankrupt seed oil mill with a tiny amount of leveraged capital, research has consistently shown that storytelling helps businesses to grow.

This prompted researchers from Ross School of Business and Alberta School of Business to look into what stories are told in organizations, how, why, and with what effect. In their working paper, Lefsrud and Jennings suggest that having someone who is well-trained in the art and science of storytelling can be valuable for organizations. Good stories increase legitimacy and persuade investors to commit to an organization.

They point out that though there is no one formula for a good story, there are certain features shared by better stories. In the best stories, the type of story, the audience, and the storyteller meld together in the telling of the tale. For this reason, the selection of the storyteller is just as important as the story itself. Sometimes, this might be an organization’s clients or investors; for example, social enterprises can create fundraising videos that allow their beneficiaries to tell their stories for themselves.

It is also important to remember that an inauthentic story can be worse than no story at all, and so storytellers must be careful not to veer too far into the incredulous.

Business Application

In terms of how organizations can tell better stories, Lefsrud and Jennings suggest the following:

  • Start with the end in mind: consider what you want to achieve, such an improvement in employee commitment and innovation, an increase in the amount of venture capital you are raising, etc. Work backwards and think about which audiences and types of stories might help you achieve those effects.
  • Consider others’ story designs and delivery: identify speakers who appeal to you and pull apart their stories. Consider why you like them (such as particular mannerisms or tone). Take the best from them and make it your own.
  • Simplify and focus your own story: remember that your audience has a limited attention span, so keep things simple.
  • Create drama: include great characters and a likeable hero with whom your audience can identify. Though the hero might be you, it can be more persuasive if others are the heroes of your stories, such as your clients, your prospects, or someone else — as long as your audience has reason to care about them. Give your characters obstacles and never let them get it right the first time! Instead, demonstrate how they faced these challenges.
  • Have a well-organized absence of meaning: rather than jump straight in, make your audience work for the story. If they are filling in the missing pieces, they become active co-creators of your story and are more likely to buy-in.
  • Test-drive your stories with your intended audiences: stories are based on actions (the protagonist who does something), not ideas. As such, turn your ideas into actions that you can then improve. Get feedback, revise, and reshape.
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Idea conceived

  • November 2013

Idea posted

  • February 2014

DOI number



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