9 Powerful Steps to Storytelling in Business — Brought to Life

Storytelling may feel like something that you reserve for your children at bedtime. I did that too, until I realised it also has enormous value for professionals and leaders in business presentations.

‘Never be boring again’, written by Doug Stevenson is one of my favourite books on public speaking and presentation skills. The title alone makes it one of those books that many of us would probably love to give to someone we know as a Christmas gift. If only we had the nerve.

If you ever need help making a business presentation count, or are interested in storytelling, it’s a book I would highly recommend. It sets out in a very plain, simple and compelling way the most effective means of constructing stories to connect with your audience.

Many speakers have heard the term, ‘The Hero’s Journey’; a phrase coined by the American writer Joseph Campbell. The Hero’s Journey offers a robust structure of storytelling constructed through 17 stages.

Since the 1950’s, Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey has been adapted and modified many times; to the point of reducing it to 12 stages. However, Doug Stevenson presents it in 9 simple steps. These steps have had an enormous impact on storytelling today.

1. Set the scene

2. Introduce the characters (although not necessarily Step 2)

3. Begin the journey

4. Encounter the obstacle

5. Overcome the obstacle

6. Resolve the story

7. Make the point

8. Ask ‘The Question’

9. Repeat the point

The Hero’s Journey is a very powerful path to storytelling, yet many professionals still struggle with it in business presenting.

Storytelling should be easy because every professional already has a huge and diverse repertoire of stories from their personal and business life. Many of these stories can be used to animate an important point and add significant value to their message. These stories range from:

– Childhood experiences where we learned an important lesson

– Customer conversations and experiences

– Challenges at airports or travelling

– Lessons learned in previous jobs or projects

– Relationships challenges, personal and professional

– Significant problems we have endured and overcome

– Unexpected successes

– Something a child, parent or mentor said to us

The list of stories we all have is as long as it is helpful in many situations.

Our job as speakers is to simply find the relevant and powerful ones. The key to successful storytelling is finding the stories which demonstrate a point in a colourful and compelling way.

Understanding theory is one thing but applying those steps in a functional and useful way is often another.

Here is an outline of one I often use when presenting and speaking on leading change.

Please replace the content with your own.

Step 1 Set the scene

A number of years ago I was leading a team of 300 people in a brand new operation in the North West of England. It was one of 7 regional offices in the UK and was one of the best performing in the country across every key measure. 250 miles away in the South East of England, was an identical regional business, twice the size yet it had the poorest performance across many of the same measures.

Step 2 Introduce the characters (although not necessarily Step 2)

One day I received a call from the Vice Chairman of the business; a rather somber man with an excruciatingly demanding intellect and manner. He called to congratulate me on my performance in the North West and asked me to relocate to the South East.

His entire tone and demeanor suggested it was more of an instruction than a request. He explained to me that the business in the South East had lost its way entirely and was failing miserably across many measures. It faced closure if they were unable to secure a swift and radical improvement. He explained that they had tried everything they could without success to turn the business around. Given our success in the North West, the Vice Chairman shared his hope that I may be able to do something to save it.

Step 3 Begin the journey

The next thing I knew I was in the South East leading a 600 strong team as I paced incessantly through every single department. Full of energy, enthusiasm and ideas I was on a mission. I needed to quickly find out exactly what we needed to do to save the operation and turn it around completely.

Thankfully, the answers seemed fairly obvious.

Step 4 Encounter the obstacle

The answer may have been obvious but the journey was far from easy.

It became immediately apparent that the business had developed what I called its very own ‘Yes But’ culture. It didn’t matter where I went or who I spoke with, I noticed that whenever I or anyone else proposed a solution, idea or opportunity, someone else killed it stone dead in an instant. They killed the idea with the fatal words Yes But.

Yes But… we’ve tried that and it didn’t work.

Yes But…that would never work here.

Yes But… that may work in the North West but you’re in the South East.

Yes But… if we do that…

Yes But… you don’t understand

Yes But… that would never work becuase…

My job was to save the business and I was failing miserably all because of two words ‘yes but’.

Step 5 Overcome the obstacle

I was left with no choice, I had to disrupt the status quo and I had to do it quickly.

I invited all 600 staff to the local theatre. I presented them with a compelling vision and strategy for the business whilst making our current position perfectly clear.

I explained the seriousness of the ‘Yes But’ culture I had witnessed and how it was crippling the operation.

I handed each member of staff in the auditorium a white rubber stress ball with the words ‘Yes But’ printed on one side of it in big black bold letters. Those two words, Yes But had astriking red cross through the middle of them, crossing the words out.

On the other side of the ball were the words ‘Yes And’.

I asked everyone to promise me that they would each take their balls back to work with them and keep them with them at all times. I requested that they each became highly vigilant listening out for those words in our business. I suggested that whenever they overheard anyone, regardless of status or position use those deadly words ‘Yes But’, that they take their ball out of their pocket, handbag or desk and to throw it at the offending ‘Yes Butter’ as hard as they could.

Step 6 Resolve the story

For 3 months there were balls flying everywhere.

Ironically, there was even a moment in a management meeting in my very own office where I incredibly ‘Yes Butted’ an idea from our human resources manager. Needless to say I deservedly became the victim of 7 high velocity stress balls from my own management team. Even I had been sucked into the debilitating ‘Yes But’ culture myself and had to pay the price.

It would only happen the once though, I knew I would never make the same mistake again.

After 3 months the missiles gradually began to subside. Within 12 months we not only saw a complete turnaround in performance but were in the top 3 high performing regional operations in the country.

Step 7 Make the point

As the new leader I thought my job would be relatively easy. After all, I simply had to focus on the solutions, find them and implement them. I was wrong, the solutions were already there; everybody knew them and they had always been there.

What the business needed wasn’t more solutions but a serious pattern interrupt. It needs something that would visibly challenge the status quo and unleash the potential in the business that had been stifled for so long.

Those two simple words had paralysed a business of highly intelligent, talented and responsible professionals. Once we got people to literally see, feel and understand that, everything changed; everything.

Step 8 Ask “The Question”

How about you?

Has anything like this ever happened to you?

Have you ever been caught up in the status quo?

Are there two words or a habitual sentence holding you back?

Is there a pattern that needs to be interrupted or something in your culture that needs to change?

Step 9 Repeat the point

As leaders we are often focused heavily on results and solutions and that’s great. It’s a key part of what we are paid to do, after all. Although when things aren’t going our way,we need to focus on the patterns and find the words or behaviours that are really holding us back.

We then need the creativity and courage to help our team to break and change that pattern of thought, mindset or behaviour.

We all have powerful stories to tell Stories that can really help us to connect with our audience and lead them to feel something that will inspire the change we want to see.

Stories are everywhere and as we demonstrate in our presentation skills courses we can use them through these 9 steps to illustrate a point about:









……………..You fill in the blank

If you are presenting soon and need a little help with storytelling:

– Book yourself onto a powerful public speaking course.

– Invest in some really good one to one public speaking coaching.

– Get yourself some excellent presentation training

If this article has inspired you to learn a little more about how effective your presentation skills are you may want to take a look at our presentation training and public speaking coaching pages to see how we may be able to help you. You will also find a great deal of really helpful ‘free’ information in our Learning Centre.

Please don’t reserver storytelling purely for your children at bedtime.

Image: Courtesy of iStock.com



Author, speaker, trainer, presenter - former corporate executive passionate about personal leadership, people and results.

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Maurice DeCastro

Author, speaker, trainer, presenter - former corporate executive passionate about personal leadership, people and results.