Three Ways to Botch Your Business Storytelling

Storytelling is only a tool. Powerful, for sure, but still just a tool. And like any tool in your business mix, it must be honed, practiced, and properly employed. Bad storytelling can hurt you nearly as much as good storytelling can help.

Here are three common business storytelling mistakes that are guaranteed to fail:

Mistake #1: Focus first on you and your fabulousness

You’ve spent a lot of time and money becoming the success that you are. It’s only natural that everyone will care – that they’ll admire you and seek you out, if only you dramatically tell the story of your success and your offerings. Right?

Here’s the hard truth: Other people don’t care about you, your business, or your people nearly as much as they care about themselves. So don’t tell stories based on your interests, tell stories about theirs.

For storytelling to capture hearts and minds, it needs to be fashioned first to resonate with the values that the other person holds dear. Start by thinking about what they aspire to. Talk about something that demonstrates your deep understanding of where they suffer pain, and where the world holds them back. The resolution comes in how you ease their struggles and help them accomplish their dreams. Only then, when they care, can you pivot to what you’ve got to say.

Mistake #2: Make yourself the hero

In 1949, a professor named Joseph Campbell introduced the concept of the “Hero’s Journey,” based on his study of ancient mythology and literature. It describes a universal story architecture in which a hero embarks on an unexpected adventure, defeats evil, and returns home to a world transformed. Modern stories such as Star Wars and Wonder Woman are built on the same arc.

The hero concept is appealing, of course. But beware the temptation to assume that you are heroic. I regret to inform you: You are never the hero.  

Sadly, you don’t get to be Luke Skywalker. However, you might play the part of Obi-Wan Kenobi quite nicely. In the framework of the epic story arc, there’s always a mentor or a guide – the key player who shows the hero the way to success.

If you’re telling a business story, remember: your customer is the hero. That’s the journey you need to care about.

Mistake #3: Turn your buzzwords into stories

Everyone needs to hear your catchphrase, tagline, or possibly even your mission statement, no?


It’s not that these things don’t matter; in fact, they are critical. But they’re not stories, they’re end states. Think of them as stars in the night sky that guide your business to its ultimate purpose. Stories are the accounts of the journeys people take that resonate with that purpose. They’re grounded in physical experiences. They’re filled with people, places, and problems.

For example, Microsoft’s mission statement is to “Empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” Taken literally, it is almost meaningless. Yet Microsoft is wise enough to not plaster it all over its marketing communications. Rather, as Chief Storyteller Steve Clayton recently told me, the company uses the statement as a challenge to its workforce, including its communicators.

This led to a wildly popular 2019 Super Bowl ad, about a new product called the Xbox Adaptive Controller. It beautifully told the story of a bunch of wonderful kids who just happened to have disabilities, and who could now join the world of gamers as full participants – because of the product.

It was a profoundly memorable story that brought the company’s mission to life. Where are yours?