Business and the Art of Story Telling

How corporate leaders are using an ancient form to tackle modern business challenges

by Robert McKee

Mr. McKee has given TRUE TALK: STORY-IN-BUSINESS lectures to organization as diverse as Microsoft, Nike, Hewlett-Packard, Time Warner, BOLDT, Law firms, Incoming MBAs, Think Digital Festival, Wells Fargo Bank, in other marketing and advertising festivals and agencies to develop their evolving narrative game plans. For more information, please visit or contact us at [email protected].


The Boldt Company builds mammoth construction projects: power plants, hospitals, educational and industrial complexes.  But before Boldt can build, it must win bids.  In the past, its bid team, working in the time-honored way, pit Boldt’s numbers against its competitor’s numbers.  Their win rate was one in ten.

With some coaching, the bid team soon mastered the craft of turning data into drama creating a story-driven bid entitled “Boldt Builds”.  This new pitch stars Boldt on a heroic quest for engineering excellence, fail-proof scheduling, transparent costings, sustainability, and worker safety.  The Boldt quest climaxes with an on-time, on-budget, owner-ready facility that’s lawsuit-free and aesthetically inspiring.  Thanks to Boldt’s new bid-with-a-story strategy, the company’s win rate jumped from 10% to 50%.  In this year’s ranking of America’s top 100 construction companies, Boldt vaulted over 20 places.

Mastering the purpose-told story

What’s true for Boldt is true for every corporation in the world today.  Beyond sales and bids, business leaders must master the purpose-told story for all strategic tasks, not the least of which is branding.  Brand equals reputation.  As goes your reputation, so goes your fate.  If you don’t control your story and tell it powerfully, others will tell it for you with less than flattering results.  Fair or unfair, stories shape corporate futures.

Leading with story is not a new tactic.  Study after study documents how well-told stories fuse bonds of interest and empathy between teller and listener that trigger money-making results.  Today’s customer-centric firms use the heat of story to weld themselves to their clients.  Instead of wasting money on lavish marketing campaigns, media-savvy innovators lead with a story, make their client’s experience a pleasure-filled story in itself, then let word-of-mouth do their marketing for them as satisfied customers take to social media to tell and retell their tale.  This is priceless marketing…literally.  As a result, story-in-business is all the rage…in the media.

But not in reality.  The vast majority of corporate leaders working in this super-competitive world do not tell story.  They strategize with numbers, not narrative.  Pinioned by excruciating demands on executive time and attention, few trust story, and almost no one uses it to make critical decisions.  Why?  Why is story strategy still more theory than practice?

Here are several reasons:

  •  The Tyranny of Time.  Data is quick.  A flick of an eye to the bottom line–point made.  But a powerfully persuasive, purpose-told story needs time.  Purpose-told stories do far more than entertain.  They trigger an action in the listener: a purchase, an investment, a job well done.  A purpose-told story needs talent, imagination and time to conceive, create and hone to its audience.  Time is a luxury few executives can afford.
  •  The Impersonality of Data.  We’ve all seen public speakers stumble over a story written for them by a speechwriter.  They mumble because the tale is so foreign to their heart, their mouth won’t let it out.  To tell a story effectively, you must own it, feel it, spill your guts into it.  Few executives have stories they care to spill.
  •  Storytelling Naiveté.  Because people consume thousands of films, TV, plays and novels, they think they know how to storytell.  Because they’ve got a clip or two on YouTude, they think they’ve actually done it.  But that’s like thinking that because you sing along to your CDs, you can compose music.  Fact: most people cannot tell story worth a damn.  More often than not, the “…and then and then and then…” of the self-proclaimed raconteur is not a story at all but just a boring recitation of how he repainted his boat.
  •  The Rhetoric Habit.  From junior high through grad school and on into our careers, we have been trained to think and write from the specific to universal.  We habitually compose business presentations and reports following the principles of inductive logic.  We build data, statistics, quotes and evidence point-by-point to a proof.  But, as philosopher David Hume pointed out, inductive logic simply reflects the human penchant for taking relatively limited experiences to unreliable conclusions.  This, nonetheless, is how we were trained; induction is our habit.
  •  Business envies science.  Science turns inductive logic into the Laws of Nature; business longs for an equally rigorous method to create the Laws of Commerce.  Because storytelling behaves like art and not science, it seems too wobbly to trust.
  •  Fear of Embarrassment.  Ever tell a joke and nobody laughed?  Telling story always risks embarrassment and who wants that?
  •  The Prudence/Passion Debate.  Prudence conserves money; passion risks it.  Have you ever noticed that when companies start losing market share they suddenly fixate on prudence and obsess over competition and compliance, whereas companies on the rise embrace passion and focus on complexity and change?


On the other hand, undisciplined passion greases the track to bankruptcy.  For that reason, the money-conscious personality distrusts emotions for fear they warp decision-making.  The prudent executive might use an anecdote to open a meeting with a laugh, but calm must be restored before taking a vote. Inversely, detachment also distorts decision-making.  Avoidance of emotion equals avoidance of humanity, and is therefore ruinous to leadership.

When the business mind steps back to take an all-inclusive view, it realizes that to make sense of this chaotic world, it needs a balance of both factuality and narrative.  Data recites robotic recordings; only story speaks in a human voice.  Data is meaningless until interpreted in story form.  Stories radiate the deeply felt meanings that equip entrepreneurs to sell ideas, manufactures to sell product, providers to sell service.  Despite all the reasons listed above, the executive must overcome resistance to story and learn how to use it.  Because if you can’t tell, you can’t sell.