Storytelling is a crucial skill that leaders use in a variety of business situations. Accomplished leaders employ storytelling to improve interpersonal relationships, communicate strategy and build culture. From an operations perspective, storytelling is a skill that empowers leaders to create common ground among teams, unleash the drive and passion of their people and share a vision for the future.

Likewise, storytelling plays a vital role in engaging external stakeholders. To raise capital and acquire investors, you need to tell a compelling story about how your company will create value and why your strategy will be a winning one. If you want the media and other influencers to spread positive news about your products and services, you must articulate a story detailing the unique benefits you provide. The ability to tell a convincing story about your company’s purpose and the social good you generate is essential to recruiting the next generation of top talent to your organization.

How to Create Engaging Stories

Consider the following tactics:

Clarify your intent in telling the story to a particular audience up front.

Your purpose should determine your content. First, define the impact you seek by telling your story. Then share an early draft with a friend or colleague. Their feedback will help you decide if your account provides too much detail or too little. Did your main message come through to your listener? Which part of your story had the most significant cognitive or emotional impact? You may learn that rearranging or removing story elements will improve understanding or enhance the emotional impact.

Storytelling in Business
Learn more about tactics to create engaging stories in the Darden Business Publishing technical note

Center your story on a transformation.

Stanford Business School’s JD Schramm asserts that “every good story charts a change — even a subtle one — in the conditions, attitudes, actions or feelings of the characters.”1  Typically, the more details you provide to describe the change experienced by your story’s protagonist, the wider the window you create for your listener to connect with your story.

Develop opening hooks to capture your audience’s attention.

Audience engagement is usually highest at the start and conclusion of a speech. Consider starting your story in the middle of the action without any lead-in. By setting a dramatic scene from the start, you can immediately grab your audience’s attention. Schramm refers to this technique as “parachuting in” to your story.2

Structure your story as a journey.

Once you have gained your audience’s attention, you want to keep it. TED Founder Chris Anderson recommends framing your narrative as a journey and giving the most careful attention to where it will start and where it will end.3  This framework can easily include multiple plot twists that help build suspense through your tale. Also, using a simple journey structure can help a storyteller from losing their place during their performance.

Create doors for the audience to enter your story.

One way to do this is by asking rhetorical questions. For example, if you tell a story about a dog, you might ask, “Who here has a dog or a favorite pet?” Besides establishing common ground between the storyteller and the audience, questions can:

  • Evoke memory (“Can you recall a time when you felt completely alone?”)
  • Stimulate the imagination (“What would it be like to live in a world where no one goes hungry?”)
  • Fuel an emotion (“How does it feel when someone cuts in front of you in line?”)

End with a bang!

What is the last thing you want your audience to experience before you leave the stage? What is the last thing you wish to say, and how do you want to say it? The way you conclude can be enormously powerful. Too many speakers conclude by saying something like, “Um … so that’s it.” In rushing their ending, they fail to maximize their impact. Your conclusion is a perfect opportunity to emphasize your key message or urge your audience to take a course of action.

Own the moment!

The preceding is excerpted from Darden Professor Brian Moriarty’s technical note Storytelling in Business (Darden Business Publishing).

  • 1JD Schramm, Communicate With Mastery: Speak With Conviction and Write for Impact (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2020).
  • 2Ibid.
  • 3Chris Anderson, “How to Give a Killer Presentation,” Harvard Business Review, June 2013.
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About the Expert

Brian Moriarty

Assistant Professor of Business Administration

Moriarty is an authority on public trust in business, communicating with stakeholders and business ethics. He teaches in the Management Communication area at Darden, where he previously served as an adjunct lecturer and director of the Institute for Business in Society. Additionally, he served as director of the Business Roundtable Institute for Corporate Ethics, an independent business ethics center housed at Darden.

From 2011 to 2014, Moriarty was selected one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior by Trust Across America. He is co-editor of the book Public Trust in Business, and his articles on public trust in business and government have been featured in publications such as The Washington Post and Forbes.

B.A., Boston College; M.A., Wake Forest University; Ph.D., University of Virginia