Why Entrepreneurs Should Tell Stories


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In a way, entrepreneurs are radicals.  Like radicals from the 1960’s.  Or free radicals in physics.  They change things.  They flit around.  They push us all to consider an alternative approach or lifestyle or behavior.  The great radical Saul Alinsky once said:

“Most people do not accumulate a body of experience.  Most people go through life undergoing a series of happenings, which pass through their systems undigested.  Happenings become experiences when they are digested, when they are related to general patterns, and synthesized.”

Entrepreneurs are not most people.  But there’s a big risk here.  We move pretty fast, and in that frantic movement we often flit from one task to the next to the next, never stopping to see the trees, let alone the forest.  This matters, because our lack of reflection and synthesis can cause us to run down blind alleys, chase the wrong customers, hire the wrong people and generally screw things up.

If we don’t take some time just to “digest,” these happenings pass right by us and we don’t gain the necessary insights that we could have gained by converting them to experiences.  But how does a “happening” get converted to an “experience?”

Convert Happenings to Experiences With Stories

The solution is closer than you think, and it’s something that comes naturally to you.  The solution is telling a story.  Like a chemical reaction, stories are the catalyst that we humans use to convert happenings to experiences.  The two “chemicals” that stories use to create this reaction are context and emotion.

Provide Context

Context lets people ‘see’ how things relate to each other.  For example, how big is an acre of land?  The fact is, an acre of land is 43,560 square feet.  That’s a fact.  But most people can’t get their head around how big that actually is.  But what if I told you an acre is about the size of a football field without the end-zones?  See it?  Of course.  That’s context.  I had to do a little work to figure out that 43,000 square feet is the size of a football field, but that work paid off because you now really know what an acre is and, most importantly, you’ll remember it.  You won’t remember 43,560. 

Include Emotion

The second chemical, emotion, drives decision-making.  Humans (including prospects, customers and employees) aren’t persuaded by facts.  Think of politics.  Don’t both sides in an election have all the facts? We are persuaded by context and emotion, because almost all of our judgments and decision-making happen in our unconscious.  Daniel Kahneman has written about this (and won a Nobel Prize).  Jonathan Haidt has studied this.  Annette Simmons wrote a whole book about this (Hint: so did I).

Stories are an incredibly important tool that entrepreneurs need to use to connect with prospects and customers, to create a strong culture, to define what works here and what doesn’t, and to create context for the rapid-fire decision-making that is a necessity for growing companies.

Creating Your Entrepreneurial Story

The Situation

Let’s just say that your first hire goes bad, and you suddenly realize the full weight of the wasted time, lost resources and missed opportunities laying on the ground all around you.  That’s a happening.

The Facts

As you pick up the pieces and get back to work, you make a list of “lessons learned:”

  • Don’t hire too fast
  • Check references
  • Assess fit
  • Communicate how things get done around here
  • Be careful

The Story

As you pick up the pieces and get back to work, you talk about it.  You say things like; “I can’t believe I hired Tom.  His resume was stellar, and it looked like he was the perfect fit.  That first day, when he walked in an asked what we wanted him to do first, I thought I was having a nightmare.  It’s like he had no idea that we are all running 1,000 miles per hour and that he was brought in to figure things out, just like the rest of us!  How did we miss that in the interview??  And that was a good day!  The long lunches, the expectation that someone else makes the copies and cleans up…ugh!  What a waste!”

The threads of that experience start to weave together into the story you tell about it.  And that simple story becomes a cultural artifact of your business. 

It becomes the “No More Tom’s” story, and it gets told over and over until it’s part of the very fabric of your company.  

Notice the difference.  The story has a character (Tom).  It has context (you can ‘see’ him not making copies!).  And it has emotion (everyone knows what it feels like to have a nightmare).  

The happening of hiring (and then firing) Tom becomes a story that communicates a lot of lessons and context in one simple, tight, memorable story.

People don’t remember lists.  We remember stories.

If you’re interested in learning how to develop your storytelling skills, I highly recommend these resources:

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Craig Wortmann
Craig Wortmann is the CEO and Founder of Sales Engine, a firm that helps companies build and tune their sales engine(s). He is also a renowned professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. His course, Entrepreneurial Selling, was ranked by Inc Magazine as one of the Best Courses of 2011. Craig published his book What's Your Story?: Using Stories to Ignite Performance and Be More Successful in the same year and continues to speak on the topic of using stories in the sales process.


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