What if you could rewrite history

What is storytelling?

Storytelling is the telling of stories. This is how information is conveyed - and emotions. Good stories inspire, captivate and carry you away. They breathe life into cold, bare numbers.

Storytelling has its home in literature and films, in fables, myths and fairy tales, in journalism and in political speeches. As business storytelling, it is used for leadership, in branding, marketing, advertising, PR or corporate communication. The origins of storytelling go back 200,000 years, say ethnologists, and it was created over the campfires of our ancestors. The most technically complex forms of storytelling today take place on the Internet (New York Times Feature Snow Fall) or in a holographic game environment (e.g. fragments for Microsoft Hololens).

What is a story?

The short formula looks like this: story = figure + predicament + desired liberation.

A story consists of three parts, which can be described in the simplest form as beginning, middle, and end. Or maybe a little more precisely: initial situation, complication, resolution.

Example of Odysseus

Initial situation: The Greek hero Odysseus wants to go home from Troy.

Complication: He has the sea god Poseidon as a powerful opponent, who wants to prevent the journey home. So Odysseus gets into a series of adventures.

Resolution: Odysseus successfully survives all adventures and returns to his home country after ten years.

That can also be described in much more detail. This is how the Hero's Journey does it, a structure developed by myth researcher Joseph Campbell in the 1950s to describe the course of a story. In fact, and, more importantly, along an emotional fever curve. You can find an example of this in my blog post on The Hero's Journey.

Business storytelling follows the same rules. It's about using stories to generate attention, to convince people, to get them to do something. In short: it's about action. Every story in business storytelling has a goal.

Three examples of business storytelling


A story can aim to introduce a new innovative product.

With the introduction of the iPhone, Steve Jobs' presentation followed the following three-step process: We looked at the so-called smartphones. We didn't like them, all of them difficult to use (initial situation). We accepted the challenge of building a smartphone that is very simple and reduced, but can still do a lot more. Wasn't that easy (complication). We made it anyway, here it is (resolution).


A story can tell about the founding of a start-up.

Initial situation: We, the founders, Joe, Nathan, Brian, shared an apartment. Complication: The rent was increased, we could no longer afford the apartment. Denouement: We rented a room with an air mattress and breakfast, which gave us the idea for Airbnb.


A story can aim to convey corporate values ​​and guidelines in such a way that they stick in the mind as a role model for one's own actions.

Amazon has a number of leadership principles. One of them is called frugality, the targeted use of resources. The story that is told is very short: The desk of the company's founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is an old door on two trestles. Every employee tells himself the detailed story when he thinks about investments.

Initial situation: My area is going well, but I need more people. Complication: Do I really need this if Jeff is happy with an old door, the door that he used back in 1994 to start what is now one of the largest digital companies in the world? Isn't it more about the start-up spirit from back then, which the door symbolically embodies? Can't I achieve the same goal with fewer people? Jeff was alone then. Resolution: new concept that e.g. allows the same number of employees to achieve the goals through the use of technology.

What are the ingredients of a good story?

A story - whether in business or in a fairy tale - has a simple set of ingredients:

  1. A hero. The audience should be able to identify with him.
  2. A target. The crucial questions are: Why am I telling this story now? What do I want to achieve with it?
  3. A conflict. It arises from resistance that prevents the hero (and his team or company) from achieving the goal.
  4. A dramaturgy. It can be represented in a three-act scheme - initial situation, complication, resolution. The seven basic plots also provide a good orientation.
  5. A resolution. How is the conflict resolved and what do we learn from it?

What is the truth of a story?

Every good story contains an individual insight in which many people recognize themselves. It seems paradoxical: the subjective, small world opens our eyes to the big questions in life. It shows how values ​​and meaning are understood in our day. Not by saying: This is valuable, not that, but by revealing it through the development of a character in a particular situation.

An example: Two cars are driving on a country road. A junk box and a shiny Porsche. At the wheel are an illegal African immigrant and a successful surgeon. Around a bend, they see a school bus full of children spinning out of control. Let's say the bus starts to burn.

Both hold. Does the surgeon think of his sensitive, precious hands, hands that have saved many lives? For sure. But he gets out. He runs to the bus and starts smashing the windows. And the immigrant, she's sure to think about being deported if the police question her later. She could run away. Nevertheless, she stands by the surgeon's side and pulls children off the bus.

In special situations it shows who people really are

Let's imagine the whole thing even more Hollywood-style. A flaming inferno. The skin is peeling off the hands. Do the two continue? What do you do when you know there is only one child left to save, which child will you choose?

In such moments the inner being of people is revealed. And therein lies the truth of stories. It doesn't matter whether it is about helping a colleague with a presentation, offering contra to an unfair boss, working through a weekend to achieve a goal, dealing with the critical feedback from a manager, steering a start-up through a crisis or rescue children from a school bus.

We decide and behind this decision lies a world revealed in a story. This is what makes stories meaningful, especially in business. They enable us to understand who the people we are dealing with are.

How does storytelling work?

Neuroscientists and psychologists have dealt intensively with the effects of storytelling over the past few decades. Their basic idea is the following: In the course of evolution, our brains have aligned themselves to telling, understanding and remembering stories. You are not geared towards crystal clear business logic. Especially not on Powerpoint charts that list facts.

Stories are remembered 22 times better

This was shown by experiments at Stanford University. Students had a minute to pitch an idea. Most used facts, only a few told stories. But the stories were remembered 22 times better, the researchers found. Because they touch us emotionally. Because we take the place of the hero or heroine in a story.

Stories sell 2-5x better

Experiments at Stanford University also showed that stories sell at least twice as well as pure facts. This was tested with calls for donations. The ideal combination is facts plus story. So says storytelling guru Robert McKee, who claims that his customers sell 5x better when they use stories in sales and marketing. One of the reasons for this is that we release the hormone oxytocin when we hear stories. Oxytocin makes us empathetic. Experiments by neuroeconomist Paul Zak have shown that the higher our oxytocin levels, the more we donate.

In my book Tell Me! As you convince with storytelling, I will go into an experiment that goes far beyond this sales success. It's about a factor of 27 - a price for a product is increased by a factor of 27 with storytelling. Sounds unbelievable? Indeed. The story of the experiment got the following heading in the book: “Voodoo for advanced learners: Selling without selling”.

How can storytelling be learned?

Through practice. And imitation. Barack Obama is a great storyteller. Steve Jobs. Sheryl Sandberg. Check out videos of these heroes strategic storytelling.

At the same time, it is about consistently applying the elementary principles of storytelling. Even if it takes time and a business presentation has to be given. About half the time of a presentation should be spent working on the story. Storytelling needs attention.

But anyone who has learned to move successfully in the world of stories will find that it is timeless and works equally well all over the world. With words, with pictures, with videos. The contents of the stories may change, but the few basic forms remain the same.

What role does storytelling play in your own story?

Storytelling is a great support when it comes to telling your own story convincingly. Narrative psychology is dedicated to researching this topic. The basic idea is that I keep rewriting my own story, looking to the future and looking into the past. The goal? Whatever we strive for: happiness, success, achievement, knowledge, adventure.

Life stories are constructions. As storytellers, we have the power to influence the script of our lives, our relationships and friendships in our family or company in the best possible way. It's not about building cloud cuckoo homes, but rather drawing life plans that inspire, encourage, delight. Encourage others to become part of our story because it offers enough space and opportunities for them to develop. In the job this is a fundamental requirement for success - for salespeople, for project managers, for professors or politicians

There is an exciting essay by Juli Beck that summarizes the findings. A central tool that every storyteller should know is the golden circle, it helps to get to the core of a story.

Example: Drew Houston, founder of Dropbox

Houston says that if he could have slipped a life's cheat sheet on his 22-year-old self, it would have contained three things: a tennis ball, a circle, and the number 30,000. The tennis ball represents the passion and obsession with something, like a dog that keeps bringing the ball back. The circle tells the story of you and your friends that you should never neglect. Everyone needs these connections to be happy. The 30,000 stands for the number of days we live on average. It's about thinking over and over again that every day counts.

When is storytelling strategic?

How to tell a story correctly The answer to this is storytelling. How do I tell the right stories? The answer to this question is strategic storytelling. It's about having a feeling and a guideline for the stories that a company really needs to achieve its goals and get closer to its vision. No matter in which area.

Anyone who deals with it will quickly notice that it is precisely these stories that everyone needs in order to describe themselves well. Personal marketing and strategic storytelling are very close.

What does strategic storytelling bring you?

There is this wonderful sentence from management author Peter Drucker: "As soon as you advance even one step from the lowest level, your effectiveness depends on your ability to reach others through their spoken and written word."

Strategic storytelling increases your efficiency by providing the means to reach and move others successfully in speeches and presentations, in emails or statements. Your specialist knowledge alone will not be enough, it is also about successfully conveying it.

As a manager, it is important first of all to get a feel for how powerful storytelling is as a communicative tool. How efficient. How sustainable. It's very easy: try the tips I give on this website.

Know-how and long will decide. When Pixar showed an early version of Toy Story less than a year later, Disney got cold feet. That was nothing yet. In the end, the film turned out to be a blockbuster. “The first draft of anything is shit,” says the writer Ernest Hemingway.

Why do I get excited about this topic?

I firmly believe in the power of storytelling. Good stories change the world by inspiring action. They enable us to cross borders. To make a new or changed reality tangible. It worked the same way for Apple as it did for Pixar. And I'm sure Steve Jobs would have used the power of storytelling in any other company just as virtuously.

In my opinion, storytelling should always be strategically aligned in a company context, so it has a horizon and is never an end in itself.

The same is true in personal marketing. It's not about drawing a beautiful picture of yourself that others fall for. Rather, it is about clearly locating yourself: Why do I do what I do? Who is it good for? The starting point is always the respective purpose.

Photo: © ostill / 123rf.com