Type above and press Enter to search. Press Esc to cancel.

April 22, 2024 | 6 Mins Read

Six Storytelling Missteps That Risk Your Relevance to Employees & Customers

April 22, 2024 | 6 Mins Read

Six Storytelling Missteps That Risk Your Relevance to Employees & Customers


I’m a big believer in the power of storytelling, which will come as no surprise given the time I spend weekly hosting the UNSCRIPTED podcast. But you don’t need to take my word for it; there’s ample evidence of the importance of storytelling in business.

According to UC Berkely Executive Education, stories increase trust and engagement: “Stories engage people on a personal, values-based level. They can also help “humanize” a brand (people connect with other 'people,' not faceless factories), increasing trust and compelling customers and employees to become brand advocates.”

This Forbes article explains that “storytelling refers to the art of crafting narratives that capture the essence of your brand and appeal to your audience. It also involves communicating narratives in a way that is both relatable and memorable.”

Entrepreneur lists 5 Compelling Reasons Storytelling is Crucial to Business Success, including making your brand memorable, differentiating from the competition, and establishing thought leadership.

In the service world, a story is told every time we have an encounter with our customers – whether through words or simply through the actions of what we deliver. I wrote an article a while back prompting our audience to consider, what story is your service telling? But while the experiences we provide tell their own story, leaders (and teams) more and more need to embrace the importance of storytelling and hone the skill.

This is increasingly important because the influence and impact of leaders with employees, and with teams and customers, depends more and more on the ability to truly connect and appeal to a person’s emotions, not just intellect. Being adept at creating those connections is something not every leader has historically had to do; there was more emphasis on exercising control versus fostering trust and creating connections. And with customers, particularly in today’s outcomes-based landscape, the engagement, trust, and differentiation that storytelling nurture are crucial for expanding relationships, evolving business models, and growing revenue.

So, I suppose the first major misstep would be overlooking the importance of storytelling as a crucial skill. But for the sake of this article, let’s assume you understand its importance. Then where do things go awry?  Well, like many of the nuanced topics we discuss, this is one of those skills or artforms that sounds simpler than it really is.

In my interactions, conversations with leaders, and personal experiences, there are some missteps I’ve picked up on that seem to surface over and over again.

#1: Speaking without listening first. Does this sound obvious? Well, yes! But believe me, this is a bigger issue in both internal and external interactions than people want to accept. And there are many reasons why – for instance, we know that knowing our audience is important, but we think we do. Truly, and well (spoiler alert: no, you probably don’t – at least not as well, or as currently, as you think or need to). We know it’s important to listen first, but we don’t have time! We have an initiative to roll out or a number to it, and we just have to do our best with the information we have. There are many complexities that make investing the time to understand your team members or customers as intimately as you need to, but I promise you none are worth skipping or rushing this step. Understanding what’s important to your audience is fundamental to storytelling success.

#2: Using internal narrative externally. This is a trap that is all too easy to fall into; we fail to recognize the ways in which our audience may not find our messaging relatable and tailor it to their viewpoint. Let’s consider a couple of examples. First, when you are leading a change internally – you relay the companywide “why” to your team and expect them to understand the reasoning and accept the change without hesitation. But does that companywide why relate to them in any way? Is it personalized into a story that will help them see how the change helps or is important to them? Or with a customer, you get excited about an innovation or investment you’ve made to help serve them better and then excitedly tell the story, in an internal narrative. “We’ve invested in IoT, and it’s so exciting because we’ll have X, Y, and Z data about your equipment!” How does this benefit them? “We’ve put new technology in place to be able to help predict failures on your equipment and eliminate downtime.” Much better. Same story, but from the perspective of two different audiences. It’s so important!

#3: You lack authenticity. Storytelling is meant to prompt an emotional connection, but if you’re disconnected from the “story,” it’s really information sharing versus storytelling. If you want to appeal to someone’s humanity, share something that sparks not only interest but emotion, or helps build trust, you have to be willing to get personal. You must genuinely care about whatever it is you’re communicating, otherwise your efforts will fall flat. If you find yourself robotically telling a “story,” you need to do some self-reflection on why that is and find a way to either create your own personal connection to what you’re sharing or determine if you can delegate the task to someone who can be more authentic in their delivery.

#4: Your message is boring. I couldn’t think of a nicer way to articulate this, really. Part of the art of storytelling is the energy, the “pizazz.” Simply regurgitating a company message to your employee isn’t storytelling, nor is sharing a blanket company message with zero personality with your customers. Storytelling is more. It’s creative, it’s exciting, it’s emotional. Sometimes boring stems from a lack of interest, which I’d tie back to the previous point on authenticity. And sometimes boring stems from delivery, which can be a factor of feeling like you don’t have enough creative freedom to storytell in your own way, or because storytelling is a skill that you might need to practice or put some effort into. If you aren’t receiving the response you’d like, dig into some further insights around storytelling and see if you can find some areas to work on.

#5: Your delivery is one-dimensional. We have to keep in mind with storytelling that different audiences may prefer to receive messages in different ways. You might be very skilled at a one-to-one, face-to-face delivery, but manage a fully remote team. That’s an issue! Storytelling can be written, it can be verbal, video, and more – and chances are, depending on the message you’re trying to convey, you may need to branch out from just one format. If you’re creating a new offering, yes you need to be able to articulate it well, but you also could likely benefit from some really strong copy on a landing page and some video testimonials to support your messaging.

#6: Your story isn’t appropriately backed by data, evidence, or resources. While the person delivering the story may not be the same person to execute all the follow-through, there’s a real problem when we don’t have actions in place to back up the words we are saying. Consider a change initiative; you tell a good story to get employees bought in, but when they ask what the plans are for training, you don’t have the information. Or with a customer, you position a next-generation capability that piques their interest and then when they ask what use cases are in existence or what a commercial agreement might look like, you have nada. We don’t have to have the final conclusion in mind when we start sharing the prologue, but there does have to be enough meat to the story that we don’t hook our audience in and then leave them hanging. That, unfortunately, can deteriorate trust rather than build it.

I’m sure there are many more missteps we could cover; these are just the few that quickly came to mind. What would you add to the list? And how do you feel about the topic of storytelling in business overall? I’d love to hear!