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Practice Responsible Storytelling: 5 Guidelines for Telling Stories in Business Presentations



Business Stories Need to Have a Point

by Kelly Vandever

I’ve done a few posts encouraging you to include stories in your business presentations.  Stories can be very powerful in making a connection with your audience and to increase retention of your key points.

But it’s important that you practice responsible storytelling!  Here are five guidelines to help!

1.  You Need to Have a Point to Your Story

Following one of my sessions on developing stories to use in business presentations, one of the audience members came up to me and said “I used to think I hated stories.  Tonight I realized why. My first boss used to tell stories all the time, but he never had a point!  No wonder I hated stories in business.  Now I see how stories can really help an audience – if the stories have a point!”

Don’t tell a story just for the sake of telling a story.  Use the story to make a point for your audience and help them understand.

1a.  Make Your Point Obviously

I recommend being explicit in making the point.  I’ve stopped thinking that I’m such a great communicator that the audience will automatically get my point.  I tell the audience the point of the story and how it relates to the rest of my content.  I believe most business presenters need to do the same.  Business audiences are busy and distracted.  Do what you can to make it easy for your audience to follow along.  Make your point clearly.

Tighten Up Your Stories2.    The Longer the Story, the Bigger the Payoff Needs to Be

I originally learned this lesson when taking a class in stand up comedy.  (If you’re curious, here’s my graduation routine from the class.)  We learned from our instructor, the marvelous Jeff Justice, that we needed to make the joke as tight as possible.  The longer the joke, the bigger the payoff needs to be.

The same is true of stories in business presentations.  Business audiences want to spend their time wisely.  If your story starts to sound like the script from a movie, you risk losing your audiences to the demands of their workday.

So keep stories tight.  Remove any information that doesn’t help the audience understand the stories…with the following exception…

Use Names and Other Specifics3.  Use Names and Other Specifics

While above I said to keep the stories as brief as possible, you do want to add names and other specifics related to the people and situations in your stories.

By providing names and specific information, you make your story more real, more believable to your audience.  Your audience will trust your message more when it feels more real.

3a.  If You Don’t Want to Use Names to Protect Anonymity, Give Other Types of Specifics

Sometimes you don’t want to include names.  Maybe you don’t want to embarrass the person that the story is about or it’s related to client and you want to respect their privacy.

In those situations, give other specifics.  For example, if I describe a product manager from a banking software company headquartered in the northeast, I haven’t told you who I’m talking about, but you get the sense that the person I’m describing is real.  If I mention the manufacturer of large industrial vehicles, again, I’ve given you some details, without revealing the name of the company.

Find a way to describe the person or organization in a way that provides specifics, but leaves the person or organization anonymous.

Use the Hero's Journey Framework to Tell Your Business Story4.  You Don’t Have to Be the Hero of Every Story

There’s nothing wrong with telling stories that make you look good.  You want to do that with the majority of your stories.  But if you really want to connect with your audience, consider these two alternatives when you’re not the hero…

4a.  Let Someone Else Be the Hero of the Story

This hero could be a co-worker or the person who taught you an important lesson.  Let someone else come out looking like the hero, rather than yourself.

4b.  Tell Stories Where You Don’t Look So Good

When you tell stories where you messed up, audiences love it.  They appreciate that you’re willing to be vulnerable with them.  It shows your human side.  That you too can learn from your mistakes.

You don’t want to tell only stories where you look bad.  You want to convince people with your message so don’t want to only tell stories when you’re a loser.  But be willing to be vulnerable with your audience and show them that you don’t take yourself so seriously.

Use Unrelated Stories to Help You Make Your Point5.   Stories Can Be Unrelated to Your Topic

I heard once about a CIO who was trying to explain to the CEO and CFO why she needed to replace all the computer servers at the same time.

She told them about years ago when she bought her current house with an unfinished basement.  “We decided to finish the basement.” she said, then went through some of the details – they had to put up drywall and wire the electrical, etc.  They also had to screw in light bulbs into all the overhead lighting.  “Now that a couple of years have passed, we’re noticing all the lightbulbs are starting to go out all at the same time.”

“That’s what we have here with our computer servers,” she explained.  “They all went in at the same time and they’re all going to start failing at the same time.  We can’t afford to have that happen.  We need to replace them all.”

Her request was granted.

Stories make great analogies to help make your point.  It’s ok to tell a story that is not related to the business issue you’re discussing.  You can just use the story to help you make your point.

Stories – The Business Presentation Differentiator

Stories are a powerful way of connecting with your business audience.  Audience members will remember your story and they’ll remember you because of your story.

Take a risk and tell personal stories to stand out in business when you present.

What’s Missing?

What other pointers do you have when telling stories in a business context?  We’d love to hear your ideas below.






Kelly Vandever is a leadership and communications expert who helps leaders and organizations thrive in today’s attention-deficit, entertain-me-now, wait-while-I-post-that-on-Facebook world.   Connect with Kelly and discover how opening up and speaking practically can bring you better business results. 

Contact Kelly by phone at 770-597-1108, email her or tweet her @KellyVandever.




  1. […] “Business audiences want to spend their time wisely.  If your story starts to sound like the script from a movie, you risk losing your audiences to the demands of their workday.” Read her full article here. […]