Using Stories to Gain Interest and Build Credibility

“Last spring, I had a student in my Writing for Business class whose boyfriend was reprimanded, and two of his male coworkers fired, because they had been emailing about a young woman in the office. The emails weren’t vulgar, mind you; the guys were simply speculating about such topics as what the young woman had done over the weekend. But the company had a strict sexual harrassment policy, and communicating in this way about a female colleague was considered a serious breach. So, no, email is not private—ever. Be very careful about what you say when using your workplace email account, and even when using your own personal account.”

 As I’ve been getting to know my new students this term, I’ve found myself telling stories like the one above every time I want to make an important point or re-engage those students who seemed to be drifting off. The realization reminds me that stories are—arguably, now more than ever—an essential genre for effective business communication.

 I did a lot of reading about stories a number of years ago, and I found that . . .

  • compared to non-narrative prose, narrative seems to be read faster, comprehended more easily, and remembered better.
  • narratives are often more engaging and persuasive than non-narrative prose.
  • narratives usually provide a more detailed record of a discrete occurrence than other modes of discourse.
  • narratives enable a kind of reading that goes beyond information processing. They ask the reader or listener to take the context into account and to pay attention to the human (or, in the case of companies, human-like) characters, not just the “facts.”

People love stories. Some researchers contend that we’re hard-wired to do so. Others explain the phenomenon by pointing to our eagerness to learn from others’ experiences or to see what happens to the “hero.”

Pause for moment to think of all the ways you’ve used stories in your work and seen or heard business professionals use them. They crop up in speeches, sales messages, policy announcements, employment cover letters and interviews, claim messages, explanations to customers and employees, crisis communication, informational reports . . . the list goes on. Telling a good story also serves as the overarching structure or goal for many slide presentations, annual reports, and proposals.

What makes a story good? Daphne Jameson’s article “Narrative Discourse and Management Action”—one of my favorite bcomm articles—provides some answers:

  • It uses or implies a chronological sequence that conveys causal relationships.
  • It is convincing. That is, it has both internal coherence and external “fidelity” (realism, or verisimilitude).
  • It uses appropriate and interesting details.
  • It transcends “the mere stringing together of events” to create meaning. With imagination and careful shaping, a story can link what has happened in the past to current circumstances or to potential future events.

Narrative doesn’t get much explicit play in our textbooks, but it’s an important tool for our students to have in their toolkits. When and how do you teach storytelling in your classes? We’d love to hear.

Sources cited:

Jameson, Daphne A. “Narrative Discourse and Management Action.” Journal of Business Communication 38.4 (2011): 476-511.

Rentz, Kathryn C. “The Value of Narrative in Business Writing.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 6.3 (1992): 293-315.

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