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Storytelling is the key to good business writing

Veit Etzold is an author and program director at the European School of Management and Technology
The more abstract the product, the more important it is to make it more palatable by wrapping it in a compelling story

Storytelling is the key to good business communications, says Veit Etzold, program director at Berlin's European School of Management and Technology

Why is it that we can read gripping novels and be captivated by movies until late into the night, but barely skim through financial reports before throwing them in the bin? How often do we find ourselves checking our e-mails and scrolling through Facebook during a PowerPoint presentation? Could it be because the latter lack both plot and tension? Yet it doesn't have to be this way. Mastering the rules of storytelling will prevent your audience being bored to distraction and can prove a powerful business tool.

People love a good story because it is entertaining and captures the imagination. Yet this message has obviously not reached the ears of many corporate writing staff. Every day we are bombarded with boring corporate announcements and snore-inducing reports. Some may argue that it is difficult to present technical information in an entertaining way. But the fact is, the more abstract the product, the more important it is to make it more palatable by wrapping it in a compelling story.

Banking and consulting services are a prime example. An extract from a Commerzbank quarterly report begins: "The first half of 2011 presented a very mixed picture." The Lex column of the Financial Times, however, said: "The ghost of Dresdner Bank has reached out in Germany from beyond the grave, almost dragging its buyer, Commerzbank, into the afterlife with it." Of course, Commerzbank need not write about itself in this way. But it does not need to bore readers or discourage them with tired formulations either. If the story is dull, the company appears dull. As a result, readers do exactly what they would with any other uninteresting text or presentation: they tune out.

Poignant and captivating corporate storytelling is therefore more than simply "nice to have". It is a key strategic tool that can be used to develop stimulating ideas and myths both internally and externally.

When writing a story, the most important part of every message should come at the very beginning. It should compel readers to read on. Publishing houses know that the first sentence of a novel is often a key selling point. A good tactic is to portray the competition as the bad guy, the obstacle you had to overcome to become or remain successful. The struggle between good and evil, together with a happy ending, always makes a good story. This will captivate readers much more — and ultimately make you far more credible — than just emphasising your successes time and again. People simply don't buy into that.

Apple did just this with the phoenix-from-the-ashes story of the late Steve Jobs and its constant battles with the bad guys of Microsoft and IBM. Jobs was the underdog who fought against the IT establishment wearing his signature jeans and black turtleneck. Apple products achieved cult status, largely as a result of this story. And Apple customers have become 'rebels' themselves. It is such an engaging corporate story that it is still bought into, even now that the market capitalisation of Apple is almost the same as that of IBM and Microsoft combined. Powerful stuff, I think you'll agree.

Veit M. Etzold is program director, ESMT European School of Management and Technology in Berlin, and the author of the German thriller novels Dem Tod auf der Spur (with Michael Tsokos) und Das Große Tier. His third thriller is already finished and will appear in the summer of 2012.

Article by Veit M. Etzold


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