The Sudden Vogue for “Storytelling” in Business

The Palais des Papes in Avignon, France. August 24, 2019.

The Palais des Papes in Avignon, France. August 24, 2019.

In the Palais des Papes in Avignon, France, most of the walls have lost their once elaborate decoration to time, vandalism, neglect, disrespect, and ignorance.

A few walls and corners have hints of paint left. In nooks and just beneath ceilings, you’ll find wall-fresco snippets featuring saints and angels.

The most well-preserved decorative space in the palace pops out of one long side of the dining hall: A chapel dedicated to Saint Martial. Saint Martial, hitherto unknown to me, had pride of place because the Avignon popes credited him with bringing Catholicism to France—legitimizing their presence there and, in a typically Catholic logical leap, foretelling their arrival and their situation of the papal seat in France.

As I read through the descriptions for the frescoed scenes of Saint Martial’s life, I realized that I’d yet again encountered an example of the eternal importance of storytelling.

Side note: Saint Martial resurrected a lot of people. In just the few scenes I saw on the walls, he brought back at least seven people from the dead. He’d have been a good one to know, back in the day.

Storytelling for Convincing

Throughout its recorded history, the Catholic Church has done impressive work creating saints within various regions and communities to build trust and familiarity with the locals and, of course, to win their conversion.

“You have a god that does what?” Father Someone said. “Why, we know him, too! We call him a saint. See! Pretty much the same religion, right? Let’s call you a Catholic.”

Alternatively: “Of course we have the power to do this. Saint So-and-So did something fantastic. How much more proof do you need of our legitimacy?”

Storytelling for convincing goes well beyond the Catholic Church, which didn’t invent storytelling for evangelizing. The Romans and the Greeks and the Celts and the Egyptians and the Etruscans and the Mesopotamians and on and on ad nauseam concocted the most fantastic stories, including deifying their emperors and leaders.

Pharaohs as gods? Caesar as divinely appointed? Beowulf? The Epic of Gilgamesh, even? Of course.

Storytelling helps educate, yes, and it helps persuade. The modern era’s most effective businesspeople, salespeople, fundraisers, marketers, politicians, doctors, healers, spiritualists—and yes, even religious figures—are master storytellers. (And the list goes on.)

What great salespitch—for anything at all—didn’t include a great story?

Finding the Right Business Story

In my role at FrogDog, which involves a lot of sales activity, I’ve had to learn how to tell our story and the story of our work in ways that compel our target audiences. Sales makes a company, after all.

And lately, I’ve noticed that when I speak to people about marketing, people want to talk about storytelling in marketing.

“I need help putting our story together,” says one CEO. “I need help communicating our story,” a sales vice president says. “I need someone who has done amazing work in storytelling,” says the chief marketing officer.

Feverishly concocting and communicating “the right story” suddenly has vogue in business—almost as though the idea of storytelling just hit the scene. Not so much.

The need for entrancing and compelling is a need as old as time. You don’t need to visit the Palais des Papes to know this—yet it can prove a good reminder, as it did for me.

People who can tell good stories are the most important people in the world. And you’ll find them more rarely than you think.