To make your business (and life) more interesting, don’t shy away from conflict— embrace it! Then be sure to tell the tale… 

Storytelling is hot with businesspeople. We see firms hiring creatives to tell stories that sell, start-ups being funded on the basis of their stories, and Joseph Campbell’s circular Hero’s Journey projected on the screens of meeting rooms around the world. Still, it seems that most of the business storytelling is uninspiring at best. The reason is a four-letter F-word…

I’m talking about fear. Fear of conflict.

Without conflict, there is no story. The conflict drives the characters and plot forward. Obstacles in our hero’s way create the drama, the suspense, and the tension in the story. Whether the conflict is external (e.g. a bomb is going to explode!), internal (e.g. will she find the courage to express her love for him?) or even in relation to something ordinary (a commute becomes a story when the tram breaks down), conflict breaks the mundane and pulls the hero onto the journey.

“Yeah, but this is serious business”

The thing is, most businesses avoid conflict like taxes. Firms want to be seen as winners who stomp from one victory to the next and systematically execute well-thought-out strategies. Project managers even go as far as saying, ‘a good delivery is a boring delivery.’ Perhaps so, but a good story it won’t make.

Think about your business story. Chances are your customer had an opportunity for which your product or service was the perfect fit, you knew exactly what to do, and in the end, the customer went on to reap limitless benefits.

But have you ever heard a fairy tale where a prince meets a princess and they fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after? Me neither. Not even fairy tales go from win to win to win to bliss—and they’re fairy tales!

Stories run on conflict

In a good story, the hero wants something that’s difficult to get. The hero must take a stand for what he believes in. Not everyone will like this, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s great, because means you have conflict. Businesses often hide the adversity they’ve overcome and, by doing so, take the story out of the story.

With the absence of purpose, values, and direction, there is an absence of enemies, and hence an absence of conflict. Brands that try to please everyone end up pleasing no one and eventually lose the attention and faith of their customers.

It should be obvious by now that your story needs conflict. But you don’t like conflict. You are afraid of making a fool of yourself, or your firm, or beaten to death with a rusty stapler.

Get that rusty stapler away from me!

Here are seven ideas that could pull your business storytelling—and perhaps your life—out of the sea of blandness. In order to do so, you must learn to love conflict.

1. Look up to your heroes

Indiana Jones is a pretty awesome fellow and a true hero, and think about it! When you’re watching an Indiana Jones movie, you see him losing his gun, setting off ancient traps, getting caught by the Nazis… well, you get the idea. He’s not perfect, and that’s what makes him interesting—and not a bit less awesome. It’s the struggle that makes heroes out of normal people (and companies too).

2. Good is not good without the bad

Contrast your awesomeness with your troubles. Make the troubles badder than bad, and show your audience how you lived to tell the tale. The story of getting out from a ten-meter hole filled with sharks is about ten times more interesting than the one about a one-meter hole filled with PowerPoint printouts.

3. Be real and specific

Don’t use vague token conflict, such as “the expectations were high because the board selected this as the key strategic engagement, but using our method we were able to…” Instead, show me what happened, show me the struggles, and earn the payoff. “The chairman threw us out from the board meeting, never wanting to see us again, but we waited for him outside the building…”

4. Use time to your advantage

If you’re in the hole right now, it’s difficult to tell the story—it might be that you will never get out. With the added perspective of time, it’s easier. For example, when Accenture bought Fjord five years ago, mixing radically different cultures was hard, and often painful, but because of the hardship, both are now stronger. We climbed out. Many of our competitors are still in the hole.

5. Ask: What’s the worst that can happen?

One colleague, who gets into this discussion a lot, often asks: “What’s the worst that can happen? You get fired? You lose your friends? You die alone with a rusty stapler in your hands?” Truth is, as Seneca said, we are more often frightened than hurt, and we suffer more from imagination than from reality. And we do possess a vivid imagination…

6. Embrace your vulnerability

A character without a failure is boring and unbelievable. If you have never failed, you’re either leaving something out or haven’t tried anything meaningful. Remember, even Superman has kryptonite. Without kryptonite, you wouldn’t have heard of him.

7. Set up your work so that it could become a story

A good story emerges when someone passionately wants something that is very difficult to get. Companies often want double-digit growth, or to win market share by 2%. Exciting? Meh. Elon Musk wants to have a human colony on Mars. Exciting? Hell, yeah! Grab your BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal), and go after it! Regardless of whether you succeed or fail, at least you’ll have a great story to tell.

There you have it: seven ways to make your business stories (and your life!) more interesting. Will this take your business to the cover of Wired and net you millions? Who knows! But even if it doesn’t, at least you’ll be a better storyteller.

Simply put: make stories, not slides.


This post is a copy of my post in Medium.