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Business Storytelling: Conversation with Gavin McMahon



Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads the design and product development of fassforward’s services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, culture, decision-making, information design, storytelling, and learning design.


In this interview, Gavin talks about business storytelling and weaving this skill within PowerPoint.


Geetesh: You hear consultants, presenters, and communicators talk about how storytelling helps share a message that the audience will remember and recollect. But is there a difference between business storytelling and other forms of storytelling? Or are they similar? Please share your thoughts.


Gavin: When most people think of storytelling, they think about a creative pursuit: a Pixar movie or a Masterclass from Salman Rushdie. But there’s a fundamental difference between creative storytelling and business storytelling. Perhaps the best way to explain the difference is to compare the debate between Art and Design. For outsiders, Art and Design are synonymous. Once you get into the religious discussion on the distinction, you will hear comments like,

Design is not art. Design has to function.

Or,

Art is meant to provoke thought and emotions, but it doesn’t solve problems.

So it goes with storytelling and the comparison between business storytelling and creative storytelling. Steve Hardwick, fassforward’s CMO, comes from the world that most people associate with storytelling and business — marketing and advertising. In a previous life, he was President of creative agencies like Strawberry Frog and Grey Global. Steve talks about the difference between privilege and production: In the advertising world, creative does not have the artist’s privilege of a blank canvas. They don’t have the writer’s privilege of writing fiction. They have a very defined commercially based exercise. They have to execute. And for people who run agencies and run accounts, it’s a constant battle to get the guys out of art and into business.


The idea, and a phrase I love, is to rearrange the words into a commercially rewarding order.


This is the story business — which we estimate to be about $10 trillion of world GDP.¹

Creative storytelling is pure entertainment. Business storytelling has a targeted outcome. Even brand storytelling — Marketing — has a clear commercial purpose. That’s the essence of business storytelling. It has a commercial purpose. A goal. An outcome. You are usually trying to frame and persuade — to get people on the same page. Entertainment is an essential ingredient. Without it, people lose interest. But entertainment is not the goal of business storytelling. Rather it’s to translate a strategy. To help people understand a process or a product. To sell. It’s for leaders to inspire followers.


Constraints define business storytelling. You will use many of the same tools as a screenwriter or storyboard artist, but you have a different goal — an outcome. And you work in an entirely different reality, with altogether different constraints. It took 14 years for Pixar to finish the Incredibles 2. You don’t have that kind of luxury. Your board presentation is due next week. There are 772 characters in the Harry Potter series, which all came unfettered from the imagination of J.K. Rowling. On the other hand, you have brand guidelines, a business strategy, and a commercial market to constrain you. But don’t despair; constraints help creativity and problem-solving.² They’re a foundation to build on.


Scott Galloway is a best-selling author and professor of Marketing at NYU Stern. He talks about publicly traded “story stocks” like Tesla and Amazon, which have created outsized value compared to their peers through a combination of performance and story. It’s the story that drives the higher multiple because investors believe the story. The story is the truth that emerges from the facts. Galloway builds on this idea of story stocks from his colleague, Professor of Finance, Aswath Damodaran. Damodaran makes the case that “a good valuation is based on story plus numbers.”³ He points out the appeal,


Stories are more easily remembered than numbers and connect with human emotions.

Everyone in business needs to learn or relearn how to tell a story. If you are in HR and want to increase employee engagement, you can inspire people with stories. If you are in finance, take a leaf out of Damodaran’s book and use the power of story to connect with your investors. In marketing, you are crafting the story. It’s a story of how your product or service makes your hero (the customer) a better version of themselves. If you are in sales, you’re telling the story. It’s a story you have to tell like a joke, over and over again. Each time to a different audience, each time you have to tell that same story your way.


If you are in production, think of yourself as a science fiction writer. You work in innovation and bring something new to the market. You are describing a near future that doesn’t exist — yet. You have use-cases, user stories, and epics to bring that product to life. That’s storytelling. That’s business storytelling.


Geetesh: Gavin, so in this entire gamut of business storytelling, where does PowerPoint come in?


Gavin: With a few notable exceptions, the language of business is PowerPoint. We don’t go off and hunt or forage, come back to the campfire and swap stories. We go to a meeting, or a Zoom call, fire up PowerPoint and start talking.


In our work — coaching and training — we ask people how much time they spend with PowerPoint. And the most popular answer we get back is 40-60% of their time. People are either drafting a PowerPoint, reading a PowerPoint, attaching it to an email, or speaking to a PowerPoint. That’s what white-collar workers do, especially managers, especially in tech, finance, or consulting sectors. So, consider the market cap of your company. Think about how many people you have in that company talking to each other in PowerPoint. How much time they spend doing it? Potentially half the value in your company is mediated through the conversations you have in PowerPoint. When you think about it like that, the importance of those conversations rises. How clear are they? How persuasive are they? How memorable are they?


That’s where storytelling comes in. It’s not just a matter of putting a piece of clip art on a slide or even learning how to put a great deck together. Cumulatively, the stakes are far higher.


Over the years at fassforward— especially in the last few years as consultants, presenters and communicators talk about storytelling — decks being whitewashed. What was called a “deck” in 2019 has been renamed a “narrative” in 2021. But it’s a surface change. The “narrative” (formerly known as “deck”) is still a collection of bullet points, crammed onto slides. Ironically, the only thing that’s changed is what the presenter calls their “deck”. It’s now a “narrative” or “story.”

The good news comes from that comparison between art and design. Art is treated as talent. Design is treated as a skill. Creative storytelling might well be talent. But business storytelling can be learned. It is very much a skill.