CXO's Guide to Effective Storytelling in Business

Join CXOTalk Episode #794 with Josh Bernoff, author and industry analyst, to explore storytelling in business. Learn how to write great narratives, based on empathy, for sales, marketing, and persuasive business communications. 


Jun 23, 2023

In Episode #794 of CXOTalk, we explore storytelling in business with Josh Bernoff, a seasoned ghostwriter, industry analyst, and business strategist. Josh explains how stories can drive business success, and how empathy can transform intellectual ideas into emotionally resonant narratives.

This episode presents the challenges technology leaders face in storytelling, the significance of a robust product story, and the universal appeal of visual storytelling. Josh explains how to manage executive bias in data storytelling, crafting stories with data, addressing salespeople's resistance to storytelling, and the foundational role of empathy in effective storytelling.

Topics in this episode include:

Josh Bernoff has been a professional writer since 1982. He has coauthored three books on business strategy, including Groundswell, which was a bestseller. And he is passionate about clear, brief, fascinating communication.

For 20 years at Forrester Research, he wrote and edited reports on the future of technology. He learned to do kick­ass analysis of business strategy, then taught others to do so. In his last five years there, as Senior Vice President, Idea Development, he identified, developed, and promoted Forrester’s most powerful and influential ideas. He gave hundreds of speeches around the world, got quoted in every news source you can name, and gave strategy advice to countless clients from the world’s largest companies and tech vendors. Josh Bernoff also created Technographics, the segmentation that launched Forrester’s highly successful consumer survey business.

At Forrester he edited two books by other analysts: Outside In: The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business (New Harvest/HMH, 2012) by Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine and Digital Disruption: Unleashing the Next Wave of Innovation (Amazon Publishing, 2013) by James McQuivey.

Before Forrester Josh Bernoff spent 14 years in technology startups writing everything from product definitions to online tutorials to press releases. He studied mathematics in the Ph.D. program at MIT and was a National Science Foundation fellow.


Michael Krigsman: Storytelling is essential for everyone in business (if you're selling your ideas, you're selling products, you're trying to convince your team to follow your idea). Today on Episode #794 of CXOTalk, we're speaking with Josh Bernoff. He's an author. He's a famous ghostwriter. It's a funny thing to say you're a famous ghostwriter, but he is. He's a former industry analyst and, most of all for us today, he is an expert storyteller. 

Josh Bernoff: I spent 14 years as a startup executive in the Boston area and then 20 years as an analyst at Forrester. I wrote a book called Ground Swell, along with Charlene Li, another analyst. That sold 150,000 copies.

Since that time, I've been focused on books and stories, working with analysts at Forrester on those. Then, for the last eight years, doing that independently. All that experience is what's in here, Build a Better Business Book, which is how to plan right and promote a book that matters – really a topic for anybody who is going to be writing a book, but especially senior executives need to pay attention to if they want to create influence. 

The power of stories in business communications

Michael Krigsman: Why are stories so important? In your book, you begin the whole book with a discussion about storytelling. Why? 

Josh Bernoff: Stories are what resonates with people. The first time I tried to write a book, I sent the book proposal to the agent we were working with, and he's like, "Well, I can't sell this. I can't sell this." 

I said, "Why not?"

He said, "Well, because business books are made of people and stories, and there are no people and stories in here. It reads like a research report."

Well, I was an analyst. I wrote research reports. [Laughter] 

But at that moment, I thought, "We're onto something. I can do that. I can find people and stories."

Since that time, I have realized that that is essential to communicating any idea is to allow the person reading to put themselves in the position of the person you're describing and say, "Oh, yeah. That's what that felt like. That's what it's like for me." 

"Oh, he did that and it worked? I guess that might work for me."

"Oh, she did that and it didn't work? Hmm... Maybe I should learn from that."

Impact of stories on business success

Companies are stories. You tell a story to every consumer and every employee about who you are and what matters to you. If that story coheres and it resonates with them, you can succeed. And if it doesn't, then you're just a collection of people who happen to be working together right now. 

Empathy translates intellectual ideas into stories with emotional impact

Michael Krigsman: Josh, listening to you talk about your early experience writing a book where you were an analyst, and you were used to writing research, I think many business executives, especially technology-focused ones, come out of that very intellectual as opposed to emotional mindset. And so, there is a challenge in translating our ideas, our intellectual ideas, into stories that convey emotion. How does one go about doing that?

Josh Bernoff: It really is a question of empathy. As to why this matters, I like to cite this little study Dan Heath, the author, did with his students at Stanford. He had some people give a presentation that included some stories and some statistics.

Then later he came back to the students and said, "Do you remember the statistics?" Five percent remembered the statistics.

"Do you remember the stories?" Sixty-three percent remembered the stories, and that just shows you the power here.

Now as far as what CEOs need to do, you're going to be telling two kinds of stories. One is a story about people who matter, like a customer whose life was changed by something that you did or another customer who had problems, and we use that story to help illustrate why we do things one way and not another.

But it also relates to the brands that companies have because every company is a story, and that story basically says, "This customer has this problem. We come along and we offer this solution. The customer uses our product or our service and, therefore, they have a happy ending."

That's certainly the kind of story that marketers tell, but it also motivates employees and everyone else associated with the company to know this is our story. We help these people solve this problem with this product, and then they live happily ever after.

The challenge of storytelling for technology leaders, like CIOs and CTOs

Michael Krigsman: What about folks who are again technology oriented who are used to speaking with other tech folks and in a kind of shorthand? This could be CIOs or CTOs, for example, right? They speak in a kind of shorthand to convey the message, and the expectation is that I'm giving you the information and, therefore, you should act on this information.

Josh Bernoff: The idea that we can reduce everything to some simple and logical set of statistics is, I think, at the root of a lot of these problems that companies have. You don't think Apple could have been where it was now without a story about why it was better. It wasn't just about the products; it was about the story that they told.

Let's just talk about technology products. Before we got on the air, we were talking about Zoom, the video conferencing company. 

Yes, they can tell people about how they're more effective and they work with large companies and small (using the same technology) and how dependable they are. But the story of Zoom is when you need to connect with somebody else on video, it's really easy and it just works. 

Therefore, you can have a relationship with a person you're connecting with on video even if you're not in the same room. Therefore, that's really good for you.

When some other video conferencing company tries to come into, say, a CIO and say, "Well, you should use us instead of Zoom," all the people have heard that. They're like, "No, wait. Zoom is really easy. I've been using it. Well, can't we use Zoom?"

Well, that's because the Zoom story is stuck in their brains. Even if you're dealing with selling technology on a technologist-to-technologist basis, somewhere between that someone is like, "Oh, this just works better and it solves my problem."

The power of a strong product story

Michael Krigsman: But the message "Zoom is simple" or any product is simple and easy, that's kind of a marketing message as opposed to telling a story, right? Or am I not correct in that? 

Josh Bernoff: No, it is a marketing message, but a marketing message is a story. A purpose statement from a company is a story. 

A marketing statement is a story about customers. If this customer uses this thing then they'll be happier. 

When you see a commercial, let's say, the commercial doesn't say, "These things are better for these people." No, they show a person who actually has a problem and then solves the problem. 

That's a story about a person. That's not just a marketing message.

How to tell a memorable story 

Michael Krigsman: What is it then about stories that make them more memorable than facts and figures, as you were describing earlier?

Josh Bernoff: I wish I could completely answer that, but I think that solution is what's deep in people's brains about the way their brains work. We've been telling stories to each other since we were cave people sitting around a campfire, so it's just how people think. 

I mean this comes up specifically in the books that I help people with where, if you have an extremely logical and well-supported, statistically supported, set of information about why this thing is better than that thing, people may read it. They may even understand it. But they won't remember it.

But if you say, "Oh, well, you know, this person had this problem and then they did this and it didn't work. And they did this other thing and it did work. Therefore, it's better to do it this other way," the next thing that happens is they go to somebody else and say, "Oh, yeah. Well, I heard the story about this person who had this problem and they solved it." It's just how people's brains work. 

The power of visual storytelling is universal across cultures

Michael Krigsman: You're really tapping into a fundamental psychological principle or truth of us people.

Josh Bernoff: Yes, it is absolutely part of the human experience. People in India don't solve problems the same way as people in France as people in Japan. But they're all telling stories. [Laughter] 

You can see a television commercial from Japan and get the message even if you don't understand a word they're saying because you see that people are solving problems. That's the story that you remember.

Michael Krigsman: Please subscribe to our YouTube channel. Hit the subscribe button. It's now at the bottom of our website on almost every page, so you can subscribe to our newsletter so we can inform you of upcoming live shows.

Okay, we have an interesting question from Twitter from Arsalan Khan. Arsalan always listens, and he asks very intriguing questions. And so, thank you for listening, Arsalan.

How to handle executive bias in data storytelling 

He asks a hard question: "Data transformation is a part of business transformation, and it requires us to create a story to convey what the data is trying to tell." You must be very experienced with that from your time as an analyst, using data to tell the story.

Now here is his question. "How do you address the challenge of a narrative and story and bias that executives have even before you convey your data story?" You walk into a room with your data story and people have a bias before you even begin. How do you address that?

Josh Bernoff: Basically, you have to fight fire with fire. 

Certainly, executives, we've all heard these stories about how somebody comes in to talk about what the business has to do from a technology basis and the CEO says, "Oh, well, my daughter just learned about this new thing."

You're like, "Oh, no. We're going to have to deal with this," but that's the problem is that the daughter's learned experience is somehow more real to that CEO than all of the data that you've brought. That means that you need to put your own story together. 

How to tell a story with data 

Now a story supported by data is much better than a story by itself, and that very much was what we did at Forrester. We collected lots of data of all different kinds, and then we would use it to support our perspective, which was assembled based on lots of research about the truth. 

But in the end, it all boiled down to, "Well, here's a story that I'm going to tell you about these people who had these problems. Here's how they solved them. Here's an example of somebody who had this issue. And here are some statistics so you know I'm not just making this stuff up."

How to address pushbacks from salespeople on storytelling

Michael Krigsman: Let's jump onto another question from Twitter, another really good one. This is from Carmen Hill. I'll thank Carmen for asking this in advance because I was thinking of the same question.

She says, "I often get pushback (from sales, typically) that storytelling is just marketing fluff, especially in the context of sales emails." She wants to know. She wants an effective response to that pushback.

Josh Bernoff: I love the idea that salespeople are saying, "Oh, this stuff is just marketing fluff." Well, where do sales come from? [Laughter]

Michael Krigsman: [Laughter] 

Josh Bernoff: What's the raw material that they have? You know? It's all coming from the marketing department, so already it's like, "Okay, yes. You can complain and whine about that. But in the end, that's the truth."

Take a look at what marketers typically do assemble for salespeople to use. Among all of the speeds and feeds and the statistics and the product descriptions are case studies. Very powerful. 

It's like, "Here is how we helped General Motors to streamline its supply chain," or "Here is how we used agile processes to enable this bank to respond to its customers 40% faster."

Those case studies matter because then the person on the other end of the sales call is like, "Oh... Well, if they helped this bank, I wonder if they could help me."

How to tell sales stories

If you have those stories, you can succeed. If you don't and the sales guy for your competitor does, they're more likely to succeed.

I guess I'd go... I'm going to make an extreme statement here, which is that any salesperson who is not adept at telling stories about customer success is going to fail because if you can't do that, there's no way the person on the other end of the phone or the other end of the email is going to feel like, "Oh, yeah, this will work for me." 

Role of empathy in storytelling for sales

Michael Krigsman: I totally agree with that. I mean even at the most basic level, explaining how customers are using whatever we sell to support the goals of these customers and to describe audiences that are similar to the folks that you're selling to. Again, I think it comes down to having that empathy that you mentioned earlier because you really have to have a good sense of who am I speaking to and what kind of story will resonate with that person. 

Josh Bernoff: One of the things I want to get at here is to talk about ideas because, in the end, companies that really grow and are really successful are based around an idea. And that idea might be that design is really important in the design of computers, in the usage of computers, or that idea might be you should be able to do everything that you need to do with this bank without ever going into a branch. 

But the ideas are abstract. Ideas can be motivational, but until you actually reduce that to stories, it doesn't resonate. 

Chewy, the pet food company, their idea might be "We know more about pet owners and pets and what they need than anybody else," but you hear a story about how an owner says, "I need to send this product back because my dog died," and then the next thing you hear is that they comp'd the product, told them to give it to the local shelter, and sent flowers to the person. That's what people remember, and they're like, "Oh, yeah. Chewy really does actually understand pet owners."

How to write an effective story for business

Michael Krigsman: All of this begs the question of how do we put an effective story together? What are the components of a great story, an effective story?

Josh Bernoff: At one point when I was at Forrester, I hired a guy named Doug Lipman (who is a professional storyteller) to come in and address the analysts and explain storytelling to them. So, I want you to imagine this guy who was actually known for Yiddish stories, standing up in front of a bunch of technology analysts and saying, "This is how stories work."

All of our research reports, in the end, were stories, and what I learned from him is that the essential things about stories are that they start with people and that things are told in sequence. First this happened, then this happened, then this happened, then this happened, and then this other thing happened.

We're all trained in that from childhood by hearing stories in books and video programs and so on. 

The archetypal business story is, "This person had a problem. This is why it was a problem for them. These are the things that they tried. They tried this, they tried this, they tried this." It has to be in sequence, and then you explain what the knowledge was that they gained and how that worked to succeed with them. 

I'm going to tell you something that I learned from many years of writing business books. If you start a chapter with a story like that, the people will always read from the beginning to the end of the story. They always want to know what happened. Then at the end of the story, you can say anything you want is the lesson of the story and people will nod their heads and be like, "Oh, yeah. Yeah. That's right."

Michael Krigsman: [Laughter]

Josh Bernoff: That's how powerful it is. That's how you get ideas to stick in people's brains. 

Yeah, you're going to back that up and say, "Well, here are some statistics, and here's what an expert had to say. Here's why other alternatives that you think of wouldn't work." But in the end, that story plus the moral of the story is X is what sticks in people's brains.

Michael Krigsman: The basic form: here's the situation and here's why the situation is hard for whoever is the subject of the story. 

Josh Bernoff: Mm-hmm.

Effective stories require details to become real

Michael Krigsman: Here's the way it can be solved in order to fix the problem. Everything turned out, and here's the summary. Here's the moral of the story. Is that the basic structure?

Josh Bernoff: It is. I'm going to mention one more thing, which is detail. 

If you read about somebody in a fiction book, it's like, "Oh, yeah. She had long, flowing hair, and penetrating blue eyes." That doesn't belong in a business story unless it's a story about shampoo, right? [Laughter] But it does help to provide little details that make you empathize with the protagonist of the story.

When I ghostwrote a story about EchoStar, the satellite television company, in one of the books that I wrote about artificial intelligence, the protagonist grew up in an Indian family that spoke Hindi and always watched Hindi television programs on satellite. The fact that he would then grow up to go work for this satellite company becomes a little more interesting because of that. 

Now, in general, ethnic background is not going to matter. But in his case, it was like, okay, here's a little detail that mattered. 

You don't read that and say, "Well, was he tall or short?" That doesn't matter. But the idea that satellite TV was really important to these people and ethnic families and that meant that he had to help the satellite TV company to be successful, that helped to make the story resonate. 

Michael Krigsman: Okay, we have another question. Arsalan Khan comes back again, and he says—

Josh Bernoff: [Laughter] 

Michael Krigsman: I know. He asks good questions, and sometimes they are complicated, but that's good. 

Josh Bernoff: Mm-hmm.

Michael Krigsman: We have to put our thinking caps on. 

Josh Bernoff: Mm-hmm.

Michael Krigsman: Arsalan says, "There are different levels of storytelling. One is conveying your message to customers. Another is conveying your message to employees. Yet another level is connecting these stories together for a holistic view. Are there other levels of storytelling?"

Josh Bernoff: At one point, I wrote a blog post about business books, and I basically said they're like the turtles in that fable. It's narratives all the way down. 

There's an overarching narrative. Each chapter is a narrative. Within that there are separate stories. 

Really, at every level of detail, it's like fractal stories. But these things all do have to come together. 

If the story that you tell customers is, "We're there for you no matter what time of day, 24/7. We can be depended on," and the story that you're telling employees is, "Go ahead and knock off early on Friday because we love you," those stories don't connect up, do they? [Laughter]

You want to be able to inspire everybody with a common story, and that's where a vision and purpose in companies come together. And it's why the individual stories about customers or about problem-solving connect up because they all align along whatever it is that makes the company unique.

Michael Krigsman: Now I want to jump back to something you said earlier. You spoke earlier about case studies. 

Josh Bernoff: Mm-hmm.

How to write an effective customer case study in business

Michael Krigsman: Of course, many, most companies even, write a variety of different case studies. You look on their website. You know, "We're great because of this, and we're great because of that." 

What I see in many of these case studies is the study is not about the customer. 

We can even broaden this to marketing materials and marketing stories in general. It's not about the customer. It's about the company who is doing the selling. 

Instead of having a customer talking, these case studies are really, you know, "Let me extend my arm so I can pat myself on the back and tell you how great we are."

Josh Bernoff: That's pathetic. All of us are programmed to be suspicious of marketing because we've been marketed to since we were small children. So, the more you talk about yourself, the less effective it is. 

I do think you're right. I read these case studies. 

I recently did a ghostwriting project where I had to take case studies that these companies had posted on their site and turn them into stories for a book. I was like, "Oh, well... I need to interview this person because most of what I need is not here." 

If you read an actual Harvard Business School case that the use (that Harvard originated this at Harvard Business School), it starts with something like, "Ellen had only been the CEO for 41 days when this crisis happened, and these things happened, and then she had to make this decision."

You're like, "Okay. I can put myself in the position of that protagonist and say, 'Hmm... What would I do? What can we learn from this?'"

Yet, if you read the case studies that are published on people's websites, it's often hard to do that. So, I'd rather see things that elevate the customer to the point where you can say, "Oh, yeah, that could be me."

I want to mention one other thing here, which is that there's all this anti-woke talk here and people who are upset about diversity, but unless you have some diversity in your case studies, you are going to leave customers behind. If all your case studies are about old white guys and there's a young black woman saying, "I wonder if this product is right for me?" it's an obstacle for her to say, "Oh, yeah. I guess I think just like these old white guys do."

I don't just mean ethnic diversity or gender diversity. I mean diverse industries, diverse situations. If you really want to hit all of your customers, then the stories you tell should be about a variety of different kinds of customers. 

How to manage marketing departments that do poor storytelling

Michael Krigsman: How do you overcome the issue that your marketing sort of takes inputs in and then regurgitates it out so that it's not about the customer but it's about you, as a company? This is endemic to technology companies and technology marketers.

Josh Bernoff: I don't even know why we're having this conversation. Companies that talk about how they help customers succeed, and companies that talk about how great they are generally don't. It's really, really rare to see a company that succeeds based only on talking about itself. 

I want to exempt Apple here. Apple is always the weirdo example that you shouldn't look at because nobody can be like Apple. If we put them aside, every other company on the planet succeeds because they talk about how they help customers. 

Michael Krigsman: The interesting thing to me about Apple is from a storytelling standpoint.

Josh Bernoff: Mm-hmm.

Michael Krigsman: You alluded to this earlier. It's all about the core message and the core set of values. And so, everything... And so, the story, therefore, is, "Everything we produce, all these products, all these features, the only reason that we do this is because we are trying to make your lives better. Come into our journey of helping you."

Josh Bernoff: There's probably better engineering inside of Apple than inside of any other hardware company you can think of. Yet, that's not what they talk about. Right?

They're not saying, "Oh, we're four times faster than the other guys." They're saying, "Look at this beautiful device you can hold in the palm of your hand that lets you do a thing you could never do before. It lets you, the customer, do a thing you could never do before."

Michael Krigsman: That's a very, very important point that you just mentioned because, again, most technology companies don't approach it that way. They approach their storytelling through features. "Oh, our latest release now does this." 

Josh Bernoff: Have you ever had Scott Brinker on this program from HubSpot? 

Michael Krigsman: Oh, of course. I've known Scott for many years.

Josh Bernoff: Okay. Yeah.

Michael Krigsman: Yes, Mr. Chief Marcon. 

Josh Bernoff: Right. Right.

Michael Krigsman: Yeah.

Josh Bernoff: Yeah, so he makes these huge, huge charts of, like, the 1,962 companies that make marketing technology, or the 270 companies that do artificial intelligence. It's impossible to look at all the logos of all of those companies and say, "Oh, well, we're going to succeed because we're 11% faster than the other guy."

Now those companies in there, they only succeed to the extent that they tell us a better story than the other people. At that level of competition, that's the only thing that stands out.

Create interesting storytelling, without rehashing old, tired stories

Michael Krigsman: Okay. Let's jump back to Twitter. We have a few more questions. This is from Chris Peterson. Chris says, "From your blog, does a "malcolm" function as a form of "bottom line upfront" communication that business folks seem to like?" You need to explain that for us.

Josh Bernoff: There recently was a blog post. I don't remember the guy's name that wrote it. It was a post on Medium about these things called malcolms. He was complaining that he was reading business books and they always had these chapters that start with a story about somebody and the problem that they had (which is called a malcolm because Malcolm Gladwell is famous for reusing these stories) and that it's become this trite thing. 

If you look closely at the stuff that he complained about, the problem is people who are using second-hand stories that have been told over and over and over again. So, the story about Dave Carroll and what United Airlines did when they broke his guitar. 

That was interesting in the beginning how he got revenge by making a music video. But my God; we've all heard this story 100 times now. [Laughter] 

If you start your chapter with that, it's like, "Really? You think that that's interesting? I've already heard this."

I think that the idea of tracking down unique content, people who did things that have not been heard about before, and then actually telling their story in a way that connects up to the ideas that you're talking about is successful. Yeah, you can denigrate it and call it a malcolm, but that's a way better way to start your chapters than it is to start your chapter with a bunch of argumentation that puts people to sleep. 

Michael Krigsman: Again, you're doing an emotional kind of grabbing them by their shirt, by the throat, and pulling them closer. 

Josh Bernoff: People want to hear stuff they haven't heard before. It's still successful. The fact that... I mean the guy who wrote about this was writing mostly about economists writing stories about the economy and they don't have a whole lot of stories to draw on, so they go back and they retell the story about how Harry Truman asked for a one-handed economist so he wouldn’t say, "On the one hand and on the other hand."

Michael Krigsman: [Laughter]

Josh Bernoff: Right? Yeah, that was funny the first time I read it, and it is sort of funny. But you can't really make the point that I have a unique perspective here if that's all you've got is that hackneyed thing that everybody has heard before.

Michael Krigsman: If you want to present a unique perspective, then you actually have to have a unique perspective. Otherwise, you're not presenting a unique perspective.

Josh Bernoff: Yeah.

How to create a narrative story arc in business writing

Michael Krigsman: We have a couple of other questions from Twitter. This is from Lisbeth Shaw who says, "Assuming the story arc is important, how do you create a story arc, and how can you use examples to serve that story arc?" It's a really good question.

Josh Bernoff: When you talk about story arcs, that relates to literature and television and movies where people have an ongoing growth. You look at the Joseph Campbell traditional hero's journey. They have to learn things along the way and have obstacles and have despair and then come out of the underworld. And they have to have companions. Then at the end, you're like, not only did they have a happy ending but now they're smarter or more mature or they finally realized that everything they needed was in themselves. That's wonderful if you're in Hollywood. 

Case study stories don't have an arc like that. Case study stories are, "Alan was spending 25% of his time in his small business keeping track of expenses. Then he realized that he could use this product. Now he can spend his time on his customers, and he gets home in time to be able to read stories to his kid at bedtime."

That's not really a story arc. Right? [Laughter] We don't know whether Alan has somehow realized something important about himself that he didn't know before. 

No, we don't need Hollywood-level stories here. We really need something much simpler.

Michael Krigsman: You say that case studies, business stories don't have a story arc. What do they have? Okay, how do we decide what the flow should be? If you could tell us that really quickly, that'd be great. 

Josh Bernoff: What they have is a person who you can empathize with. That person has a problem, and they have a method for solving that problem that shows why that method is new and works better versus something that maybe isn't.

In the book that I wrote here, believe it or not, this is 24 chapters. It's got 24 case studies about authors. Each chapter starts with one, and that's because you can look at this and say:

  • "Oh, how did this person get past writer's block?" 
  • "Oh, how did Charlene Li actually differentiate her idea?" 
  • "What did Lori Gesner Awning [phonetic, 00:34:05] do that was so powerful in her book that one of the readers got the cover of the book tattooed on her arm?"

These are things worth reading about but don't require an investment in a huge story arc.

Michael Krigsman: If I can summarize that, the customer hears the business story. The customer has a problem. Your method of solving the problem. The great outcome, and then a moral of the story.

Josh Bernoff: Yeah, and it would help in there if we can talk about how other methods of solving the problem that they might have tried before didn't work because you need a little bit of conflict. [Laughter] I can't resist saying this that occasionally I've interviewed people for a case study story and then somebody in PR says, "Take out the bad parts," so your story then becomes, "They were happy, and they tried this thing, and then they were happy," and that's not really a good story.

Michael Krigsman: Actually, thank you for that because, with CXOTalk, we tell stories, and it's amazing to me sometimes that PR people want to sanitize it so it's exactly as you said, "Everybody was happy. Then we got involved, and they were still really happy. The end." [Laughter]

Josh Bernoff: [Laughter] That's not a story. Sorry. That's a sequence of words, but it's not a story.

Michael Krigsman: I love that. Okay. Another question from Twitter. I'm just going down to find them here.

What CIOs should know about effective storytelling for information technology

Arsalan Khan, for the third time, comes back to the well. He says, "What is the importance of storytelling for business IT alignment, and do you have any examples?" Help CIOs, chief information officers. Help them tell stories.

Josh Bernoff: Really what it amounts to is that every business has a story at the heart of it of how they solve problems. The marketing department typically tells that story. IT needs to find ways to become a part of the solution there. 

If the story of IT is we block it when you're trying to help the customer, that doesn't work so well. So, if you can... At Forrester, they call this the business technology officer because your job is to provide technology that will help the business to solve a customer's problem.

Michael Krigsman: This is from Steve Eisenberg. This is a very specific one. We're going to test you on this one, Josh.

Josh Bernoff: Oh, no. [Laughter]

What are the best AI tools for B2B writing

Michael Krigsman: [Laughter] He says, "What are the top three AI tools for B2B storytelling?

Josh Bernoff: AI tools are not good for storytelling because they sand the edges off and they do the generic thing that's like what everybody else is doing. The best AI tool for storytelling is your own damn brain.

Michael Krigsman: Steve Eisenberg comes back, and he says, "Are you aware of a directory of mastermind groups for different industries and functions? Alternatively, a mastermind group for B2B book authors?"

Josh Bernoff: The first, I don't know about. There are groups for B2B book authors. 

I'd encourage people to contact me at, and I'll make those connections because the reason that those groups work so well is because they carefully gate the people that go into them, and I can't just be sort of sending everybody into a group like that.

Michael Krigsman: Another question – wow – from Steve Eisenberg again. He's rivaling Arsalan Khan here. He says, "Do you have any opinions about Amazon creating AI to write books and cut out the human author?" That would be you. 

Josh Bernoff: I don't want to read a book written by an AI. Let me tell you in one sentence, in one word what AI authors don't have that humans have. Wit. [Laughter] Okay? 

What is Wit? Wit is knowing when to switch from one mode to another. Wit is humor. Wit is what makes human storytelling interesting. 

If you read stuff that's written by AI, it doesn't have that. And so, in general, people are just not going to be willing to settle for that.

Michael Krigsman: I use ChatGPT for various purposes all the time. I asked ChatGPT to take something and write it in very business dry, and write it in various styles, you know, a rap song, in the style of Shakespeare, maybe in the style of Chaucer. It's pretty darn funny.

Josh Bernoff: It's unintentionally funny. It's not trying to be funny. And that's the whole point is that if you want to be imitative, if you want to write in the style of Chaucer, it's good at that. But that's not the originality that draws people to it.

Michael Krigsman: This is again from Carmen Hill. She says a good question, a thoughtful question here. "One challenge in telling authentic, resonant customer stories is the reluctance of customers to share unvarnished details about their pain points and weaknesses. How do you handle that because nobody wants to present a bad face? They don't want to expose those weaknesses?"

Josh Bernoff: If you have the confidence of a customer, if you've worked with them from beginning to end, you often can get them to admit that they had a problem in the beginning, which is what you need to do. As long as there's a happy ending, you can do that.

Sometimes there's not a happy ending. I've certainly done business stories where things ended badly. There are some in my book about authors that made terrible mistakes. 

But I don't identify people by name. We use pseudonyms because, yeah, nobody wants to have the story of how they ultimately failed be the thing that they're reading about. 

You don't need a whole lot of disaster stories. You only need one or two. And if those two are anonymized and everything else has people mentioned by name, then you can do just fine.

Empathy is the foundation of effect storytelling

Michael Krigsman: Can you distill down everything that you know and have experienced about storytelling into kind of capsule advice for those of us in business who need to tell stories and maybe we're not expert at it?

Josh Bernoff: Really, at the center of that is empathy. Can you help us to understand how somebody feels when something doesn't work, when something is a challenge? If you can do that and then make the connection to how your business makes a difference for them, then you will be successful. If you can't do that, then you won't succeed.

Michael Krigsman: That's really interesting. At the very basic, at the most basic level, if you want to tell a successful story, you must establish an emotional connection with the audience, and that means understanding who your audience is and what they care about, and what their pain points either are or are likely to be. Does that sound right?

Josh Bernoff: That's exactly right. What you just described is also what makes a business successful. It's not just making the storytelling successful but understanding your customers' pain points is pretty essential.

Michael Krigsman: Then I'm reminded of the phase in Ted Lasso, which many people have seen on Apple, where one of the players says soccer is life. According to what you just said, storytelling is business.

Josh Bernoff: Okay. Sounds good to me. [Laughter] I think you're right.

Michael Krigsman: All right. On that note, I want to say a huge thank you to Josh Bernoff. Josh, thank you so much for taking time and sharing your great expertise in storytelling with us today. I really, really appreciate it.

Josh Bernoff: Michael, what you do with CXOTalk is unique and excellent. Just the ability to be a part of that really means a lot to me, so I'm glad that you gave me the chance to be here.

Michael Krigsman: Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate that. Everybody that watched, thank you for watching, especially those folks who ask such great questions. I always say this because it's really true. You're such an insightful and intelligent and thoughtful audience, and your questions make CXOTalk.

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Published Date: Jun 23, 2023

Author: Michael Krigsman

Episode ID: 794