Kellogg Magazine | Features

Not just for campfires

Photo by: Caitlin Scarano

One Kellogg alumna shows how storytelling can help you succeed

Esther Choy '09 was always more comfortable with words than numbers. That's why her love of a statistics class at Kellogg was such a surprise to her.

The course was required for her Kellogg MBA, and she wasn't looking forward to it. "My attitude was, 'Stats is just a bunch of useless Greek letters and discussions about rolling the dice. Why do I care about rolling dice?'" Choy recalls.

But some good stories made all the difference. "My professor for the class, Karl Schmedders, is a really great storyteller," Choy explains. "Through his stories, he helped me understand the application value of statistics. And that motivated me to learn more about it.

"In fact," Choy continues, "after I was done with the required course, I chose to use some of my precious electives to take three more statistics courses. That's not something I would've done before!"

The experience was eye-opening for Choy. "I realized that all my great professors are great storytellers," she says. "And that in general, all leaders tell great stories."

The power of persuasion

Choy graduated from Kellogg in 2009 — in the midst of a tumbling global economy. She started doing some contract work, using her education background and MBA experience to help other MBA applicants get into competitive business schools.

"I discovered that when you're in a competitive situation, it isn't enough to have great qualifications — you have to persuade someone," Choy says. "Of course, you can persuade someone without any proof. And you can prove something without persuading anyone. But it's the ability to do both that really separates those who go far in their careers. Storytelling is one of the best ways to do that."

Choy points out that people today are inundated with facts and data. "And we let most of this pass through our brains with minimal retention or reaction — unless something makes the information stand out in a meaningful way," she says. "That's where story comes in."

Choy soon wondered where she could apply this approach. That's how her business, Leadership Story Lab, was born. Choy helps executives across diverse and complex industries, such as investing, health care, technology and more, persuade others through storytelling.

No creativity required

One of the first things Choy tells her clients: Creativity is not a prerequisite.

"You don't have to be an English major. You don't have to be a great writer. You just need to understand the basic structure and elements of a story," she explains. "If you use this systematic approach, you don't need to be creative."

Choy's tactics are laid out in her book, Let the Story Do the Work: The Art of Storytelling for Business Success, which provides a structured approach that anyone can follow.

"Storytelling isn't just for campfires. It's not just for cocktail parties," Choy says. "It's a really, really powerful tool for communicating and persuading. And anyone can use it."

Storytelling secrets

Choy offers these tips to hone your storytelling skills:

Know your end goal

In a business environment, storytelling is a way to compel people to do something. So before you start, make sure you know what you want people to do.

Work on the "hook"

If you can grab people's attention at the start, that's half the battle.

Collect examples

To be a great storyteller, you have to first be a great story collector. Gather examples that will help you illustrate your point.

Have a beginning, middle and end

It sounds simple, but a lot of people start with the middle and just get lost. It's important to set up the story in the beginning, explain it in the middle (without getting lost in the weeds) and close with a strong ending. Think IRS: Intriguing beginning. Riveting middle. Satisfying end.


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