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Ep 554: Perfect Business Storytelling


Regular listeners will know just how essential I believe it is for talent acquisition to learn the art and science of storytelling. Being able to craft stories that resonate isn’t just part of effective recruitment marketing; it is vital to building internal stakeholder engagement and developing more influence to move TA up the corporate strategic value chain.

So why is effective storytelling so powerful, and how can we all build our skills in this area?

My guest this week is Karen Eber, CEO of the Eber Leadership Group and author of a new book called The Perfect Story: How to Tell Stories That Inform, Influence and Inspire. The book deals with the science and structure of good storytelling in business and is full of advice that can help everyone tell more powerful and engaging stories.

In the interview, we discuss:

• What happens to your brain when you listen to stories?

• Being memorable and engaging

• Why business storytelling is so important

• Understanding your audience

• Conflict as fuel to drive the narrative

• Telling stories with data

• Context, Conflict, Outcome and Takeaway

• How do you know if your story is resonating?

• AI and storytelling

Listen to this podcast in Apple Podcasts.


Matt Alder: Support for this podcast is provided by SHL. From talent acquisition to talent management, SHL solutions provide your organization with the power and scale to build your business with the skilled, motivated, and energized workforce you need. SHL takes the guesswork out of growing a talented team by helping you match the right people to the right moments with simplicity and speed. They equip, recruiters and leaders with people insights at an organization, team, and individual level, accelerating growth, decision making, talent mobility, and inspiring an inclusive culture. To build a future where businesses thrive because their people thrive, visit to learn more.

[Recruiting Future Podcast theme]

Presenter: There’s been more of scientific discovery, more of technical advancement, and material progress in your lifetime and mine than in all the ages of history.

Matt Alder: Hi, there. This is Matt Alder. Welcome to Episode 554 of the Recruiting Future podcast. Regular Regular listeners will know just how essential I believe it is for talent acquisition to learn the art and science of storytelling. Being able to craft stories that resonate isn’t just part of effective recruitment marketing; it is vital to building internal stakeholder engagement and developing more influence to move TA up the corporate strategic value chain.

So why is effective storytelling so powerful, and how can we all build our skills in this area?

My guest this week is Karen Eber, CEO of the Eber Leadership Group and author of a new book called The Perfect Story: How to Tell Stories That Inform, Influence and Inspire. The book deals with the science and structure of good storytelling in business and is full of advice that can help everyone tell more powerful and engaging stories.

Hi, Karen, and welcome to the podcast.

Karen Eber: Thank you. So happy to be with you.

Matt Alder: It’s an absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Please, could you introduce yourself and tell us what you do?

Karen Eber: I am Karen Eber. I am the CEO and Chief Storyteller of Eber Leadership Group, which is a company that works with others on how they’re building their leaders, teams, and culture, often one story at a time. I’m also an author of the book, The Perfect Story: How to Tell Stories That Inform, Influence and Inspire. I work in the space of how do we create better workplaces, so people can thrive and do their best work, and how do we use stories to do that.

Matt Alder: Fantastic stuff. Story and storytelling is such an important topic for me, and I think it’s something that everyone needs to think about and know more about, basically. So, why don’t we start with a book? Tell us more about what the book’s about and why did you write it?

Karen Eber: I’m trying to evolve the conversation on storytelling, because there’s a lot out there. But what I find isn’t present is something that breaks down what’s happening in your brain when you listen to stories or communication in a relatable way, not in a scientific science class lab coat way. But more importantly, what do you then do with that? What do you put into your stories to make sure that it really is engaging the brain that these become stories that are memorable and engaging. So, the perfect story does that. It grounds you in science and some new science, so they can get a better understanding of what’s going on and more importantly, what to lean into when you’re telling your stories.

It takes you through the process, step by step, of finding ideas for stories, building them out for your audience, figuring out the right story to tell for each audience, how to make sure that story really is going to be engaging and captivating and memorable, how to tell stories with data, so much of what we do in the work world, how to make sure your story isn’t manipulating, and how to navigate the vulnerability of storytelling, including how do you use your body when you’re telling stories.

The fun piece of it is at the end of each chapter, there’s an interview vignette with a different storyteller. So, a co-founder of Sundance Institute, a former creative director at Pixar, the TED Radio Hour podcast host, someone that writes stories for video games. People that use storytelling in their profession in different ways to just demonstrate there’s so many different ways you can do this.

Matt Alder: You’ve got an interview with someone from The Moth as well, haven’t you?

Karen Eber: Yes. Such a good interview. They’re all my [giggles] favorite as I go through them– [crosstalk].

Matt Alder: No, it’s one of my– The Moth podcast is one of my favorite podcasts. [chuckles]

Speaker 3: Such great storytelling, right? And so, that is with Sarah Austin Jenness, who’s an executive producer of The Moth, and she talks about how– She’s a story midwife that it’s the person’s story, but she’s trying to help make sure they’re pulling all the pieces out that are going to make it really be memorable and make you feel like you’re alongside that person in their story.

Matt Alder: So, there’s so many questions I want to ask you so much to dig into there. I suppose just to back up a little bit before we get into that level of detail. Why is storytelling so important and why might it be so important to the people listening to the podcast?

Karen Eber: In the most simplest form, if you think of the brain as real estate of your body, when you’re just going through numbers, reviewing data, just talking, you’re engaging maybe the size of a walnut in the brain. It’s true comprehension of words are translated into meaning and they’re understood and that is it. But when you’re using a story, you end up using the entire brain. You use all of the real estate. You’re engaging the brain differently through the senses and emotions, you’re helping the person experience the story in a dynamic way which impacts how they are remembering it, which is going to impact their decision making. It’s a far more dynamic way to communicate that is going to be effective and memorable and actionable than just talking at people.

So often, especially in business, we talk at people. We run through our slides and charts thinking about what we want to say and not as much about what we want people to experience. And so, storytelling flips that. It puts the audience in the center and it helps them make sure they’re coming away with what’s most meaningful and engaging for them.

Matt Alder: Is that because a human’s wired towards listening to stories? Is that what we’re unlocking in the brain when we’re telling stories?

Karen Eber: No, I’m not a fan of we are hardwired for stories. I feel like when people say that, it’s like saying we’re hardwired to run a marathon. Of course, the physical components are there, but if you’re not training and exercising them and preparing, you’re in a world of hurt and you probably can’t do it. And the same is true for stories. There’s a physical infrastructure that supports stories. But to say we’re hardwired for stories implies that every story that’s told is captivating and engaging, we’ve just all sat through enough bad stories to know that it isn’t true. It’s not enough to tell a story. The way you tell one is going to make a difference in the experience of it.

Matt Alder: So, how’d you tell a good story?

Karen Eber: Many different pieces. Let’s start with some basics. First, start with your audience. When you are going to tell a story, even if you know the story you want to tell, you’re always starting with your audience. You want to think about who is it that you’re talking to? What is it that you want them to know, think, feel, or do differently at the end of the story? Where’s their mindset today and what might be an obstacle? You want to start here, because anytime you’re telling a story, there’s a reason you’re telling it, whether you’re just telling it with friends over dinner for fun, or whether you’re telling it in a business meeting.

So, starting with the audience, helps make sure that the way you tell the story, it’s going to be most meaningful for them. That’s the foundation of a great story and that’s the place where probably the most storytelling mistakes come in. We tell the stories we want to tell or that we love, and we don’t do the work to make it relatable to someone. From there, you want to have a basic story structure. You want to make sure there are characters that are relatable. I say relatable, meaning we understand why they’re doing what they do, even if we don’t agree with them.

So, relatable doesn’t mean likable. We don’t have to like them, but we do want to have enough of an understanding of what’s going on and why, because that helps us feel more engaged in the story. You want to make sure there’s conflict. Conflict is the heart of every story. It’s the thing that has to be resolved. It’s the tension. It can between two people, it can between organizations, it could between a person and their own values. The conflict is that crux of the story that is the fuel pedal. If you run out of conflict, you run out of story.

Then the third big piece is connection. You don’t want to just list events and have a basic structure. You want to make sure you’re telling the story in a way that the audience listening feels like they’re beside you in the story that they are seeing, hearing, feeling, experiencing the events of the story, because that will allow for it to have a more meaningful impact.

Matt Alder: So much there I want to ask you a bit more about, but I’m going to pick up on the conflict thing just for a moment. The reason being I did a drama degree at university and one of the most memorable things about my degree was the very first day where the drama teacher just said, “Drama is conflict.” It was like, there has to be conflict in order for there to be stories and things like that. I think we can see that in everything in terms of fueling those stories on. The question I think that maybe people might struggle with is, if they’re telling a story in a business context, for example, they’re telling a story around data or stuff like that, where’s the conflict in that? How do you weave the conflict into that kind of business story?

Karen Eber: There is always conflict in data, and we could spend many hours talking about how to tell stories with data. But a really good example of what this could look like is, you are sharing a piece of data that maybe you haven’t shared before. And so, you might tell the story of why you gathered it, what problem you were trying to solve, what you set out to learn before you gathered the data. And then when you looked at it, what you saw, and maybe there are some unexpected patterns or some outliers or maybe the data is exactly what you saw. So, now the conflict is, what decision do we want to make? Are we going to continue to maintain? Are we going to do something different? Are we going to monitor further?

You might have a story where you see something completely different in the data, something you didn’t expect to see, something that might cause further investigation or collecting more data. So, there’s always something there that is going to bring meaning to it. Even, if it is what you expected to see, there’s still a little bit of, so then what does this mean for us? What is it that we want to be doing? What action do we want to take? There is just stepping back and working through the steps. You’re going to set the context for, what is it we’re doing and why the conflict for what are we seeing? What are we learning? What does that mean? The outcome for what is the steps we should be taking? What is the recommendation and the takeaway?

The thing about storytelling with data is that, people will often collect the data and then look at it and start to see what story they can put together, which is why it can feel like there’s no conflict. The challenge in that is it’s a little bit like defining the scientific hypothesis after you conduct your experiment. Ideally, we want to be thinking about what problems we’re trying to solve with the data before we collect it, and then work with the data to define it. The person that is working with the data is closest to it, and no one else is as close to it as that person. So, if you’re that person, you bear the responsibility of making sure other people have that understanding and guiding them through it is key.

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One of the other things that I know people struggle with when it comes to telling stories at work, as it were, and I know this is something you cover extensively in the book is is finding ideas to be the content of this story. What should people do in terms of building that toolkit and finding the ideas for the stories that they want to tell?

Karen Eber: Can we do a real-life demonstration? Can I ask you two questions?

Matt Alder: You can.

Karen Eber: Okay. I know I’m making you nervous. Okay. One of the questions is going to be intentionally vague. So, if it feels hard to answer, that’s okay. Just answer however you can. Okay. The first question is, tell us about your childhood growing up.

Matt Alder: Okay. I grew up in the country down by the sea, which was amazing. We lived practically in the middle of a field, and it was a great place to be a young kid. Luckily, for me, we moved to a town when I got a bit older, because I think being a teenager living in the middle of the field by the sea might not have been quite as much fun.

Karen Eber: Nice. Thank you. Now, tell us what sound or smell reminds you of home?

Matt Alder: The sea.

Karen Eber: The sea. And just say just a little bit more, why does that remind you of home?

Matt Alder: Because I’ve nearly always lived by the sea. So, waves, the smell of the sea, that kind of stuff that tells me I’m home.

Karen Eber: Perfect. So, let me explain what I just did. The first question was really broad, tell us about your childhood. Well, what era? There’re many, many years that spent childhood, and I find most people will respond very similar to what you did of describing roughly where you grew up and maybe what type of home or surroundings you had, maybe any family that were around you. But it’s a really broad question and hard to answer, because your brain says, “I don’t know which file to access to. Do you want me to talk about when I was 5 years or when I was 18 years? This is really hard.” So, because the question is vague, your answer is vague. But when I ask you, what sound or smell reminds you of home, you immediately go to the ocean. If we kept asking questions, you would come up with 15 stories of different things that happened by the seaside growing up from specific areas.

So, people are going to do the same thing when they’re building a story. The reason it feels hard to come up with an idea is that, you are considering too broad a topic. If you want to get a list of ideas, you want to put constraints in place. The more confining the question, the more ideas that come. So, what sound or smell reminds you of home brings you to the ocean, and I could start asking questions and we would easily have 15 different stories of things that happened with you there.

Matt Alder: Yeah.

Karen Eber: Same is true for business. So, you can confine your reflection by your professional experiences, thinking about different jobs you’ve had or teams you’ve worked on. These almost are the types of questions we answer in job interviews of best leader, worst leader, time you failed, but there’s endless questions. You can think about your personal life of, do you have something that you should have gotten rid of but just can’t part with? And what you’re ultimately doing is you’re building a list of these ideas without knowing what home they will have.

You’re not worrying about what story you’ll use them in. What you’re trying to do is come up with a bunch of prompts. So, when it is time to tell a story, you look through your list of ideas and ask yourself, which one of these is going to help me build the idea that I want for my audience? Sometimes it’s a list on that page and sometimes the act of scanning it prompts a whole new idea that’s perfect for your audience.

Matt Alder: Let’s talk a little bit about structure. How best should people structure their stories? They’ve got the idea, they’ve got the conflict built in. How do you structure that to get the outcome and results that you want from the story?

Karen Eber: There’s many different models. I prefer using a simple model that can apply to any situation versus a model like the hero’s journey, which is very formulaic and specific and always lends itself to the same type of story. So, I want to give everyone a model that they can use in any setting and make it work however they need versus the formula.

The model I like is four parts. You are going to write a sentence or two to build an outline or a basic structure of your story. The first one is, what is the context for your story? And you write a sentence or two that just describes the setting of the story, the major characters, and really why the audience should be caring to hear the story. The second sentence is going to be the conflict. What is the piece that has to be resolved in the story? What is that tension, the thing that is the fuel for the story?

The third is the outcome. What happens as a result of the conflict? Then the fourth is the takeaway. And this is the one that isn’t done very often, but the takeaway is meant to be almost like theme of the story of, if you were going to sum this up, what should that person, that audience, be taking away from your story? And so, this starts to give you this basic structure that you can play with in so many different ways by adding details and changing the sequence out there to make sure you really are engaging the brain, but it allows for you to tell many different types of stories. The same four questions work great right before a meeting. It’s a great way to ground yourself in what you’re going to be talking about and how to structure it.

Matt Alder: In terms of the outcomes, how do you know if your story is resonating if you’re getting the effect that you’re looking for?

Karen Eber: There’s a few different things that you often notice. One is that, people will share a story back with you. They’ll comment on your story and then share what it reminded them of their own experience. Because as you’re telling a story, the audience has one playing in their head as they’re processing it through their own experiences. You will often get people coming and asking you questions or maybe sharing quotes from the story, which is really helpful. If you can see them, you can sometimes see that shift in body language where there’s that engaged, interested, leaning forward look. There’s generally some type of reaction, whether it’s verbal or nonverbal that helps you recognize that your story is resonating.

Matt Alder: We’re obviously going through a very interesting time when it comes to technology, and generative AI, and large language models, and all these kind of things. What are your thoughts on on that type of AI and storytelling? Can it tell stories as well as humans? Is it a tool that people can use? Should people try and tell stories better than machines? What’s your view on the whole AI piece?

Karen Eber: Yeah, I think as humans, we love to over-rotate. The question always seems to be like, is AI going to replace us? Instead of how do we integrate it? So, no matter how sophisticated AI gets, it’s not going to be able to tell a story for you based on your experiences. It can draft it, but your ability to communicate in a way that has me feeling empathy towards you because you’ve shared an experience or you’ve shared something, that is never going to go away. Even if it gave you the words, you have to be able to deliver that.

We, in our most basic level seek connection, we seek belonging from each other. And so, it’s not a skill that is going to change and it’s why it’s the oldest skill that has been around for our communication as beings. There are so many ways to use it to help though. So, if you are getting ready for a presentation and maybe you are stuck on an idea or a story or maybe some points you want to make, you can use it to generate, like, give me a list of seven different ideas here. Now, most often, especially today, what it generates is not helpful. But being able to react to what it generates will trigger the idea that you want.

Or, I will sometimes use it. I’ll use ChatGPT. If I’m writing an article and I want to improve the search engine optimization of it, I will say, generate 23 different headlines for this article, for this publication, for these things. I often don’t choose what’s there, but it gives me ideas and it helps me get going on it. I just say, don’t underestimate. If you’re stuck, it gives you something to react to which can be so helpful in moving you forward and minimizing the time that you are spending on it.

Matt Alder: So, final question. Where can people find out more about the book? Where can they connect with you?

Karen Eber: The best place is my website, which is my name, There’s information about the book there. There’s also a Brain Food Newsletter section where I share stories on leadership, organizational culture, teaming, and storytelling, and they all have stories and tools in them to leverage.

Matt Alder: Karen, thank you very much for talking to me.

Karen Eber: Thank you.

Matt Alder: My thanks to Karen. If you’re a fan of the Recruiting Future podcast, then you will absolutely love our newsletter, Recruiting Future Feast. Not only does it give you the inside track on what’s coming up on the show, you can also find everything from book recommendations to insightful episodes from the archives and first access to new content that helps you to understand where our industry is heading. Sign up now, and also get instant access to the recording of my recent webinar on the future of talent acquisition.

Just go to That’s Recruiting Future Feast dotcom slash webinar. You can subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcasts, on Spotify, or via your podcasting app of choice. You can find and search all the past episodes Don’t forget to sign up for the newsletter, Recruiting Future Feast. Thanks very much for listening. I’ll be back next time and I hope you’ll join me.


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