6 Storytelling in the Professional World


Catherine Ramsdell

Storytelling is not just for entertainment anymore. It’s not just a mindless academic exercise either; storytelling is quickly becoming a cornerstone of the nonprofit and corporate worlds. Storytelling can be a part of corporate training, public relations, politics, journalism, and of course, the two industries we are going to focus on: grantwriting and advertising.

Cheryl Clarke’s book Storytelling for Grantseekers: A Creative Guide to Nonprofit Fundraising has been highly praised by both grantwriters and grant readers. For decades grants have been notoriously boring— both to write and to read. Clarke’s book is starting to change all that.

Clarke begins by noting the similarities between grantwriting and storytelling:

Storytelling is a powerful art form. Stories entertain, educate, and enlighten. They have the ability to transport an audience to another location and teach them about issues and people they may know nothing about. The same is true of grantwriting. (xv)

Clarke continues by breaking down the different parts of the grantwriting process. She relates that often the grantwriting process starts with a letter of intent, a one to two page letter summarizing the request that is sent to the funding organization. If the funding organization thinks your request has merit, they will ask you (or your organization) to submit a full grant proposal. Clarke likens the letter of intent to a short story and the full grant proposal to a novel.

Like short stories and novels, grants should also have heroes, villains (or antagonists) and a conflict. The hero is, of course, the nonprofit agency. As Clarke notes,

Nonprofit agencies do heroic work, and they are the heroes of every proposal we write. Throughout the world today, nonprofits are working diligently to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, heal the sick, teach children, conserve the environment, save endangered species, and present music performances and art exhibitions, among other important activities. . . . As grantwriters, we have the opportunity to tell others these amazing stories. (52)

The antagonist is simply the need or problem. Hunger, global warming, abused animals, disease—any one of these could be the villain of the grant proposal. The nonprofit and the need become the characters in the story and supply the conflict and tension. Clarke suggests giving these characters a voice, stating “quotes are especially powerful because through them the proposal reviewer ‘hears’ directly from your agency’s clients in their own words” (81). These quotes become the dialogue in the story. Grant proposals often include other elements traditionally seen in novels, such as setting, back stories, and resolutions.

Clarke clearly shows the advantages of using storytelling techniques in grantwriting, and many believe storytelling is an equally important part of advertising as a close examination of the “1984” Macintosh commercial will indicate. In 1984, Apple was in trouble. As Richard Maxwell and Robert Dickman note in their book The Elements of Persuasion: Use Storytelling to Pitch Better, Sell Faster and Win More Business:

at that time the computer industry was in transition . . . Apple had been a major player when computers were seen as expensive toys for hobbyists or learning platforms for children. But when corporations began seriously going digital, they naturally turned to a name they had come to trust—IBM. IBM PC computers became ‘industry standard,’ with all the purchasing and advertising muscle that implied. (11)

In response, Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs created the Macintosh computer, but he needed an advertisement that would bring attention to this computer. The “1984” commercial did just that. The “1984” commercial shows a dystopia: a dismal gray world where Big Brother is seen (and heard) on every television screen.


Row after row of people stare mindlessly at huge television screens, watching propaganda. A woman in red shorts runs through the crowd and hurls a hammer at the largest screen, destroying it and silencing Big Brother. The commercial closes with the tagline “On January 24, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”

The commercial ran only once nationally (during the 1984 Super Bowl) and is generally credited with two things. The first is saving Apple. As Maxwell and Dickman note, “The result of this ad was explosive. Seven days later there wasn’t a Macintosh left unsold on any store shelf in America, and back orders were beginning to stretch out for months” (12). Second, many advertising gurus believe that the “1984” commercial was one of the first advertisements to use a story.

Much like the stories Clarke talks about, the “1984” commercial has a hero: the Macintosh computer, which is personified by the attractive blonde in the short red shorts. The villain is the status quo and corporate America, both of which are supposed to symbolize IBM. The smashing of the television screen ends the conflict and provides resolution. This story also has something else: passion. As Maxwell and Dickman note: “But at its cohesive core, what made this ad whitehot was Steve Job’s passionate belief that a computer was meant to be a tool to set people free” (12). And Maxwell and Dickman believe passion is another essential element of story.

Again, storytelling now appears in many forms of professional and workplace communication; grantwriting and advertising are only two examples. So have fun telling your stories, enjoy them, learn to make them come alive. At the same time, you’ll be developing a marketable skill because, appropriately enough, storytelling has become a valuable commodity in corporate America.


  1. Maxwell and Dickman believe that “a story is a fact, wrapped in an emotion that compels us to take an action that transforms our world.” How would you define the term story? What do you think are the most important elements of a good story? What examples help support your thoughts?
  2. How could stories and storytelling fit into your major field of study? What types of stories do you think professionals in your field might find useful?

Storytelling, Narration, and the “Who I Am” Story



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Storytelling in the Professional World Copyright © 2023 by Amy Minervini is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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