3 Powerful Storytelling Strategies from 'The Art of War'

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What can CEOs learn about the power of storytelling from Sun Tzu's "Art of War," the classic ancient Chinese text on military strategy?

A lot.

That’s because there is a key parallel between warfare and storytelling: each is about deploying strategies and tactics that defeat the advancement or resistance of an enemy.

It’s just that the nature of the “enemy” is different. Here's what I mean.

In warfare, the enemy is a person or group of people—soldiers who pose an existential threat to a nation-state.

But in sales situations, your fight is not against people themselves but their dispositions—their mindset, beliefs, and emotions—that are waging a powerful resistance effort against your message.

In other words, when you encounter pushback in business—whether it’s from investors who doubt the viability of your venture, customers who reject your sales proposal, or high-value employees who leave the company—your enemy is not the person. Instead, you’re fighting against the skepticism, apathy, or fear within those people that cause them to turn away from you and your business.

So, here are my three takeaway strategies, with relevant quotes from Sun Tzu, on how to win the battle over the hearts and minds of the people who hold the keys to your success.

1. Identify your audience's points of resistance—and tailor your strategy accordingly. 

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

How does this relate to storytelling strategy?  

  • If you know your audience’s greatest points of resistance (the enemy)—apathy, skepticism, anger, fear, distraction, etc.—and you're self-aware about the strengths and weaknesses of your message, you'll gain insight into how to tailor your messaging strategy for maximum impact. 

  • If you’ve created a compelling story but don’t know your audience’s greatest points of resistance in that moment, then expect mixed, unpredictable results.

  • But if you don’t have a compelling story AND don’t know how to address your audience’s greatest points of resistance, expect failure every time.

The reason why it’s so important to understand your audience’s dispositions is that no matter how strong—or right—your argument may be, if your audience isn’t in the right state to receive your message, you’ll fail to connect with them.

As Aristotle put it nearly 2,400 years ago in The Art of Rhetoric, “Proofs from the disposition of the audience are produced whenever they are induced by the speech into an emotional state. We do not give judgment in the same way when aggrieved and when pleased, in sympathy and in revulsion."

Aristotle reminds us that how our audience perceives--and acts upon--our message is largely determined by the emotional state they are in. So, when it comes to the emotions of our audience, Aristotle says our communications should account for these two considerations:

  • The current emotional state: What is the audience feeling right now? This way you can “meet them” where they are.

  • The target emotional state: Where do you want to take the audience? What do you want the audience to feel at the end of your talk?

So, if your audience is frustrated about an issue, tap into that frustration up front. Then, perhaps, over the course of your talk, you can lead them to a feeling of empowerment, where they’re ready (and willing) to take action.

The idea here is this: Identify the current state and target state and then map out how your talk can bridge that gap for the audience.

2. Define "victory" and build a story that achieves it. 

“In war, then, let your great objective be victory, not lengthy campaigns.”

What exactly defines “victory”for you?

David Ogilvy, one of the fathers of modern advertising, defined “victory” in his classic book Ogilvy on Advertising in these terms:

“When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product. When Aeschines spoke, they said, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, ‘Let us march against Philip.’”

According to Ogilvy, an ad—or marketing campaign, sales proposal, investor presentation, or whatever form your story might take—should move your audience to take the action.

Therefore, if “victory” for you is to grow your email list, boost sales, or secure venture funding, then craft your story with the precise words, sentences and paragraphs that drive your message toward that goal. Nothing more, nothing less. Cut out any content—no matter how creative it may seem to you—that doesn’t contribute to “victory.”

Remember (to paraphrase Ogilvy): You don’t want your audience to say, “How well he or she speaks”; you want them to say, “Let’s join his or her cause.”

3. Confront resistance without being confrontational.

“Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

This quote beautifully captures the essence of storytelling. When you wag your finger with disapproval at someone, that person will put up a wall and resist your message. But a story, when wielded effectively, can be a powerful weapon to break your audience’s resistance to your message “without fighting.”

That’s because stories allow the listener to arrive at conclusions themselves, making them more receptive to you—and more motivated to follow through on your message.

The Bottom Line

When you encounter resistance to your message, the “enemy” is not a person, per se. It’s the person’s disposition that’s holding them back. But storytelling is a powerful weapon to overcome that resistance. So, “aim” your story at the right enemy to win over the hearts and minds of your audience.  

Sean M. Lyden is CEO of Lyden Communications LLC, an Orlando, Fla.-based consulting firm that helps companies use storytelling to unlock sales growth.




Study, StrategySean Lyden