Using Storytelling to Teach Strategy

Business-themed podcasts bring lessons to life.

A powerful story can bring any business lesson to life. That’s the theory that guides Damian Vaughn as he integrates a series of podcasts into his strategy class at the University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business in Eugene.

“Great storytelling can enable learning by making insights more memorable and engaging,” says Vaughn. “Great stories portray the vivid images of human experience, and they improve understanding far beyond a simple statement of fact.”

In early 2018, Vaughn began using the podcast series “Business Wars,” produced by podcast network Wondery, in his strategy class. The series focuses on well-known rivalries among iconic business competitors. “I assign the podcasts to be consumed over a two-week period in preparation for in-class discussion,” says Vaughn. “We combine the podcast with an assigned reading of a published case on the protagonist brand.” He makes sure he can tie the story to theory and models of strategic management.

For instance, in April, the class discussed a “Business Wars” episode about Netflix, Blockbuster, and HBO, which provided a “deeper and broader contextual layer to a published case study on Netflix,” says Vaughn. He followed a similar approach with podcasts based on rivals Nike and Adidas. He devotes about six hours of live class discussion to learning from the podcasts.

The podcasts “illuminate the deeply personal side of business strategy by giving insights and perspective into the intentions, motivations, and visions of these brand leaders,” says Vaughn. “In the context of a strategy course, Netflix is exemplary in that it tells a story of how a newcomer disrupts incumbent players in a highly competitive industry, changes movie culture, and develops a business model for the digital future. It also sheds light into how previously successful companies fail.”

By contrast, he says, the case of “Nike versus Adidas” provides “a story of two colossal brands that capture the human spirit’s longing to transcend its physical limits. The ‘Nike versus Adidas’ episode gives us a rich and engaging narrative on how brands shape a global culture of sport, fashion, and lifestyle.”

The stories vividly bring to life the theories and models covered in class, Vaughn continues. “The learning is in the details. In our strategy course, we discover that managing strategy is not so much about the grand plan but the granularity of ensuring all of the activities across a firms’ value chain are as integrated as possible to create a sustainable competitive advantage.”

When choosing podcasts for the class, Vaughn looks for brilliant storytelling that illuminates the personal struggles of business leaders. The goal, he emphasizes, is for students not only to imagine what it would be like to be in the leaders’ shoes, but also to envision a way forward from their own points of view. He looks for stories that weave business strategy with leadership dynamics and personal challenges.

Are podcasts particularly appealing to millennials and GenZers? Younger students certainly appreciate the on-demand nature of podcasts, Vaughn says; they also like the idea of multitasking while listening. But he thinks podcasting makes material accessible to a diverse range of learners— and that the key component is not the technology, but the story.

“The value of stories in teaching and learning transcends cultures, civilizations, ideologies, even academic disciplines,” says Vaughn. “Whether these stories are produced and delivered by print, video, or audio, if they are rich in detail and insight into the characters and dilemmas involved, I don’t think the age of the listener matters.”

Listen to the “Business Wars” podcast.