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Eliciting stories – the warm up

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —December 8, 2004
Filed in Business storytelling

Eliciting stories from workers relies, in part, on asking good questions. But before people will provide their more personally significant stories they must feel comfortable and relaxed. A short ‘warm-up’ time is very conducive to genuine sharing.

The ‘warm-up’ might occupy the first 10-15 minutes of a session. In most cases I begin by setting the ground rules, explaining the project, and making introductions (if necessary). Then I offer a story of my own to get things started.

For example, while working on a project that focused on sales-force effectiveness, I began the warm-up by telling the salespeople about when I worked for Oracle in the 1980s. One day we were visited by the new sales manager who gathered us around the 12th floor window looking out across the (smallish) Canberra skyline. He pointed at buildings and asked: ‘Who is in that building?’. Invariably, we did not know. The sales manager then tapped one of us on the shoulder and instructed that person to find out. He did this several times. This was a memorable lesson in ‘cold calling’. As a result, we made three large sales.

This anecdote helped as a warm-up to the sales team because it communicated that I had some experience of their situation–I knew what it was like to work in a sales force. In addition, the anecdote demonstrated the nature of the information that we were seeking in the anecdote session.

After the warm up, the first questions should be simple and easy to answer. They might even be closed questions–just to get people comfortable with providing a response. Once you feel that the group is ready, you can begin to ask open questions designed to elicit anecdotes.

In a future post, I will talk more about designing questions to elicit stories.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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