Telling stories for a living

Posted by Shawn Callahan - July 28, 2006
Filed in Anecdotes

Everyone can benefit from finding and telling better stories. Don’t be confused in thinking, however, that telling stories means regaling an audience with your latest adventure tale. In business it doesn’t need to be so grand. Telling stories is simply conveying your ideas, values, intentions by retelling something that happened that illustrates your points. Let me give you an example.

When I joined IBM in 1999, my first job was to organise a seminar on knowledge management (KM). After some searching, I discovered Dave Snowden, a colleague in the UK, who had a reputation as an entertaining speaker with a radical and refreshing perspective on KM. As luck would have it, he was planning to visit Australia the next February so we organised a seminar, in Old Parliament House in Canberra. It was a tremendous success. It was my first exposure to narrative techniques and complexity theory and it started me on a new and exciting career path.

This story of how I met Dave is an example of how you can introduce yourself using a simple anecdote rather than listing your interests and achievements. One short anecdote can be more effective than retelling your entire life history. My anecdote has a number of features worth noting:

  • There is a main character—me—who is on a journey. I’m seeking a speaker, I find a speaker, he speaks, and it sets me off on a new career path. The journey transforms me. People like to hear about someone else’s journey. It’s how we learn without having to experience something first-hand.
  • I tell the listener from the outset when this event happened. A clear date helps the listener identify that I’m telling a story and the precise dates indicate that it is likely to be true. The story loses its impact if it starts by saying, “A few years back, when I joined IBM, my first job …”
  • It’s conversational. This is how I would tell it if someone asked, “So, how did you get into storytelling?” Conversational stories tend to be simple, without embellishment, telling the listener what happened.

There are many ways to use stories to communicate more effectively. Become aware of the anecdotes all around you and think, “How could these stories be improved? What can we learn from them?” Create and add to your own “library” of significant stories. The first step in retelling them is to know the message you want to convey. Then you need to find the most relevant anecdote among your collection, or recount the memory of another revealing event as a new anecdote.

Finding stories

Our minds are filled with stories but our memories are poles apart from library catalogues waiting to be searched. Rather, our memories need stimulation to remember the stories we know. Here are three ways to help remember stories:

  • Convene an anecdote circle, because hearing other people’s stories instantly conjures up our own tales. An anecdote circle is a group of people who meet for an hour or so to discuss a topic of interest. Instead of everyone providing their opinions, the group concentrates on retelling illustrative examples, anecdotes and experiences. You’ll be amazed at how many of your own stories you will remember. Write them down.
  • Draw a timeline on a whiteboard and mark the important events. This works best when you’re with a small group of people who have experienced that time together. Simply start a conversation about the events, recounting what people remember happening. To be effective, people must give specific and detailed accounts using real names, real places, real dates, otherwise the result will be abstract generalisations that are difficult to translate into effective stories for retelling.
  • Learn to ask anecdote-eliciting questions like, “Tell me when you’ve felt great about your work. What happened?” Avoid story-phobic questions such as, “Why do we do things this way?” or “What is the best approach to this problem?” This type of question results in people justifying their actions using analysis, facts and logic—not stories. Anecdotes flow when we help people remember a particular time, when they can picture a specific situation. “When” and “where” questions are most effective.

Presenting your stories

Regardless of the number of people listening to your story, you should present it conversationally as if you were speaking to a single person. Avoid announcing that you have a great story to tell. Simply launch into the retelling with, perhaps, an introductory remark like, “That reminds me of when …” or “This example illustrates that point.” Better still, when someone asks a question like, “How did you get into storytelling, Shawn?” immediately start your anecdote: “When I joined IBM in 1999 …”

At the end of the story avoid telling the listeners what they should have gleaned from the story. Avoid saying things like, “The moral of the story then is …” or “The key points I want you to take away from that story are …” The power of storytelling comes from the story being told twice, once by the storyteller and once by the story-listener. If you tell the listener what they should have heard, you steal their opportunity to re-create the story for themselves. It’s this story re-creation that inspires people to take action, change behaviour and self-reflect.

About Shawn Callahan
Shawn is one of 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:

2 Responses to “Telling stories for a living”

  1. Galba Bright of Tune up your EQ Says:

    Lovely, Shawn. This is a great explanation.

  2. alfred Says:

    I like it very much.
    It is a good explanation for me