Five conditions that encourage stories

Posted by Shawn Callahan - January 20, 2011
Filed in Story collection

If you read this blog there is a good chance you firmly believe in the power of stories. You might have also come to the conclusion, like I have, that it’s mighty hard to find stories when you need them. A better strategy is to collect stories when they’re told, index them and be able to re-find them when they are needed (see how Joan Rivers does it). You can check out Zahmoo as a way to keep track of your stories. Or have a look at our Story Finder.

For this strategy to work you need to be places where stories are told. Better still, you need to create the conditions for stories to be told.

Here are five conditions that are important for stories to be told.

  1. A caring listener. The person listening to the stories cares about and is interested in them. People have a finely tuned sense of whether others care about what they are saying and if they detect disdain or even a little boredom they’ll truncate their stories or just stop altogether.
  2. Free time. Remember those times when you had a long road trip with a friend or colleague and the stories you heard. Stories seem to emerge when we are not under pressure or constrained by formality. Loose meeting agendas are more likely to encourage stories than highly structured gatherings.
  3. Common ground. A while back I called my brother. He lives in Arizona. He’s a wine salesman (a bloody good one) and he was telling me what a talented sales manager he has. I asked him to share an example of what this talented guy did. My brother hesitated. In fact he kept giving me high level descriptions rather than a story. Then I realised I didn’t share his wine sales rep knowledge and might not appreciate (or get) his story. So I said, “just pretend I’m an experienced wine guy.” He then shared a great example. Common knowledge and language is needed at some level before stories are shared.
  4. Tell stories. Stories beget stories. One of the best ways to encourage someone to share a story is to tell one yourself.
  5. Memorabilia. One of my most enjoyable projects involved helping an energy company collect stories from retiring specialists. One was Mike, the network controller. His job was to keep tabs on the entire electricity grid and solve problems as they happened. His office was filled with maps, computer screens and whiteboards filled with notes and sketches. Storytelling was easy for him. He would grab a map of the grid and tell me the story of how a substation went down and how they fixed it. Unfortunately Mike retired before we had finished the story collection but he invited me to his home a couple of months after retiring to finish the job. We were in his lounge room with pictures of his family on the wall and keepsakes from overseas trips on shelves. When we got started I quickly discovered he struggled to tell me his work stories and when he did have one they weren’t as rich with detail as the ones from his office. Picking places and artefacts that remind people of their stories can make all the difference.

What others would you add to this list?

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:

One Response to “Five conditions that encourage stories”

  1. Tom Graves Says:

    The last item, ‘Memorabilia’, reminded me of Frances Yates’ 1966 book ‘The Art of Memory’(Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Art_of_Memory – see also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_of_memory ) – a theatre, for example, as a structure intentionally to invoke and anchor stories. Hmm… :-)