10 Story-eliciting questions to be a wonderful conversationalist

Posted by Shawn Callahan - June 2, 2014
Filed in Questions

You know that networking is important. But if you are like me, you find networking events hard work. You’re not really sure what to say or how to get a good conversation going. Part of the problem is that we put too much pressure on ourselves to do all the talking in social situations. Well, about 10 years ago I learned a valuable lesson: you can be a good conversationalist simply by asking questions.

Here’s what happened. I was all set to attend a Human Resources Institute of New Zealand conference when a friend, Mary Alice Arthur, told me I simply had to meet a man called Christian Dahmen. Mary Alice then arranged for me to sit next to Christian at the conference dinner. Now, I wasn’t really in the mood for talking on the night of the dinner, so I set myself the challenge to say as little as possible and instead help Christian and the people around us do all the talking.


If you had known Christian, who sadly passed away a few years ago, you would know that it wasn’t hard to encourage him to share his thoughts. Still, throughout the night, I asked questions that I hoped would prompt him to share more stories with me. And they did. The really surprising thing happened at the very end of the night. As we stood up to head home, Christian shook my hand and said, ‘It was a pleasure meeting you Shawn. You are a wonderful conversationalist’. In the wake of that night, we became close friends.

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May your festive season be filled with stories

Posted by Mark Schenk - December 22, 2011
Filed in Anecdotes, News, Questions

From a story perspective, Christmas is a prolific time of year. As we gather with friends and families we recall the memories of the past and create new stories as presents are unwrapped, as turkeys emerge from the oven (or the Weber BBQ in the Schenk household), as Dads relive past triumphs with a half-century in the backyard cricket and, for some, as family members rub each other up the wrong way :-)

Stories help us reconnect with old memories, relive special moments and learn more about our friends and families. They also help turn strangers into friends.

Here are some questions that might help create a fun and story-filled festive season:

  • What was your funniest moment in 2011?
  • What was the high point of the year for you? What happened?
  • Same question, but the low point.
  • What was your best Christmas present ever?
  • What was your most memorable Christmas ever?
  • The best thing you have done this year?
  • Which family traditions from your childhood have you continued with your own children?
  • When was the last time you mentally wanted to punch someone at Christmas time?
  • When did you realise that Santa is a fake and reindeer can’t really fly?

Its also important to remember one of our favourite mantras – little things make a big difference. Now, I’m the first to admit I am not very good at this but I did something on Friday…a friend had surgery and was coming home around lunchtime. I went to her place and put on the breadmaker so she came home to the smell of fresh-baked bread. She was really pleased and a few days later I overheard her telling her parents on the phone about it…

We’d like to thank all the people we have worked with this year and all our friends, all over the world, who have helped make 2011 a rewarding and successful year.

Best wishes for the festive season and for a happy, healthy and successful 2012 from all of us at Anecdote

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The need to know why

Posted by Kevin Bishop - July 6, 2011
Filed in Changing behaviour, Communication, Questions

I was reminded, yet again, last week about the power that comes from overtly answering the “why?” question.

I was working on a client site when I saw this poster stuck on an external door:

Delta Non Smoke Reason

The explanation below the main text makes this poster far stronger as an influence tool and more likely to stop people smoking directly outside the door. Why? It gives a reason not to smoke in that place.

The power of giving a reason was highlighted in research by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer as far back as 1978. She undertook a very simple experiment with students queuing up to use a library photocopier.

When students were asked; “Excuse me, I have five pages, may I use the machine?” 60% agreed to the request; 40%, however, said no and continued with their own copying.

When a reason was added; “Excuse me, I have five pages, may I use the photocopier, I’m in a rush” – 94% percent agreed to the request.

This makes sense.

However, what doesn’t make sense is why the same number agreed when the request was changed to “Excuse me, may I use the photcopier because I want to make copies.” This reasoning doesn’t really make sense. Why would you use a photocopier if you were not planning to make copies? It is the same as no reason at all.

Langer therefore concluded that the key difference to whether the majority of people would agree to a request or not, was if a reason was attached to the request. If people at least tried to address the “why?” question.

Now I believe that any reason is fine, even it doesn’t make sense, when you are asking a stranger for a one off favour. But when it comes to influencing behaviour on an ongoing basis in our homes and workplaces, the reason itself also becomes important.

There are a number of ways I think this poster works in getting across the reason not to smoke outside the door. It:

  • makes the consequences of smoking in that location very concrete
  • has narrative elements (although not fully a story)
  • encourages empathy on the part of the viewer in order to gain compliance

Dan Pink has a whole section on his website about posters like this, which he calls emotionally intelligent signage that is well worth checking out.

For such a simple poster, it really does a great job of answering the “why?” question and positively impacting behaviour.

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A Fair Dinkum Way to Get Stories

Posted by Kevin Bishop - January 27, 2011
Filed in Questions, Story collection

During my first week here at Anecdote I sat in on an Anecdote Circle at a large Government Department here at Melbourne. It was the first time I had seen one of these run by Shawn and I was therefore very keen to see how he did it, and anything I could pick up and and use myself in the future.

One of the things I noticed quite early on was that Shawn would start by asking one of the pre-prepared, scripted questions and if he did not get him any stories from the group, he would follow it up by turning the more formal question into one that contained an idiom. So “Think of a time when you saw somebody manage (x) roles in a way that made you think, “Wow. If everybody worked that way, things would got a lot more smoothly around here”. Got followed up with; “when have things gone as smooth as clock work?”. There were many more examples of this throughout the session, and each time it seemed to get great results at eliciting stories.

When I raised it with Shawn afterwards he wasn’t even aware he used this as a a technique, but in talking it through and making him aware of it, he began to realise he used it all the time. He even told me a story that Mark had told him of doing some story elicitating work and asking; “When have you been most elated at work, or most disappointed?” He got a load of blank stares and shaking of heads, until one of the guys piped up; “We don’t get ‘elated’ or ‘disappointed’ we either get ‘stoked or ‘gutted'”.

I think the use of idioms and slang work in eliciting stories for a number of reasons. They give a far greater richness than can be delivered from just words alone. ‘Gutted’ has a far greater impact than ‘disappointed’ for example, it has a far greater emotional reaction. Also by using the right idioms for that audience it shows them you are ‘talking their language’ therefore building rapport, trust and the relationship. It shows you understand them and are part of their ‘community’. It also increases your chances of the question being understood.

This technique really came to the fore when we started collecting stories at a large electricity generating company. We were doing this out in these huge power stations, with he guys (and they were mainly guys) dressed in their work boots and protective clothing, with a natural distrust of us as “city boys”. Using idioms and slang in the majority of our questions really worked as a way to get them to tell stories. It put them at ease, used language and terms they understood, and created a degree of informality that seemed to help them to tell stories.

We have also used this insight into some of the questions we have developed for eliciting family stories in Zahmoo, which can be found in the ‘Online Resources’. Examples of using idioms include things like; “Do you remember a time when Mum or Dad went through the roof over something you did?”, “What was something your spouse has done that just blew you away?”, “Did you ever get off on the wrong foot with someone who then became a good friend?” or “Have you ever been at death’s door?”.

We also have used slang to get people to recall moments and tell stories about them. Examples include; “When did you really come a gutser as a kid?” or “What did you put the kibosh on that you wished you hadn’t?’.

I would therefore strongly recommend trying to consciously use idioms and slang when asking questions to elicit stories. The results I have seen in different settings, groups and people have proven to me they really do work as a way to help people recall moments, and therefore be able to tell stories about them. Go on, have a crack!

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Storytelling for non-storytellers


Troy White has just posted a blog which I think is both very good because it encourages people who don’t think they are storytellers to have a go and practice, yet I feel doesn’t go far enough because there is a chance readers will not get to a story based on his list of triggers. Mind you I think Troy’s story prompters are a great place to start. I would like, however, to make some additions to each one to make doubly sure people tell a story rather than just express their opinion. My additions are in red.

  • Pet Peeves and when was the last time you felt peeved by them
  • Physical Characteristics (Uniqueness) and the times they helped or hindered
  • Core Beliefs and how they unfold in practice
  • Politics – when have you felt angry, let down or felt like giving them a standing ovation?
  • Birthplace – how did you end up being born there?
  • What Are You Pathological About? And where do they emerge? What happened last time?
  • Religion – has there ever been a time or moment where you were truly thankful for your beliefs?
  • Significant Childhood Events
  • Beliefs – have they ever got you in trouble?
  • Hobbies – when have you felt proudest of your hobbies?
  • Education – has your education made a big difference? What happened?
  • Skills – Have you ever had a moment when you were surprised by the skills you have or dismally lack?
  • Interests – What’s your most boring interest and when have you really bored someone with it?
  • Family – What are you most fond of about your family? What’s an example?
  • Talents – Has a talent ever really made a real difference? What happened?
  • Life Events You Remember Most
  • Adventures You Will Never Forget
  • Incompetence At? Share a time when you were a real klutz.
  • Anything You Are A Legend Of? When did your legendom shine?
  • Successes – What are the three most memorable successes you remember? Take us through what happened.
  • Likes – Tell us the last time one of your real likes jumped out and grabbed you?
  • Curiosities – What is the weirdest thing you have ever heard happening?
  • Failures – What’s your biggest stuff up?
  • Dislikes – Have you ever felt repulsed by a dislike? Tell us about it.
  • Are People Amazed By Anything You Do Or About You? If yes, what happened?
  • What Are You Ambitious About? What Fires You Up? When have you been really fired up? What got you going?
  • Self Disciplined About? When have you displayed a monk-like discipline.
  • People Are Envious Of You Because _______? When has someone been envious of you?
  • Do People Desire What You Have? When have people desired what you have?

To get to a story you need to get to a time and a place. When and where questions are good. Asking what happened works. Just asking for an example can work if you can get people to provide a detailed example. Troy’s prompters point us in the right direction for finding our own stories. My additions hopefully will increase the chances that a story will be told.


Finding Stories

Posted by Shawn Callahan - April 20, 2010
Filed in Business storytelling, Questions, Story collection

We start most of our projects by collecting stories. We collect stories in groups (using anecdote circles) and one-on-one. We’ve learned a lot about getting people comfortable, building trust and asking questions that elicit stories. There’s still a lot to learn. A couple of weeks ago something happened while filming stories for a mentoring program we’re creating for a client. And since we had a camera at the time we filmed my recollection of what happened.

Time is important and so is your intent.

Paul Cooper over at SMS Consulting Group shared with me this simple way of thinkng about trust.

TRUST = (credibility + reliability + intimacy) / self interest

I like it. For one thing, I can remember it and after all the trust-related literature I’ve read over the years I think it describes the important elements (btw when I first saw the formula depiction I initially recoiled. “Trust can’t be a simple formula.” I got over it.)

When collecting stories you need to start with a warm up. Back in 2004 I described what the warm up looks like when collecting stories. All those ideas still hold true but I would like to emphasise INTENT. Your storyteller must know you have a good intent and that you will safeguard the stories and the storytellers. . When we collect stories we make it clear how we intend to retell the stories and whether we have their permission.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a teleconference with Doug Lipman on story elicitation (he’s running some courses on this topic too). He’s also noticed that business books that talk about the importance of questions often neglect story-eliciting questions. There are a few good places to find story-eliciting questions. You can check out our Questions category on this blog. And just yesterday I was reminded by @AmandaFenton about StoryCorps’ story collection guide.

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The Bullshit Detection Kit

Posted by Shawn Callahan - August 2, 2009
Filed in Knowledge, Questions

I discovered this video today which lists 10 questions to help you decide whether a viewpoint, opinion, theory is worth taking on board and believing. Here are the questions that will help you detect bullshit (actually they called it the baloney detector kit but no one says baloney in Australia). Write them down and take them to conferences and see how the speakers fair—ask questions and if you don’t really understand what they are saying, pull them up and ask them to say it simply. It’s harder to convey your ideas simply than to use jargon. Don’t let them baffle you with bullshit.

  1. How reliable is the source of the claim?
  2. Does the source make similar claims? (eg. if you are into magic (or evolution), then all your ideas have a magic (or evolution) bent)
  3. Have the claims been verified by somebody else?
  4. Does this fit with the way the world works?
  5. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?
  6. Where does the preponderance of evidence point?
  7. Is the claimant playing by the rules of science
  8. Is the claimant providing positive evidence? (it’s too easy to just bag the other side)
  9. Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?
  10. Are personal beliefs driving the claim?


Vital behaviours for knowledge sharing

Posted by Shawn Callahan - April 24, 2009
Filed in Knowledge, Questions

My colleague Hugh Bathurst is currently working for an engineering firm helping one of the divisions develop a knowledge sharing culture. Hugh has been collecting stories, eliciting how things get done and encouraging peope to contribute to developing of a range of knowledge resources.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting the manager who’s sponsoring this initiative. His division is leading the firm financially and he puts their success largely down to the knowledge sharing initiatives, especially their ability to transform their culture over the last 18 months. So I asked him, “what behaviours do you see now that weren’t there when you started?”
I find this question really gets people thinking because in many cases managers don’t think about culture in terms of behaviours. “Hmmm, I think people spend more time moving about the floor and having conversations,” he said first. “But now I think of it, there are two things that have made the biggest difference. We call one of them Active Introductions. It’s where I accompany Hugh when we first introduce a new person to our knowledge sharing initiatives. I sit next to Hugh as he explains the program to show that knowledge sharing is important. After about 5 minutes, when I see they are getting it, I say I’ll leave you guys to work through the details and I head off.”
“The second thing we do is to identify what we call Beacons. These are the people who really get into knowledge sharing. They are like a bright light. We make sure the beacons are spread across the floor so they shine on as many people as possible and we keep their energy up by heaping praise on their good work.”


Finding stories

Posted by Shawn Callahan - September 8, 2008
Filed in Business storytelling, Questions

Tell stories to hear stories

Listen to stories to remember your stories

Mark and I penned these observations while developing our course on storytelling. The first one, “tell stories to hear stories,” reminds us that a good way to find stories is to tell some yourself. Here’s an example. When I see my teenage daughter after school I would often ask how her day went, whether anything interesting happened at school, and the standard response is often monosyllabic: yep, nup. In fact the more questions I’d ask the shorter the answers. So I changed tack and rather than ask questions I simply recounted something that happened in my day. I would launch into something like, “I met a bearded lady today. This morning I drove down to Fitzroy to run an anecdote circle for …” and immediately my daughter would respond with an encounter from her day. A conversation starts and it’s delightful.

Our second reminder is the flip-side to the first. If you want to remember your own stories go listen to other people’s stories and then don’t forget to jot your anecdotes down. Many of our stories are ephemeral, flooding our memory banks when the conditions are right and evaporating just as quickly. Often a story will come to mind and you will have no idea why you would ever retell it but make a note anyway. Just being aware of our stories is an important first step in the effective application of business narrative.


Leaders need to listen

Posted by Mark Schenk - June 28, 2008
Filed in Anecdotes, Questions, Strategic clarity

Deborah May provided the following account in her recent newsletter.

Most leaders want to engage their team in planning processes but don’t always do so effectively.

Recently I facilitated a session with a group of executives. The conversation was lively, the questions were thought provoking and we ultimately developed a decent plan for the future. Unfortunately, the CEO’s need to control the outcome limited the value of the session and dampened his team’s enthusiasm and confidence in the future. The CEO was well intentioned. He asked his team to come up with ideas and told them that he would just listen. This was welcomed. Too frequently he dominated the meetings and limited the contribution of his team. Ideas began to flow, discussion was animated and there was a sense of possibility and excitement in the room. The conversation was still lively when the CEO somewhat petulantly ended the meeting when he said that he’d heard most of it before, they didn’t come up with anything new and the meeting had been a waste of time. The animation ceased, the mood changed, energy dissipated and people looked embarrassed. I was bemused, however, and gathered the notes from the meeting, confident that there’d been many good ideas generated that could be harnessed and used. I later found out that the CEO had wanted his team to adopt a particular strategy he’d articulated at a prior meeting. He was so focused on his own idea he had failed to listen to others. When I shared the outcomes of the meeting with him later, he was decent enough to admit he’d been too rash in dismissing the meeting as a waste of time. Unfortunately he was not quite able to articulate his error of judgement to his team. Your role as a leader is to enlist followers and engage the hearts, minds and resources of the whole organisation to achieve something compelling – and then get out of the way. Leaders who are too directive and don’t let go, lose not only great ideas but eventually the people as well.

I am sure I have been to that same meeting. The one where the convenor purports to listen but in reality only wants to convince people to do something they have already decided. Professor Brenda Dervin said “anger dissipates when people are listened to”. I think the converse is also true. We need to learn from examples such as the one above. If only we could apply the ‘law of two feet’ from Open Space Technology when we find ourselves in sessions like this.