Storytelling versus storysensemaking

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —April 6, 2005
Filed in Business storytelling

It’s interesting how a word affects what we do. Take ‘storytelling’. This is a hot topic in business and marketing today evidenced by the books appearing on the subject. Here is Steve Denning’s new book and here’s one on branding.

Each one, however, focuses on telling stories. There are very few instances where practitioners are focusing on the meaning of the stories already being told. I think this is because there isn’t an equivalent word to ‘storytelling’ so I’m going to propose ‘storysensemaking’. Sure, it’s a little cumbersome but it only has one more syllable than ‘storytelling’.

Dave Snowden, a pioneer in storysensemaking, has favoured the term ‘Organisational Narrative’ in attempt to differentiate his work from the storytellers, but the phrase is too long and is not a verb. You can’t do Organisational Narrative like you can do storytelling.

What do you think? Is there already a simple verb which means storysensemaking? If there is I’m all for using existing words.


About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, 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:


  1. Rup3rt says:

    Structuralists (used to?) say that every reading is always a rewriting. I’m more with metareading or Editing – not for purists or Actor Network Theory wonks but it is the act and the profession of sense-making. If explicit rules are followed there it can be subjective-averse:
    Abstract, Precis, Resumo, Executive Summary. These are all ways of resizing content to the attention span of a potential audience.
    Newer, computer fuelled trends are search (subjective and for sense, detail or reference) word analysis/statistics, concordance.
    The challenge for these techniques is transcription.It’s a place where IT cannot quite reach, cannot contextualise and where video is still as big a barrier as an opportunity.
    Personally I enjoy a Letterman, Larry King or Parkinson teasing out material but there are a lot of Alan Partridges out there……

  2. Matt Moore says:

    I’d pitch for “gossip” except that it has such grubby connotations. Compared to the nobility of “storytelling”.
    However, much “storytelling” seems to be about “spin”. Which is much less noble…

  3. Mick Mather says:

    I could be well off the mark here and/or just old and in the way…but when I went to school I believe what you’re talking about here was called “reading comprehension”. As Rup3rt says, “reading is always a rewriting” – at least, we should be “thinking” about what we’re reading or, as we go along, ask the Lettermanesque question, “what are you trying to pull?”

  4. Thanks Mick, Matt and Rup3rt. Listening is the key verb. It’s what you do when the lights dim in a theatre and you sit back to enjoy the story which is about to unfold. Or is it more like a journalist interviewing people to create a story? The journalist analogy has problems because there is a clear purpose to interviewing which is to create an entertaining story. Storysensemaking (listening for stories) is more open to serendipity.

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