The Power of Archetypes in Creating Meaning

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —February 17, 2006
Filed in Anecdotes

My nine year old daughter (she’s now 13) is an avid reader. She loves the Harry Potter series and reads them Hermione Grangerrepeatedly. This voracious appetite for stories has unfortunately resulted in an annoying ‘know-it-all’ attitude that was driving her parents crazy—the only negative side effect of reading we’ve noticed. She would whine in utter disdain comments like: “Come on Dad, don’t … you … know … who … made … the … philosopher’s … stone?”

One morning at breakfast, after another episode of Potter boasting, I quipped: “you know you’re sounding just like Hermione.” Her behaviour changed instantly as she quickly compared the characteristics of Hermione from Harry Potter with her own behaviour; she obviously didn’t like the result. The Hermione character was rich in detail for her yet it would have been quite difficult for me to explicit and accurately explain these characteristics in a meaningful way without referring to a character in a story.

Stories are a great way to understand complexity and share meaning. In business we tell stories to create reputations (or destroy them), share experiences (retelling someone else’s story is the next best thing to being there) and build culture. When working with clients we help them retell their stories and then capture them to be reused as lessons learned material. In place of the individual characters we develop, with the client, archetypes which convey the complex social characteristics that we deal with every day. Instead of Hermione we develop archetypes like Mr Officious Project Manager, Ms Bulldozer or Mr Know-it-all Consultant. Any sound familiar?

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. Mark True says:

    We’re using story telling as a key tool for our clients, too, but it’s difficult to get them thinking about their own stories. It’s a long, drawn out process that helps them discover what’s different, inviting, relevant and truthful about their brand. When a great story emerges, you can almost see the excitement, the understanding and the thrill grow right there in front of you.

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