Storytelling versus story-writing

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —August 21, 2006
Filed in Business storytelling

One way we help businesses learn and change is to help them find and collect their stories. These business stories are not fancy, crafted stories you might expect an archetypal storyteller to deliver. Rather they are often simple utterances in response to questions like, “So, what happened?” or “What’s going on around here?” These simple stories are told in organisations and help people make sense of what’s happening in the workplace. When collected and used in a systematic way they can provide incredible insights.

So far at Anecdote we’ve collected stories by recording and transcribing what people say. Our technique of choice is the anecdote circle but we have been using a range of approaches lately including getting people to record their own stories. As story techniques become popular there is a growing interest for people to write down and submit their stories either by email or by directly typing them into an online form. There are obvious advantages in story writing. It’s scalable (lots of people can submit stories) and can be done anywhere there’s a computer and an internet connection. As narrative practitioners we need to understand what we are trading for scalability and apparent simplicity.

Much has been written on the difference between written and oral stories. Interestingly, most commentators on this dichotomy focus on how people interpret a told versus a written story. While the interpretation perspective is relevant (and important), the focus of this post is on the differences involved in creating the story. Does the way we create a story affect its nature? Or put another way, How does story telling differ from story writing when creating a story?

Before I make my comparison it’s important for me to reiterate what I mean by storytelling. To tell a story in a business context is to simply recount an experience. In most cases stories are used to explain what has happened or how things work around here. The story teller simply provides an example.

Story telling is spontaneous and is often in response to what’s said by others in a conversation. It’s highly social and each story told reminds people of experiences they can recount. Once the story is told it can’t be undone; it’s out there.

Story writing is deliberate and measured and is typically done alone. During the writing the author is conscious of the potential audiences. They author can edit, draft after draft, to obtain a desired effect.

Story telling relies on a range of human faculties: gestures, tone, volume, pace, facial expressions. Add to this list all those things we leave out when telling a story. As Mark Twain says:

The pause is an exceedingly important feature in any kind of story, and a frequently recurring feature, too. It is a dainty thing, and delicate, and also uncertain and treacherous; for it must be exactly the right length — no more and no less — or it fails of its purpose and makes trouble. If the pause is too short the impressive point is passed, and the audience have had time to divine that a surprise is intended — and then you can’t surprise them, of course.

While much of this richness is lost in a transcription, gathering a group of people together to retell their experiences benefits from all these features and the stories told are a reflection of the environment.

Story writing, on the other hand, relies on just words, fonts and punctuation to convey the full emotional impact and context of the story. And I think we all appreciate how hard it is be a good writer.

Lastly, Dave Snowden is renowned for saying, “We always know more than we can tell and we will always tell more than we can write down.” Relying on the written word to capture stories is bound to result in a loss of context and content.

More and more narrative practitioners will rely on story writing to capture stories because it’s a cheaper and scalable approach. But in using this approach we must be mindful of what we are losing in the process and be aware of how the stories might change when they are written down. More importantly, will some types of stories never be written at all?


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. Matt Moore says:

    Good post. Another (related) distinction is between individual (naive interview) vs. collective (anecdote circle) story capture. The latter allows for “ditting” (which always seemed like the narrative equivalent of brainstorming to me) but is also more exposed than one-on-one. Written stories tend to be related in the individual mode unless you are in a chat environment (or even something like IBM’s Jam technology).
    I sense a 2×2 matrix coming on…
    As to your last question, I think that some kinds of story will never be written down – even if anonymity is guaranteed. That moment when you’re having coffee with someone and they look around to see who else is there before leaning in to tell you something has no real equivalent in the written world.

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