Don’t tell me what to do, tell me a story

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —February 27, 2007
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling

IStock_000002807221XSmallLast week I returned from my morning walk to find my 11–year-old daughter filling the blender with ice cream to make a banana smoothie. My first reaction was to say, “What are you doing eating ice cream for breakfast? That’s a bad habit to get into. It’s unhealthy. You should stop having ice cream for breakfast” The response was a dismissive grunt in my general direction. Hmmm, that didn’t go well.

After we sat down to eat breakfast I started to tell my daughter a story. “When I was in high school my parents really had no idea about healthy eating and we used to drink soft drinks all the time, ate lots of bread and hardly touched fruit.” Then the phone rang and I answered. When I returned to the table my daughter said, “go on, you were talking about when you were in high school.” I continued the story which conveyed the message that the habits you form now will be with you for the rest of your life. I made no mention of the smoothie.

A week has gone by and ice cream hasn’t featured on our breakfast table.

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. ken says:


  2. avi says:

    A nice one 🙂
    I wish it worked at work, too.

  3. Hi Avi, why don’t you think this might work at work? I agree that you wont always have a story to tell, but it is worth finding your own stories and the stories of your communities and your company so that when presented with an opportunity to help someone learn you can recount a story rather than list a set of dos and don’ts.

  4. Matt Moore says:

    People do not like being told what to do. So a story relating your own experience allows you to tell them what you did and how you learned from it in a non-confrontational manner.
    However it is down to the listener whether they accept it and take it on board. Stories are not magic however. If someone is bent on a course of action and has no respect for your opinion, a story probably will not stop them.

  5. Hernán says:

    I’ve read your comments for some time now and I think anecdotes may be a good support when trying to replicate good practices.
    Do you think that including them as a motivational activity for a new community within a company, it may work?

  6. You are so right Matt. And telling a story every time someone has a question can be frustrating. I remember when I was a manager at IBM. My team was made up a bunch of really smart consultants and every time they came to me to ask for my advice I would ask them what they thought in order to start a conversation. One day Mary (not her real name) came into my office and ask my advice and I used my standard response. Well, she was not happy. “You’re the bloody manager, just give me an answer.” So I did and Mary replied, “We can’t do that!”
    And then when you hear the story you’re not 100% sure whether you understood the message.
    BTW, it’s great to see you commenting here again Matt. I hope all is well with you.

  7. Hi Hernán, the short answer is, definitely yes. There are a number of ways to use stories in a new community. The first is to get the members to tell stories about themselves to create the connections you need to bind the community together. This is particularly powerful if those stories are about the community domain. So for example, if the community domain is safety in underground mines, get the members to recount to one another stories of how they have improved safety or seen bad safety practices. In this way the group starts to form an identity together.
    The second way to use story in community formation is to do some things with the community that the will remember and tell stories about in the future. Have some early meetings in unusual locations, invite memorable speakers, do some offbeat activities. These become the creation stories for the community.
    Thirdly, throughout the life of the community make time to collect and share the member’s stories of how they practise their craft and spend time refelecting on that practice together. Hearing and interacting with a story is only second to have the experience yourself and a great learning device.

  8. Nimmy says:

    Wow. And see what I discovered in a recent experience-sharing session I was in, Shawn! 🙂

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