Identifying a story

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —March 18, 2007
Filed in Anecdotes

I’m just in the process of building up some reflections for my workshop in Boston (you’re most welcome to register and attend) in a couple of weeks and thought I would share some snippets as I progress. You will notice some of the following text is directly from previous blog posts and some is new.

Annette Simmons says that explaining storytelling is like explaining kittens.

“We all know about kittens. We have wonderful memories of kittens—children holding kittens, watching kittens play, petting a kitten. Our memories are a meaningful whole. Trying to break them down into pieces is like cutting a kitten in half in order to understand it. Half a kitten isn’t really half a kitten. Breaking storytelling down into pieces, parts, and priorities destroys it.” (xviii)

If you go searching for explanations of stories, narrative, business narrative and storytelling, you will discover mountains of information that dissects the kitten into a million pieces. From our experience, there is one practical thing you need to know to be effective in business narrative; you must know how to identify a story.

A story is a set of events linked together in a way that explains what happened or what could happen. It differs from a clinic example because a story includes emotions and sensory detail.

“The King died and the Queen cried,” is a statement of fact.
“The King died and the Queen cried of a broken heart,” is a story.

Here’s a story from FedEx. They collect them to demonstrate employees exhibiting the company’s values.

In St. Vincent, a tractor trailer accident blocked the main road going into the airport. Together a driver and ramp agent tried every possible alternate route to the airport but were stymied by traffic jams. They eventually struck out on foot, shuttling every package the last mile to the airport for an on-time departure.

A story is detailed and specific and through these details people generalise and work out what’s happening and how to behave. When you become attuned to identifying stories, you will realised you’re surrounded by them.

Their ubiquity is due to our tendency to use stories to explain most things that happen around us. The boss comes down from the 26th floor to speak to Mary. “Jim must be down to talk to Mary about next week’s round of performance reviews.” It’s how we make sense of what’s happening.

Some people think a story must have a plot, character development, a protagonist, a turning point and a resolution. This might be true of a film script, a play, a novel etc. but in organisations, stories tend to be much smaller and inconspicuous. Stories can range from well-rehearsed retellings of a foundational moment in the organisation (the creation myths) to the smallest of utterances that immediately help people recall a story: “What happened, Fiona?” he asked. “Exactly what happened to Pedro 3 years ago,” Fiona replied. The Pedro story is replayed in everyone’s mind without anyone hearing it.

Most of the time business stories are short anecdotes recounting an event. Often these anecdotes are ephemeral, lost almost immediately after being told. Other times the anecdotes are enduring, a successful meme that is told and retold throughout the organisation. The enduring anecdotes shape the character of an organisation and are the most important stories to find.


Simmons, A. (2006). The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion Through the Art of Storytelling. New York, Basic Books.

Boje, D.M., D.B. Fedor, and K.M. Rowland. 1982. “Myth Making: A Qualitative Step in OD Interventions.” The Journal of Applied Behavioural Science 18(1):17-28.

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:

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