Making sense of stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —April 29, 2007
Filed in Business storytelling

A couple of weeks ago I was helping to run a management development program. It was based on the collection and interpretation of stories of good and bad management behaviour. Every time we run this program (which happens every month for this organisation) I’m always impressed with the conversations people have and the level of understanding that develops. Stories have many possible interpretations and the story-listerners hear different things depending on their own history and interests. I think participants of these story-based processes gain four benefits:

  1. They recognise their own behaviour in the stories and become more self aware. Self wareness is the pre-condition for change. I had one manager say to me, “this story is just like me and I’m not proud of it.”
  2. They develop an appreciation of how their colleagues view the world and just how different that view can be to their own.
  3. They learn stories that they can retell. The stories that really resonate will be retold and will affect the organisation’s culture.
  4. It helps adjust what people believe is possible. One participant said he was unaware of how the company dealt with a particular personal tragedy until he heard the story and he now felt he had a understanding of how he might respond to a similar incident if it happens

Using stories to trigger conversations and interpretations of behaviours is powerful. David Maister gives us a good example in a recent podcast. In this case David recounts how he received advice from a manager when he was a young professor at Harvard. What’s interesting about this story is the conversation David facilitates after its telling. Even without being there I was thinking of my own interpretations of the story which helps me remember what happened and some of the lessons. Managers everywhere should adopt this strategy of presenting a story and then getting the team to talk and make sense of it.

You might be thinking, “yeh, but isn’t that the same as case studies? We’ve been doing that for years.” The problem with case studies is they typically suck the life out of whatever they are describing by removing specifics which we all love to hear in a story (I’ve talked about case studies before here). On Friday I was in at the National Australia Bank getting a coffee at the staff kitchen and on the wall were eight one-page case studies of how the bank helped a range of unnamed customers. I read the first one and immediately felt my skeptometer rising. I’m sure they are all true but all the details were missing (real people’s names, names of organisations, dates) that would help me ascertain their plausibility (a key element of a story). I suspect they are rarely referred to.

Are managers in your organisation recounting stories and asking people for their interpretation?

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. I prefer another approach to business story telling. On my blog “The Corporate Cynic”, I relate real stories and anecdotes that highlight the “darkside” of corporations and leaders at all levels. The morals of the stories are meant to make a point, “If you want to run a good company or be a good leader, DON’T do what these corporations and leaders do.”
    I am hoping to just not be another voice in the wilderness.

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