Collecting stories – the role of the imaginary person

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —July 23, 2007
Filed in Business storytelling

Aiden Choles has just posted a nice piece on how he used role play within an anecdote circle to collect stories. This is how it happened. He was starting to explore the prevalent myths in the organisation he’s working with when one of the participants mentioned change house cleaners.

It turns out that at a point in time in the past, there were Change Houses on mine shafts where the miners would change into and out of their underground clothing before and after shifts. These Houses were significant social convergence points and the Change House Cleaner was party to all the gossip and everyday talk that the miners shared with each other. And so, the Cleaners developed a valuable social currency as they became nodes of communal information.

But it has been some time since the Change Houses were around, but the character of the Change House Cleaner still lives on. And so when speaking of a rumour in the organisation, people ask where they got the information. The answer: “The Change House Cleaner told me.”

Aiden’s next step in the anecdote circle is ingenious. After discovering the change house cleaners Aiden pulls up an empty chair and says it is the change house cleaner and starts to ask the group questions about this imaginary person.

I asked if the Cleaner was a man of woman.

“Man!”, they said unanimously.

And what is his name?


Okay, what else would Simon tell us about this organisation?

“He would tell us about the shafts that are about to close.”

“He would tell us about who is sleeping with who”.

“He would tell us about our CEOs secret life”.

“But wait”, someone said, “I was speaking to Simon this morning and he was telling me about the situation in Zimbabwe”.

From that point on a new and passionate conversation started revealing more about what really was happening in that organisation.

(Thanks to Matt Moore for the link)

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. Robyn Ciuro says:

    That’s a terrific story. Given the power of outsourcing and the short term contract it is probably not the case anymore but I know that in the first two schools I taught at as a young graduate teacher, the person who could be relied upon to have all the latest information about what was happening with the kids, the school and the other teachers was the cleaner.
    At Cambridge St P.S the other graduate teacher and myself used to joke about how Peter the cleaner was more powerful than the principal. Little did we know then, the true power vested in connectors in the workplace!

  2. Nerida Hart says:

    When I first joined the public service (back in 1985) I remember being told the most informed person in the place was the tea lady. Why did we ever get ris of the tea lady – she always knew exactly what was going on – including when a Departmental reorganisation was on the horizon.
    Last week we were in a Queensland government department and guess what – they had a tea lady – what a forward thinking organisation was the comment from both myself and 2 of my team!

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