Does your story have impact?

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —March 12, 2009
Filed in Business storytelling

I’m working with Victoria Ward and her colleagues over at Sparknow at the moment evaluating a set of stories for their likely impact. We do a lot of story impact assessment at Anecdote because when we collect stories we always end up with too many to use in a workshop and therefore must select a sub-set. Sometimes culling is done by our clients, sometimes by us. But regardless of who does it you need a set of criteria to make the selection.

So here’s our assessment criteria for likely impact. I should say, however, that it can only be an assessment of likely impact because people are affected more or less by stories based on their experience. I’ve told the one armed karate kid story many times and mostly people find it amusing and insightful. On one occasion, however, a woman who was listening to the story teared up.   

  • Clarity—you hear or read the story once and you get it. It’s simple, clear and has a good narrative structure (time markers, characters, begin-middle-end). That structure components don’t have to be too sophisticated. We have found some of the most powerful organisational stories would past a screenwriters test or have the hero’s journey structure, for example.
  • Emotional—it gets you in the gut. It doesn’t matter what emotion it evokes but impactful stories evoke at least one strong emotion.
  • Believable—it doesn’t sound like bullshit. Facts and figures help but not too many. Details help with real people’s names and specific dates and times.
  • Transport—it transports you to relive the experience. You can see, hear, touch, smell and taste the experience.
  • Surprising—it throws you a curve ball that you weren’t expecting.
  • Relevant—does it talk to the topic under investigation

If your story rates well on all these criteria there is a good chance it will be memorable and persuasive which means it’s likely to be retold. And when that happens then the story has real impact.

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 used to be a terrible storyteller, the guy who laughs at his own stories instead of getting them out. I’ve been on the hunt ever since I realized this to sharpen my ability to craft and tell stories. Two books that have helped immensely are:
    Therapeutic Metaphors by David Gordon, which is simply great about breaking down stories though in a therapeutic context.
    The other, tongue in cheek, is Making Comics by Scott McCloud. No Really. It’s a very good book on the genre of comics written in comic format. So he shows you what’s going on in comics literally frame-by-frame. I think it helped because most stories, I think, exist as some kind of internal filmstrip, and comics is such a filmstrip.

  2. ken says:

    Thanks for the link to the one-arm story, I thought I’d read all your posts, but didn’t recollect that one – very nice, memorable, too…
    The point about relevance resonates well, connecting – “it’s” as-if the story itself was talking, throwing the curve ball, had legs, a life of it’s own?
    But, “it doesn’t sound like…”, woah, mixed metaphors 😉
    p.s. if we visualised a story, would it’s elements leap across the frames (of a comic), priming expectations, unexpected moments, giving life to Bruner’s narrative breach – omg, verisimilitude (remember that?), now i get it, it makes sense, has meaning, relevance, connection 🙂

  3. Thanks for the book suggestions. Scott’s book has been recommended to me a number of times, which means it’s time to get a copy. David’s sounds interesting too.

  4. Hey, welcome back to the comments pages Ken. It’s been a while since you last made a comment and we missed you. One of these days we must meet up. Are you based in the UK by any chance because I’m going there in June.

  5. Matt Moore says:

    Shawn – I think these are useful criteria but I think after each of them you need put “to whom” after each of them.
    These would be very powerful to use in conjunction with a set of archetypes or personas, identifying how that archetype would respond to the story against these criteria.

  6. Good idea Matt. The permutations start to get a little unwieldy however.

  7. Shawn –
    Thanks for this post. I saw it just as I was looking for something to go in a presentation that I delivered today. You can see the slide pack (with attribution, of course) on SlideShare at:

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