Celebrating Story

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —October 11, 2009
Filed in Business storytelling, News

I’m sitting here watching the sun peak up over the trees and bushes that define the boundary of our backyard thinking about the enjoyable conference I attended last week. It was called Celebrating Story and it was held at the Abbotsford Convent. Andrew and Sasha Rixon did a tremendous job organising the event. They created a lovely atmosphere that encouraged everyone to open up and share what they knew.

There were a few aha moments for me at the conference. The first came chatting to David Drake. Actually it all started listening to his presentation where he mentioned that some story practitioners dealt with stories as commodities. This made me bristle a little so I asked David after the session what he meant. What I learned from this conversation was something I knew from my knowledge management interests but never thought to apply it to stories. If you view a story as a thing then you will focus on the story structure, its impact, the lessons that can be drawn from it etc. and you will have a tremendous urge to capture it and store it in a database. If you view storytelling as a process you’ll focus on the people involved in the moment, the narrator, the listener, the context and the environment and will probably look for ways to create these types of experiences. One view is neither better nor worse than the other, you need both. But it is worthwhile pulling yourself up now and then and being mindful of your perspective.

Have you seen playback theatre? It is when a troupe of improv actors act out, at a drop of a hat, a story contributed by the audience. Melbourne’s Playback Theatre were a feature of the conference and I learned some valuable lessons from them.

Here is little technique the playback folk used which I think is great. I can see myself using it to help people enrich their visual palette when telling a story. Pair people up: a storyteller and a listener. The storyteller has to start their story by describing the place where the story begins: It all started in a tiny red brick house on the upside of the street. The poplar trees were blowing in the wind and my Dad was sitting on the front steps … That sort of thing. The listener then has the job of interrupting the story at anytime to get more description. “Popular tree?” they might ask, at which point the teller needs to say more about the popular trees until the listener says “continue.” The storyteller then just keeps telling their story from that point on. One of the variations they had us do is then walk side by side and reflect on our stories. There is something about strolling which improves the conversation. I’m sure Jane Austen would have had something to say about this phenomenon.

The other thing that was a little bit confronting for me, but highly valuable, was when the playback performers facilitated a large group to break down and respond to a story I told. They essentially played back the story and then yelled out the feelings they had when listening to the story. It was surprising what people felt really passionate about and helped me understand some of the really important things that were in that story.

My last discovery was fairytales. Andrew Rixon has been trying to convince me of the importance of fairytales in a business context and I must admit I dismissed them as too ‘out there’ for my business clients. But Andrew ran a session where the group explored a single issue (getting unstuck) and then in small groups we had to create a fairytale that illustrated elements of that issue. Ours was ‘awareness and options’ and we had no problem coming up with a dragon-killing knight and his inability to see what was really happening around him. The fairytale structure is a ready made collection of metaphors that any group can use to explore organisational issues.

My presentation was on our leadership development program where we use stories from the organisation to illustrate good and bad management behaviours. I also used the opportunity with a room full of story practitioners to explore some of the challenges we face in our work. The two I shared were the general inability for many people to identify a story because we interpret many things as stories and so find it difficult to differentiate a story from opinions; and how using the term ‘storytelling’ on a corporate setting can make people uncomfortable and how other language can be used.

Well done to Andrew and all the other people involved in organising the event. It was great fun.

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. Andrew Rixon says:

    Thanks Shawn!
    It was great having you part of the conference, and I really enjoyed our own chance to catchup.
    We’ve been taking it easy this weekend, but we did have the chance to review some of the video footage and really enjoyed watching some of your own storytelling. Including the great fairytale you told! 🙂
    We’ve decided we’ll do it again.
    We’ve got dates too. October 7th and 8th.
    Next years theme will be:
    Celebrating Story: Bringing People and Work to Life
    Maybe you can put your thinking cap on as to an offer for the next years conference…?
    (We’ll be putting out a broad call for presenters/workshop leaders in the coming months….)
    Warm regards,

  2. Very interesting message! Especially “They essentially played back the story and then yelled out the feelings they had when listening to the story.” Could you please tell a bit more about that part? Cheers from Sweden 🙂

  3. Stuart Reid says:

    Nice write-up Shawn. Makes me wish I had been there.
    Your point about strolling and talking struck me; some of the improv games I play involve the improvisers moving around the space while they take the story forward – it sometimes makes the players more creative, as they can ‘discover’ new imaginary objects or obstacles to interact with.
    I can also remember some special conversations I have had while strolling – parks and gardens are good for this, with opportunities to sit down on a bench and then walk on again when the mood feels right. I have a coaching session coming up in the week and may suggest we go for a stroll instead of sitting in an office room. Trouble is it’s turning to winter here in the UK, but then crisp wintry days can be perfect for a stroll…

  4. Willem Brethouwer says:

    Hi Shawn. Great story. In Holland i do regularly work with Wordt Vervolgd ( http://www.wordtvervolgd.net ) playback theatre. These people are really great performers and can act as coaches as well.
    regards Willem ( in your London course last summer)

  5. Simon Bruce says:

    I enjoyed your session (and the others I attended at the conference). I note that you mentioned that it is often necessary to avoid the “S word” when trying to share the importance and power of storytelling to corporate clients. So I’d appreciate your take on the session that followed yours (and which I saw you also attended) where the “S word” was used extensively in a corporate / organisational setting.
    Also, I couldn’t help but notice that both you and the “Organisational Storytelling” presenter used the same research and activity around Tappers and Listeners but possibly for different affect and outcomes. Certainly a story in that!!

  6. Thanks for your questions Simon. The S-word issue is really horses for courses. Our work is with people throughout an organisation, not just the leaders who might have bought into the idea of storytelling, so language can become important. Regarding tappers and listeners, I think that was just a coincidence. We both have read Made to Stick and were struck by the story.

  7. Stuart Reid says:

    Just an update. We did indeed spend our coaching session yesterday walking by the banks of the Thames, and stopping for coffee at an appropriate point. It gave a very different feel to the conversation, and was just what was needed for me. It was your blog post that made me think of the idea, so thanks.

  8. I’m glad the walk helped. I need to do the same for my meetings.

  9. Richard Morris says:

    Thank you for the stimulating report. How is storytelling treated as a commodity in practice? I don’t know whatthat would look like.

  10. Interesting the story as a thing- exactly the same thing happens with knowledge!

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