The role scripts play in finding stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —November 16, 2009
Filed in Business storytelling

Everyday we tell those closest to us (our family, friends, colleagues) about what happened to us: today, yesterday, last week. Occasionally we’ll reminisce about the old days but for those we know well what’s worth recounting, what’s remarkable, is happening on a daily basis. We don’t even need to tell the whole story because the people we know well have much of the background. We tell the smaller details that wouldn’t make sense or be interesting to someone we didn’t know that well. The storytelling is gradual.

Imagine you grew up without knowing anything about restaurants. You’ve never heard of them, never seen them and have never had an experience, apart from eating a meal at home, that is anything like going to a restaurant. Then one day a friend takes you to one and you can’t believe that you can just order your meal, that waiters bring your meal and clear away all the dirty dishes. For you this is truly remarkable and if someone ask you to share your experience you could do it without hesitation.

For those people who go to restaurants regularly much of the experience is invisible. We’re not surprised by waiters, menus, asking for the bill, etc.. We have developed a script for what a restaurant experience will be like and we will only notice things if something unexpected happens. These scripts are important. Without them we would have to think through everything. It would be exhausting.

Important knowledge, however, resides in the scripts. It’s difficult to recount stories for someone who is not close about what you do day-in, day-out. You’re not sure they care about the small stories you tell to those people who see you every day. There is an art to collecting stories, especially the small ones.

I mention this conumdrum because just knowing that stories can get converted to scripts will help anyone who is trying to elicit stories to go beyond what’s remarkable to a stranger. For a long time I was flummoxed at times during an anecdote circle when the participants could only give you broad illustrations of what they did at work rather than specific anecdotes. It didn’t happen often but when it did I couldn’t explain it. With this explanation I do three things to find the small stories.

  1. be truly interested in every detail. Curiosity must exude from your pores
  2. use memory triggers: timelines, artefacts, pictures
  3. get peers together in the anecdote circle

The next frontier for me will be cognitive task analysis. I have Crandall, Klein and Hoffman’s book, Working Minds and I’m looking forward to learning more about the techniques.

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. Aiden Choles says:

    Hey Shawn
    Love the post – so true.
    I must admit a little reservation about your use of the word “script” to describe those experiences that are so familiar that they’ve lost their novelty and have become common-place and almost not worth mentioning specifically.
    The association I have with the word is not a positive one – rather it is a word that describes how we buy into a way of doing things that fulfills the “public relations” needs of our organisations.
    Living and working by a script is zombie-like … denouncing the truth of what is really happening.
    Perhaps I’ve misinterpreted your use of the word?

  2. Hi Aiden, I’m aware of your use of the term scripts but I’m using the term the way Roger Schank, a long-term narrative academic, has used it, which doesn’t have a negative connotation.

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