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Finding Stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —April 20, 2010
Filed in Business storytelling

We start most of our projects by collecting stories. We collect stories in groups (using anecdote circles) and one-on-one. We’ve learned a lot about getting people comfortable, building trust and asking questions that elicit stories. There’s still a lot to learn. A couple of weeks ago something happened while filming stories for a mentoring program we’re creating for a client. And since we had a camera at the time we filmed my recollection of what happened.

Time is important and so is your intent.

Paul Cooper over at SMS Consulting Group shared with me this simple way of thinkng about trust.

TRUST = (credibility + reliability + intimacy) / self interest

I like it. For one thing, I can remember it and after all the trust-related literature I’ve read over the years I think it describes the important elements (btw when I first saw the formula depiction I initially recoiled. “Trust can’t be a simple formula.” I got over it.)

When collecting stories you need to start with a warm up. Back in 2004 I described what the warm up looks like when collecting stories. All those ideas still hold true but I would like to emphasise INTENT. Your storyteller must know you have a good intent and that you will safeguard the stories and the storytellers. . When we collect stories we make it clear how we intend to retell the stories and whether we have their permission.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a teleconference with Doug Lipman on story elicitation (he’s running some courses on this topic too). He’s also noticed that business books that talk about the importance of questions often neglect story-eliciting questions. There are a few good places to find story-eliciting questions. You can check out our Questions category on this blog. And just yesterday I was reminded by @AmandaFenton about StoryCorps’ story collection guide.

Doug’s talk cover the 7 things not to do when collecting stories.

1. Don’t compromise safety.

Ensure the storyteller understands your goals and how the stories will be used. I’ve had times when a storyteller has revealed something that could be career-limiting and we have removed the story at their request.

2. Don’t show delight

You must be interested in the stories they are telling. If they think you are not interested you end up getting high-level, shortened versions just so they can get it all done and get out of their.

3. Don’t enter the imagined world they are creating for you in the story

Your interest and delight will be a function of how much you let the story transport you to the experience they are recounting.

4. Don’t be a slave to your questions

Often someone will tell you a story which will prompt new questions and avenues of investigation. You need to listen carefully too because there is nothing worse that asking a question that has already been answered in a previous story.

5. Fail to pursue scenes

The best stories have details. Details create imagery that creates context, adds authenticity and makes the story memorable. So as the interviewer it’s important to pursue these specific scenes: one day, in one place, one person, did one thing (OK, that’s an exaggeration but you get my drift).

6. To not hypothesise the storyline

I think what Doug meant here is to ask follow up questions in the pursuit of details such as “so that was adversely effecting your relationship?” If that is not the case then your hypothesis was wrong and the storyteller can correct you.

7. Hijacking the story

Taking over the story and telling it your way. I think some trained journalists do this. I was speaking at a conference this year and the facilitator quickly interviewed me so she could introduce me. What I said and then the story she told didn’t match in my mind. When this happens the storyteller loses control and is no longer a collaborator in the process.

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:

3 Responses to “Finding Stories”

  1. Derek Winter Says:

    Hi Shawn,
    I like the simplicity of the formula, but have a (probably dumb) question. Why is ‘intent’ the denominator? This suggests to me that Trust is inversely proportional to ‘intent’ ie. for Trust to increase (given the other elements remain), intent must decrease, but that doesn’t seem logical.
    I figure I’m missing something here, but it’s intriguing me, so I thought it was worth posing the question.

  2. Shawn Callahan Says:

    Good pick-up Derek. The original formula had ‘Self Orientation’ as the denominator and because I’m not the best mathematician I unthinkingly substituted that with ‘intent’. It makes sense with Self Orientation.

  3. Derek Winter Says:

    Thanks Shawn,
    Co-incidentally I just came across the formula on another website with “Self Interest” as the denominator.

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