When you go hunting for a story, for say a presentation you’re about to give, you’re taking something that normally lives and breathes in an informal environment and transporting it to a more formal organisational setting. It’s OK to do this of course as long as you understand what this beast is like in its natural setting. Don’t take a tiger and put it in a concrete cage. It’s inhumane. Instead add the right foliage, give it plenty of water to play in and lots of room to move. It wont be exactly the same as seeing that tiger in the wild but you will be able to appreciate its beauty.
What do stories in the wild look like?
Imagine you’ve caught up with some work friends and a manager has been giving you a hard time. Today he waltzed over to your cubicle and announced to you and everyone else who could hear it that your missed your targets. You tell this story and your friends listen and respond by showing sympathy and then they start to analyse his motives and what he might do next. You start talking about what you should do and you tell another story of what you did in the past and how that turned out. Your friends help you interpret that experience and recount their own stories.
It’s improv, messy, it flows, you move back and forth between story and interpretation and no one notices. No one (except story geeks like me) is thinking, wow look at the stories that are being told and how it’s such a social process. It’s invisible to us.
Now contrast that with how we use stories in a business setting. You might start by thinking, “I have a presentation I need to give next week to my staff and while they’re doing pretty well I’d love to inspire them to even higher performance. I know stories are powerful. I wonder if I can find a story that’s inspirational and relevant? Let’s have a look at all my business books. They’re packed with stories. Beauty, got one. OK, I can tell this. I’m all set for next week.
Did you see what’s missing? When we take our stories out of the informal setting we can lose the back and forth interpretation that comes from our colleagues. This chit chat is how we make sense of our experiences (as told as stories). So when we use stories formally we need to put back the chit chat.
Mark and I do this all the time. For instance, just today Mark called and launched straight into a story. I knew immediately he was giving a story a test run (I hope he retells it in full here). It was about a CEO who was trying to explain why his company had changed strategy and this CEO was having problems convincing his audience. At the end of the story Mark says, “so, what do you think that story was about?” I told him and my interpretation was different to Mark’s. Mark felt the story was about the difficulty the CEO was having convincing his audience. I said if that’s the case, and we both agreed there were lots of possible points to this story, Mark needed to expand that part of the story.
Our conversation brought back some informality, and interpretation, to the storytelling process but with the view of telling this story in more formal circumstances.
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: