In praise of imperfect stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —November 4, 2010
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling

My daughter and I recently watched The Rocky Horror Picture Show and our DVD has the option to play the audience participation sound track while you watch the movie. It brought back fond memories from the early eighties going to screenings where we would take our rice, water pistols, confetti and newspapers and for every line in the movie we would call out an irreverent line or two. Great fun.

On re-watching the movie you can’t help noticing just how flimsy it is: weak plot, poor acting, clumsy directing. When it was first released it was roundly panned by the audiences and critics alike. But then something happened. People started having fun with it and audience participation emerged and next thing you know you have a cult classic.

I’m willing to bet that one of the reasons why audience participation emerged is that the Rocky Horror Picture Show is an imperfect story and therefore leaves space for the audience to add in their own content. Compare this with a beautifully crafted movie such as Million Dollar Baby. Can you imagine audience participation happening? OK, that’s not a fair comparison so think about some musicals: Chicago, Westside Story, Hairspray. Again the only participation here is singing along to the songs.

Crafting perfect stories is unlikely to get the participation you were hoping for in your business. I’m finding comms departments particular obsessed with the perfect story approach. Comms folk have been in the business of crafting and disseminating company messages and in most cases they are in broadcast mode. So when they encounter storytelling they are often preoccupied with learning how to tell the best story. What are the features of a great story? How do we help our leader tell a compelling story? How will we hook our audience and engage them emotionally? All good questions but it’s only applying one approach to story work and I can guarantee if you spend too much effort crafting the perfect story your audience wont participate in the conversation you are hoping they might have. You will have created a Million Dollar Baby that no one wants to mess with.

Contrast the perfect story approach with what happened in one of our leadership programs. We collect 100 stories from staff of good and bad leadership. Verbatim stories: just the way they spoke them. The workshop participants have to decide which story is most significant in terms of staff engagement. Two stories bubble to the surface. Both stories are anaemic in story terms. The one they chose is about a woman who whenever she goes to her manager’s office he’s working on his computer, very focussed on his computer screen. But when he sees her he stops what he is doing, comes over to the table in the middle of the room, sits down and engages her like that’s the only thing on his mind. She finishes the story by saying that she reeeally appreciates it and no other managers do it in the company. That story generates heaps of discussion but more importantly we see the conversation triggering new behaviours in the organisation. The story is not pretty. It’s not perfect. But it has a lasting impact.

So in business story work let’s not get so obsessed with the perfect story. Let’s leave that to the Aaron Sorkins and Clint Eastwoods of this world. In business story work we need to trigger conversations that reveal new stories and really engage our people in storytelling.

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. Love this Shawn!
    You do a great job of illustrating the deeper principle: it’s exponentially more important to have a story worth telling — then how you tell the story.
    Of course, sometime the means of engagement – and creating something participatory can totally boost or reinvent an otherwise flat or goofy story (Rocky Horror, case in point).

  2. Good story, Shawn,with a lot of recognition. Stories (even the bad ones) trigger stories and reveal narrative climates. For some (leaders) it’s a (positive) eye opener but I’ve seen others shy away. Fear of the unmanageable mostly…

  3. Very interesting! I’m trying to develop the interactive aspects of oral storytelling both as a tool in learning and as an art form. I’ve had similar thoughts and I find these examples very valuable. “The Mystery Science Theatre” could be another. But is it the flaws, the gaps or the meaningfulness which inspires the interaction?

  4. Hi Ulf, The flaws, gaps etc is not what inspires the interaction, rather they enable it. The interaction still comes from the emotion, the way the story resonates with the listener, the meaning. The flaws provide the spaces and give permission but more importantly demonstrate that the story is authentic. We all know stories don’t spring from our mouths full formed. And these rough stories are our day-to-day way of interacting.

  5. Hi Peter, are you saying that some people shy away from telling a story because they can’t predict or manage the stories it might trigger? You could be right. I have a feeling that leaders are shy to recount an experience because they have just got our of the habit of doing it in a business setting. The Dunbar research on gossip shows we are all sharing experiences more often than not when in informal settings.

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