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The power of subtle stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —June 15, 2011
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling

Sunday mornings is a favourite time of the week for me. I get up early and go walking with my friend Darren Woolley. The conversation is always lively and last Sunday I mentioned to Darren that I thought it was interesting that ambiguous stories seem to linger in my mind much longer than stories with a clear point.

“There is a reason for that,” Darren says. “We’re always trying to make sense of people’s stories and if one is a little ambiguous we’ll work a bit harder to work out its meaning. As a result we remember the story.”

As soon as Darren said this I was reminded of the Heider & Simmel experiment where the subjects are shown a video of shapes moving about a screen. When they’re asked to explain what’s happening they mostly tell a story (the angry father finds his daughter with a boy and gets mad. The boy saves the girl and the father goes on a rampage). Every now and then someone quips, “they’re geometric shapes moving on a two dimensional plane.” I suspect these folk are the engineers.

With this idea in mind, that ambiguous or subtle stories linger almost beckoning a meaning to be found, I’m reminded of other examples. The first that jumps to mind is Limor Shiponi’s story of the French businessman and the songbird (it’s the first story on this podcast with Brother Wolf). I heard this story back in June last year and ever since then it nibbles away at my consciousness.

Another lovely example comes from Academy Award winning animator Shaun Tan and his book The Lost Thing. Ostensibly this is a children’s picture book but there is much to learn here for business storytellers. Shaun tells a low key story about an exotic creature who seems lost. Like Limor’s story we need to pay attention and mull over the meaning. It draws us in and holds us there.

Shaun also does something that I’ve seen Steve Jobs do, that is, understate the importance of his story. I’m paraphrasing here but Shaun starts The Lost Thing by saying, “There’s no meaning in this story, no moral to learn. In fact I’m not really sure why I’m even telling this story.” These types of statements seem like a challenge to me: “Come on, find meaning in this story. I dare you!”

Here’s a classic example of understatement from Steve Jobs at his Stanford University commencement address: “Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal, just three stories.” You can feel the audience leaning in to hear these three simple stories. “What can we learn? What do they mean?”

Now I’m not saying that business people should only tell ambiguous and subtle stories so their audience will remember and mull over them. To the contrary, most of the stories you should tell in the workplace should have a clear point (but please avoid telling your audience your point-it’s much stronger if they work it out themselves). But every now and then a subtler story should be told and take a leaf out of Steve and Shaun’s book and downplay your stories. Instead of saying, I’ve got this great (funny) story, perhaps introduce you stories in a way that invites the listener to seek out its meaning. And hopefully that will spark a conversation that benefits everyone.

Heider, F. & Simmel, M. 1944, ‘An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior’, The American Journal of Psychology, vol. 57, no. 2, pp. 243-59.

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:

One Response to “The power of subtle stories”

  1. Limor Says:

    Thanks for a beautiful insight Shawn. There is also something about the atmosphere of this post which I like. Subtle, I think.

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