How we judge stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —November 1, 2011
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling

I found myself watching parliamentary question time today on TV (OK, I was tired. I did yoga for the first time last night). There were lots of questions about when exactly did the leaders of the government and the opposition know about Qantas CEO’s, Alan Joyce, decision to ground his airline. It was a heated debate. (BTW, why can’t anyone speak normally in parliament? Everything is said in staccato, like a basketball coach shouting instructions to his team mid-game). Anyway, Anthony Albanese, the transport minister, steps up to the dispatch box and tells a story about how he was at Sydney airport after the planes were grounded and how he met a distressed American couple who were unable to get home. Now, we’ll have to check Hansard tomorrow morning for the exact wording but Mr Albanese went on to say, “the woman was 43 weeks pregnant and needed to get home.”

Sheenagh and I looked at each other and said, “43 weeks pregnant! What is she doing flying at 43 weeks? How is she 43 weeks pregnant? Maybe she’s an elephant (OK, that was too harsh).” Gales of laughter float around our house. I note on the Qantas website this policy about flights over 4 hours, “For routine pregnancies, you can travel up to the end of the 36th week for single pregnancies and the end of the 32nd week for multiple pregnancies (e.g. twins).”
Mr Albanese’s story failed the plausibility test.

Whenever we listen to a story we instinctively match the experience we’re hearing with our own experience and if there’s a significant mismatch the story’s, and the storyteller’s, credibility crumbles, no matter how true the event.

The plausibility test occurs as the story unfolds but we have another test we unconsciously make before the story hardly gets started: the relevance test.
Especially in business settings where everyone is pressed for time (That’s what people say. I’m not convinced), if we know a story is about to be told we want to know there’s a good chance it’ll be relevant. To help the listener judge the potential relevance of a story we often prepend a short statement suggesting, or simply stating, the point of the story.

“The Qantas grounding was causing incredible distress for people. It was a good thing the government stepped in. I was in Sydney airport on Sunday … [the pregnant woman story]”

Sometime it just takes a slight slip up in facts to lose credibility with a story … [The Anthony Albenese story of the 43-week pregnant woman]

With these two tests in mind business storytellers should be thinking of ways of conveying the relevance of their stories so they’re afforded the air-time to recount their experiences.

They also should be thinking how to increase the plausibility of their story. Facts matter. Details matter. Names of people and places help. But most importantly will your audience believe what you’re saying. The best advice comes from the master screenwriter and director Quentin Tarantino in this scene from Reservoir Dogs, lovingly called The Commode Story. Be warned: do not click on this link if you are offended by intense cursing or your workmates in the adjoining cubicles might be offended. The Commode Story.

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. Claire says:

    We should listen, read and watch eagerly to a story before leaving any comments. Nice post.

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