Some initial thoughts on why we retell stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —March 29, 2012
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication

As soon as I walked into our office I wanted to tell Kevin the story Hugh Grant told on Graham Norton’s talk show last night. It was a funny little story; an embarrasing stituation for Hugh in a French train toilet. It made me laugh. And when I told it to Kevin we both laughed together then started our day.
For some time now I’ve wondered why we retell stories and what makes a story retellable. On the surface I told Hugh’s story to simply entertain Kevin and myself. But perhaps there was a deeper motive about reinforcing my identity as someone who likes a laugh. Come to think of it the story is more liikely to be retold among blokes so this story reinforces my identity as a guy.

We run business stortelling training for a bank. We teach at their academy. We hear all sorts of stories from the bankers and many are about their leaders.

For example, the CEO this year gathered his top 150 leaders in an auditorium to share the goals for the year. Thirty minutes after everyone was back after morning tea the CEO looked at his watch and said “we are going to take another short break. Everyone be back at 11am sharp.” People wandered off and checked their Blackberrys and at 11am the CEO was on the stage waiting. People strolled into the room. At 11.05am the CEO was pacing up and down the stage, clear unhappy. Not everying was back yet. At 11.15am everyone was in their seat. The CEO went ballistic: “How dare you show such disrespect for your colleagues. This tardiness is unacceptable. You’re our leaders and you need to lead by example.” This story must have been retold hundreds (thousands) of times. All of a sudden people people were attending meetings on time.

We retell stories about leaders because they wield power and their actions can affect us. So we want to know what they’re like as a person, what’s important to them and how are they likely to react. And because most employees don’t get a chance to experience the leader’s actions first hand, they need to hear the stories of what the leader does to understand them. As I said in my last post, actions speak louder than words.

We often retell a story to share an insight. My friend Darren (@darrenp3) heard about how a prominent twitterer (@maverickwoman – also a friend) was in New York and looking for a hotel for the night. She tweeted her question and Bryant Park Hotel replied saying that if she went to this website and entered her twitter id she’d get a discount, which she did and was offered a 50% off. @maverickwoman then tweeted all her followers about this great deal but heard back they were only offering her friends 10%. She contacted the hotel and they told her that she got 50% because her Klout score was 57 (an indicator of influence on the web) but her friend only had a score of 15. Darren told this story at least 10 times in 2 days. He was impressed by the sophistication of the hotel and it supported his view of the power of social networking on the web.

There are many more reasons why people retell stories and I’m just starting to explore them more deeply. Would love to hear your thoughts on why you think some stories are retold more than others.

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. Jon says:

    Hi Shawn,
    Thanks for sharing!
    I think some stories are retold more so than others because they strongly impact us emotionally somehow (could be good or bad). And the stronger the emotions created, the stickier the story.
    Sharing the good experiences is fulfilling because it’s an opportunity to recreate that for someone else.
    With regards to talking about the less positive experiences (or complex ones), I find these are shared and retold as a “sense-making” exercise. Where you use stories to build on each others’ opinions in attempt to find clarity and take appropriate action, or to even “put the issue to sleep”.
    Fascinatingly enough, your blog post is an open confession about how you’re just starting to explore the topic more deeply.
    Keen to hear how your exploration of this topic develops.

  2. Thanks Jon. I will keep you posted (as blog posts) about what I learn. I agree with your ideas and suspect that we also tell stories because we think our audience would like to hear them. What I’m also interested in is the characteristics of the stories that are retold. I suspect it’s very contextual, as you suggest. Of course the Heath brothers have things to say about this in Made to Stick.

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