More thoughts on why we retell stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —April 13, 2012
Filed in Business storytelling

The following few paragraphs are part of an exercise I’m doing with Madelyn Blair. We’re writing an Essay in Two Voices, a format invented by Madelyn and Victoria Ward I believe. Here, however, you’re only hearing one voice, mine. My first part (500 words) is here. Here is my second part (250), which is partly in response to Madelyn’s first 500 words. Just as some context, you should know that Madelyn told some anecdotes about stories her grandparents used to tell her.
Family stories are such an interesting case. I know with my daughters they’d always request as youngsters a story I’d make up which we called “A Josie and Ellie story.” It had the same premise: two ordinary girls enter a magical world and have magical powers. Coincindentally, Josie and Ellie shared many charcateristics with my two daughters, apart from their names.
When reading your stories about your grandparents I could feel the warmth and patience they felt for you. It got me thinking that stories get retold when they make you feel something. I did a little investigation and found my hunch is supported by research showing that stories with emotion are more likely to get retold. In fact, stories that surprise or disgust us are particularly likely to be shared.1
Have you heard that story about the wife who cuts off the legs of the turkey and just throws them away before putting the bird in the oven? It’s a story that’s been retold umpteen times, even by us ( I think some of the reasons it gets retold is that it is about ordinary things (food, family, marriage), it’s a simple story that copes well with variation (sometimes it’s a turkey, a lamb roast etc) and there’s a clear reason why you would tell it (it conveys a lesson). It also has that surprise element. There’s probably no coincidence that stories in the Bible share these characteristics.
Everyone says emotion is a fundamental feature of stories. While this is true I think we need to delve deeper and work out ways to help people retain their emotions in their stories instead of washing them out to be what they’ve been told is more busines like.
1. Heath, C., Bell, C. & Sternberg, E. 2001, ‘Emotional selection in memes: The case of urban legends’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 81, no. 6, pp. 1028-41.

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. “Stories get retold when they make you feel something”
    I so agree. Just have an example in my familiy where some special love stories get retold and retold. And I love to listen to these old stories too 😉 Because I can feel “feel the warmth” they transfer.

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