Fact telling versus story telling

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —January 20, 2013
Filed in Business storytelling

I’m just reading the Art of Explanation by Lee LeFever. I’m at the chapter on storytelling and LeFever opens with two ways to describe a blog.

A blog is a personal journal published on the World Wide Web consisting of discrete entries (“posts”) typically displayed in reverse chronological order to the most recent post appears first. Blogs are usually the work of a single individual, occasionally of a small group, and often themed on a single subject.

—  Wikipedia, 2012

and …

Meet Allison. She recently created a website where she posts information about her experiences raising a puppy. Her website is an online journal, or blog, where she posts a new entry that appears at the top of her page every few days. This stream of entries has enabled her to connect with dog lovers from around the world.

He makes the point that both contain the same information but do it in quite different ways. The former being fact telling. The latter, story telling.

I like the idea LeFever is making but his example of a story is not quite a story. It is missing a vital element.

Here is an alternative that contains the missing element. Can you pick the difference?

In 2006 David Maister, an expert in professional service firms, started his blog (short for web-log). A blog is like an online journal. David would share his thoughts day-by-day, with his latest ideas appearing at the top of the page. He also encouraged his readers, like me, to leave comments.

As I was just starting my business I thought I would email David seeking his help. He called me from Boston the next day and to my utter surprise he said he would waive his high fees because he now thought of me as a friend after reading my online comments on his blog.

A story must have something unanticipated in it. Enough for you to exclaim, Oh! that’s interesting. Something needs to happen that is unexpected (though not necessarily alarming). A story needs to have a time or place marker, things happening, and something unexpected. Of course great stories are made of much more than that, but these are the things that need to be at a story’s core.

LeFever’s example starts out like a story, … she recently created a website (time marker). But what follows is merely a description.

As Mallary Jean Tenore beautifully puts it in a recent Poynton article, “A story is a promise that the end is worth waiting for.”

I see many story practitioners defining stories by saying things like, “the protagonist needs to have a challenge.” I’m afraid these types of definitions have been overly influenced by Big S storytelling and the Hero’s Journey. There are many stories that don’t adhere to the ‘challenge’ definition. Take a coincidence story for example.

A few years ago I took my family on a road trip from Canberra to Perth and back, about 8000 km return. On the return leg we pulled into Eucla, pitched our tent and I walked over to the petrol station to buy some milk. In the petrol station was Allan Fox, a dear friend who was in Eucla for 2 days to photograph the amazing sand dunes there. The chances of us meeting in such a remote place must have been a million to one.

This is definitely a story but I wouldn’t say the protagonist had any challenges to overcome. Things happened and something unanticipated happened. And, by the way, experience tells me that people love coincidence stories.

Those who claim to have narrative intelligence, but don’t, confuse those who are new to storytelling into thinking that a story can be a description, or that a story needs to involve a hero’s journey. It is impossible to develop narrative intelligence unless we first understand what a story is, and only then can we truly take advantage of 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:

4 Responses to “Fact telling versus story telling”

  1. Montymiff Says:

    Remember the ancient example of what makes a short story?
    “The king died. Then the queen died.”
    That’s an account of an event. Compare it to this:
    “The king died. Then the queen died of grief.”
    The second is a story. It has relationships between characters, a plot over a time period, a journey fexploring implications or the reader who explores the events involving these two people. Love has happened, people have bonded for a time, then have died. No challenge, and maybe not unexpected. Still, it brings events to life and allows people to make an emotional investment in these two characters.
    Not all bloggers are able to create stories of the unexpected in this world, but giving the readers a situation that calls for them to make an emotional investment in the events is something to value.
    I’m not sure if we’re saying the same thing in different terms or not, but I liked your examples. (though the coincidence itself didn’t grab me. Rather, I was interested in finding out more about the two prople who happened to be there. The reality of a person opening a door to his life is what catches me.)

  2. Shawn Callahan Says:

    I think we are saying the same thing.
    My main point is simply this: people say things are stories when they are not. I’m not saying my coincidence story is a good story, I’m just saying it’s a story and that all stories don’t have to be a hero engaged in a challenge. These are the types of stories people actually tell in organisations. Small stories. That’s what interests me the most. I leave the beautifully crafted stories to Hollywood.

  3. Doug Lipman Says:

    Hi, Shawn. Nice post! I like your emphasis on “surprise,” especially as part of your wider critique of the overblown claims of “Big S storytelling.” Bravo!
    Montymiff: Nice explication of “the king died” quate. By the way, I think that E. M. Forster (1879–1970) would likely have been flattered to hear his words called called “ancient”!

  4. Shawn Callahan Says:

    Thanks Doug. It’s good to hear that other story professionals are noticing this problem. Now ‘story’ has become such a hot topic it’s important that we point out when people are getting it wrong. I’ve even noticed some of the biggest names in story work are falling into the trap of calling something a story when its patently not.

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