The Role of Storytelling in Government

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —April 4, 2013
Filed in Business storytelling, Strategy


“Government managers secure the resources they need to operate not by selling products and services to individual customers, but by selling a story of public value creation to elected representatives of the people in legislatures and executive branch positions.”1

Private sector leaders have it easy: they sell their products, they generate revenue, they manage their costs, and while they’re making profits and creating value, they keep their jobs and stay in business.

Public sector leaders, on the other hand, obtain resources by gaining support and legitimacy from politicians, public opinion and a myriad of other invested institutions each pulling and pushing in their own directions. Then, as the work gets done, it’s difficult measuring the impact it has made because the outcomes often emerge years after initiatives are implemented and working out what caused what is near on impossible. It’s a tough gig.

According to Harvard Kennedy School Professor, Mark Moore, the strategic challenge for public sector leaders is “… the ability to imagine and articulate a vision of public value that can command legitimacy and support, and is operationally doable in the domain for which you have responsibility.”1 Business storytelling has a role to play in each of the three elements of Moore’s strategic challenge: public value, legitimacy and support, and operational capability.

Firstly, public sector leaders need to tell the story of the public value they intend to create. And like all good strategy this is best done by creating the story with your stakeholders rather than creating it alone and springing it on the unsuspecting. We call it a strategic story but don’t think is merely a single story to be parroted throughout the organisation. Instead it’s more like an original score where each leader composes their own arrangement and tells their own anecdotes to bring it to life.

Legitimacy and support comes from both external and internal sources. Externally, politicians and leaders in other institutions must stand up for and support your vision of public value. And of equal importance, your leaders and managers inside your department must be engaged, believe and actively support the direction the department is taking. Time and attention are the valuable resources you need and storytelling and story-listening will help cut through the noise.

Lastly, you’ll need the organisation capabilities to make your initiatives happen. Government is inherently noisy because, unlike private enterprise, unhappy customers just stop buying your products. Public sector stakeholders don’t have that choice. So they get vocal. And in this noisy environment you need to be heard and you need to get your message to stick. Companies are starting to include storytelling as an essential skill for their leaders. Victorian Department of Treasury & Finance is a leader in this regard.

Storytelling has three characteristics that make it an effective technique for all three aspects of the public sector strategic challenge because stories are memorable, meaningful and emotional

Stories are Memorable

Attend a presentation and as we walk out the door we have already forgotten most of what was said. We only remember the gist and the feeling it leaves us. More often than not the only thing we will remember with clarity are the stories.

Stories are more memorable than facts alone or abstractions such as talking about “business transformation processes” because they create pictures in our minds–we can see it happening–and these pictures conjures up our own experiences helping us to judge the plausibility of what’s happening. We get engaged in the story and because multiple neural pathways are activated (because of the detail in the story such as the places, the characters, the events) we remember it.

Researchers from Princeton have even found that when someone is listening to a story their brain lights up (in a MRI scanner) in the same way as the teller’s. The two brain are synchronised. When the listener hears only opinions and viewpoints, activity is limited to just the language area of their brain. During a story, areas across the brain light up as the listener and teller relives the experience. For example, if the storyteller talks about kicking a ball, the parts of the brain associated with the mechanics of kicking a ball lights up. It’s a whole brain experience. The most remarkable finding of their research was when they noticed there were times when the story listener’s brain lit up before the storyteller; the listener was anticipating what came next and when this happened comprehension increased further.2

Stories are Meaningful

“What’s the story here?” This is what we say when we are trying to make sense of something. We need to tell ourselves a story to give it order and meaning.

Stories provide the context and connections we need to place the information we are receiving into a bigger picture of the other things that are happening in the organisation and our own experience. When we hear a story things start to make sense.

A couple of years ago, a university library was preparing to move to a new, purpose-built, ultra-modern building. The move required a huge number of things to change, including the library’s culture, and we were invited to help it with this aspect. The first thing we did was to collect stories from the library’s employees which illustrated the current culture and values. Then we gathered everyone together for a workshop to identify the patterns in those stories.

At one point in the workshop, 10 librarians were looking at a set of anecdotes about their value of ‘excellence’. After reviewing their cluster of post-it notes, they concluded that the key issue was that they needed more training. They refused to change this view despite our gentle prompting that there might be something going on at a deeper level. Then we suggested they use a story spine to tell the story of ‘training’ in the library.

The librarians then set about creating a story that explained what was happening in the organisation around training. The story they produced was about a woman named Sue (not an actual person but a character representative of a type of person in the library) and it went like this: ‘Sue had a bad habit of talking behind people’s backs. She was always bitching about people on the one hand, but always said the right things to the right people on the other hand. Then, after Sue was promoted, people realised she couldn’t do the job and they started bitching about her. One day, one of the staff, who had left because Sue was mean to him, ran over her in his BMW at some traffic lights. Many people danced and were happy’.

The librarians were shocked at this story. They looked at each other and, almost in unison, said: “We don’t have a training problem in our library. We have a bitching problem.” And right there and then they committed themselves to tackling bitching, which they ultimately did.

It’s stories rather than logical arguments that convey meaning.

Stories convey Emotional and inspire action

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou

Stories make you feel something. And getting someone to take action is impossible without emotion. Leaders need to tell stories so people feel it, so people are inspire to take action. Sometimes it takes a story to change behaviour and to create the conditions for new stories to emerge.

Nick was standing in front of a wall of stories. Each A4 sheet of paper sported a single anonymous anecdote illustrating either a good or bad management behaviour, collected from Nick’s company. One story had captured Nick’s attention and made him agitated: “I can’t believe this guy. Imagine answering a phone in an interview. My God, he even stepped out of his office to chat with someone who was just passing by.”

His complaints caused others in the workshop to wander over to see what was going on. As Nick was spluttering his displeasure, Paul, one of his colleagues, jumped in: “That was my anecdote, Nick, and it was about you.” Nick’s faced turned red and before he could say anything, another colleague added: “It totally nails you Nick. It’s spot on. You do it all the time.” By now, everyone in the workshop was watching. It seemed the next few seconds would reveal Nick’s true character.

Nick’s face was ashen as he looked around the room. He gathered himself and then apologised to his colleagues, adding: “I can’t promise you it won’t happen again – I wasn’t even aware I did this. But I can promise you that I’m going to make every effort to change my behaviour.” And to Nick’s credit, he did. At the time of the workshop, Nick was the head of sales and marketing at the company; he’s now the CEO.

There was a big difference between what Nick thought he was doing and what he was actually doing. It took a story, and the willingness of his trusted colleagues to speak up, to make him aware of his poor behaviour. As a result, Nick’s insight was both cognitive and emotional: cognitive in that he could rationally understand what he was doing wrong, and emotional in that he felt intense embarrassment at having discovered that the bad behaviour he had ridiculed only moments before was his own. This combination of insight and emotion created a powerful impetus in Nick to take action.

Government is difficult to manage and lead. There are many stakeholders involved and things are constantly shifting. Engagement, influence and persuasion are essential to impact those who provide legitimacy and support for government initiatives, both inside and outside the organisation, and storytelling techniques are an effective way to achieve this.

Dan and Chip Heath, in their best selling book Made to Stick, summarise their findings this way:

“Stories can almost single-handedly defeat the Curse of Knowledge. In fact, they naturally embody most of the SUCCESs framework. Stories are almost always Concrete. Most of them have Emotional and Unexpected elements. The hardest part of using stories effectively is making sure that they’re simple–that they reflect your core message.”3


  1. Moore, M.H. & Khagram, S. 2004, On Creating Public Value: What Business Might Learn from Government about Strategic Management, Harvard.
  2. Hasson, U., Ghazanfar, A.A., Galantucci, B., Garrod, S. & Keysers, C. 2012, ‘Brain-to-brain coupling: a mechanism for creating and sharing a social world’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 114-21.
  3. Heath, C. & Heath, D. 2007, Made to stick : why some ideas survive and others die, Random House, New York.

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:

Comments Off on The Role of Storytelling in Government