Writing oral stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —May 25, 2013
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication

When you see a poem you know it’s a poem.

When you see a screenplay you know it’s a screenplay.

Most people, however, have never seen an oral story written down. Probably because it’s an oxymoron. Yet there are times when it’s useful to write an oral story down. For example, when you’re helping a company create the story of their strategy.

Let’s look at the difference between oral and written stories and then I’ll describe a significant problem that can happen when you write down an oral story for a company.

First and foremost we talk quite differently to how we write and read. For example, when we speak we say things in short bursts.

When we speak /
We say things in short bursts. //

Yet we can write a sentence that is much longer and more elaborate than we would normally speak. Punctuation helps a reader but doesn’t go far enough for a speaker (more on this below).

When we talk it’s quite reasonable to repeat ourselves. We can say the same thing a few times and no one will give it a second thought. It gives us time to gather our ideas and emphasise our point. In fact repetition helps our audience hear what we are saying.

Repetition is spurned in prose unless it’s a literary effort of Joycean proportions. But in business writing it’s a no no.

And “it’s a no no” would never pass for business writing but we could easily and acceptably say it. We can speak colloquially but brows wrinkle when we write it.

Most of the time we are speaking we use short, simple words. When we’re chatting with colleagues and recounting what happened in the meeting we all just went to (editor, please replace ‘went to’ with ‘attended’), we use short, concrete phrases.

“Did you see Bob’s face when Bronwyn said we’ll need to create a new job role? I can see this being a problem.”

People don’t speak corporateez. Most people, that is.

We don’t typically say transformation, core competency, retrospective coherence (yep, I’ve heard that), strategic leverage, commercial sustainability, I could go on.

Now let me explain the problem that often happens when you try and write down an oral story such as the oral story of the corporate strategy.

When it’s written down it looks a lot like any other business document in that there are words in paragraphs but the writing seems overly informal and even naive. Things might be repeated and there are informal phrases all over the place. So the business language wordsmiths appear and begin to make it sound like a piece of business writing. I’ve even had footnotes added!


Here’s what I suggest you do.

First write the story in a format that doesn’t look like normal business prose.

Much like a poem, break up the story based on the short bursts we speak in. At the end of each line either insert a “/” to indicate a minor pause and the sentence just flows on to the next phase or a “//” when there’s a bigger pause. This is how experts in discourse analysis write conversations down.

The great advantage to this approach is that it looks different. Internal comms immediately thinks, “Whoa, what in the hell is this?” And you can share with them the difference between oral and written stories.

Let me know if you have ever had this challenge and how you dealt with it.

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. Andrew Fookes says:

    Writing an oral story is very much like carrying a storyline in a work of fiction through the characters’ dialogue. For the dialogue to sound natural, realistic, the author must construct it as people speak – in short bursts, with mostly simple language, with pauses, repetitions and false starts. Yet woven into this deceptively simple artistic device can be the most complex, challenging and profound themes and ideas.
    Perhaps it might be useful to visualise an oral story about business strategy as a dialogue between the Director of Strategy and the Group General Manager of Plain Speaking…

  2. Writing down stories that were created orally, is certainly an issue. Even if I type the story word by word while telling it, mark the dialogue parts and insert accurate punctuation and pauses, people will often say, “but that’s not exactly how I’ve heard you tell it” and they’d be right. The influence of momentary interaction and context, color of voice, eye contact, pace – just to mention several components of an oral creation – are absent.
    The solution I find most useful requires letting go of the possibility to write down and distribute a best version. What you should rather aim at, is a lean codification that will force the person to re-tell, not re-cite. Folktales are written that way.

  3. Thanks Limor. I really appreciate your view on this. I would love to see some Folktales that are written that way you mention. Where would be a good place to start?

  4. Pleasure Shawn. Any folktale can be written that way – or not, since folktales are constantly being adapted in writing. In order to find those lean versions I use a screening process.
    (1) look for versions published by folklorists who collected the material directly from “informants”, especially if they collected the same tale from several people and then compared them to refine a single version.
    (2) select a tale, preferably a short one, read it, preferably out loud.
    (3) go back to the beginning and put the text to this test: the plot is advanced only through action or adding information necessary to understand the drama.
    If you practice, pretty fast you’ll feel you’re developing a lean version radar.
    At the same time and if possible, the best way might be to ask a storyteller to tell you the bare bones of a tale he or she know very well (this last detail is important) while both of you are in a rush.
    While phrasing this comment I did a quick search and realized that for the purpose of your work you might need another screen but I’m not sure. Here is the question: some tales start off ‘in action’ and you have a lot of dialogue going on. Others are told mainly in the third person. Can both these choices serve your work? if not, so this is screen 4.

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