Tell better business stories by resisting the urge to write them down in full

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —September 29, 2013
Filed in Business storytelling

Tell better business stories.
When leaders first learn about business storytelling quite often their first instinct is to write their stories down, in full with all the flourish they hope to convey in the retelling.

This is a mistake.

You see, each time you tell an oral story it’s done in a specific context and, in the case of business stories, for a specific purpose. The story is created each time you tell it with context influencing what you say.

As you tell your story there is a swirl of questions you intuitively answer: Do the people your sharing the story with already know you? Were they there when it originally happened? Is it a topic they understand? What sort of things are they interested in? How much time do they have? What are the physical surroundings? What point are you making? The list goes on.

One version of the story is never enough while at the same time you don’t want to work out all the versions you might ever need. You just don’t have the time and quite frankly, it would kill your storytelling.

What you should write down

Instead, write down enough to remember the important details such as people’s names, dates and place names. These are the bits humans are naturally hopeless at remembering but help bring a story to life.

Personally I jot down a few points for each story using Evernote. Then tag the story on what it means or illustrates such as persistence, inspiration, innovation, “storytelling at work” or “business value of storytelling”.

The process of tagging your stories is invaluable, even if you never write the tags down. When I find what I think is a good story I’ll ring my business partner Mark, tell him the story and ask him what the story means for him? He’ll say something like, “this story is about doing good things in tough times, or small things make a difference.” I then share what I think it means and through that conversation it’s like I’m locking in the meaning for myself.

Next time when someone says, “yes, well we know how small things can make a difference.” I’ll immediately think of that story I told Mark and, if it makes sense to, I could tell it.

After I’ve told the story a few times I rarely need to refer back to my list of stories. But every now and then I forget some of the specifics, but a quick search of Evernote fixes that problem.

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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. Sean says:

    Shawn- Don’t know how I missed this post but….yes yes yes yes. Multiple told versions come before any written version comes. Great advice.

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