How to spot an oral story

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —October 13, 2013
Filed in Business storytelling

The ability to spot an oral story is THE key to effective story-work. You only get the benefits of storytelling if you’re telling a story. This knowledge alone will set you apart from all the people who are merely talking about stories but not telling any.

Just this week, for example, I bumped into one of Melbourne’s digerati and we got talking about story and he said, “Well, when I give a presentation I think about the story I want to tell, you know, the overall theme.” After a bit of digging it was clear that what he meant by story was just the overarching theme, the gist of his talk. It wasn’t a story at all.

So here are the steps:

Spotting an Oral Story

Often starts with a time or place marker; sometimes a character

When you hear someone say, “Just this week …” or “The other day …” or “In 1991 …” then it’s likely they are starting to tell a story. These are time markers.

Sometimes an oral story starts with a place, for example, “We were in the boardroom and Bill walked in …” or “At the crusher Sam heard the bell …”

And very rarely an oral story will start with a description of a character. “Jim been with the company 20 years. He’s the kind of guy who powers through the work. Well, …” Written stories frequently start with a character description.

A series of connected events

This is the bare essential. Stories describe something that happened; a series of interconnected events. When you hear someone say, “and then … and after that … and because of that …” you are hearing a story.

People doing things and talking

If you hear people’s names, and you hear what they did or if you hear dialogue, then there’s a good chance you’re listening to a story.

And something unanticipated happens

A story is a promise. A promise to share something  your audience didn’t know. It doesn’t have to be a big insight but the listener should at least raise their eyebrows a little. That’s what makes it story-worthy.

It has a business point

And to make it a business story it just has to have a business related point.

Now, these tips for spotting oral stories says nothing about whether the story is a good one.

So keep this in mind:

a story describes what happened;

a good story helps you see what happened;

a great story helps you feel what happened.

If you would like to test your story-spotting skills just head over to The Story Test and publish your results on Twitter or Facebook,

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. Bob Kanegis says:

    Well done!
    I’d like to suggest one more dimension to be on the lookout for and that is that affect with which the teller presents the tale. Not always, but most often you can ‘spot’ the difference between an authentic tale and one simply offered or constructed to make a point. The authentic tale is told with energy and passion, almost like the teller is re-experiencing the story. When I tune experience this kind of energy, it signals to me that I’m hearing something that is certainly important to the teller and likely important for me.

    1. Good point Bob. I sometimes get the question, “Is it alright to make it up?” to which my answer is “No.” I reckon people test our stories from at least two perspectives, plausibility and relevance. If your story fails these tests (in business) then your reputation gets damaged.

  2. […] Shawn posted an excellent piece on how to spot a story. A story he says, has some key components: • It often starts with a time […]

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