How to remember a story so you can retell it

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —January 22, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling


Have you ever wondered why you can remember someone’s job but not their name?

Here’s a simple experiment you can do that I learned from Joshua Foer (who wrote an excellent book on memory called Moonwalking with Einstein):

Ask someone to remember a person’s name, such as Baker.

Ask another person to remember the job of baker.

Come back to them in a week and ask for the word you gave them.

You’ll will find that people will remember the job much better than the name because it has so much more meaning. We think of the white hat, the bakery smells, the taste of baked goodies.

A name in isolation – nothing.

So, to remember a story we need to give it meaning.

A simple technique to remember an oral story

This is how I remember stories to tell.

Whenever I hear a story that’s remarkable, one that I think I would like to retell, I call up someone, usually my business partner Mark, and tell them the story.

Then I ask, “What does that story mean for you?”

He will say things like, it’s about doing the right thing, or how small things make a difference.

I then share with him what it means for me.

These phrases describing the meaning of the story become like tags to recall the story in the future.

Then I look for places to tell it.

Once I’ve told it 3 times or so I have it for keeps.

When the tag is mentioned in a conversation, I remember the story. Someone will say, “You know what, sometimes it’s the small things that make a difference.” And my story will spring to mind and I can decide to tell it.

But the funny thing is if someone says, “tell me a story about when a small thing made a difference,” I’m unlikely to remember it.

Remembering a written story to tell orally

Remembering a written story is harder to do because written stories are quite different to oral stories: the language in written stories is more complex and there’s just more information in them.

Memory fact: we remember more if we can see it happening, and even more if we can feel it happening.

With that little fact in mind start by reading the story and visualising it happening and do your best to feel the emotion in the story. Think about what is most important to you in the story.

Now write down the basic plot points. Include the facts that you might forget such as dates, place names and names of people.

Whatever you do, DONT write the story out in full. Doing that seems to kill the oral telling somehow.

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Here are the plot points I wrote down to remember a story told by Ken Robinson from his book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything

I’ve titled it in my story bank, Gillian Dancer Story

Gillian was only 8 years old and her future was at risk.

School was a nightmare. Homework a mess. Disruptive in class. Never sit still. Her teachers were at their wits end.

The school wrote to her parents saying they were worried about Gillian and she might have a learning disorder and need to go to a special school.

This was in the 1930s and Gillian’s parents took it very seriously and took her to a psychologist to be assessed.

Best dress, told to sit on her hands, big leather sofa, feet not touching the ground. She was nervous.

The psych asked Gillian’s mum lots of questions then turned to Gillian “I’m afraid you will need to be patient for a little longer as I need to talk to you mother privately.

He left the room and as you did turned on the radio.

“Just stand here a moment and watch what she does. ”

There is a little window in his office door so they can see.

She starts dancing. Beautiful movements.

“Your daughter is not sick, she’s a dancer. Take her to dance school.”

Which they did.

Royal Ballet School

Phantom of the Opera and Cats with Andrew Lloyd Webber

Became known to the world as Gillian Lynne, one of the most accomplished choreographers of our time.

Now tell it three times and you’ve got it.

But if you are like me there can be bits you blank on in a story.

For example, in Gillian’s story I often can’t remember her last name. While this detail is not vitally important, it’s really adds to the reveal at the end of the telling.

So as my insurance I carry all my stories around in my pocket on my iPhone using Evernote with each story tagged and titled so I can find the one I need when I need it.

A story bank is really helpful when in a set piece like a formal presentation. You have the time to search through to find the stories you want to tell.

Most of the time, however, you want your stories off the cuff. In these cases it doesn’t matter if you can’t remember some of the details. Stories are resilient little things.

Please let me know how you get on using these techniques and I would love to hear about the ways you remember the stories you tell.

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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. Helen says:

    Great tips – very well explained and practical. I can use these. Thanks Shawn

  2. Rajeev says:

    So very true Shawn 🙂
    I tried a similar approach when I read an interesting story about Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.
    He was 10 years old and on a drive with his grandparents.
    His grandmother, a smoker, was going on about being healthy and happy when he became impatient and snapped back saying ‘if you hadn’t been smoking all these years you could have 5 more years to live’.
    Grand-mom burst into tears.
    Grand-dad pulled Jeff aside and told him “It’s more important to be nice rather than being clever” – a lesson which remains as a guiding light for Bezos to date!

  3. Nice article, Shawn. Helpful hints for sure. But one question: why is this piece and its associated comments dated February 22, 2014 when it’s actually February 20, 2014? Have I stumbled into a time warp?

    1. I have it down for the 22 Jan. I like the time warp idea however. I could really mess with people to have more articles published in the future. 🙂

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