2 simple ways to help you remember a business story

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —July 17, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling

Imagine you’re in a meeting and one of your colleagues makes the bold statement, ‘We need a big initiative here. It’s really the only way to have an impact’.

Now, you know that small initiatives can also spark big changes, but just disagreeing with your colleague is unlikely to change their mind, or anyone else’s. What you need to do is share a story about when a small thing made a difference. But to do that you need to remember a business story.


Over the years, we’ve developed a simple approach to remembering stories to retell on occasions such as this. It has two parts: the organic process and the story bank.

The organic process

This is all about filling your brain with stories that you will remember when you need them. It has three simple steps.

1. Notice the details

When you discover a story – our story-spotting framework will help here – the first step is to notice the details. What are the people’s names, the dates, the placenames? These are the bits you’ll quickly forget, so jot them down.

2. Tell the story to a friend and discuss it

As soon as possible, tell the story to a friend and ask them what they think the story means. Then share what the story means to you. You might say things like, ‘This is all about how small things can make a difference’, or ‘Leaders must model the behaviour they want’. By discussing the story and working out its meaning, the story will begin to sink in.

3. Share the story three times

Now tell the story at least three times, noticing the reactions you get to it. Tell a short version, a long version, and a version where you shift where you start or where you finish.

Our visual memory is strong, so when you tell the story, clearly picture the event happening – watch the story unfold in your mind’s eye. And let yourself feel what’s happening, because we remember what we feel.

Doing all this will get you comfortable with the story. It will reinforce those neurons that lock in a memory and will help you remember the story.

The story bank

The organic process works for me most of the time, but there are times when the critical details of a story elude me. In these cases, I need to go back to my story bank.

There’s a story I love to tell which I learned from Ken Robinson, about a little girl called Gillian – Ken famously told this story during a TED talk many years ago. The thing is, for a time, I just couldn’t remember Gillian’s surname, which is important for the end of the story. So whenever I thought I might be about to tell this story, I would go to my story bank to refresh my memory.

I use Evernote to keep track of my stories. The most important thing to remember when documenting your oral stories is to never write them out in full. Doing this seems to kill the power of the oral storytelling. It’s as if you start to believe a story can only be told one way. It can then move from an oral story to a literary one and, God forbid, you may be tempted to read it out.

Now this may seem heretical, but instead of writing a story out in full, just write it out using dot points or short phrases. As an example, here is my story bank entry for Gillian’s story. It’s titled: ‘Gillian the dancer story – Ken Robinson’.

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

School was a nightmare. Homework a mess. Disruptive in class. Never sat 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 your mother privately.’

As he left the room he turned on a 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.

Building your story repertoire

The process of building your story repertoire starts with noticing stories and quickly jotting them down. After a while, it will become second nature to collect stories.

At the same time, you will notice yourself sharing a story which you might have collected weeks, even months, before and it will seem like it came out of nowhere. You now know how to remember a business story. Of course, when you share the story, never explain that you are going to tell a story (avoid mentioning the s-word), but do tell your audience the relevance of your story before you relate it in full. And when you tell the story enjoy watching as people really understand the point you’re making. And some times you will even inspire people to spring into action.

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:

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