Improve your writing – do not mention stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —March 11, 2015
Filed in Business storytelling

Imagine you’re in an audience with 100 colleagues. You’re waiting to hear from your leader. It’s the monthly briefing. He takes the stage. A quiet rolls across the audience. He clears his throat and says, “I’d like to tell you a story.”

What are you thinking when he says that? What’s your gut response?

Most people tell me that they groan and think “do we have time for stories?” or “just give me the facts” or “this is not a performance, it’s business, get on with it.”

CC image courtesy of Garrett Coakley on Flickr
CC image courtesy of Garrett Coakley on Flickr

Now imagine another scenario. You are in that same audience again and this time the leader steps up to the mic and says, “Something important happened a couple of weeks ago I’d like to share with you.”

Now what are you thinking? If you are like most people I pose this scenario to you’re thinking “What happened? Please tell me.”

Of course in scenario two you will be also telling a story. You just don’t use the dreaded s-word. No, do not mention stories!

I’ve spoken about this before but I want to point out another place where we are using a version of the s-word and we don’t even  notice it. And while my interest is mainly on oral storytelling, I’d like to turn my attention for a moment to written pieces.

We’re committing a rookie error in our written stories at work. It starts with the blatant titles and sub-headings such as, “Our Stories” and such which essentially say, I’m going to tell you a story, and like scenario one, we groan. We are immediately suspicious of it.

Sometimes we see it as the call out box where we feature a heartfelt story about one of our customers, replete with a smiling photo.

Marketing and Communications have fallen in love with stories but we are doing ourselves a disservice by telling everyone we are telling them. A much better approach is just to tell the story without bringing attention to the fact it’s a story (no bolding, italicising, call-out-boxing and headlining).

How does Malcolm Gladwell tell stories?

Take Malcolm Gladwell as an example. You won’t find him shouting from the treetops that he’s about to tell a story. Rather, Gladwell just starts telling it. He starts with a time marker and just jumps right in. Here are the first lines of the first three chapters of Blink. Gladwell tells the story first then makes his point. Notice the time markers (I’ve italicised them for you).

“In September of 1983, an art dealer by the name of Gianfranco Becchina approached the J. Paul Getty Museum in California. He had in his possession, he said, a marble statue dating from the sixth century BC.”

Some years ago, a young couple came to the University of Washington to visit the laboratory of a psychologist named John Gottman. They were in their twenties, blond and blue-eyed with stylishly tousled haircuts and funky glasses.”

Not long ago, one of the world’s top tennis coaches, a man named Vic Braden, began to notice something strange whenever he watched a tennis match. In tennis, players are given two chances to successfully hit a serve, and if they miss on their second chance, they are said to double-fault, and what Braden realized was that he always knew when a player was about to double-fault.”

How does this relate to the content you produce?

Now imagine in our promotional copy that we put on our websites and hand out to customers that we take a similar approach. We find good stories to tell and then start with the story without labelling it as such, and then make our point.

Of course the content marketing experts could do their A/B testing to see how much difference this would make. I’m betting that part of the reason Gladwell has been so successful is because he didn’t telepath his anecdotes.

So think twice when you find yourself writing, Our Story, Our Customer Stories, Read this Story, or any other mention of the s-word. Let people just enjoy the story rather than be self-conscious about 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. David Pryde says:

    Good article – simple but powerful. Thanks Shawn

  2. Thanks, Shawn. I find this very timely and useful.

  3. Hello Shawn, I tend to agree with you. It depends on the audience but in the corporate sector, I’ve generally found this to be true. If I begin by saying something like, “Something major happened last week” or “I had a profound revelation 5 years ago”, the ears perk up, eyes on me. If I begin by saying I have a story to tell them, I often see that glazed look as if this is a signal to opt out. For many, sadly, the word “story” still carries that “childish” connotation and, as such, it’s deemed unimportant. So if I have to drop the “s-word” in order to keep my audience focused, I’ll do it. Thanks for the article. Interested in what others think.

    1. Thanks Michael. Good the hear it resonates with other practitioners.

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