Developing the story habit

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —January 17, 2020
Filed in Business storytelling

I’ve been reading Atomic Habits by James Clear over the summer, and while many of the ideas feel familiar from reading The Power of Habit by James Duhigg, it’s a great reminder of the practical things you can do to create new habits and jettison ones that are not working for you.

Forming habits

As I was reading Atomic Habits, I was thinking about how to apply the ideas to develop the habit of business storytelling. Here’s what I came up with.


How you see yourself has a massive impact on whether you can change and add new behaviour to your repertoire. I’ll often ask people at my workshops to raise their hand if they are a storyteller and few do. Yet when I ask them to pair up and share what they did last weekend, everyone shares a story without thinking about it. We are all storytellers. It’s the human condition; we are storytelling creatures. To develop the habit of storytelling, you must start by believing you are a storyteller.

One way to develop that belief is to catch yourself doing it. It will most likely happen in social situations when you are meeting friends and family. So when you hear yourself recount an experience, make a mental note, “That’s a story.” You might be surprised just how often it happens.

Ryan Holiday shared a simple yet powerful way to make this mental note visible to yourself. Slip-on a wristband and, each time you notice yourself sharing a story, switch the wristband from one wrist to the other. As we progress, I’ll show you other ways to use this physical reminder.

“The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who is this.” – James Clear, Atomic Habits (p. 33).

Now we have to get to work on how we bring this innate skill to the workplace so we can tell the right story in a way that works.

Basics of habits

A habit unfolds over four steps. Let’s take brushing your teeth as an example.

First, there is a cue of walking into the bathroom in the morning.

Second, you feel a craving which is that desire for clean minty teeth and breath.

Third, there is the response of actually brushing your teeth.

Last, there is the reward of the fresh, clean sensation of clean teeth.

Clear provides us with four laws of habit formation based on these four steps:

  • Make the cue obvious;
  • Make the craving attractive;
  • Make response easy; and
  • Make the reward satisfying.

Let’s explore each one of these laws of habit formation to see how we can build our habit for business storytelling.

Make it Obvious

To make storytelling obvious, you need some self-monitoring. One simple cue is to catch yourself being opinionated. For example, when you hear yourself say something like, “This only works well when you get all the leaders involved in the process.” Then you need to share an example (a story) to illustrate what you mean. To make this cue more visible, you can use the wristband idea and switch wrists each time you catch yourself being opinionated. This process trains your brain to pick up on a cue for storytelling.

Another tactic is to have a plan. For example, when you have a meeting scheduled, think of the stories you want to tell. Think of what would trigger the telling and when it makes the most sense to tell the story. Initially, you will need to think this all out, but over time merely going to a meeting will be a cue for storytelling for you.

Clear suggests this formula for describing your plan, “When situation X arises, I will perform response Y.”

When I start my talk, I will share a connection story. When I make my point about how small things can make a difference, I will share the example of Wrigley in China.

The main message is to make it specific. Don’t just say to yourself, “I’m going to tell a story in this meeting.” Know what story you want to tell and when you should tell it.

You can combine these two tactics, know when and where you will tell a story, but also be on the lookout for when you are opinionated so you can share an example. Being opinionated is already a habit for most so, this way, you are using an already established habit to form a new habit. Clear calls this habit stacking.

Make it Attractive

To make it more attractive to share stories, it’s essential to know how it affects your listeners. The easiest way to do that is to observe their body language as you are telling a story. I remember giving a lecture at Melbourne University and at the back of the room were the cool kids with their laptops opened, not really paying attention at the beginning of my talk. Then, as I shared stories, I saw them close their laptops and could see they were engaged in what I was saying. The stories I told were like a very mild superpower.

Do you like coffee (or tea, or catching up with people, etc.)? Then organise to catch up with someone each week and have coffee and bring a new story to share. Get feedback from them and get used to finding and sharing a story each week.

Clear reminds us that we tend to imitate the behaviour of three groups: the close (family and friends), the many (the tribe) and the powerful (those with status and prestige). Find a leader that you can see giving talks, having conversations, etc., and keep an eye out for the stories they share. When you notice one (many effective leaders share stories, so it’s easier than you might think), just observe how they do it and the impact they have with the people who hear the stories. These storytelling examples inspire us.

Make it Easy

The only way to make storytelling a habit is to practice it. You can’t just think your way into a new form of communication. You need to find stories and tell them. How often should you practice? Every day would be a good start. But make them small examples rather than full-blown stories. For example, notice something that happens today and share that experience tomorrow.

One category of story is what I like to call ‘it got me thinking stories’. Yesterday, I was having breakfast with my sister, and I asked her whether she used the story about trust that she asked me about. She told me she didn’t because it reminded her of a story from her own experience, so she used that instead. This got me thinking that our story banks are just as important for triggering new stories, as they are as a repertoire of stories to tell.

Another way to have stories to tell is to notice what happens when you meet someone because it’s easy to recount the experience, especially if what is said or what happened got you thinking about something. By the way, the phrase got me thinking is a proxy for your business point. If you remember from the story spotting framework, it’s not a business story until it has a business point.

Do you have a personal story bank? Mine is in Evernote. When I find a story, I quickly jot a reference to the story, such as a few dot points and when and where I heard or read it. I try and tell it as soon as I can. By having stories to tell, I reduce the friction of having to find a story, thus increasing the chance I will tell one. We form habits when it is easy to practice.

Make it Satisfying

One of the most satisfying experiences is to have people congratulate you on your talk and say how much it touched them. That’s what happened to my sister, Stacey (she is visiting this week hence the multiple sister stories). She’s an executive in the department of education. After I published my book in 2016, Stacey read it and started to share stories with her team and in her public speeches. She found the difference astounding. People would come up to her after each presentation to thank her. That had never happened before. The only change she made was to share some stories to illustrate her points. That’s satisfying, and when something is satisfying, we are more likely to repeat it.

But what happens when your audience is not that expansive and don’t pour out their gratitude in response to your stories? Well, you need to become aware of the more subtle indicators that they appreciate what you are saying. Are they leaning in? Are they asking questions? Have you heard someone retell one of your stories? (One of the highest forms of flattery). All these signals show your ideas are sticking. That’s satisfying, especially in a world where there is so much noise.

We love to experience progress. It’s highly motivating. So keep track of your new habit of sharing stories. Jerry Seinfeld did this by crossing each day off a calendar when he wrote a joke. His mantra was, “Don’t break the chain”, and he wrote jokes every day. You can do the same and share at least one story every day. Don’t break the chain.

Start today

There is no time like the present to start developing your habit of storytelling. Start small. Just find little examples to share. Then build up your stories over time. Merely being aware will make a big difference.

I look forward to hearing how you go.

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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