Story Telling

The Forgotten Art of Story Telling?

For the million or so years before human beings settled onto farms they gathered at night around the camp fire and told stories. Through those stories they learnt from one another about the signs to follow when hunting, where edible plants grow and what they look like, and where to find fresh water.

They also learnt about triumphs and sacrifices and connected with each other at an emotional level because of the stories. They built up clear pictures of the past and what was important and developed ideas for the future. During winter when hunting was rare the story telling would help them to develop ideas and plans for major hunting expeditions the following summer.

From the stories we heard ourselves when we were children we learnt to imagine a course of action and its effect on others and decide whether or not to do it. We respond to stories - they make us stop, relax and listen. As we listen we can imagine ourselves in the story and we make emotional as well as logical connections, we remember stories and the lessons they embody.

This craft, which has been practiced for thousands of years, has only recently been seen as having potential business impact. The stories we tell in our organisations can help shape the culture, for better or worse, and can help us to learn from each other. By developing the art and practice of story telling in our organisations we can improve the way people relate to each other, build a sense of community and use the information generated to build vast resources for future reference.

What is Story Telling and how are people using it?

Essentially a story has a beginning, middle and an end. It has characters, mood, movement, conflict, climax, resolution, meaning and perspective. Ideally a story expands our awareness of what has happened and what could happen in the future.

An effectively told story has these four elements:

  • Completeness - the beginning, middle and end that leads to new beginnings, middles and ends;
  • Wonder - space to think in and ideas about which to think;
  • Touching - speaks to our inner senses as well as our 5 physical senses;
  • Silence - permission to think and absorb

Telling a story gives us the opportunity to reflect back and develop a sense of completeness, accomplishment, and connection to a bigger story. It allows us to be aware of the wonder in our own stories and savour the past and imagine our future potential. In the telling we can become aware of our own learning and think about and absorb what it means for us.

Listening to a story gives us a chance to step back and make connections, to be touched by the experience of another, to think about other possibilities for ourselves and to challenge our own stories.

When we listen we could be looking for:

  • Starting points
  • Ending points - every new beginning is the end of something
  • Markers that indicate progress
  • Lessons to be repeated or avoided - heroes and monsters
  • Movement - steps, which helped and hindered
  • Metaphors - symbols and signs, which indicate how people are thinking and feeling

Stories can be simple or complex. The simplest story is a short anecdote. Many anecdotes from the life of an organisation can build into the bigger story. This work can be organised so that patterns and metaphors can be identified and a picture of the culture extracted.

As we notice metaphors we begin to see that certain types are used.

  • The opposition
  • Winning ground
  • Rules of engagement

Growth & nature

  • Stagnant culture
  • Intricate web of relationships
  • Taking the pulse

Cars, engines & machines

  • Firing on all cylinders
  • The wheel is turning
  • The vehicle for change


  • They are a winning team
  • He'll go the whole 9 yards
  • Putting ourselves on the line

Each metaphor carries with it a certain set of assumptions and limitations. War metaphors may assume that everything is a constant battle and imply winners and losers. It may also imply sacrifice, honour and heroes. It can evoke bravery and rising to the challenge. Likewise sport can imply winning and losing as well as high levels of teamwork and achievement. Metaphors from nature can evoke organic cycles of change and growth they can also evoke death and decay. Mechanical metaphors can be unfeeling and rigid as well as highlighting efficiency and progress.

A process based on story telling can be used to map out a culture in detail. People can be encouraged to tell their anecdotes using trained observers or anthropologists to elicit more from the stories. Then the patterns can be identified and tracked to draw out lessons such as:

  • Patterns in decision-making
  • Assumptions made
  • Judgements made
  • Unresolved problems
  • Resolved problems
  • Information flows
  • Values and principles

All of which can give a good overall picture of the past and current culture.

Story telling is an ideal way of connecting disparate groups and celebrating their diversity whilst at the same time developing a sense of the common threads between them. It can be particularly valuable in a merger situation or when developing a new partnership. The stories told can create cohesion some common glue, which binds people together for the future. In these instances the telling of stories of the past brings out the similarities and differences and highlight potential for future growth. Then the telling of an ideal story in the future shows how the new beginning can tell a whole new story highlighting new possibilities.

Getting started with a story of your own.

Telling a good story is something we all know how to do. We remember the stories of our youth and know that they all had:

  • A beginning - the start point which could also have been an ending.
  • A middle - the heart of the story which makes a connection with the listener.
  • An end that brings home the purpose of the story and leaves it open for new beginnings in the future.

We should always be aware of our listeners, what they know already and what might offend them. We should be clear on what story we are telling and make one or two simple points. The best stories are clear on their central purpose. When we are telling stories in change and we are seeking to create new stories it is important to be conscious of the metaphors we use. Changing metaphors can significantly change the story in the telling and affect the listener profoundly.

As you tell a story think about the rhythm and timing of your points. Leave silences for people to think and fill in the blanks with their own connections from their past or potential future stories. Where possible bring the story to life with actions and pictures.