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Q&A with Shawn Callahan on Putting Stories to Work

The book Putting Stories to Work by Shawn Callahan provides a process with a practical approach to master business storytelling; a leadership skill that helps to achieve results. It contains many stories that can help you to use storytelling for business communication and culture change.

InfoQ readers can download an excerpt of putting stories to work.

InfoQ interviewed Shawn Callahan, founder of Anecdote, about what business storytelling is and the key elements of business stories, developing storytelling skills, how written and oral stories differ from each other, using stories at work, the benefits that storytelling can bring, what you can do to remember stories, the difference between oral stories and whitepapers, and establishing a culture that supports storytelling.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write a book about business storytelling?

Callahan: I started working with oral business stories in the 1990s. Back then I worked for IBM doing corporate anthropology projects. We would collect stories from an organisation and then take its people through a process where we helped them find the patterns of behaviour in the anecdotes. We would tell them that if they wanted to change their culture, they needed to change their stories. We then helped them work out which behaviours they wanted to keep and which ones they needed to disrupt. It was usually part of a larger culture-change program.

In 2004 I started Anecdote and our customers began asking us to help their leaders tell stories to inspire their people. At first we said ‘No’ because we were concerned the technique might be misused. But our clients were persistent. We agreed to help as long as we focused on the ‘small’ stories – stories told on a daily basis, like the ones we collected in our anthropology projects.

As I reached the two-decade mark doing story work, I found that people would assume I had written a book. They would ask me to send them a copy. But as I hadn’t written one, I could only send articles and white papers. I was also surprised by how many business books on storytelling kept things general and didn’t give a clear process for becoming a better business communicator using stories. So I set out to share what I had learned and provide a practical approach to business storytelling. And also save myself any future embarrassment when someone asked for a book.

InfoQ: How would you describe storytelling in business?

Callahan: The very best leaders tell stories to their people to help them understand the business’ priorities and to share lessons. I’m working with a large insurance company at the moment and the CEO shared a small story with his people to help them understand their new way of thinking about risk. It was a story from their call centre. This CEO has a terrific storytelling habit where he finds something that happened in the business last week that illustrates a point he wants to convey and then he shares it this week. Each week he is looking for new stories to tell. This is black belt, 3rd Dan business storytelling.

But most leaders don’t tell many stories at work. They’ve developed a way of speaking that favours opinion and a point of view. And this is a problem because it’s mostly forgettable and often lacks meaning. Good stories are memorable because you can see them happening in your mind’s eye. And they’re meaningful because you can see how the events affect each other. You understand why something happened.

That is not to say you throw out all your opinions and points of view. Far from it. Rather, you mix your stories in with your perspectives, using them to illustrate your point. It’s what your people want to hear, especially when they don’t quite understand. They are giving you a hint when they say, ‘Can you give us an example?’

InfoQ: What are the key elements of business stories? Why these?

Callahan: To be good at business storytelling, you first need to become good at knowing the difference between a story and a non-story. In the book I share a story-spotting framework that helps people to see stories. It has four parts:

  1. Stories often start with time markers. When you hear someone say, ‘Last week …’ or ‘On Tuesday …’ or ‘Back in ’91 …’, you are likely to hear a story. Stories can also start with a place marker, such as ‘I was in the boardroom and Pete walked in the door’. Stories happen in a time and a place, so you need to listen out for time and place markers.
  2. Stories are made up of events. This happened, therefore this happened, but this happened etc. We infer causality from these events.
  3. Stories have people in them. We know they are in the story because we are told the names of people who are doing things and talking to each other. In fact, dialogue cannot be delivered without being inside a story.
  4. Something unanticipated needs to happen.

Also remember that it’s not a business story unless it has a business point.

With this simple framework you can start spotting stories everywhere. You can also pull up people who say thing like, ‘The story of our product is quite simple: it’s all about quality and trust’. Well, that might be true, but it’s not a story.

You can test your story-spotting skills at a little website we created called The Story Test.

InfoQ: What can people do to develop their storytelling skills?

Callahan: The first thing you need to do to develop your storytelling skills is to find some stories, preferably about things that have happened to you. Then you must work out the lesson or insight that is contained in a story, share the story, and see what happens.

Here are two tips that will help enormously. First, never use the word ‘story’ when you share your story. Don’t start by saying, ‘Hey guys, I want to share a story with you …’ Instead, start with the insight that is contained in the story. For example, your story might be about persistence, about just how important it is to stick with something. So you might start by saying, ‘You know what, a lot of success comes from persistence. A few years ago …’ And away you go. People will listen intently because they want to know the insight that’s based on your experience.

Once you get comfortable sharing some stories, I would then look for opportunities to make your stories more visual. And the best way to do that is to add moments to your tellings. Imagine you’re sharing that story about persistence and a big moment is when you convince your boss to keep going with a project. You could tell this part of the story by saying, ‘… and then I convinced my boss at the time to stick with the project …’ Or you could add a moment to help us see the conversation you had with her: ‘I remember walking into my boss’ office. We were on the 24th floor with great views over Melbourne’s docks. Sally’s a tiny woman but scary as hell. Then I started my pitch …’ You don’t want to overdo your moments, but at the pivotal points of the story you want to draw people in, and help them see and feel what you saw and felt. They get to relive the moments with you.

Storytelling is all about practice. Keep an eye out for stories and keep sharing them and you will improve.

InfoQ: How do written and oral stories differ from each other?

Callahan: There are a bunch of things we can do in oral stories which are regarded as poor writing. For example, oral stories employ clichés and stereotypes because they are much easier for us to process and remember. We can say something is as old as the hills, or that we’re scared out of our wits, or even that we’ve fallen head over heels for someone, and people will just get what we’re talking about. An editor, however, would strike it out in a flash. And we can repeat ourselves in an oral story. It helps us to remember things. Repetition really helps.

And because an oral story is performed in front of an audience, you don’t always have to finish your sentences because you can see when the audience already gets it. And for the same reason, you don’t always need to spell out everything. For example, when you are in an organisation, you never have to say, ‘I was talking to Peter Smith, the CEO …’ You are more likely to just say ‘I was talking to Pete …’ and the context makes it clear you are talking about the CEO. We travel light when telling oral stories.

We also tend to use simpler language in oral stories because they are about people doing things. They walk, sit, talk, wave their hands – they perform concrete actions. They don’t collaborate or demonstrate integrity or build client-focused portals.

InfoQ: Can you tell some stories about how people can use stories at work, and the benefits that they can bring?

Callahan: Just last week I was talking to a group of analysts at National Australia Bank who recently took part in our Storytelling for Leaders program. I asked them how their storytelling has made a difference at work. Harry (not his real name) spoke first. He told me that he had to deliver some bad news to some of his internal customers, and he did so using a basic narrative structure we taught him called a clarity story. Initially his audience wasn’t happy with the news, as expected, and said they would seek an alternative explanation. But after a couple of days they conceded that Harry’s analysis was on the money – they accepted his report. As I said to Harry during the program, you can’t beat a story with facts, only with a better story. The customers couldn’t come up with a better story.

I have also been working with TESCO in Europe. I trained all their continental HR directors in Prague last year and, again, I called them afterwards to get feedback on their progress. One HR director told me that he, the CEO and the CFO had to give a briefing to their general managers, and as they were milling around before the session he overheard two GMs bemoaning how boring these briefings were, listening to the executives drone on and on. So the HR director asked the CEO and CFO if they could just tell two stories about what was going well and two stories about what could be done better, then turn the session over to the GMs to share their experiences. They did this and it was a hit, the best GM briefing in memory. Everyone was engaged in a conversation.

InfoQ: Do you have suggestions for remembering stories, to be better prepared when the opportunity to tell a story pops up?

Callahan: This is how to remember stories when you need them. It’s a simple three-step process.

  1. Notice the details.
    When you discover a story, the first step is to notice the details. What are the people’s names, the dates, the placenames? These are the bits you’ll otherwise 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, ‘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. It’s like you are creating cerebral tags to remember the story.
  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.

Then, when someone says something like, ‘But can small things really make a difference?’, your story will just pop to mind.

InfoQ: Can you explain how oral success stories can outperform written cases studies when you want to convince people to do business with you?

Callahan: When you only have a written case study, you tend to describe it at a high level then slide it across the table. The customer is unlikely to read it and they are very unlikely to recount it to their colleagues during the internal selling process that needs to happen.

Contrast that with telling a success story orally. A good one will be about how a person, someone with a name and a position like the person you are selling to, is faced with a situation that makes them feel the same as how your prospect feels now. Then that person finds a solution to their problem and as a result they feel great. You infer that your prospect can feel that good too if they adopt your solution. It turns out that we make decisions based on emotion and then retrofit the rationale. 

Having heard the oral story, your prospect can now tell it to whomever needs to hear it inside the company. No reading is required. It will be in their head.

InfoQ: Do you have suggestions as to how companies can establish a culture that supports storytelling?

Callahan: There are three areas in which oral storytelling has a big impact.

First, it helps a leader to tell the story of their strategy. A lot of work goes into crafting a strategy, but most people in a company have no idea what the strategy actually is and why certain decisions are being made. Creating and telling a strategy story makes a big difference.

Then you want to train your leaders and your sellers to become better oral storytellers to influence, engage and inspire their people. When your leaders can model storytelling behaviour, more of their people will do it too.

Finally, to have the right stories flowing through a company requires them to be systematically shared. For example, you can encourage the submission of stories about the company strategy in action and then, say each fortnight, and push a good one out to all your team leads to share and discuss across the business. This shows everyone exactly what’s required to execute the strategy and also inspires people to try similar things in their area of the business.

InfoQ: Any final advice that you want to give when people want to use storytelling at work?

Callahan: Practise. Keep stories short (1-3 minutes). Favour your own stories. And whatever you do, never perform your stories – keep them conversational.

About the Book Author

Shawn Callahan is the founder of Anecdote, the world’s largest business storytelling company, and the author of Putting Stories to Work: Mastering Business Storytelling. He helps sellers and leaders inspire people with oral stories.

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