Storytelling for business (Part 2)

By Elisabeth Goodman, 5th May 2018

My Knowledge Management colleague from my days with NetIKX , Stephen Dale, recently alerted us to John and Joann Girard and Co’s new book “Knowledge Management Matters – words of wisdom from leading practitioners.”

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 15.00.06

The editors very generously offer the book as a free pdf, although one look at the contents convinced me that I needed the convenience of the printed book.

It’s the chapter entitled: “Putting stories to work: discover”, by Shawn Callahan that has caught my attention first.

Storytelling in a business environment is a topic I am fascinated by and would like to add into my CILIP on-site course on Good Practices for Knowledge Sharing and Collaboration.

I started to explore this topic in an earlier blog on Telling stories at work and am always keen to learn more.

Shawn Callahan has written his own dedicated book on the subject: “Putting Stories to Work: Mastering Business Storytelling”.  He is an evident expert on the subject, and I picked up lots of useful tips from his chapter here which I’ve combined with some of my own insights in this blog..

Why use storytelling in a business environment?

We may not realise it, but many of us do this already!

We seem to be genetically programmed to listen to stories. They engage us emotionally and make us pay attention.  They help us to learn and remember.  As soon as someone begins to tell us about something that happened to them or to someone else, almost subconsciously, we are ready to listen to what unfolds.

So, in a business context, stories can have a lot of potential for a variety of situations, for example:

  1. At a staff meeting, to get people engaged in the vision and goals of a team or of the whole organisation
  2. When going through organisational change, to build buy-in to and commitment for the new way of working
  3. During activities relating to learning and development – to help the new knowledge ‘stick’

However, storytelling does require some skills and techniques, and this is where Shawn Callahan and others can help us.  His chapter in “Knowledge Management Matters” focuses on how to discover good stories – so I’m cheating a little here in extending this blog to the wider aspects of storytelling.  Perhaps I’ll get hold of his full book next…

What are the basic constituents of a good business story?

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 15.40.45

In my previous blog on storytelling I highlighted what Christopher Booker had to say about how the seven basic plots resolve themselves into some common characteristics: a character, an event, some conflict and uncertainty, some form of resolution.

Shawn Callahan has a framework which is not too dissimilar – there should be:

  • A time and/or place to set the scene
  • A series of interconnected events (preferably connected by “but” or “however” which are more dramatic than “and then”)
  • Two or more characters in dialogue
  • An unexpected twist

As we know, fairy or children’s stories usually have a moral lesson.  For a business story, there needs to be some link with the business point that you want to make.

What makes for an attention grabbing story?

A business story does not have to be about business!  In my previous blog on “Telling stories at work”, I describe how we learnt, during my NLP practitioners’ course, to use metaphors as a way of getting a point across. We also learnt that a story will be more powerful if we draw on the senses: what we see, hear and feel.

The metaphor I created, in the NLP course, drew on my husband’s research on the fruit growing industry in South Cambs.  My main character was a magnificent elderly greengage tree in our garden, a possible remnant of the orchards that used to fill this part of South Cambridgeshire.  It is in full delicate white bloom at this time of year and at the mercy of determinedly pecking pigeons, and of sudden snaps of late spring frosts.

Greengage treeIn the summer, downpours of rain will swell and split the fruit, and wasps will burrow into it, so that the gages fall rotting to the ground.

However, come August, I still manage to make rich green jam and succulent crumbles, and sometimes still have surplus to put in the freezer.

Despite this constant challenge and adversity, the Cambridge gage has continued to survive, appearing on the stalls in the Cambridge market and further afield. It has deservedly earned a reputation for its rich golden green colour and unique flavour.

My story was an illustration of the constant change that we experience, at work as in life, and of enduring resilience to it.

Shawn Callahan suggests a few pointers for attention grabbing oral stories in a business context:

  • They should be about topics that your audience can relate to.  So my story linked to nature, food, and (for a Cambridge audience), local to Cambridge might work. Apparently anything relating to our reptilian brains i.e. stories about power, death / near death, children’s safety, and stories about sex (though perhaps not in a business environment) will be effective too.  Power can be about position, education, money, celebrity, beauty – and of the misery or joy that they can cause!
  • Using photographs (in a presentation setting perhaps), especially if they feature people, will add to the effectiveness of a story.  Artefacts can also help with eliciting and sharing stories – a technique I’ve used for example in the adult French conversation group that I lead, where I’ve asked people to bring something that has some sentimental value to them to talk about.  That resulted in some very powerful stories.
  • And oral stories need to be shorter, less detailed and more evocative than written stories.

Where to find your stories

Shawn Callahan’s chapter is on discovery, and he has lots of suggestions for us for where we can find our stories for business.  They don’t all involve making them up ourselves.  We can:

Listen in to what we hear work colleagues talking about in cafés, restaurants, corridors, and in the informal part of meetings before they start or after they have finished.  We can then tell the story as we saw or heard it.

Reflect on an experience we’ve had, and then connect it to a business idea (as I did above with the greengage tree).

Do something unexpected at work, which then creates a story for others to tell to illustrate a business point.  (Shawn Callahan tells one about a CEO quietly replacing a light-bulb during a meeting to illustrate his value of being prepared to ‘muck-in’).

Be aware of stories that we find ourselves telling, especially those that make us feel some emotion, and that we can attach a business meaning to (as I did in my previous blog in talking about a personal experience of change).

Retell other people’s stories – but make sure we acknowledge them. I  have one that my friend Tim told us about his washing machine when we visited him and Harriet a few weeks ago.  Tim and I got quite excited about his story as he worked it up over lunch after he and I had been talking about how he could get started in storytelling.  It’s a simple story, with an unexpected outcome, and I will be using it, with his permission, to illustrate how it’s possible to start telling stories, and to find them from unexpected sources!

Victim survivor navigator
Victim, survivor and navigator mindsets in change

Draw on scenes from films, especially films that others might have seen.  I have for example used a scene from The Shawshank Redemption, where the characters are sitting in the prison courtyard, talking about their attitudes to imprisonment and how they for me depict different responses to change: the ‘survivor’ (played by Morgan Freeman) who accepts his fate (at least initially) as being in the hands of others, and the ‘navigator’ (played by Tim Robbins) who is always looking for ways to take control of his own fate.


Shawn Callahan had lots of useful tips to enhance those I have previously collected about storytelling.

I am starting, as he suggests, to keep a storytelling journal.  I may or may not, as he also suggests, set myself a regular time to reflect on what has happened or what I have heard during the day that might make for a good story.  I will certainly continue refining and practising the stories  I do have, so that I can draw on them when I need them.

And I am looking forward to exploring this whole topic with my delegates in CILIP’s on-site course on Good Practices for Knowledge Sharing and Collaboration.


About the author. Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.)  Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  RiverRhee is a support supplier for One Nucleus and a CPD provider for CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals). Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.



1 thought on “Storytelling for business (Part 2)”

  1. Pingback: A conversation on ‘Good Practices’ with CILIP’s Knowledge and Information Management community | Elisabeth Goodman's Blog

Leave a Comment