The Power of Storytelling

 “Telling a story can translate those dry and abstract numbers into a compelling picture”. A picture that the listener will remember.

Doug Stevenson, the author of an informative and entertaining book, “Never Be Boring Again”, tells us, “When you listen to a good storyteller, you hear the story with your head, heart and soul. You are not a passive listener – you are an active participant. As the storyteller is relating his or her experience, you are experiencing it as if it were your story. You feel what the storyteller feels; you see what the storyteller sees. You memorize and retain chunks of information contained in the story because you see the images, hear the sounds, and feel the emotions.”

 Stories engaged us at many levels, so when the storyteller makes the point, it sticks. It sticks, because a story evokes both visual image and emotion.

             The current growth in storytelling literature is a testimony to its effectiveness as a management communication tool for knowledge sharing and motivation. Storytelling has long been part of social, political and religious education but is still rather frowned upon in the pragmatic and practical world of business, where statistics, data and facts are considered the most reliable means of communicating a reality to those inside your organization and outside it.  Indeed, in some circumstances this may very well be the case. However, in most circumstances where knowledge has to be shared or people have to be motivated, storytelling can be a most effective [although this doesn’t mean that we can eliminate the need for those cold dry statistics].

 Many research studies have shown that people remember stories far more easily than data and facts.1 Look at the following short story by way of illustration.   

In the journal of management Development, Sandra Morgan tells a story about when Ray Kroc was running McDonald’s restaurants. While passing a McDonald’s in the Chicago area he stopped at one of the restaurants because from the road he could see trash all over the parking lot. Shake cups, Happy Meal boxes, napkins littered the whole area. He went in and asked the assistant manager to call the manager at home and ask him to come down to the restaurant. When he arrived he nervously introduced himself and Kroc without any sermon said that they had lots of work to do. He led the group out to the parking lot and said “Look! We don’t want trash around our sites”. Everyone set to work including Kroc himself. When it was all cleaned up Kroc just said good-bye and left.

             What does this story tell you? Can you picture the manager when he was asked to come down to the restaurant? Can you see them all cleaning up together? Do you think that this manager allowed trash to pile-up in the parking lot again? What does this tell you about Kroc’s management style? This story just took a minute to tell but yet it has a powerful impact on the listener. It is likely to be remembered because it evokes both a visual image and emotion (remember fear is emotion). Compare the effect of this story as a means of motivating managers with the effect of communicating statistics about how people are put off by litter or how staff members react to sermons.

            Peg Neuhauser, the author of “Corporate Legends and Lore”, tells us of an experiment that was carried out some years ago with an MBA class. A case study was given to the class about the production of wine in a particular winery in California. The question was whether the company should maintain the traditional method of production or adopt a newer one. The class was divided into three sections. One section got a narrative of how the wine was produced in the traditional way, which ended with the owner holding up a glass of new wine and saying “My father would have been proud”. A second group was given all the numbers and statistics about the traditional way, and a new way which would reduce the costs and the time scale. The third group got the account of the traditional method and the statistics as in group two.  Each group was then asked of their understanding of the situation. Did they believe that the company would maintain the old method of production or adopt the new method? And how much of the case did they remember?

            The second group bombarded with numbers and statistics – ended their session in argument. They couldn’t agree. Group three also had far too much information and never reached a decision. It was only Group one that could recall the message: The company would follow the traditional path. The students in Group one could remember the story but the others struggled with the facts. This was due, in large part, to the ‘belief factor’ – the first story was believable.

 However, we should emphasize that the story has to be well told. Also, the right emotional environment must be created for the audience to receive the message, and speaker must have credibility. If such credibility (ethos) doesn’t exist, then it is unlikely that the story will be well received.

 Leaders Need Hard and Soft Skills

            Management in many industries used to be the art of managing tangible organizations that changed at a gradual pace. In many ways, it was quite impersonal and demanded some knowledge of, and skills in, operations, marketing and accounting. This all helped in the decision making process. In essence, analysis drove business thinking. Indeed, this manner of seeing management is reflected in the importance given to decision analysis in most traditional MBA programmes today. Most programmes still follow this analytical path and with the right knowledge, tools and intelligence, managers can run and control their organizations. Naturally, the manner of communication reflected this scenario. But is this sufficient in every industry today? In the world of many consumer type industries where change needs to be rapid in order to enable them to survive in a very competitive marketplace, can such communication satisfy these companies’ needs?

            Senior managers are expected to lead their organizations and not just to manage or administrate them. They are expected to combine their analytical background with leadership skills. They are expected to motivate their people to accept and participate in change. They are expected to inspire their people and this often means appealing to their hearts as much as their rationality. They often have “to paint a picture” as well as the communication of data and facts.

            One quality that has united great leaders throughout time has been their ability to sell a picture of what they want to achieve. They motivated people through this picture because the vision or story contained a common purpose built on some common values which was communicated with energy and enthusiasm. This attracts and inspires them. Great leaders know full well that when a crisis occurred, an impersonal appeal to rationality is not enough. Political, religious or social leaders know this. Managers need to know this too.

 Argumentation and Storytelling

            Gerry Spence, a successful trial lawyer in the US, wrote an extraordinarily interesting book, “How to argue and win every time”. According to Spence, “Every argument, in court or out, whether delivered over the supper table or made at a coffee break, can be reduced to a story”. He claims that storytelling is in the genes and quotes a German philosopher Hans Vailinger who tells us that “in addition to inductive and deductive thought, there exists an original thought form he calls fictional thinking”. This claim is based on the idea that a lot of what we say comes from fictional thinking. The myths, allegory, metaphors, and aphorisms which we use in everyday thinking are fictional. The idea that fictional thinking is part of our very make up is supported by Joseph Campbell, in his book, The Power of Myth.     

            Let us take one of Spence’s examples from his book. Suppose we were making a plea before the “Commissioner for Roads” to construct a new road to replace the part of the present road which is dangerous because of the bends. We could argue this one from a number of points of view. We could, for example, produce statistics of the number of accidents and deaths over a period of time and emphasize the condition of the road. We could also argue that the commissioner had a duty to the general public and that the present road does not met the minimum safety standards. We could also base our argument on a story similar to this one:

 “I was driving down Beach Creek Road today. I had my four-year old daughter Sarah with me. I strapped her as tightly into the seat as I could, because I knew the road could be very dangerous. … As usual I drove very slowly, hugging the shoulder all the way. … And then when I was in the curve I saw the approaching vehicle. A lot of thoughts flashed through my mind. I recalled there had been deaths on this road in the past ten years, and I don’t know how many wrecks that resulted in serious injury. I thought, based on the number of deaths per thousand persons in this war zone, a person would have had a much better chance to survive in Vietnam. As you see, Sarah and I made it. This time the driver wasn’t drunk. This time the driver was attentive. …”

 The story ends with a question, “When will Sarah and I become just another statistic on this road?”  In this example, the speaker creates images in word of innocent people trapped in inescapable danger. The argument is emotional and goes directly to the hearts of those who are listening. What will those who are listening remember? Will they remember the statistics and facts or the images produced by the story?

            What we are doing is visualizing our argument in human terms. We are personalizing our argument and emptying it of abstraction. We are using action verbs to produce action pictures and in this way we are avoiding abstraction. The story goes to the heart and well as our head, which helps to produce the vivid picture that stays in our memory.

 Storytelling in presentations

            Thomas Davenport, author of “Working Knowledge”, tells us that, “Successful knowledge transfer involves neither computers nor documents but rather interactions between people”. Telling a story can translate those dry and abstract numbers into something personal by way of creating a compelling picture in the minds of our listener.

 Consider the following example by Stephen Denning, a former director of the Knowledge Management Unit at the World Bank in Washington. The World Bank Director asked Denning to make a presentation to senior managers at the Bank on the need to expand the scope of the Knowledge Management Unit. The unit provided information on the web on a whole range of topics, one of which was medical information. Though it was widely assumed that medical information was available to practitioners anywhere round the globe, Denning analyzed the data and found that this was not the case. He presented his conclusions to the bank director with the usual power point presentation. The director was so impressed with the data that he asked Denning to send the overheads to the directors of every regional office, believing they would inspire the World Bank officers to further develop their medical service.

 Denning waited for their reaction to the overheads but nothing happened. He informed the director that as far as he was concerned his presentation had been a failure. It had failed to move people. In his next presentation he used the same data and analysis, but rounded off his presentation with the following story.   

In June 1995, a health worker in a tiny town in Zambia went to the web site of the Center of Disease Control and got an answer to a question he had about the treatment of malaria. Remember this was in Zambia, one of the poorest countries in the world, and it happened in a tiny place 600 km from the capital city. But the most striking thing about this picture, at least for the World Bank, is that we (the World Bank) are not in it.

Imagine if we were. Think what an organization we could become.

 This story took a minute to tell. Denning had an immediate reaction the second time round and practically all of the feedback related to the story. The lesson for us here is that good business arguments are developed through the use of numbers and analysis, but they are clinched by way of the story.

 Types of Stories

            There are two types of stories – negative type stories and positive ones. Negative type stories are generally used for sharing knowledge, while positive stories are very useful to motivate others. On the one hand, suppose I tell you a story about how a team failed.  I would need to communicate how it failed and why it failed for this story to be useful. Such a story would be to help others avoid making the same mistake. Positive stories, on the other hand, are good for motivation. However, if we say that something will happen as a result of our doing something, then it must happen as we say it does. Otherwise we will lose our credibility. There must be evidence in the story that a positive outcome will result.

             In Corporate Legends and Lore, Neuhauser tells us that she and her researchers found that even though companies are getting much better at putting on effective orientation courses for new employees, these courses are often undermined when these new employees meet some of the established employees. It often happens, according to Peg Neuhauser that older employees do not believe in the content of the orientation course as it really doesn’t connect with their perception of reality which they have of their office. All that is needed is for one such story to be told to the new employees for much of the orientation to be rendered useless. Who does one believe? Neuhauser tells us that most of the new employees will believe those who have been with the company a long time.

 Resistance to Storytelling

            Despite the advantages of story-telling, some people see it in a negative light or as a diversion from reality. They feel it is not objective, and to be objective we must stick to facts – the drier the better, so to speak. Everything should be quantified to avoid bias, they would claim. Story-telling appeals to the emotions and this only serves as a distraction. The work place is not for fairy-tales, and emotions have little place in organizations. In the book, the Power of the Tale, Julie Allen and her co-authors say that this is especially true in many North American and European companies. Because of this resistance, many executives are reluctant to break away from their data into a richer area where the communication of mental pictures can be used for sharing knowledge and motivating others. They say that storytelling is superficial and that most modern corporations are very busy and complex organizations so storytelling is out of place. However, they will all admit that much of the analysis that they carry out are never really complete because there is far too much information that remains unknown.

 Storytelling can work for us all

            Experts such as Neuhauser tell us that our storytelling is useful simply because it is memorable. Most people, even those who advocate sticking to data, find it difficult to remember even their own data. Yet, tell a well thought-out story, and the central theme will always be remembered. This happens because a story is a narrative which actively engages the listener’s sense-making faculties. It helps the listener to make sense of what is being said and to make the right associations. It helps the listener to think widely by stimulating her imagination.

             We know that a static culture is a disaster for any corporation, and to get things done we need a dynamic environment. In The Power of Tales, Julie Allen and her fellow authors tell us “They (memorable tales) promote speedy comprehension, effective dialogue, human values and good judgment. Stories are not a nice-to-have embellishment; rather, they are a vital resource for getting the right thing done”. They can translate those dry and abstract numbers into a compelling picture that can share knowledge or motivate others.

 Finally, it worth remembering what the poet William Butler Yeats told us about communicating, Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people”.


To hone your own storytelling skills, try this exercise

 Pick one situation in your own life where you achieved something different from the others or were part of a team that was different (not necessarily winning). Read into this event or situation a message that has some significance (either for sharing knowledge or motivating) and repeat it as a short story.


Allen Julie et al. The Power of the Tale. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2002.

Denning, Steve. a story explains.html

Peg Neuhauser. Corporate legends and Lore … . Stanford Executive Briefings, 2003

Spence, Gerry. How to Argue and Win Every Time, St. Martin’s Press, 1995

Stevenson, Doug. http:/