1: To tell a great business story, there are many things we know, writes Stephen Denning in The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling.  


“Storytelling is an ancient art that hasn’t changed much in several thousand years. 

The effective use of storytelling in organizations involves crafting and performing a well-made story with a hero or heroine, a plot, a turning point, and a resolution. 

A storyteller catches and holds the attention of an audience by evoking the sights and sounds and smells of the context in which the story took place. 

A well-made story is effective regardless of the purpose for which the story is being told. 

Storytelling is a rare skill in which relatively few human beings excel.”

2: The only problem with these assumptions? They are all wrong, Stephen suggests. 

“Some of the most valuable stories in organizations don’t fit the pattern of a well-made story,” he writes. “For one thing, it turns out that different narrative patterns are useful for the different purposes of leadership.”

As leaders, we need to understand which type of story is suitable for our task at hand.

“For instance, a springboard story that communicates a complex idea and sparks action generally lacks a plot and a turning point,” Stephen notes.

When we want to share knowledge about how to best fix a problem, our stories often lack a hero or heroine.

More than two thousand years ago, Aristotle wrote that stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. He taught that stories should have “complex characters as well as a plot that incorporates a reversal of fortune and a lesson learned.”

3: Stephen challenges these suppositions. “The stories that are most effective in a modern organization do not necessarily follow the rules laid down in Aristotle’s Poetics,” he writes.  

Instead, “they often reflect an ancient but different tradition of storytelling in a minimalist fashion, which is reflected in the parables of the Bible and European folk tales.”

Is storytelling a “rare skill” possessed by only a few human beings?

“Utter nonesense,” writes Stephen. “Human beings master the basics of storytelling as young children and retain this capability throughout their lives.”

Pay attention to what happens in any informal social setting like a restaurant, a coffee break, or a party. We “see that all human beings know how to tell stories. Storytelling is an activity that everyone practices incessantly,” he notes.  

“It is usually only when we are asked to stand up before an audience and talk in a formal setting that the indoctrination of our schooling takes over and a tangle of abstractions tumbles from our mouths,” Stephen observes.

Instead, telling a great story is less about learning something new and more about “reminding ourselves of something we already know,” he writes. Storytelling is simply “a matter of transposing the skills we apply effortlessly in a social situation to formal settings.”

More tomorrow.


Reflection: Am I making any limiting assumptions about my ability to tell a great business story?

Action: Experiment with telling a story today to persuade someone to take action.

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