Why story telling beats fact telling every time

This post is by Shawn Callahan – Founder of Anecdote, a management consulting firm that uses its expertise in story to inspire enduring change.

I’m just reading the Art of Explanation by Lee LeFever. I’m at the chapter on storytelling and LeFever opens with two ways to describe a blog.

A blog is a personal journal published on the World Wide Web consisting of discrete entries (“posts”) typically displayed in reverse chronological order to the most recent post appears first. Blogs are usually the work of a single individual, occasionally of a small group, and often themed on a single subject.

—  Wikipedia, 2012

and …

Meet Allison. She recently created a website where she posts information about her experiences raising a puppy. Her website is an online journal, or blog, where she posts a new entry that appears at the top of her page every few days. This stream of entries has enabled her to connect with dog lovers from around the world.

He makes the point that both contain the same information but do it in quite different ways. The former being fact telling. The latter, story telling.

I like the idea LeFever is making but his example of a story is not quite a story. It is missing a vital element.

Story telling

Here is an alternative that contains the missing element. Can you pick the difference?

In 2006 David Maister, an expert in professional service firms, started his blog (short for web-log). A blog is like an online journal. David would share his thoughts day-by-day, with his latest ideas appearing at the top of the page. He also encouraged his readers, like me, to leave comments.

As I was just starting my business I thought I would email David seeking his help. He called me from Boston the next day and to my utter surprise he said he would waive his high fees because he now thought of me as a friend after reading my online comments on his blog.

A story must have something unanticipated in it. Enough for you to exclaim, Oh! that’s interesting. Something needs to happen that is unexpected (though not necessarily alarming). A story needs to have a time or place marker, things happening, and something unexpected. Of course great stories are made of much more than that, but these are the things that need to be at a story’s core.

LeFever’s example starts out like a story, … she recently created a website (time marker). But what follows is merely a description.

As Mallary Jean Tenore beautifully puts it in a recent Poynton article, “A story is a promise that the end is worth waiting for.”

I see many story practitioners defining stories by saying things like, “the protagonist needs to have a challenge.” I’m afraid these types of definitions have been overly influenced by Big S storytelling and the Hero’s Journey. There are many stories that don’t adhere to the ‘challenge’ definition. Take a coincidence story for example.

A few years ago I took my family on a road trip from Canberra to Perth and back, about 8000 km return. On the return leg we pulled into Eucla, pitched our tent and I walked over to the petrol station to buy some milk. In the petrol station was Allan Fox, a dear friend who was in Eucla for 2 days to photograph the amazing sand dunes there. The chances of us meeting in such a remote place must have been a million to one.

This is definitely a story but I wouldn’t say the protagonist had any challenges to overcome. Things happened and something unanticipated happened. And, by the way, experience tells me that people love coincidence stories.

Those who claim to have narrative intelligence, but don’t, confuse those who are new to storytelling into thinking that a story can be a description, or that a story needs to involve a hero’s journey. It is impossible to develop narrative intelligence unless we first understand what a story is, and only then can we truly take advantage of storytelling.

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About Shawn Callahan

Shawn is a pioneer in the application of story methods to business and has helped some of the world’s top companies, including IBM, Shell, AMP and KPMG, to inspire lasting change and make sure their company values really stick. He regularly publishes his world-leading ideas on anecdote.com.au, one of Australia’s most visited blogs.
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One Response to Why story telling beats fact telling every time

  1. Andrew says:

    Hi Shawn, I agree that story telling is a great thing. From a sales perspective, it enables the prospect to relax and make an emotional connection with the product or service. We should use stories more often.

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