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 / Second Quarter 2002 / Issue 27(originally published by Booz & Company)


Once Upon a Time

One set of story triggers is simply a set of emotions — pride, anger, fearlessness, joy, masterfulness, amazement. When you feel a particular emotion, what emerges in your memory? Another inspiration is to think backward through five-year phases of your life — 40 to 35, 35 to 30, 30 to 25, etc. Still another is to draw a “lifeline.” On a vertical line, mark branches off each side, like a tree. The branches on one side are choices made and actions pursued (quitting a job, giving a speech). The branches on the other are choices deferred and actions not taken (not quitting a job, not giving a speech). The lifeline depicts the crossroads in your life, which invariably brim with personal drama.

In getting the most out of stories, storyteller Doug Lipman, author of Improving Your Storytelling: Beyond the Basics for All Who Tell Stories in Work or Play, advises storytellers to first identify the “Most Important Thing” (or MIT) in the story. That is, what’s so important about the story? Is it about egalitarianism? About decisiveness? About the firm’s willingness to clean out deadwood?

To find the MIT, Mr. Lipman counsels storytellers to ask, “What do you love about this story?” He stresses that an effective telling depends on not letting subthemes muddy the tale’s meaning. The MIT, he says, drives the story’s direction in the same way a strategy drives the direction of a business.

Mr. Maguire says we instinctively follow a four-step dramatic pattern to shape our stories: We find a protagonist with a situation or problem, depict a change that creates drama (a decision, an outside development), highlight a turning point in the drama (crisis, conflict), and describe the aftermath.

You can find all four steps in the story about the CEO who removed the reserved-parking signs and then dismissed the executive who had them installed. Here, the four-step formula gives the story a satisfying sense of closure. But a “story” could simply be an analogy, a joke, or a behavioral snapshot. Fragments of stories spur listeners’ imaginations in the same way.

Storytellers engage people’s imaginations and emotions best when they are working face to face, using voice, gestures, and body language to convey the emotional weight that grabs listeners. Many stories, especially organizational ones, sound flat on paper. That’s why most books on storytelling include several chapters on delivery. The Storyteller’s Guide: Storytellers Share Advice for the Classroom, Boardroom, Showroom, Podium, Pulpit and Central Stage, by Bill Mooney and David Holt, features interviews with seasoned storytellers to get at a broad array of insight.

Professional storytellers rarely learn stories by rote. Yes, they do memorize key turns of phrase. But as the storyteller Doug Lipman says, they always have to be “thinking in the present” — making decisions from moment to moment on everything from voice to word choice. Or, as another storyteller reminds us, you can find the secret to live delivery on the back of a sweepstakes ticket: “You have to be present to win.”

No doubt the company president was “present” when he told his story about the mouse. If he hadn’t been, the image and meaning of squished heads — and squashed profits — wouldn’t have sunk in.

Storytelling Resources
Works mentioned in this review.

Stanley Bing, Throwing the Elephant: Zen and the Art of Managing Up (HarperCollins Publishers, HarperBusiness, 2002), 240 pages, $20.95.

Stephen Denning, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations (Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000), 192 pages, $24.99.

Robert Fulford, The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture (Broadway Books, 2001), 158 pages, $11.95.

Yiannis Gabriel, Storytelling in Organizations: Facts, Fictions, and Fantasies (Oxford University Press, 2000), 266 pages, $24.95.

Spencer Johnson, Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life (Penguin Putnam Inc., 1998), 94 pages, $19.95.

Doug Lipman, Improving Your Storytelling: Beyond the Basics for All Who Tell Stories in Work or Play (August House, 1999), 219 pages, $14.95.

Jack Maguire, The Power of Personal Storytelling: Spinning Tales to Connect with Others (Penguin Putnam Inc./Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1998), 253 pages, $16.95.

Bill Mooney and David Holt, The Storyteller’s Guide: Storytellers Share Advice for the Classroom, Boardroom, Showroom, Podium, Pulpit and Central Stage (August House, 1996), 208 pages, $23.95.

Peg C. Neuhauser, Corporate Legends & Lore: The Power of Storytelling as a Management Tool (McGraw-Hill, 1993), 161 pages, $18.

Annette Simmons, The Story Factor: Secrets of Influence from the Art of Storytelling (Perseus Publishing, 2000), 272 pages, $25.

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