Social Business

An Exploration of Corporate Storytelling Practice


Some thoughts on why organizations should use stories and how you can implement a storytelling regimen in your organization. (Photo credit: Enokson)

Heard the one about the role of storytelling in knowledge management? Many of today’s most respected businesses and thought leaders are transporting this age-old practice from around the watercooler directly into the repositories of intellectual capital.

Moral philosopher and artist, Mary Midgley wrote, in Science and Poetry, “To make sense of our humanity requires not just science but poetry.” A rather poetic statement, on the surface, but one grounded in scientific principle.

“Poetry, for Midgley, is defined not in its everyday sense. Rather it is a description of all that is not encompassed by natural science philosophy, history, sociology, politics, literature and so on.” This poetic view of humanity and humanness, says John Seeley Brown, writer and Chief Scientist of Xerox Corporation, permits humans—of all nature’s organisms—to be “both objects of nature and subjects that can shape our own fate.”

As humans, we’re uniquely occupied with such subjects as the shaping of fate, anticipation through experience, preparation through learning. A thread central to the theme throughout history and thoroughly applicable to the corporate world, is storytelling. What’s history but the story of everything?

Steven Denning, Program Director, Knowledge Management at the World Bank and writer of The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations, writes: “What if narrative and story were not trivial but actually very important? What if narrative is still the instrument by which we all as adults come to make sense of what is happening both in our private lives and in the serious world of organizations and business and government?”

Within organizations today, storytelling is one of the most effective methods of sharing knowledge and building a culture of self-discovery—a method that has been discouraged since the middle grades (some would argue, since Plato).

Knowledge management must deal in storytelling because, as Steve Denning says, “there is one certainty when it comes to business, whether you like it or not: Storytelling is going on in every business, every department, every team. Storytelling is not only natural, it is being used right now throughout your enterprise and it is being used heavily, probably more heavily than any other information or knowledge sharing channel you have.”

A previous paper, Information Lifecycles: A Farm Metaphor, described the cultivating and sowing of information within a larger farming metaphor for information lifecycles. With this presentation, I would like to further discuss storytelling methods many organizations are adopting to fulfill their sowing obligation. We’ll explore some thoughts on why organizations should use stories and how you can implement a storytelling regimen in your organization.

But first, what exactly are stories?

What Stories Are

Characters. Events in chronology. Subtext. A lesson of some kind. Labeling systems vary–depending on who you ask–but the principle movers within KM agree that all stories contain specific essential components.

More than just “things happening to people,” experts place emphasis on the links between events, links with the experience of an audience, and a greater message or narrative meaning derived from events recounted in combination by a skilled storyteller.

“A story is defined as a narrative or tale of real or fictitious events,” say Helen McKay and Berice Dudley, in their book, About Storytelling. “Stories are a nourishment for our hungry souls. Often stories we regard as fiction have elements of truth dressed up to make them more palatable.”

Steven Denning defines a story as “Something told or recounted in the form of a causally-linked set of events; account; tale: the telling of a happening or connected series of happenings, whether true or fictitious.” By establishing relations—parts to a whole or cause to effect—narrative meaning is constructed. Meaning, in other words, is the way in which something is related or connected to something else. Says Denning, “To ask the meaning of an event is to ask how it contributed to the story in which it occurs. It is the connections or relations between events.”

Writer and teacher, Bill Johnson, says human need is at a story’s heart. “To create a story’s fulfillment,” he says, “the storyteller has an outer and inner focus. The outer focuses is on how and why the dramatic issues, events and characters of a story engages the interest of an audience. The inner focus is on the task of arranging the order of a story’s elements to create a purposeful effect of movement toward a fulfilling resolution.”

Dave Snowden, of the Institute of Knowledge Management, says, “In order to achieve a story there is need to select the most compelling of the facts and provide appropriate emphasis: create tension, introduce clear protagonists, build a proper context, spell out the message; in other words all the tools and techniques of a script writer or journalist.”

When Larry Prusak speaks of the attributes of stories—those with true value to an organization, he names endurance, salience, sensemaking, and comfort level. Do the lessons of the story remain the same though names and circumstances may change? If so, it has endurance. Is the story witty, succinct, and emotionally powerful? Then it is salient. Does it possess explanatory ability for behaviors and events? Then it is sensemaking. And does the story not only have the ring of truth, but does it make you feel good too? Then it has the comfort level of an organizationally powerful story.

So we have a basic idea of the makeup of stories. What does any of this have to do with managing knowledge?

Why Use Stories?

Insanity is “a deranged state of the mind usually occurring as a specific disorder (as schizophrenia) and usually excluding such states as mental retardation, psychoneurosis, and various character disorders.” But madness is Ahab. And a Scrooge is a Scrooge is a Scrooge.

War and Peace is a chronicle of Napoleon’s assault on Russia. But you stuck around to see what happened to Pierre and Natasha and the rest. You did the same for Hem, Haw, Sniff, and Scurry in Spencer Johson’s Who Moved my Cheese? Along the way you picked up a few pointers concerning fear and opportunity and the inevitability of change. Strong threads make for good yarns.

Dilpreet Chowdhry, an expert in strategy and decision analysis with Touchstone Consultants, says storytelling is effective in knowledge sharing for a number of reasons, among them simplicity, concreteness, purposefulness, and creativity. Stories are non-hierarchical: that is, they present plainly “what bureaucratic layers will hide from you”. Says Chowdhry, “Use of these story forms allows the hearer to associate other experiences and bring a richer range of knowledge to bear on a current problem.” So cheese is individual and universal. Cheese ignores the vertical boundaries of the organizational chart. Cheese is KM.

To truly understand why stories are important KM tools, we must approach information–its form, its delivery, its retention, its transformation into useful knowledge–from a distinctly human perspective. As humans, we’re accoutered with certain tendencies in our youth, many of which haven’t found their way into the office:

  • If conversation is a meal, we enjoy a certain level of appetizer discourse. Weather. Sports. “How are you?” These are all examples of scene-setting dialogue, what Larry Prusak and others call phatic speech, that clear the way for knowledge exchange.
  • Phatic dialogue grounds speaker and audience in the narrative mode; concepts radiate and weave themselves into the story and stick in the mind the way abstract paradigms of numbers and corporate rhetoric cannot.
  • Abstraction is learned, after all. Concrete imagery, beginnings and endings, action through accrued wisdom–we learned these as children. And we learned them less through books and more through the sharing of the good ones.
  • For documents, books and the rest, contain no knowledge.
  • There’s knowledge in telling.

The Phatic and the Narrative

“So how’s the weather?”
“A frontal system has brought with it mainly wet conditions. Freezing rain is possible as a southerly flow yields to the approaching cold front. So I’m expecting lake-effect snows and plan to layer up today, tomorrow, and on into the weekend. Back over to you, Bob.”

Not all spoken interaction is transactional. Indeed, data-dumping from one individual to another can hardly be called dialogue at all.

Larry Prusak, executive director of IBM’s Institute of Knowledge Management, claims we use speech to bond with each other. “There is strong anthropological evidence for this phenomenon,” he says, citing the anthropological term phatic speech—speech in which the content is of secondary importance to ritualistic concensus-building among participants. Breaking the ice. With that bond formed, you can communicate content without impediment.

Prusak also relates two modes of explanation—originally outlined by Jerome Bruner in Actual Minds, Possible Worlds: the paradigmatic and narrative modes. While the former deals in mathematical systems and logical operations and generalities, the latter concerns itself with matters of the imagination, context, and human drama: in a word, stories.

Prusak argues in part that the human inclination toward the phatic and the narrative is driving further exploration into the power of storytelling in the workplace. Historically abstract discourse, too.


Once upon a time a financial statement, though both brave and strong, identified accounting errors primarily related to its overseas operations and therefore restated its balance sheet, adjusting retained earnings for after tax charges. No small pittance of assets were reduced and liabilities in the accompanying consolidated balance sheets impacted cash flows and consolidated results of operations. The distant call of independent auditors sounded throughout the land.

Writer and editor, Amy Gahran says business-ese is all fluff. “In fact, business-ese as we have come to know it has evolved to serve primarily as a smokescreen. It allows people to sound like they’re saying something specific and meaningful, while really saying nothing.” Engineer and professional public speaker, Karl Walinskas, would agree. “Your challenge in business,” says Walinskas,”is to be a language self-surgeon skillfully excising this cancerous discourse from your speech before you need chemotherapy.”

Knowledge isn’t in acronyms. It’s not in figures and statistics. Not at all. Overviews. No. Analyses. No. Workflows. Schematics. Pseudo-latinate or cybertechnomic or gadgetronetic tintinnabulation. No. No. And, well, no. Knowledge is in context.

“In the course of following a narrative” says Steven Denning, “you learn how the world in which you find yourself works—or doesn’t work—in relation to human actions and purposes, and how you might adjust your own purposes and actions to interact with this world with different results, and how you might think and feel about these different possibilities. Narrative is thus soaked in human purpose and emotion.”

“We need to unlearn what we have been (mis)-taught” he says, namely that knowledge exists in the abstract and only children should tell stories. “We need to realize that stories not only function socially but can be used for serious purposes to get results fast.”

“When you experience a narrative,” he writes,”you understand what is happening in the world—or what has happened, or what might happen—by reliving it, by re-imagining it from within the idea, re-conceiving as if you are a participant in it, living it, breathing it, feeling it, along with the characters in the story. The idea comes alive.”

If business-ese has crept into our professional speaking vocabulary and lodged itself there like a cancer, our documents are little better. Indeed knowledge is often transferred despite them.

Stories Versus Documents

You need only look down any row of cubicles to find them: pages from manuals photocopied and pinned to the walls, hand-scribbled “cheats” stuck to computer monitors, indecipherables tucked into rolodexes and desk blotters. Programmed into speed dial are the extensions of experts down the hall. Meanwhile, books and binders of policy and procedure collect dust.

Knowing where the true centers of wisdom are: this is the great task of the neophyte. Larry Prusak writes “Where is the knowledge in organizations? How do you know what people know? How do you know how to behave? How do you know how to act when you enter an organization?” This information is conspicuously absent in corporate publications and formal training sessions. It is pieced together only through stories.

John Seely Brown says that documents do not in and of themselves contain knowledge. Rather they catalyze the “social construction” of knowledge by those who compose and read them. He claims dependency for documents on other documents through footnotes, annotations, and textual references “But perhaps most important,” he writes, “shared documents often provide the basis for disagreement within communities—thereby representing not the ending, but the beginning of the process of negotiation, learning, and knowledge-sharing.”

Documents then are snapshots of the author’s knowledge of a subject at a given time. Even dynamically generated documents are only as strong as the source from which they pull. And documents tend to accrete context, like marine life on a sunken vessel, until they are transformed into reefs of activity—absorbed into an environment of critique, discussion, revision, discussion, adoption, and discussion.

Whether downloaded from a corporate intranet, distributed by e-mail, or read aloud before an audience, documents are only part of the story. The learning is in the performance.

Extemporaneous storytelling, more than reading prepared statements, permits speaker and audience alike to grow a unique message together, one that could have occurred at no other time, with no other combination of players.

In the introduction to his book on springboard stories, Steve Denning writes, “Storytelling gets inside the minds of the individuals who collectively make up the organization and affects how they think, worry, wonder, agonize and dream about themselves and in the process create and recreate their organization. In this way, he argues, our perceptions can be changed as a story bypasses our defense mechanisms and directly engages our feelings.

And this learning isn’t limited to just the audience. Dolly Haik-Adams, a Human Communication Specialist with Berthelot Consulting, claims that you can learn by analyzing and sharing stories of your own. She says, “Sometimes, when we hear our own words tumble out, whether in person or in print, we understand ourselves—or our families—or our business—or our organizations—or our communities—just a little better.”

That being said, what are some story flavors currently circulating within the world of work?

Types of Corporate Stories

When told correctly, there’s only one kind of corporate story: the one where everybody wins.

Larry Prusak discusses several categories of stories in organizations based on topic (stories about other people or work itself, stories about the organization, about the past or future, stories about life) and based on purpose (stories as social bonding or as signals).

A specialist in digital storytelling, Michael D. Kull of AMPLIFI Knowledge Media Solutions, lists many categories of narratives useful to organizations, including the obvious—success stories, lessons learned, exit interviews—and the not-so-obvious. Champion stories, says Kull, are useful for building support for new initiatives. Fireside chats can serve as effective platforms for the views of senior management. Even out-takes have a role in shaping “a playful, learning culture by allowing people to share funny moments with one another.”

Steven Denning’s list includes entertainment, conveying information, building communities, promoting innovation, preserving organizations, and changing organizations. And change stories are his specialty.

One such change story associated with Denning is the springboard story. “A springboard story has an impact not so much through transferring large amounts of information, but through catalyzing understanding,” he says. “It can enable listeners to visualize from a story in one context what is involved in a large-scale transformation in an analogous context. It can enable them to grasp the idea as a whole not only very simply and quickly, but also in a non-threatening way.” So a springboard story implicitly affects listeners on a personal level. Says Denning,”In effect, it invites them to see analogies from their own backgrounds, their own contexts, their own fields of expertise.”

So the applications of storytelling strategies are myriad. Let’s put together a toolset…

People & Places

Q: “So, other than the storyteller, who makes it all happen?”
A: “That depends.”
Q: “So, other than the coffee room, where does it go down?”
A: “That depends.”

Some storytelling organizations employ full-time story instigators to churn the waters. John Seely Brown describes a group at Xerox PARC called knowledge artists. “The role of knowledge artist,” he says, “may become a new and important discipline in the knowledge workplace. Our knowledge artists at Xerox intermingle with the scientists, grafting visual performances that contribute to the construction, sharing, and leveraging of knowledge.” These individuals are expressly responsible for breathing perspective into ideas and concepts and fostering a greater diversity of frameworks within the organization.

But what about a team environment in which seats around the table are scarce and time for chit-chat is scarcer? Who can tell that tale? Maybe everybody.

Evelyn Clark, a corporate storyteller, says stories can “help facilitate the team’s progress through the inevitable—and often challenging—stages of its development.” Within the five team development stages she uses—Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Adjourning—storytelling helps to create and maintain bonds, set and manage expectations, establish team values, celebrate accomplishments, and provide a summation assuring the longevity of lessons learned after the team has disbanded. “And rather than the end of a team’s project being the end of its story;” says Clark, “it actually becomes a step in moving the entire organization into the future together.” In this way, the stories within a team contribute to an encompassing story of that which in turn feeds that of the organization as a whole.

Perhaps your environment would benefit from formal presentations recorded and distributed enterprise-wide, involving a team of specialists and technical wizards to pull it off. Maybe you’re better off just riffing while in line for the copier. Dedicated personnel requirements should reflect the lengths to which the organization is willing to go structurally. Between us, though, do you really want a whirring copier in the background when you’re trying to hold an audience? Or be held by a speaker? As a rule, when circumstances permit, get a room.

In describing what he calls deep listening, John Seely Brown says, “Stories are transported and resuscitated through the process of listening, which goes hand in hand with storytelling. Because a story is interactive, the listening is as much an activity as the telling.” To foster deep listening, organizations could build or temporarily convert spaces for storytelling events.

For effective storytelling, some would say all you need is a watercooler. Others call for judge’s paneling, integrated multimedia and communications capabilities, and padded recliners for a hundred people. Intimate or one-on-one storytelling without need of archiving lends itself to the watercooler scenario. “When creating a space for use by several different presenters, however,” says Tom Mucciolo, a presentation skills expert with MediaNet, Inc., “there are a number of important parameters to consider.” Lighting, lecterns, placement of visuals, and seating arrangements are among them. Professional business speaker Tom Antion adds useful advice on arriving early, using short breaks, sound systems, and climate control.

For the high-tech approach—automation, web conferencing (and judge’s paneling!)—consider an executive briefing center. A Tad Simon penned feature on them reads “The common components of a typical briefing center are a variety of meeting and conference rooms that accommodate groups of different sizes, some sort of product demonstration area, and a dining facility supported by either an onsite kitchen staff or a catering service.”

Whatever your budget, a dedicated storytelling facility is worth it, as long as you have the right person telling the right story… right.


“I just flew in from Kalamazoo and boy are my arms tired!” (pause for laughter)

Suppose you’ve lined up a mid-morning room with a window and captain’s chairs and you’ve managed to fill it with people eager to hear a story. Suppose that story’s yours. To tell a good story, you will need to draw on the skills of the effective presenter. Maybe use some slides. Relax. Remember eye contact. But to spin a corporate yarn requires a little something extra.

“Learning how to be a good storyteller as well as an effective presenter adds might to your communication muscle,” says Peter Giuliano. He and partner Frank Carillo of Executive Communications Group, adhere to what they’ve termed the PLOT method for incorporating storytelling into your communication style. Using stories that are Plain, Light, Obvious, and Tight, can add punch to any communications task and make presentations more effective.

Marie Wallace, distinguished law librarian, trainer, and writer, tells of speakers reluctant to use stories in their presentations. She offers a five-step plan to rouse what she calls a “sleeping beauty” of stories to liven things up. First, start small and get comfortable sharing stories. Next, start a notebook or database to improve your access to good stories. Learn what makes a good story (especially relatedness and transformative capability). Study professionals’ use of stories to illustrate meaning, bridge cultural gaps, persuade, inspire, and so on. And lastly, meet more professional storytellers or attend storytelling events. “Peoples’ realities are framed by narration or stories,” says Wallace. By following her advice, presenters can begin to incorporate storytelling slowly and gain confidence along the way.

In his Storytelling FAQ, storyteller, teacher, and trainer, Tim Sheppard, offers some suggestions of what makes good storytellers great. From personality to rapport, flexibility to stage presence, Sheppard outlines—among other things—the qualities that great storytellers cultivate.

Doug Stevenson, a professional speaker, lists several guidelines for effective presentations, including sharing information about who you are before speaking to what you’ve done, choosing personal stories, practicing your presentation on colleagues, and appealing to common ground.

Kyle Potvin, senior vice president at Vorhaus & Company, says that for an audience—media, industry, consumers, others—to be moved, they must truly understand your story. This, says Potvin, involves a four-step process: Know your story, Know your audience, Tell your story, and Get feedback. Understand your core message, customize your communication to your audience and its particular needs, structure your story with a beginning, middle, ending, point of view, and emotional connection, and capture responses once your story’s been told. As Potvin puts it, “You can get this feedback in many ways—through phone calls, written surveys, your Web site.” And through analysis of this routine, you can streamline a knowledge architecture that will feed your efforts moving forward.

These are just a few of the myriad sources available to you as you prepare your story for presentation. And if your audience is human, there are two strategies that won’t fail you…

Visuals & Metaphors

Larry Prusak doesn’t use slides, citing a “terrific allergy to all presentation materials. “I just couldn’t bear to do it after twenty years as a consultant,” he says. Perhaps the focus of his content and sheer skill as a storyteller don’t warrant such materials. “PowerPoint is not the right tool for every job,” says Jim Endicott, a presentation consultant specialist, “and it’s important to know in which situations it works and in which it doesn’t.” He has valuable lessons for uses of and alternatives to PowerPoint for the Web, for interactivity, even television. Graeme Daniel and Kevin Cox, in the Web Tools Newsletter, provide more ideas and resources for Web-based presentations. If videoconferencing is your chosen approach, Laura Schneider, a certified Internet Marketing Coach and Technology Consultant, provides a plethora of information for the newbie.

An innovative approach to technological storytelling is Dana Atchley’s Next Exit. Mixing multimedia and narrative saavy, Atchley shares his personal life story for live audiences using images and anecdotes dating back to childhood. As a consultant, he instructs executives in the use of multimedia to capture corporate stories.

Tad Simons, editor-in-chief of Presentations magazine, discusses the mastery of metaphor. He says, “the reason people read Who Moved My Cheese? instead of, say, Martin Heidegger’s Existence and Being, is that Johnson manages to distill the human experience of change into an easily grasped metaphor about four mice in search of cheese.” Simon goes on to say that the metaphor is powerful enough to drive sales of a book that is neither especially well-written nor clever.

“The lesson presenters can learn from this book’s success is that simple metaphors and analogies are a great way to communicate almost everything, from the most basic business concepts to the most complex technical systems.” He bemoans classic sports and war metaphors (“dropped a bomb” and “hit a home run”), and offers advice for those looking to expand their metaphorical vocabulary. “Start by trying to be aware of the way you use metaphors and imagery in everyday conversation.” Awareness, close attention to language, practicing originality in everyday speech, and discarding the first images that come to mind, are all good strategies Simon presents for adding zest to stories and communication in general.

Writer and editor, Amy Gahran says “…many business people think they prefer to read business-ese. However, that’s often because business-ese is the only language they know how to use. Usually they’ve never had a choice—they haven’t had any significant exposure to plain talk about business, so they don’t know it’s even possible.”

Happy Endings

Writer and teacher, Bill Johnson, says “Even a story about chaos and the meaninglessness of life, if well told, can ascribe a quality of meaning and purpose to those states. That’s why there’s such a relentless desire for stories that are uplifting. They allow readers to feel that the “weight” of life is bearable. That solutions can be found to any problem. That no amount of pain is insurmountable, no obstacle unconquerable, if we have courage and persevere. That even the most painful sacrifice will be ultimately rewarded if we have faith.”

Steven Denning makes a compelling scientific case for stories with happy endings. He claims that negative stories can trigger mechanisms within the brain that could prevent a message from hitting home and stifle change. “Learning may take place,” he says, “but no rapid action ensues. There is no springboard effect.” Positive stories, on the other hand, have a mellowing—Denning calls it “floaty”—effect. “And this is the perfect frame of mind to be thinking about a new future, a new identity for yourself or your organization.

KM Processes

Steve Denning discusses the relationship between an organizations’s knowledge architecture and storytelling. He claims that coporate training departments should incorporate storytelling and story understanding skills into their portfolios, and that the valuable skill of story creation should be recognized and rewarded. In so doing, the Knowledge Management groups have a greater palette of material to work with and can focus the efficacy of the greater program. “This means,” says Denning, “not only knowledge architects categorizing and structuring the information contained in stories, but also performing such roles as knowledge facilitators or knowledge managers, and knowledge engineers. Those additional roles would be used to support face-to-face storytelling in communities and to facilitate the capture of those stories.”

Another proponent of a “rich and powerful knowledge architecture,” Tom Reamy of KAPS Group, says that continued focused attention is vital or else valuable storytelling will stay buried in white papers or “hidden in the undiscovered byways of personal interactions within corporate communities.”

An e-Learning and KM executive with Satyam Computer Services, Gautam Ghosh, uses what he calls the PICKLE method (for Process Improvement though Capture of Knowledge, Learning and Experience) for organizational learning. In a corporate culture that places more value in talking than in documenting, Ghosh’s team devised a knowledge capture system based on storytelling. In a group setting, members of a project team accumulate group reflections in the form of a narrative—all of which is transcribed by facilitators. Alternate methodologies are formulated from acknowledged mistakes and the assembled group knowledge is made available to future projects.

One way is to collect stories in a company newsletter or publication, as Shell did with Storytelling in Shell: Managing Knowledge through New Ways of Working.

The recent blogging phenonenon—a blog, or web log, is a publicly-accessible web journal—is a low-cost technological approach to knowledge management. Maish Nichani and Venkat Rajamanickam, in an eleaningpost article, present their ideas for corporate blogging. By creating a network of departmental blogs, they say, individual users can read those stories that are of value to them. “From the corporate blog directory, readers can pick and choose the blogs they are interested in by subscribing to them. Thus in this way, all subscribed blogs would appear on one page, making it easier to read, comprehend and navigate.” With updates in real-time and built-in archival and search features, blogging makes for excellent knowledge building.


The preceding is taken from a Knowledge Management landscape project completed in 2002 and is preserved here for posterity. It is meant to provide an introduction to the KM storytelling practice and to offer advice to those wishing to adopt a program within their organization…

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