Friday, June 03, 2011

The Mythology of Business Storytelling, Part Two

In the last post, I gave some background to these "myth" thoughts. Read the part-one posting before you tackle this post. Consider these two posts as one continuous chat. By the way, I am not suggesting that any "Storytelling expert" who has hopped on the Storytelling bandwagon of late is trying to deceive. I believe there sure is a lack of understanding of story and storytelling.

Myth 4. Storytelling has no rules. Story is whatever you want it to be.
Not every conversation is storytelling. There is a difference between a story and an anecdote. Storytelling is an oral art. Writing a story is not storytelling.

Let me switch gears and be the BEST STORYTELLING CONSULTANT(TM) (giggle) you could ever have: "Hey, why constrain the everybody-make-their-own-reality freedom? Whatever you want is the most important thing here! Go on, storytelling is whatever your company tells me it should be. Thank you for hiring me. That will be $2,500, please."

Would you hire an accounting consultant that thought like that? Would you hire an Internet Security consultant who just wanted to make things easy for you?

Let me share my adaptation of a Hungarian folktale.

Once there was a little bear who loved to sing. However, when she sang the song was awful. She could not carry a tune. While her family loved her, her singing was so bad they had to cover their ears when she would break into song.

One day, the little bear asked her mother a question. "Mother, do you not think that my singing is the best in the world?"

The mother bear gave her daughter a hug and said, "Well, I love you very much, but the truth is that your singing is not very good. It hurts the ears of all who hear it."

The little bear was undisturbed. "Why, then, if you don't like my singing, I shall go out and find others that think my songs are the most beautiful of any." And with that, she walked out the door.

A few blocks down the road she ran across another bear. She looked at him and said, "Do you like to sing?"

He replied, "Yes, of course! Here, let us sing a song together."

The two young bears began to sing a song so off-key and so acoustically jarring that dogs began to howl in pain and even the birds in the tree overhead flew away as quickly as they could.

"Now," the boy bear asked of his newfound friend, "what do you think of my singing?"

She immediately answered, "I think your voice is the most pleasing thing I have ever heard. Tell me, what do you think of my amazing voice?"

"Your voice," he announced, "is satisfying like cool water on a hot day. Come, let us sing for everyone we meet."

And so they did, raising their voices in song to whomever they met. To this day, they continue to sing their outrageous songs, but they find that fewer and fewer of the other animals will listen.

Myth 5. Everyone is a storyteller.
Let me be direct here. Not everyone in your company should tell stories or be required to create stories. "Yeah, but Bob in Shipping tells the funniest jokes in the lunch room." Telling jokes is not storytelling. There is an art and discipline to seeing story as it happens in your company. Yes, train everyone about business storytelling, but do not require that they immediately start to tell. Begin the story biz process slowly in one area of your company and let the enthusiasm spread. If everyone is a storyteller, then no one is a storyteller.

"But, Sean, we have a schedule to keep. We need 100 stories by Tuesday. Everyone must tell their company story." I am sorry, but that will not happen. If you force people to create stories, you are going to get piles of….fake stories.

Myth 6. "Just tell your real story. That'll win 'em over."
I once had a loose-lipped colleague who said his grandmother always chided him, "Don't tell everything you know."

I see this myth often when dealing with small-business or personal coaching consultants. I agree with the ideas of transparency. We should be "real" with our clients and let them know we are human. However, use caution. There is a fine line between sharing with your audience the struggles you have overcome or just dumping (or bragging about) your life on your listener. Sharing personal tales takes (here I go again) discipline and crafting of the story. Ask yourself: Does my self-exposure invite the listeners to move forward with their needs or does it make them like (or feel sorry for) "me" more?

With both Part 1 and 2 of this "myth" series, I have written about some of the problem areas I see with the current corporate storytelling movement. Story and storytelling make up a strong world-mind that we all share as human beings. However, even something as transcendent as sharing our stories can be diluted by hype and noise. As you explore story for business, take a deep look at the understanding you may have about its power. There is so much good to be had if we keep ourselves focused and on track.

The is official blog for K. Sean Buvala, storyteller and storytelling coach. Illustration in this blog post comes from and is used under his Creative Commons license. See Sean's storytelling training workbook at


  1. Hey Sean, first time commenting here. I like your points and agree on most of them, especially the one against the anything-goes-if-you-have-the-cash view.

    When you say "There is a difference between a story and an anecdote" I do agree, but with one reservation: It bothers me to give up the term "story" to mean ONLY a polished, practiced, artful, GOOD story. I see so many people afraid to tell (or to believe they tell) everyday stories in everyday life because they are not storytellers. I would like to speak for the everyday stories, the stories without art or polish, the stories that come tumbling out of everybody all the time. I think they deserve to be called stories even though they are small and humble. They are a particular TYPE of story and represent a SUBSET of all available stories, but they are still stories. I use the terms "purposeful" or "cultivated" story versus "naturally occurring" or "wild" story, though I also think Shawn's big-S and little-s terms are excellent. What do you think?

  2. Hi Cynthia! Thanks for the comments.

    I think it's important to remember that this post is specifically about storytelling for business. When I wrote this, I was writing about the more formal process of marketing the work of an organization. So, there are still many other forms of storytelling out there that don't require the same polish. In my mind, I'm writing (in this post) about the "hard skill" of storytelling vs. the more informal "soft-skill" of being able to tell a story anywhere. For me, it's about the intentionality of the story. Are you going to reach the Big Goal or are you just shooting-the-breeze while waiting in line at the grocery store?

    Even with that, every story told is told for a purpose. That may be as grandiose as raising money for an important nonprofit or as simple as trying to get your friends to laugh at the dinner table. No one tells a story without a purpose- even if they are unaware that they have this purpose.

    Thanks for posting!

  3. Yes, but when the purpose of telling a story can only be stated as "because I am alive and I know you" it is a different type of story. It is a story where the fact that there is a PURPOSE is far less important than the fact that there is a STORY. Still it is a story and deserves to be included in the meaning of the term.

    Apologies if I misunderstood your focus. When people say "business storytelling" sometimes they mean ONLY crafting and telling a story for business purposes, and sometimes they mean ANYthing you can do related to stories in support of business. And often when I try to say my work in listening to stories is outside the realm of "business storytelling" people say it is not, that the realm encompasses listening as well as telling per se. So it's hard to guess what people mean! The uses of these terms are as varied as the people! Which is I guess related to our all being human.


  4. Hey Cynthia- :-)

    Thanks for the comments. One of the walls in storytelling these days is that most folks telling story for business ONLY know storytelling in that format, therefore they do describe story only in their singular realm. For those of us who have been around much longer, we understand (and use) storytelling in the many other facets of health care, sacred settings, education, entertainment, fund raising, literacy, networking and the like. So, Story for business for me is a just one field and the "rules" for story in that setting are different than what folks encounter in other settings.

    I think all storytelling has a purpose all the time. I'd be hard pressed to describe a situation where the story in and of itself is the singular purpose of the storytelling exchange. No one talks just to talk- and no one speaks story just to make noise.

    I think you are helping me to squeeze out another blog posting...hmmmm.

    Thanks! Peace-