Friday, May 27, 2011

The Mythology of Business Storytelling, Part One.

The backlash against any business fad begins slowly. Hype buries the good ideas that are contained within a business movement. For example, when people discover that you can't manage people in just one minute or that there really isn't much fun in throwing stuffed toy fish around the office, the genuine value (read that "the work") of a concept gets abandoned with trappings and hype.

Storytelling and other forms of story expression can work well in business and non-profit organizations. I have seen this played out repeatedly since I began this journey of coaching and training back in 1985.

Of late, I am seeing the rumbling of hype-backlash in the discussion, teaching and preaching of business storytelling. Here are the first three types of buildup of which I think we all need to be aware. I will take on more in the next post. I have gathered these myths from personal experience, social media, blog posts and email.

By the way, "a myth" does not mean "a lie." Myth is truth covered in an agenda.

Myth 1: Storytelling is instant corporate relief.
In tough economic times, everyone is looking for that quick fix to make business work or to grow donations to a non-profit group. The challenge with story, and especially delivery via storytelling, is that it actually takes real work to develop. It takes training to do it well. When you look at how storytelling is being discussed today, do you often see a discussion about the amount of focused work it requires?

Is there a return on investment (ROI) when using storytelling? Yes, there is, but it comes slowly and requires a long-term commitment. (I have written before about what storytelling won't do for a business.) A one-off dive into story work is represented via such slogans as "This year, our company training focus is 'Storytelling!'" Short-term investment reduces the authentic stories of your real customers and employees to gimmicks. Gimmicks have no genuine ROI.

Myth 2. "You must believe in your story."
I have seen variations of this on Social Media more than once, with the emphasis on the word "believe" as an otherworldly transcendence into the metaphysical. Your IT and accounting departments are most likely filled with people who are not going to buy this whole "storytelling" thing. Throw in some Matrix-movie-like dream-world discussion and you will lose both departments. You do not have to believe in metaphor or transcendence in order for a corporate story to be effective.

Your corporate stories must be true and sincere, but they do not have to be magical. Storytelling, done well, creates "deep listening." Many people think that deep listening must be magical. The reality is that in our instant-everything and low-imagination world, we have forgotten that people used to listen like that all the time.

By the way, I do understand the attraction. It sounds like fun to tell stories instead of doing marketing or selling! It is fun to talk about the transcendent nature of storytelling and the stories used within storytelling- but do not make acquiescence to those ideals as a requirement for corporate storytelling. I do not understand 25% of what my technology-guru brother is talking about in regards to computers, but I sure know how to use this word-processing program.

Myth 3. "Storytelling in business is a different type of storytelling."
Like all myth, this has truth at its core. The truth is that every time you speak to a different audience, the experience of the story you are telling changes, even if the teller and the story are the same. I can tell the same story to an audience of entrepreneurs and an audience of 12-year-olds and the experience will change.

Where this myth is false is not understanding the "mechanics" of all storytelling. All storytelling uses the same skills, such characterization, pacing, crafting and gestures. For example, while my characterizations in a story for 12-year-olds might be much broader than the same story told for business leaders, characterization still is used. Knowing how and when to use gestures is as important in a presentation to your nonprofit supporters as it is to "Mother Goose Story Time" in the public library.

Finally, all business stories must be properly crafted in order to be impactful on the listener. It is not enough to just want to use story and storytelling- you must spend the time to construct the story. That crafting process is the same for any setting.

Remember, not every conversation you have should be labeled as storytelling. Sometimes small talk is just small talk. Sometimes a call to customer service is just a phone call, not an epic journey.

I am already at what looks to be the world's longest blog post. I will post part two sometime over the weekend.

PS. I have been asked, "Sean, who died and left you in charge of storytelling?" All I am opining on is what I see from my unique vantage point of experience and practiced approach both on and offline. I could be wrong about all this. Do not believe everything you read on the Internet.

Or, I could be right.

(Read Part Two at this link now.)
The is official blog for K. Sean Buvala, storyteller and storytelling coach. Illustration in this blog comes from and is used under the Creative Commons license. See Sean's storytelling training workbook at

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Grid of Storytelling

Over on her very interesting blog, Limor Shiponi is struggling to create a visual interpretation of storytelling. It's worth looking at the post, the diagram and to read through the comments on all three parts of her postings on this. While I have tried to impart a definition to storytelling before, she is deeply into this process. Here are my comments on the process so far.

I like what you are doing. What I enjoy more is watching folks “talk” through this. Below are just my thoughts, in no order or fully expressed ideas:

1. There are no solid lines between story, storyteller and audience. The lines are dotted or dashed. The flow of each of these parts plays with and against each other at all times. If the lines are solid, then this is acting and not storytelling.

2. Doug Lipman has done some of this triangle work already in his book “Improving Your Storytelling.” It's on page 17, to be precise. While I disagree (with complete respect) with Doug that the teller does not influence the interpretation of the listener/witness, I do find that his model makes it very clear for the beginning storyteller (which most “business” storytellers are these days) that the creation of a storytelling event requires all three pieces of the puzzle. I usually use his model (with attribution) when working with neophyte storytellers.

3. I think that most “(Some Super Adjective!) Storytelling” phrases these days are primarily for marketing purposes. There was a time that we could just say that we specialize in storytelling for business, but not any more. The field is too crowded with piles of marketers all trying to stand out, thus we get all those adjectives you refer to in your post. This is all part of the mythology that is developing about “Biz” storytelling. I hope to have my first post about these myths up later this afternoon.
Just my two cents here.

This is the official blog for K. Sean Buvala, storyteller and storytelling coach.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Stories and Cocktails: "Is Storytelling Always Like....This?"

The Woman stopped the Storyteller on his way out of the main room.

"Is the storytelling always like…this?" The Woman asked, wrinkling up her face in a type of "smells bad" nose-pose and pointing to the front of the room where the Slam had just earlier finished that evening.

"What do you mean?" asked the Storyteller.

"Well, these stories don't sound like things you would hear, you know, if you were out with friends having cocktails and sharing stories. I think that is the best storytelling." she replied.

He answered, "Everybody has their favorite type of storytelling. As well, there's a big difference between telling stories on a stage in front of strangers you don't know and telling intimate stories over drinks with a few good friends."

"Like how?" inquired The Woman.

"If you are out with friends," he answered, "then you are dealing with an audience that you understand well, I hope. You might be freer with descriptions, glossing over the parts you already know that they would know and spending more time on the parts that would be of interest to them. When you tell 'cold' on a stage with a group you just don't know, you have to be more responsive to how they react and be able to make lightning-fast changes to your delivery."

"I don't see how it would make a difference," she responded, "I mean you get your story ready and then you just tell it."

The Storyteller shook his head in disagreement. "As a storyteller, I never 'get my story ready' and put it into a singular form. Every time I am with an audience, three parts of the experience are constantly changing. The storyteller, the audience and the story are involved. If I have memorized how to tell my story, then really I am just acting."

"I never thought of that," she said as the nose-pose she had been holding softened.

"In fact," added The Storyteller, "we might have seen some of that tonight. Most of the storytelling was pretty good. But, we had storytellers who are so used to telling their story 'one way' that it didn't work here tonight with a much more casual crowd and distracting atmosphere. Then, we had people telling to a room of 70 people as if we were all across a nightclub table from them, talking too fast and dropping their sentences. Too uptight or too casual are both signs that the storyteller is not reading the audience."

The Woman thought a bit as sparkles of recognition danced across her forehead. "So, a storyteller has to be able to 'go with the flow' and be ready for audiences that might be stuffy or an audience of friends who are going to be silly. It's not all the same all the time."

"Yes," he laughed, "a good storyteller is constantly adjusting their telling as they tell."

"I think I will have to learn more," replied The Woman as she shook hands with the Storyteller, waved and walked away.

"Hmm, I think we just wrote my next online post" the Storyteller thought to himself as he walked on, looking for where the rest of his car companions had gone.

Photo courtesy of The official blog for K. Sean Buvala, storyteller and storytelling coach.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Every Word Is Not A Story

I've been engaging in a fun (friendly, non-flame) conversation with big-thinker Trey Pennington over on his blog. He related an incident where his daughter used good negotiation skills to convince Trey to put some items on her Christmas 2011 list. In May of 2011.

His blog and comments are a good read and you can find his blog here. He believes that his daughter used a "story" to convince him of how reasonable her request was. In the comments section I noted that while she did use great negotiation techniques, she didn't use story.

In friendly disagreement, Trey's response, among other comments, was to state the definition of story: "What the tool looks like, feels like, behaves like, might very well be different depending on the hand that holds it."

I've responded:

I'm not nearly as much of purist as some believe, but if it's "everybody into the pool" then those who deny it's water are going to drown.

So, the answer is, paraphrased, "(Story) is whatever you want it to be?"


You'll have to excuse my lack of PhD in trying to explain this, but I will do my best with my tiny storyteller brain. (LOL)

If I call you about your car you have for sale, I know that a "car" means at least four wheels and some type of enclosure where passengers sit.

You assure me that you have a 2001 car for sale and I should come take a look at it.

When I get to your house, sitting in your garage is a 2001 Motorcycle. I am not happy as you've wasted my time.

"But," you say, "isn't the truth of what car is really in the hands that hold it? Silly Sean, you're such a purist. You should be completely happy with this two-wheeled, open air contraption. After all, I think it's a car. Look, over there in the corner is a car that has two wheels and you use your feet to pedal it. I will even throw in the bell on the handlebars at no extra cost."

::Insert giggle here::

My clients would be pretty sad if they booked me to teach them story, storytelling and public speaking only to have me arrive at their doorstep and say, "So, what do you think story is? Here, let's paint the side of your building with this geometric design."

Story has form and substance: a narrative with a beginning, middle and an end.

By the way, please note that I am not defining "storytelling" here. Storytelling uses story but they are not the same thing, just as fertilizer isn't the same thing as the shovel used to move it.

Photo Credit to official blog for K. Sean Buvala, storyteller and storytelling coach.