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An Introduction to the Power of Storytelling

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Stories are fundamental to how we communicate, learn and think

Note: This blog post by Terrence Gargiulo discusses content that was presented during his Jan. 22 ‘Storied Learning’ webinar.

Stories are the most efficient way of storing, retrieving, and conveying information. Since story hearing requires active participation on the part of the listener, stories are the most profoundly social form of human interaction communication, and learning.

So what is a story? We’ve all used the word to refer to a lot of different things. Take a moment and jot down any words or descriptions that come to mind. Here are some potential candidates:

Anecdote Myth Cliché Recollection
Conversation Parable Allegory Picture
Experience Metaphor Word Picture The “deal” story
Presentation Fib Narrative Snapshot
Memory Analogy Joke Illustration

It’s easier to think in terms of different ways stories function and with what kind of effects:




















In 1992, Professor Luis Ygelsisas and Terrence Gargiulo did an in depth analysis of a story titled The Man Without a Story. These nine functions and effects come from that work. Email for a copy of the story.

How Are Stories Different?

Here’s a gotcha: avoid the temptation to use stories in the same ways as you work with other modes of communication. So what makes stories different from traditional modes of communication?

Stories encode information. That can be a double-edged sword. One edge of the sword cuts through information clutter. Our stories make messages memorable and help us connect with each other. Messages become imbued with meaning. Yet this ability of stories to encode information can also slash us. Do we want to relegate our messages to duels limited to one-way thrusts without parries and thrusts from our recipients?

In our hands, do the layered, onion-like tendencies of rich stories thrive with us as masters of their destiny? I’m afraid we have a horrible habit of enslaving stories to operate in the same manner we work with other forms of communication.

It’s easy to deprive ourselves of the deep richness of stories. Communication perpetuates a myth of striving for the Holy Grail of clarity. We are enamored with the illusion and importance of exactitude. Our messages must be precise and leave little room for interpretation. Anything less is a failure of communication; especially in business settings where tolerance for ambiguity is paid lip service but pushed beneath the surface.

Be suspicious of good communication practices when working with stories. Does that sound preposterous? It may seem counter-intuitive but there are a whole different set of communication, learning, and thinking rules operating with story-based communications. Just as Newtonian physics account for how we interact with physical matter and quantum mechanical laws predict phenomena on the sub-atomic level, good communication practices operate differently between traditional and storied-based ones.

More Traditional Forms of Communication Story-Based Communications
Explicit – Information is presented in a direct, precise, and clear manner. Implicit – Information is encoded in packets of compelling and memorable nuggets.
Logical – Information is organized in an easy to follow linear fashion. Evocative – Information is more emotional in nature and lends itself to less structured types of presentations (including non-linear threads that can be followed and navigated based on people’s needs and interests).
Controlled – Information is structured to leave as little as possible to people’s interpretation. Emergent – Information is meant to trigger people’s experiences, personal associations, and linkages.
Sense Giving – Information is used to minimize uncertainty by offering tangible and discernible chunks of meaning. Sense Making – Information requires people to generate more of their own meaning and in some instances may leave people feeling uncertain as to the nature of the information until they make sense of it for themselves.

Stories work because of their imprecise nature. Imagine stories as a bag of a variety of wild flower seeds. Listeners and readers are like the fertile soil anxious for new seeds. We reach into our bag and grab a handful of seeds. What flowers take hold and what flowers ultimately bloom are unpredictable. Our job as story communicators is to unleash possibilities. The specifics of our messages and their significance are decoded by receivers. In keeping with the garden metaphor, meaning emerges by attaching itself to the personal trellises of experiences.

Framework for Storytelling

If storytelling is such a rich and engaging form of communication how do you know if you are telling a story? Good news: Super Simple…Ask yourself: “Am I breaking the ICE?”


· Know your audience…

· Determine what needs to
be communicated…

· Package information into memorable nuggets!

· Think of the world from your audience’s perspective…

· Draw upon the things that they know and that matter to them…

· Build a bridge of shared meaning!

· Open up to your audience…

· Paint a picture that evokes emotions…

· Tap into people’s imaginations to touch their hearts!

During your storytelling learning journey you can use a number of simple tools to help you fashion standalone stories. Here’s a tool for crafting a standalone story:












You can also identify some of the basic types of stories you need to tell at your organization. You can learn how to structure these stories and more importantly how to stich them together to create rich collages of stories.

The Triple Threat

One last critical component to your organization’s success with storytelling. You can develop your natural skills so that you will be a triple threat. In show business, singing, dancing, and acting is the triple threat. Business storytelling, requires you to become a good storyteller, story listener and story reflector.

Storytelling can’t just simply be read about, talked about, or even watched on video. You need to do storytelling, story listening, and story reflecting with other people to get good at it. And, you’re going to need some formal feedback. With key skills, you can start your storytelling journey today.

About the Author

Terrence is the former Chief Storyteller of Accenture. He is the author of eight books and for his creative use of narrative, INC Magazine awarded him with their Marketing Master Award. His work as an internationally-recognized organizational development consultant earned him the 2008 HR Leadership Award from the Asia Pacific HRM Congress for his ground breaking research on story-based communication skills. Email him at

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