An Introduction to the Power of Storytelling

A man writing out storytelling with related ideas coming off of it
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Stories Are Fundamental to How We Communicate, Learn, and Think

The power of storytelling in communication is far-reaching. 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:

Stories are used to: Stories have the following effects:

1. Empower a speaker

2. Create an environment

3. Bind and bond individuals


Create trust and openness between yourself and others

Elicit stories from others

4. Engage our minds in active listening

5. Negotiate differences

Listen actively in order to:

Understand context and perspective
Identify the root cause of a problem
Uncover resistance and hidden agendas

Shift perspectives in order to:

See each other
Experience empathy
Enter new frames of reference

Hold diverse points of view

Become aware of operating biases and values

6. Encode information

7. Act as tools for thinking

8. Serve as weapons

9. Serve as healing agents

6. Encode information

7. Act as tools for thinking

8. Serve as weapons

9. Serve as healing agents

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.

Don’t miss this intriguing
webinar from HRDQ-U

Don’t miss this intriguing webinar from HRDQ-U

Storied Learning: Strategies, Examples, and Tools to Put the Power of Stories to Work

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. The power of storytelling comes from the fact that it’s different from traditional communication. So, what exactly 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 the 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 is a whole different set of communication, learning, and thinking rules operating with story-based communications. Just as Newtonian physics accounts 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.

The power of storytelling comes from its imprecise nature. Imagine stories as a bag of a variety of wildflower 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 – it’s super simple. Just 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 stitch them together to create rich collages of stories.

The Triple Threat

There’s 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 are 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.

Headshot of Terrence Gargiulo
Terrence Gargiulo

Terrence Gargiulo leads the global storytelling consultancy He is the former Chief Storyteller of Accenture and the author of eight books. His article, “The Power of Stories: Personalizing the Learning Connection,” was awarded the 2018 Editor’s Choice Award from Training Industry Magazine. For his creative use of narrative, INC Magazine awarded Gargiulo 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.

Connect with Terrence on LinkedIn.

Recommended Webinar
Storied Learning: Strategies, Examples, and Tools to Put the Power of Stories to Work

Learn five ways stories can be used to design, deliver, and measure learning and performance initiatives from expert Terrence Gargiulo.

Storied Learning: Strategies, Examples, and Tools to Put the Power of Stories to Work
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