The Power of Story-Telling

Humpty Dumpty Sat on a wallAs I listened to the conference speaker weave his tale to the audience, getting their attention and drawing them into his talk and subject matter I thought: once again, story-telling triumphs.

Story-telling is our native language. The comfortable association goes back to our childhood and defines how we are taught right from wrong, success from mistakes and other life lessons. Is it any wonder it works in adulthood?


And yet, time and time again we fall into the habits of the disciplines we have been taught in formal schoolrooms and training.

  • Don’t forget the chart…
  • Show the numbers…
  • Here is the thinking-man’s argument…

As Stephen Denning, the former Knowledge Management guru at the World Bank and story-telling consultant tells us, there is a difference in the dialogue between “knowledge” conversations and “story-telling.” Knowledge is seen by society as something that is solid, objective, direct and abstract. Story-telling on the other hand, Denning says, is nebulous, subjective, indirect and unscientific.

So story-telling gets under-valued.

Yet, unlike traditional “knowledge” conversations, telling a story seems to work as a way to engage people and bring them around to new thinking and creative ways of doing business.

When someone shows you a chart, what is your first instinct? Pick it apart, if you are like most people. That column of numbers doesn’t add up. I don’t like the colors you used. We are taught in all our life’s schooling to critique, so that’s how we reflexively react to this type of presentation.

It is not a discussion or conversation at all…

“Let me explain…”

“Let me show you a chart.”

Abstract thinking is tiring, and argument is like war with winners and losers, Denning says.


If — on the other hand — you tell a story, you suddenly have everyone’s attention in a positive, not a negative way.

Story-telling is energizing, refreshing, interesting. It is a “dance” that ignites creativity.

Denning likes to call one particular breed of story a “springboard” story because it can let you take the leap toward a new start.

In a springboard story you have a problem, and the listener thinks: that’s my problem! You have a hero, and the listener thinks: that is just like me. The hero resolves the problem, and the listener thinks: I could do that! The story-teller ends the tale with a generalization that may begin, “imagine a world…” and the listener thinks “why don’t we…”

At the U.S. Air Force, their communication bible called the Tongue and Quill has a remarkably similar formula to fix what they label “bad connections” for an officer making a presentation. The fix, they write, is to tell a story.

  • First, get their ATTENTION – define the problem.
  • Then describe the NEED – using third-party validation if possible.
  • The next step is to address SATISFACTION, showing the value and benefits that are at the end of the rainbow if the problem is fixed.
  • At this point, it is time to use VISUALIZATION with story-telling or best practices to demonstrate it can be done.
  • The finale is to describe the ACTION you wish to pursue – the solution to the problem you want the leadership to agree to.

For example, the story may go something like this, Tongue and Quill says: Our state has high tooth decay. This is undesirable and current controls don’t work. Other states put florid in the water. Here’s what our program might look like. Let’s get the health department to act now.


If you are struggling to get your message and plan across to your organization using the traditional methods of knowledge worker, it may be time to return to your youth and practice the great traditions of story-telling. Do you think story-telling can triumph in your organization?