Storytelling Redux with Seth Kahan

Following up on our recent interview of four experts on business storytelling, we drill down into the how-tos of good storytelling, including when to use which type of story. My returning guest is Seth Kahan of, who will also discuss his forthcoming book “Getting Change Right.”

There are types of stories?
Yes, says Seth. One expert, Steve Denning writing in Harvard Business Review identified eight (8) different types, of which we touched on three in particular:
  • Stories for Building Rapport
  • Stories for Inspiring Action
  • Stories for Teaching Lessons

Seth was introduced to the power of storytelling through the work of Joseph Campbell. In addition to his “day job” at the bank, Seth was doing a lot of theater, and exploring ancient human rituals and rites of passage. One day Seth’s boss asked about his life outside of work, and this boss was excited by the possibilities of using stories as a way to communicate better inside this large organization.

That was important because people routinely fail to communicate well inside large organizations. You can use status reports, charts, graphs and memos, and a dozen other tools (including hiring consultants), and see people “not get it” — or your message connects yet there is no behavior change. For this boss, the one-on-one conversation seemed to be effective, yet that doesn’t scale up. To really get through to people, they found, nothing beats a good story.

Pretty quickly they found that both the story telling, and some of the elements of ancient rites of passage, all worked really well. They had to “transpose” the rites of passage — you don’t bring in inappropriate things like mandatory three-day fasting or bonfires on the conference tables. They found ways to adapt ancient practices to modern circumstances.

Invoke your Meetings
A good example was invocations at meetings — Seth’s folks would start their meetings with an invocation. Across cultures and across history, meetings would be started with some form of invocation. This was just 30 seconds or so where attendees are asked to put away outside concerns, enter the room and be fully present, and be reminded of the purpose of the group and the purpose of the meeting.

For instance, the person convening the meeting might say “Let’s begin. I’d like us all to agree to be fully present at this meeting, silence your cell phones, put away your messaging devices, and put to rest your outside concerns. As we all know, our group exists to help third world children get the education they need to have a better future. The purpose of today’s meeting is decide details of our annual membership party.”

When you start each meeting by re-connecting with the energy that drives the group, it makes for a better meeting. You set a very clear context, which allows people to have much more constructive conflicts within a frame of shared values.

Meetings have changed substantially due to the Internet. Meetings are no longer to share scarce information. We have lots of information. We don’t need more content.

Meetings are really about context. The power of meetings includes the power of convening people together, and allowing each one to bring their unique genius to the challenges we face.

Takeaway: work with your people to craft an invocation that works for them, and use it to open every meeting. Script the first 3/4 word for word. This invocation should:

  1. be short (about 30 seconds)
  2. help people clear their heads (and silence their cell phones)
  3. reconnect everyone to the glorious mission of the group
  4. state the purpose of this specific meeting

Stories to Build Rapport and Increase Trust
For this purpose, a good story is anything that is true and comes across as authentic, that reveals things about me, and that other people can relate to. And it’s important to swap these stories. (This is similar to “Structured Disclosure” covered previously.) These can and should be practiced. When you practice, ask if the story is resonating with people. And it’s okay to repeat your story. In other cultures it’s much more common to re-tell a story many times — Americans are a little less prone to do that, however you should feel free to do it.

Stories to Share Knowledge and Wisdom
Knowledge sharing stories often do not have happy endings. They don’t have to. As long as your message is put in the form of a story, it’s more likely to be remembered and acted upon.

Seth was going camping with his 80-lb dog, and he noticed his dog walking strangely and foaming at the mouth. Suddenly he remembered when the dog jumped in the truck, Seth heard a yelp as if the dog had banged his belly on the tailgate. And a story suddenly came into Seth’s mind that he had heard three years earlier on the radio, about how a large dog’s stomach can torque, can flip over and be sealed off on both ends like a baggie, if it’s full of water or food and if the dog bangs it on something the wrong way. It’s a lethal condition if untreated, because nothing can get in or out of the stomach including blood — without an operation within 4-5 hours the dog will die.

All of this flashed into Seth’s head in an instant. He hurried the dog back to the truck and went knocking on the door of the last house he’d passed on the drive in.

Notice what would happen if I stopped telling this story right here. You feel up in the air — you want to hear the rest. That’s one of the characteristics of the good knowledge story — we want to hear the end. We get involved.

Seth got the name of the nearest vet and called — it was 5 pm on a Friday and the vet was just about to switch on the answering machine and leave the office. The vet said “you have to bring the dog here and I have to operate.” She was two hours away. Seth said “can you meet me halfway?” The vet said “no, if you’ve diagnosed this right we’ll need the operating room. Bring him here.”

Seth drove his dog two hours through the winding mountain roads, got there and the vet operated for 90 minutes. She came out and said “your dog is alive and well. Go finish your camping trip and pick him up when you’re done.” All because Seth remembered that radio story.

The story has to have a charge to it. It has to have a very clear message. When you’re under fire, under pressure, the average person can only remember one thing. It better be the right thing. A good story can be a single thing that’s remembered, and the story provides lots of handles for hanging on to the lesson.

Stories to Call People to Action
This is the sort of story you tell when you want to motivate others to go out and do things in the world. Steve Denning calls these “springboard” stories and covers it in his book. These stories are very short — 45 seconds. The audience can see themselves in it. The protagonist must be someone the audience can relate to. Tell your line workers a story about a line worker. Tell your people about a customer. It must be wholly true — when people research it they must come to the same conclusion you do. (If you said “on the maiden voyage of the Titanic, 700 happy passengers reached New York,” you’re leaving out key facts, and distorting the story. People will hang you on the difference.) It must have a happy ending.

Afterward, you don’t want people saying “what a great talk.” What you want is people to come up and say “here’s what I’m going to do.”

The classic example is this one used at the World Bank to kick off a knowledge management effort, about when knowledge management work. It was told in 1996.

“In June of last year an impoverished farmer in Zambia went to the web site of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and got an answer to a question about treating malaria. Zambia is one of the poorest countries in the world, and this happened in a tiny place 600 km from the capital. The most striking thing about this story is that the World Bank is not in it. Despite our know-how on so many poverty related issues, our knowledge is not available to the millions of people who can use it. But imagine if it were. Think what it would be like if our organization could do this?”

That story was responsible for taking an unfunded idea to a $60 million annual allocation in two years. That story lit a fire throughout the organization, so people took action, and said “here is how I am going to make my information available” — without any supervision from Seth’s small unfunded team.

That story was unique to that organization, so leaders need to come up with their own.

Listening to Stories
As a leader you also need to listen to stories and capture them. In Seth’s book he describes the Reconnaissance Report — a one to two page summary of those stories, that shows people that you’ve heard them and understand them.

Taming the Grapevine
Stories can be used to defuse rumors and help stop the undercutting of a leader’s agenda. When Bill Clinton was running for President in 1992, his opponent George HW Bush said that Bill’s wife Hillary would be a bad first lady because she didn’t bake cookies. How do you defuse that? In politics the strangest things can hurt you, so you may not be safe if you ignore it.

If you engage directly, and start talking about the baking of cookies, now you look foolish. You need to re-engage at a different level that is humorous and undercuts the assumptions in the first story. So what Bill Clinton did was say “my opponent isn’t running for President — he’s running for First Lady.” That ridiculed the rumor and invalidated it without addressing it directly.

As a consultant I might face a rumor that I’m there to lay people off. To re-direct that, try something like “Some folks are focused on losing their jobs — we need to be focused on turning this company around and serving our customers even better, so that we can all keep our jobs.” However I cannot use that re-direction if my plan does involve layoffs. I cannot lie and be effective — that makes it much, much worse.

What if the truth is, that there may be layoffs? Then Seth suggests meeting privately and speaking and listening candidly to the people carrying the rumors, to share with them what’s going on, both good and bad. Engage with them constructively. 95% of them can be worked with.

There are also toxic people. They may need to be handled differently. Seth covers this in greater detail in his book.

Other Resources
Don’t miss the upcoming Storytelling Weekend at the Smithsonian on April 15-17, 2010. That’s Thursday afternoon, and all day Friday and Saturday. More details at

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