Newsletter #494 – Where is Story Telling in Great Communication?

Storytelling has become extremely popular among speakers, teachers, preachers and business leaders. According to an advertisement for yet another book on story telling, “Today, many of the most successful companies use storytelling as a leadership tool…. Some forward-thinking business schools have even added storytelling courses to their management curriculum. The reason is simple: stories have the ability to engage an audience the way logic and bullet points alone never could. Whether you are trying to communicate a vision, sell an idea, or inspire commitment, storytelling is a powerful tool…. Whether in a speech or a memo, communicated to one person or a thousand, storytelling is an essential skill for success.”

I see the value of good story telling but good communication involves more than stories. As in past years, last week I attended the Willow Creek Leadership Summit. The speakers were excellent but one told a number of stories and lost the audience in the process. When I found my attention wandering I noticed that four people in the row ahead of me and the people on either side had pulled out their cell phones to check their messages or do texting. In themselves the stories had not been strong enough to pull attention away from the cellular devices that constantly tug even for the attention of professionals at a leadership conference. Stories with no clear purpose are entertaining but not always captivating.

Leslie Leyland Fields is a professor of creative writing who this month published a thought-provoking article in Christianity Today. She is positive about story-telling with its ability to “restore the value of the personal in the face of impersonal science and technology, as well as the gods of our age which privilege reason and fact over the personal and experiential.” But Fields decries, for example, how our efforts to reduce the Bible to a concise story can strip away the richness of God’s narratives with its laments, poetry, proclamations, exhortation, cries of despair or hope, praise and prophesy. Bullet point slides may be out of date but some things cannot be put into story form.

I want to be a great communicator, even in blog writing. But to what extent does this involve or go beyond story? Please comment.


  1. One of the powerful ingredients in storytelling is in fact, the listener. One listens to stories differently – perhaps with another part of the brain??? – rather than speeches, lectures or sermons. I think it has to do with when we ‘know’ it is a story, we engage our creative brain and we listen and create at the same time.


  2. As a graduate student in psychology, nothing captivated my attention quite like the stories professors would share about their clients. Sadly, such instances of self-disclosure happened all too infrequently, and rarely were the subjects of their stories infused with any dignity or life. Case studies, we students were told, do not have the same value or hold as much statues in a profession that continues to argue for its place among other disciplines of science. Instead, we often were expected to understand a client’s psychopathology solely from a set of symptoms, as deciphering the etiology of problems was seldom emphasized. I remember walking out of class disgruntled. And robbed. I felt as though I didn’t get my money’s worth, that I didn’t get the whole story.

    Looking at things from a non-story perspective robbed us students of the contextual richness of someone’s life. Still, there were those one or two iconoclasts (myself included) who critically analyzed every facet of what clients gave to us, pouring over the details of their lives so we could hear completely the refrains of the stories. We decoded them to help us understand the roots to wounded lives of insecure attachments and childhood trauma. Clients shared sacred snippets about lives tinged by subtle feelings of being unwanted by a teenage mother whose pregnancy wasn’t planned, lives that determined at a young age to never hurt again because of a father’s revelation of a planned divorce. As a doctoral student in clinical psychology, I witnessed all too often that “story” took a back seat to statistics and normed populations and research. Denuded from resultant articles were any distinguishing characteristics of the people whose stories were being told. Just another n.

    Personally, conceptualizing a person’s problems in the context from which they emerged aids in my hearing them and eventually making an accurate diagnosis. Instead of waiting to talk I am learning to be a better listener. The value of seeing someone as more than a complex system of biological urges and familial systems was underscored in those rare moments when professors shared the stories behind the stories of their client’s lives.


    1. Scott, you connect well with me when you describe your experience as a student. HOw sad that psychology and counseling have become so sterile in academia that anything like stories, creativity or beauty is trashed. one of the most creative students I ever knew had all of his richness and innovation squelched during his graduate program. Now, ten years later, he is retrieving glimmers of what his professors stole from him – all in the name of evidence-based practie and pleasing the APA. Is that too strong?


  3. I was at the same conference and had the same experience. The story or stories must be relevant to the topic and take you somewhere! I recently had a church experience where the preacher told a funny story at the beginning of his sermon. It had nothing to do with the worship experience or the point of his message. It just broke up what had been, thus far, a good experience and a good sermon that followed. I have a hard enough time paying attention as it is!


    1. A RESPONSE FROM GARY TO EVERYBODY WHO HAS RESPONDED. I am sorry to be absent from these pages for a few days. My computer died and I was cut off from the Internet for almost two weeks. It was inconvenient but sort of nice.


  4. Neither story-telling as a “device” – nor telling someone else’s story (breaking confidentiality even without a name!) are as effective as the immediacy of telling our own stories. Let’s move ‘communication’ back into the realm of relationship rather than public speaking.


  5. Didn’t mean to negate the power of stories in my last comment — after all, I’m a teacher who’s always used case studies, a therapist who looks for context as Scott suggests, and I’m now working to become a novelist — what I mean to say is: let’s tell our own stories and invite the stories of others as a means of building rich relationships rather than as devices to move the masses.


    1. Judi, I don’t think we need to think “either-or.” Sometimes Jesus used stories to move the masses but at other times he was much more intimate. I am not into novels but I suggest that novels may be intimate but often they move masses more than a prime-time speech on television.


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