Once upon a Time at the Office: Learning to Recognize, Interpret and Tell Stories in Organizations

Once upon a Time at the Office: Learning to Recognize, Interpret and Tell Stories in Organizations

Image by: WPA poster, ca. 1938. Picture by trialsanderrors.


By Beth Black (MSLOC alumna 2011)

Being able to recognize, interpret, and convey the significance of patterns in massive amounts of data is critical to organizational success. Leaders faced with the challenge of analyzing and communicating the meaning of complex information are being encouraged by popular business authors to communicate using narrative for maximum effect.

This study investigates the use of narrative in organizations by (1) examining current organizational storytelling practices in a variety of industries and (2) identifying key features that characterize stories with powerful impact. Sixty survey respondents reported narrative is used by leaders to transfer knowledge, shape culture, and motivate or curtail employee behavior, as well as by employees to manage stress. Interviews with eight experts on narrative revealed, perhaps surprisingly, that skimping on details is what makes stories powerful.

Introduction: Why Study Stories?

Narrator. Raconteur. Bard. Cuentista. Yarn spinner. Griot. Tale teller. Seanachie. Throughout history and around the world, cultures have had special terms for those who enthrall listeners with tales that give meaning to experience. A recently proposed term —Chief Storytelling Officer (Radoff, 2008) — reveals the importance that stories have assumed in 21st century organizational culture.

Since the 1990’s, organizational story-gathering and storytelling have garnered increasing media attention. The rise in popularity of narrative has, not coincidentally, paralleled rapid advances in information technology. With nearly instantaneous and ubiquitous access to vast amounts of data, it has become more and more challenging to recognize, interpret, and convey the significance of patterns in those data. Pie charts and PowerPoint presentations are likely to remain in use as tools for visually displaying information but, increasingly, organizational consultants and leaders are turning [or, rather, returning] to stories as a way to capture and present the meaning of that information. [For examples of organizations using narrative, see my literature review:

Organizational narrative has been recognized in both popular business literature and in scholarly journals as (1) a diagnostic tool -- a way to make sense of complex behavior patterns that characterize organizational dynamics, knowledge transfer, and customer behavior; and (2) a communication tool -- a way to influence others that gives the speaker a competitive advantage over those who communicate solely with data points. [For more information on recent academic research, see my literature review:

Research Questions

The fervor among proponents of narrative is revealed by some of the striking claims being made:

  • Organizations are being told that having a “storytelling plan” is as important as having a business plan (Godin, quoted in Wortmann, 2006). According to McLellan (2006), “Companies that overlook stories do so at their peril.” These bold assertions that organizations need to integrate the use of narrative prompted my first research question, which focuses on understanding the ways organizations have responded to advice about using stories to achieve organizational success:

How is narrative being used in organizations?

  • Storytelling has been described as “the single most powerful weapon in the leader’s arsenal” (Gardner and Laskin, 2006). Rolf Jensen, former Director of the Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies, predicts that “The highest-paid person in the first half of this century will be the storyteller” (Quoted in Margolis, 2009). If he’s right, those who suffer from what Wortmann (2006) calls “Story Deficit Disorder” will soon be interested in building new competencies and will be curious about how to use stories for maximum impact. This raises a second question about what qualities make the best stories powerful and memorable:

What are key features of stories that “stick”?

To answer these related questions, I designed a study that combined quantitative and qualitative research methods. I chose to explore the subject from two perspectives — that of employees who witness storytelling practices in their organizations and that of experts on narrative theory and practice. My aim is to (1) increase awareness of how narrative is being used in organizations today and (2) share expert advice on how to create stories that create a powerful impression on listeners.

Research Methods & Analysis

Both quantitative and qualitative research methods were used in this study. Quantitative methods were appropriate for collecting comparative data about organizational storytelling from employees in a wide variety of industries, whereas qualitative methods were necessary to explore how experts think about the structure, value, and impact of narrative.

Quantitative Research Design

To obtain data about current organizational storytelling practices, I designed an on-line survey to be self-administered through Qualtrics, a secure third-party host, which posed questions about participants’ experiences with narrative in their own organizations. The goal of the survey was to collect data that could be used to paint a “big picture” of organizational storytelling practices, as opposed to a detailed case study of a particular company or industry. For that reason, the only selection criterion for survey respondents was work experience in a business or non-profit organization with 20 or more employees. A snowball sampling method was used to recruit respondents with experience in a wide variety of industries. I distributed the survey link via a post to the Organizational Storytelling group on Linked In and through email messages to personal contacts, all of whom were invited to share the survey link with their work colleagues. A total of 85 surveys were begun, which resulted in a statistically reliable sample size of 60 respondents after 25 incomplete surveys were discarded as invalid.

Survey respondents were asked to define “story” and to indicate the degree to which they agreed with statements about the value of storytelling skills for individual employees and for organizations. They also were asked to report the frequency with which they had witnessed stories being told in their organizations based on three variables: (1) organizational role of the storyteller; (2) intended purpose of the story; and (3) context in which the story was told. An open text question invited general comments.

Qualitative Research Design

To obtain data about narrative theory and practice, I developed a protocol for semi-structured, in-depth interviews with individuals whose work involves organizational storytelling. The goal of the interviews was to gain a deeper understanding of narrative structure, in particular which story features are essential to conveying meaning in a powerful, memorable way. Names of potential interviewees were obtained through leads from colleagues, library resources, and Internet research. Individual telephone interviews were conducted with eight experts.

Interview questions focused on each expert’s definition of “story,” beliefs about the value of stories in an organizational context, theories about narrative structure, and experiences teaching storytelling skills. Each interviewee was also asked to relate a favorite story, interpret its potential meaning for organizational audiences, and discuss the characteristics that would make it memorable. This exercise was intended to ensure that the principles of effective narrative described by the expert when speaking abstractly also informed his or her storytelling practice.

Data Analysis
Of the 60 survey participants who answered all of the quantitative questions, 37 provided additional comments. The gender split among the 60 respondents was 30% male and 70% female. The industries represented by participants are shown in the chart at right: Industry Breakdown.
Description: http://wiki.sesp.northwestern.edu/msloc/images/5/51/IndustryBreakdown.jpg
The eight interviewees [2 males; 6 females] included:

  • Two university educators who have published books on storytelling skills and are frequently invited to speak to business leaders.
  • Four independent consultants who work with organizational leaders to help them uncover and tell mission-driven stories.
  • Two professionals who coordinate leadership development programs that use stories within the curriculum.

Analysis of the responses to quantitative survey questions was conducted using Microsoft Excel to tabulate a frequency count of respondents’ choices on the Likert scale for each question [n=60].
The thematic content of the interview recordings and answers to the two open-text questions on the survey was analyzed using a coding system developed for the purpose. The coding system made it possible not only to track references to key features that make stories effective but also to identify patterns of responses that suggest areas for future research.

Key Findings: So, What's the Story?

  • How is narrative being used in organizations?

1) Storytelling is widely perceived as a competency that has value for both individuals and organizations.
2) Executive leaders and trainers use stories more frequently than consultants, managers, and employees.
3) Stories are more frequently told in formal work contexts than in team meetings or casual work interactions.
4) Stories are frequently used to transfer knowledge and reinforce organizational culture.

  • What are key features of stories that “stick”?

5) Stories that "stick" have a telic structure; they build to a satisfying ending that has a point.
6) Stories that "stick" convey facts with emotion.
7) Stories that "stick" include neither too few nor too many sensory details.

Analysis of Results

1) Storytelling is widely perceived as a competency that has value for both individuals and organizations.
Description: mage:Chart B.jpgDescription: mage:AgreedI.jpg

  • 92% of respondents agreed that "Learning to create and tell organizational stories benefits an employee professionally."

[50% Strongly Agree, 42% Agree, 3% Unsure, 5% Disagree, 0% Strongly Disagree].
Description: mage:Developing.jpgDescription: mage:AgreedC.jpg

  • 82% of respondents agreed that "Developing employees' storytelling competencies benefits an organization."

[45% Strongly Agree, 37% Agree, 12% Unsure, 7% Disagree, 0% Strongly Disagree].

2) Executive leaders and trainers use stories more frequently than consultants, managers, and employees.
Description: mage:Speakers.jpgDescription: mage:Manager stories.jpg

  • More than 50% of respondents indicated that they have frequently witnessed executive leaders [53%] and trainers [55%] use stories in their communication.
  • Less than a third responded that they had frequently witnessed consultants [28%], managers [21%] and employees [25%] engage in storytelling at work.
  • Two respondents mentioned that managers need to learn to tell stories effectively and to listen for and guide employee storytelling [see featured comments].
  • Three respondents described employee storytelling as a response to workplace stress. Of these three, one made reference to "black humor as a coping mechanism" in the law enforcement field. The other two indicated that while they had experienced employee-told stories as creating bonds among employees, the storytelling was a dysfunctional response to workplace frustration that was not positive for the organization.

3) Stories are more frequently told in formal work contexts than in team meetings or casual work interactions.
Description: mage:Context.jpgDescription: mage:Team meetings.jpg

  • More 50% noted that stories are frequently told in their organizations during keynote addresses [63%] and orientation programs [52%].
  • Less than a third indicated that stories are frequently told in team meetings [18%] or casual business interactions [30%].
  • Although only about a third of survey participants reported that stories are frequently told in team meetings, one described collaborative storytelling as a common practice for teams in a medical setting [see featured comment]. With regard to storytelling in casual business interactions, 4 of the 37 who provided additional comments noted that, as one respondent phrased it, "Stories will 'happen' in organizations." One stated that "storytelling can become more like history-based gossip sessions where the main characters are portrayed as antagonists that the organization must overcome."

4) Stories are frequently used to transfer knowledge and reinforce organizational culture.
Description: mage:Purpose.jpgDescription: mage:KTCulture.jpg

  • Stories were reported as being told slightly more frequently to transfer knowledge [48%], remind employees of the organization's roots [47%], share inspiring examples of values-in-action [45%] and honor accomplishments [45%] than to motivate [32%] or caution employees against specific behaviors [32%].
  • Three respondents specifically mentioned stories being used for knowledge transfer [see featured comment].
  • Eight of the 37 respondents who added comments mentioned stories as central to culture formation and reinforcement [see featured comment for one example]. One mentioned having worked in two organizations in which stories about the organization's founders were "told literally everyday, . . . verbally, through artwork, books of quotes, during training and [as] a major feature in the on-boarding process." Another reported that the organization had published a collection of employee stories.
  • Although only about a third of survey participants reported that stories are frequently told to motivate employees, 6 of the 37 who provided additional comments described having heard "motivating" or "inspiring" stories that helped "employees see the bigger purpose." Another 6 of the 37 responded to the idea of stories as cautionary tales and wrote about narratives being used in their organizations to issue behavioral "warnings."

5) Stories that "stick" have a telic structure; they build to a satisfying ending that has a point.
Description: mage:Pointgraphic.jpgDescription: mage:Point.jpg
All eight of the interviewees would agree that “Story is not the information, the content. Story is a way of structuring information. . .”(Haven, 2007). Each of them noted that what distinguishes a story from other modes of conversation is the fact that stories have an intentional structure, specifically a structure designed to convey meaning according to a pattern that reinforces the importance of that message. The structure most commonly mentioned was that of the "Hero's Quest," in which a character with aspirations encounters obstacles in pursuit of a goal and has to make choices about how to respond to them. Several stressed the importance of conflict or tension. One noted the necessity of having a structure that is "jagged like a mountain range, because listeners won't follow you across a flat desert of a story without a climax." Another stated that a memorable story has 5 P's: Place, People, Problem, Progress, Point. One interviewee talked at length about stories as "magic," saying "Stories that 'stick' are not only about transformation -- what happened that caused the Old Normal to become the New Normal -- but are transformational in the effect they have on listeners. Narrative is about change. Even if the main character chickens out and doesn't take the necessary action to bring about change, the listener recognizes the call to action."

6) Stories that "stick" convey facts with emotion.
Description: mage:Heart.jpgDescription: mage:Emotion.jpg
Seven of the interviewees stressed an appeal to emotion as important in stories that have impact. One did not allude to emotion directly but emphasized the importance of stories being relevant so that people could connect with the content. All interviewees talked about memorable stories as being based in fact or in a universal truth. Believability stems from specific facts such as place and time or from references to behavior that reveals familiar aspects of human nature. Three of the interviewees discussed archetypes and mythic elements as elements that give stories additional impact and create a greater likelihood that the story will be remembered and retold by listeners.

7) Stories that "stick" include neither too few nor too many sensory details.
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All of the interviewees noted that good storytelling was as much about what to leave out as about what to put in. Several were adamant about the need to carefully manage the level of detail in a narrative. One said, "Without any sensory details, storytelling sounds robotic and forced. People need some images to latch on to so they can create a picture in their minds and follow along. But if you put in too many details, they get lazy or turned off. You have to include just enough to engage the imagination and keep them busy filling in the blanks, making it their own. That's what makes the story sticky -- the fact that in their minds they have drawn their own picture of what you're saying. Bottom line: Listeners have to do some of the work."

Implications for Practice and Future Research: The Next Chapter in the Story

This study provides evidence that narrative is being used by executive leaders and trainers in organizations to transfer knowledge, shape culture, and motivate or curtail employee behavior, as well as by employees to manage stress. It further identifies telic structure and a combination of emotional content, information, and "just enough" sensory details as components that make stories "sticky."

  • How is narrative being used in organizations?

Based on this research, it seems that, in many organizations, narrative is formally used in limited ways. People who serve as spokespersons for their organizations and those whose responsibilities require them to communicate core values or transfer knowledge, such as executive leaders and trainers, may be using narrative with intention, but others seem to be using stories or anecdotes informally to share job-related stress or make communal sense of things that happen in the workplace. The implications for managers may be two-fold:
1) If you want to move up to an executive role, learn to tell purposeful stories that have emotional impact;
2) Be aware that you can better understand and help shape your team culture by listening to and interpreting the meaning of stories team members tell in casual work contexts.

  • What are key features of stories that “stick”?

According to the experts consulted for this study, people are more likely to remember--and potentially retell--a story that has a coherent structure or familiar story schemata. A story is more likely to have a powerful impact if the content appeals to listeners' emotions. Finally, good stories, though they include enough sensory data to help listeners create images in their own minds, can paradoxically convey a universal truth with minimal details. Knowing these key features of well-crafted stories may benefit all those who would like to improve their communication skills by learning to tell organizational stories. The points to remember are:
1) If you're rambling, it's not a story. Stories have structure.
2) Abstract facts without context are not well-remembered. Adding context often means making it personal and daring to reveal or evoke an emotional response.
3) What you leave out is as important as what you leave in. Unless it's crucial to your point, your listeners probably don't need to know that the experience you're describing happened on a Tuesday.
The value of these research contributions lies in their immediate application to practice. Organizational consultants and leaders who know how narrative is being used in organizations and understand the principles of effective storytelling will be better able to leverage the power of stories to achieve greater organizational success. Developing narrative competencies has advantages for both individuals and organizations.
Limitations of this study
The small sample size and gender imbalance among respondents significantly limits the possibility of generalizing these results. Further, since detailed demographic data on survey respondents was not collected, no conclusions can be drawn about potential differences in the uses of organizational narrative based on industry, job title, gender, or other factors.
Another limitation was survey design. The questions focused on the frequency with which respondents had witnessed certain practices but did not address issues of story content, quality, or long-term impact. Actual organizational stories were not solicited.
Areas for Future Research
Organizational storytelling is a emerging area of academic study that offers exciting opportunities for additional research. A few possibilities include:

  • Studying differences in the use of narrative among organizations: Are stories used more often in certain industries than others? What differences are there in the types of stories that are common in large versus small organizations, mature versus start-up organizations, or businesses versus non-profits?
  • Examining differences among storytellers: How do the stories told by organizational leaders differ in content, purpose, and style from those told by employees? Do people who are regarded by others as "natural storytellers" share common MBTI or Hogan profiles?
  • Collecting and analyzing organizational stories themselves: What patterns and themes emerge from stories collected from within a single organization? To what extent are mythic elements evident in organizational stories?

One of the interviewees for this study said, "We become the stories we tell about ourselves." Another said, "People forget this, but words create magic." The next time you're inclined to gripe about how dysfunctional your company is, stop and think about how you might use the magic of storytelling to get people to 'think differently' and act differently. We're in the business of change, after all, so harness the transformative power of narrative. Tell a story. Tell your story.

Article Information

Beth Black wrote this article in November 2010 for the Capstone 3 Research Analysis and Interpretation course. This executive summary assignment is the culmination of a nine-month capstone research project. Beth graduated from the MSLOC program in March 2011.


Gardner, H., Laskin, E. (1996). Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Haven, K. (2007). Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Margolis, M. (2009). Believe Me: Why Your Vision, Brand, and Leadership Need A Bigger Story. Charleston, SC: Get Storied Press.
McLellan, H. (2006). Corporate Storytelling Perspectives. The Journal for Quality and Participation, 29(1) 17-20.
Radoff, J. (2008, May 10). The Chief Storytelling Officer. Retrieved from http://radoff.com/blog/2008/09/23/the-chief-storytelling-officer
Wortmann, C. (2006). What's Your Story? Using Stories To Ignite Performance and Be More Successful. Chicago, IL: Kaplan Publishing.

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