Get the story straight – Storytelling in Communications 1

Published by Tony Quinlan on

The opening gambit of more than one past client project has been “help us get our story straight”. Sometimes it’s just that – the general story – sometimes it’s something specific: “help us get our customer story straight”, “our story on leadership”. It’s an interesting starting point, but demands a long conversation – and often a dash of cold reality – before anything else can happen.

The assumption is often that there is a story – just the one – that will be clear and simple (preferably fitting onto one or at most two sides of A4) and will convince everyone in the intended audience. There is, of course, no such thing – and nor should there be.


Stories are rarely clear at a personal level, let alone an organisational one. Think about your own “story” – could you sum up the key points of your life thus far simply and clearly? And a story is rarely clear – it depends greatly on the point of view of the person that’s listening, which will be different from the person that’s telling.

There’s a great temptation among strategy and communications people to boil the story down too much. As strategists and planners, we spend a lot of time building plans and predictability out of mess and possibility; while as communicators, we have often come through a career in which we were taught to edit and write in the most simple possible terms. Both are quite right – in their place. An organisational story demands more.


Stories and narratives about ourselves and our organisations should be multi-layered, with strands weaving in and out as relationships build, deteriorate and drop away. Characters will change and adapt to the environment they find themselves in – a leader one day becomes a stubborn obstacle another and possibly a villain later, while a competitor in one field may be an ally in another and a customer somewhere else.

Too often – as Narrate did in the early years – “experts” try and build a fixed story against a framework, boiling down events and participants to fit into neat categories and stages. And boiling out much of the real interest and value along the way. The Hero’s Journey is one such framework, but makes it all too neat.


No single story can ever convince or engage everyone. If it were possible, then Hollywood would have found that story by now – it’s thrown enough money at the problem and experimented with so many variations. And hoping for a single framework story is still too much – the much-discussed (even by me) Hero’s Journey structure is an over-simplified one that doesn’t apply universally. The Hero’s Journey is a neat framework, but overplayed – the temptation becomes to slot any event into the pre-defined categories, rather than lookin at what they really mean. Different cultures will also see the same event in different ways. (In this case, different cultures could be different countries, different departments or just different professional training.)

Let’s be clear – in arguing that a clear, simple, engaging story is inappropriate, I’m not advocating a deliberately obscure, over-complicated story that turns people off. What I am advocating is something that instead works the way reality works, the way we know that people work and understand the world. Not through clear statements, but through building up a picture of the world from lots of snapshots.

And those snapshots include positives and negatives, aspirations and lines drawn in the sand, examples that apply in one situation but not in others. And they move all the time, evolving to meet new environments and new challenges, not applying old rules to new situations. By taking this approach, we treat people as the adults they are – able to understand the complexities of operating in the real world, able to discern and decide in the current circumstance.

All of this leads us to what do you then do, if you’re trying to get your story straight? The good news is the answer is straightforward, cost-effective and – once you’ve got the skills – you don’t ever need to go out to consultants again.

Previous approaches have included:

  • Anecdote circles – organising gatherings of people in a sociable atmosphere. Throwing in careful questions to start the natural process of sharing examples of good and bad. “Get our story straight” is exactly where this example started from. Participants get a richer, clearer story that’s usable in their day-to-day jobs. Sponsors get the stories that allow them to illuminate the way forward with examples from the past that everyone recognises. (Throw SenseMaker into the mix and you get to see the patterns of belief – giving you more and richer options for what you do next)
  • The Future Backwards – sometimes to understand the story ahead, it’s best to start with the story going back. (If you’re taking over the Rovers’ Return, it helps to know whose bloodstain that is on the wall and why!) It also enriches the overall story by looking at the negative possibilities as well as the positive ones – and the significant moments and signals on the way to each. For communicators, it’s hugely valuable – in addition to giving you the overall picture of where people think they’re going and fear they’re going, it tells you where to look for the significant stories of progress. And it shows you what moments from the past can be re-told to help the current situation.

Both need real light-touch facilitation and good preparation. And the results of each can be used as-is, or to fuel further communications work – like constructing archetypal characters that can be used in different media to illustrate problems/change/solutions, etc.

And both can be used in multiple audiences – and the results compared between the two. (One of my favourite techniques is to take materials collected (with permission) from one audience and compare it with materials collected on the same topic from another audience – the differences and awarenesses that come out can be dramatic.)

Once you’ve gathered the initial material, the next stage can begin – often it’s a process on how to build and hone a story that reflects the overall situation, the changes, etc – but importantly is built to reflect the reality of situations, the context in which they happen and the messiness of real life.

It’s important to have gathered plenty of raw material first – the one time I tried to construct a story cold without the material it was excruciating. The story, for all that it was built on some examples, was unrealistic and stilted. An unconvincing story will exacerbate a bad situation and will undermine a good situation – the process of gather, build, test, rebuild, re-test, rebuild, re-test, hone is crucial. And the process requires the active participation of the actual people who need to tell the story – it allows them to develop a story that fits with their personality, their way of telling. Because, at the end of the day, a good story needs to reflect the storyteller and vice versa.

What you don’t need is a story of exploration told by an action hero storyteller.

1 Comment · 2 November 2010 at 3:50 pm

“No single story can ever convince or engage everyone. If it were possible, then Hollywood would have found that story by now – it’s thrown enough money at the problem and experimented with so many variations. And hoping for a single framework story is still too much – the much-discussed (even by me) Hero’s Journey structure is an over-simplified one that doesn’t apply universally.”
The Hero’s Journey does apply universally (to Hollywood films and screenwriting), just not the simplified version that everyone talks about. You need to get into it in a much deeper level – see

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