Story Power for Teams

by Evelyn Clark and Paula Bartholome

Once Upon a Time…

In recent years the business world has rediscovered the ancient tradition of storytelling, a communication technique that team leaders will find to be a highly effective management tool. The practice has received attention from some of the country’s most successful, well-established companies and Fast Company magazine; the self-described arbiter of “how smart business works” has featured the power of story a number of times. One such article featured executives at Nike, which operates on the belief that “the best way for a company to create a prosperous future is to make sure all of its employees understand the company’s past.” (“The Nike Story? Just Tell It!” is available online by visiting the magazine’s website at and launching a search for “Nike.”)

Stories Captivate Listeners…

Stories are an effective way to communicate because they captivate people, reaching both their heads and their hearts. The Walt Disney Company is one stellar example of an organization that applies this principle very effectively. In The Disney Way, authors Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson explain that Disney not only operates a business with the purpose of telling great stories but also runs the business with storyboarding. And, as Brian Ferren, planner, futurist and Executive Vice President of Creative Technology and Research for Walt Disney Imagineering, points out, “I’ve never seen a great military, political, or corporate leader who was not a great storyteller. Telling stories is a core competency in business, although it’s one that we don’t pay enough attention to.”

FedEx, 3M, and The Container Store are among the leading companies that deliberately use stories to achieve their goals. Why? Stories help companies – and the teams within them – to:

  • Clarify and perpetuate values
  • Communicate vision
  • Build understanding, agreement and community (shared meaning)
  • Share knowledge and successes
  • Engender pride in identity and accomplishments

Story Conveys Meaning

Through a well-crafted and well-told story you can convey complex concepts and meaning quickly and successfully because stories are:

  • Memorable – We live in stories. Even though story plots might be more complex than a set of numbers, the fact that they engage both sides of the brain makes them more memorable. According to research done by Roger Schank, director of the Institute for Learning Sciences at Northwestern University, when we hear a story we take it in and compare it to what we already have in memory. By noting its similarities or differences we can index and understand new information more quickly and effectively.
  • Believable – According to research with quantitatively trained MBAs – who were asked to evaluate the believability of information about a winery’s advertising campaign – stories are more believable than statistics or statistics combined with story. Stories show us, they don’t tell us about a situation or individual; they relate the universal to the particular and vice versa.
  • Inspiring – Good stories have emotional content that enables listeners to connect with the teller while personalizing information and making meaning based on their own experiences, values and goals. Telling and listening to stories can help to align individual and company values and goals; this is a crucial requirement for effectively harnessing the collective power of individuals comprising a team.

Using Stories In Teams

Stories and teams have a lot in common. For example, successful stories don’t just happen, and neither do successful teams. They require time and attention to develop. Just like stories, teams have a beginning, middle and an end. Just like stories, teams have characters, a story line or plot and a purpose. Just like stories, teams generate emotions. In fact, the work of most teams follows the classic plot line of ancient hero stories; each team member leaves his or her everyday world to take on a challenge or adventure and must overcome obstacles along the way. Throughout the adventure (project), each member grows and learns, then returns to the everyday world a changed person who has accomplished a “great feat.” In working together, each team creates its own hero story: they come together for a given purpose, meet the challenges along the way, and emerge victorious (or not). When team members return to their everyday worlds and “tribes,” they’ve been transformed by the shared experience and bring fresh insights and expanded wisdom that contribute to improved organizational performance.

How Stories Help Teams

Stories also can help facilitate the team’s progress through the inevitable–and often challenging–stages of its development:

  • Forming. At this stage, the team members gather to get acquainted, to identify the skills and strengths that each brings to the project, and usually, to identify the team’s leadership style. Team members have left their everyday world and are learning about this new world of the team. Sharing personal and/or career development stories to inform the other “characters” of relevant experiences and to establish personal connections enables team members to establish bonds and commonality and begin creating a cohesive, mutually supportive team.
  • Storming. After the group forms, team members begin to express differences as they work on establishing goals, assigning roles and agreeing on priorities. This stage is the first of many challenges the team will face. It is crucial that each person has a chance to express his/her perspective in a safe environment to set the stage for future discussions and high quality decision-making. Consensus is achieved more easily when each person has an opportunity to tell stories, either of past successes or of contributions that they expect to make toward achieving the team’s goals. Storytelling also is helpful in conveying the importance of hearing all perspectives before making decisions.
  • Norming. Next the team sets out the rules or values that will guide its working throughout its adventure. These rules or values are what will enable member to fulfill the roles and meet their goals. These become touchstones for the team to use when they face difficulties and are often reflected in stories about “how we do things around here” or as the core of survival stories. They are a key part of the team’s heritage or “sacred bundle” that make it what it is. The plot thickens as the team story continues to develop!
  • Performing. As the work project that brought the team together gets into high gear, each member of the group contributes their unique talents, knowledge and skills. Now as the adventure progresses and the heroic team works toward success, members celebrate accomplishments and congratulate one another as is made toward the ultimate goals. A true team spirit emerges and fuels the team’s rededication to its shared purpose and the team story builds to its climax.
  • Adjourning. When the work of the team is completed and the adventure is over, it may be appropriate for the team to disband and bring this particular team story to an end. At the end of its work, the team will find it helpful to review their shared story and heritage before returning to their regular jobs. By doing so everyone can relive and relearn, recounting their hero and survival stories in celebration of their success and their stories of learning, gained both from their successes and any failures along the way. A final telling of the team’s tales increases the likelihood that the story and its lessons will live on. And rather than the end of a team’s project being the end of its story; it actually becomes a step in moving the entire organization into the future together.

As anyone who has worked with teams knows, team development does not necessarily proceed in a linear fashion from one step to the next. A team in the performing phase may need to return to the storming stage when new members arrive or when disagreements arise. Shared values may be revisited, and the team can once again share stories that facilitate the team development process, reinforcing the values, roles, and rules that the members agreed upon. Stories that are shared with others in the organization serve to reinforce corporate values and help to create a “sacred bundle” of connections across departmental and office boundaries.

The Story of a Team in Trouble…

The Account Services team at the Seattle office of a worldwide advertising firm was frustrated and discouraged in its role as facilitator/interpreter between clients’ objectives and the actual products of the agency’s creative services department. The creative output often was very imaginative but missed the mark in communicating the client’s key message. The pressures of regularly being caught in the middle had resulted in a turnover rate on the Account Services team of nearly 50%. The influx of new members required the team to quickly refocus on the Forming, Storming and Norming stages of development to avoid diverting any more energy from their primary work: delivering high quality, on-target ads for their clients.

During a storytelling session at a team retreat, the group was able to identify their shared values and reach consensus on the team mission, or story. By clearly articulating who they were as a team-identifying their strengths and unique contributions, as well as the benefits of their contributions to the organization-the team members experienced a complete shift in perspective and attitude. Armed with their newly shared understanding, a cogent team story and strong consensus, the Account Services representatives were able to focus on their unique collective ability to make a significant contribution to the agency. The energy that was created by the story process enabled the team to achieve a high level of productivity for the balance of their retreat and to return to the workplace with renewed enthusiasm for their role in the agency.

How to Get Started with Stories

When you start purposefully using stories, you may feel a bit uncomfortable, just as your feet are uncomfortable with a new pair of shoes that haven’t been broken in yet. You know you want the shoes and that they’ll serve your purpose very well, but for the moment, you’re very conscious of them and the discomfort of wearing them. Similarly, becoming comfortable with storytelling may require that you “break in” your storytelling skills. Here are some tips to help you make the transition to a new way of communicating:

  • Be Yourself. The most important characteristic for a storyteller is to be genuine. When you tell stories that you know in your bones (yes, it requires practice!) and that contain messages you’re passionate about, people will overlook any mistakes you may make. In fact, slip-ups will humanize you, and the willingness to exhibit or acknowledge their own human shortcomings serves most leaders well! Professional storytellers don’t worry about getting every word right every time; they’re interested in conveying the big picture of universal ideas and meaning. According to Clara Pinkola Estes, author of The Gift of Story, “There is no right or wrong way to tell a story. Perhaps you will forget the beginning, or the middle or the end…. It is the experiences you share with others and the stories that you tell about those experiences afterward, and the tales you bring from the past and future that create the ultimate bond.” Leaders, too, focus on communicating ideas and meaning to encourage action, especially in the absence of all the facts.
  • Remember to K. I. S. S. (Keep It Short and Simple). Remember, you want to show, not tell; you want to convey meaning – not necessarily facts. For example, if your story is about the importance of getting everyone’s input before making a decision, talk about the impact of missing one great comment, or the success that resulted when one team member wouldn’t be silenced. Don’t load up the story with details that get in the way of your key message. An effective story makes your point in a few minutes by engaging your audience with language that everyone understands. And don’t forget: stories contain characters, plot, meaning and emotion. If any of those elements is missing, you probably don’t have a good story.
  • Don’t worry about props. Who are the people you consider great communicators? Chances are they tell stories without relying on props or PowerPoint slides. Storytelling is an oral tradition that paints word pictures. The complexities and interrelationships that stories convey are virtually impossible to create visually in as meaningful a way. When Stephen Denning, Program Director Knowledge Management at the World Bank was asked why he used storytelling he said, “Nothing else worked. Charts left listeners bemused…. Time after time, when faced with the task of persuading a group of managers or front-line staff in a large organization to get enthusiastic about a major change, storytelling was the only thing that worked.” If you want to persuade team members, tell a story. Don’t issue an order or create elaborate presentations.

Make it seamless and appropriate. Stories should be a seamless part of your communication. You don’t need to emphasize that you’re telling a story; people will readily understand. Your job is to select a story that is appropriate to the situation so that your audience will receive your message.

Should every communication be in story form? No, absolutely not! Just as you don’t regard everything you see as a nail when you’re holding a hammer, not every message is effectively delivered through a story. Stories probably aren’t the most appropriate way to communicate strictly factual information, such as financial performance, decision-making criteria, and timelines or resource constraints. And they may be a frustrating delay to a quick response to a simple question. However, when you need to make a memorable point, persuade and inspire action, align purpose or clarify values, try putting the power of story to work for you!

Authors/Workshop Material

Evelyn Clark, The Corporate Storyteller, helps organizations, work teams, boards of directors and individuals develop values-based stories that spread like wildfire and propel them toward their vision. She is an inspirational keynoter who has re-ignited the spark in organizations such as Costco Wholesale, University of Washington, Publicis, and American Marketing Association.

Drawing on 20 years of policy-level experience, Paula Bartholome helps individuals and organizations gain a new perspective on communication and organizational issues to enhance performance, strengthen working relationships and increase job satisfaction. She also teaches courses on using stories in business settings at DePaul University’s School for New Learning.

To receive material from the workshop on this topic or for more information about using storytelling in your organization contact:

Paula Bartholome • • 847.491.0632

Evelyn Clark • evelyn@corpstory • 425.827.3998

This article may be republished electronically. Please ensure the following resource box is maintained intact.

Evelyn Clark, The Corporate Storyteller, is president of Clark & Company, a marketing communication firm in the Seattle area. A public relations practitioner with more than 20 years experience, she was accredited by the Public Relations Society of America in 1986. Her firm’s services include facilitation of retreats and communication workshops, marketing and communication management, media relations strategy development, and media training. All content © Clark & Company 1993-111 (unless otherwise indicated). All rights reserved.