Tag Archives: stories

Telling stories at work

By Elisabeth Goodman, 4th October 2017

Why tell stories at work?

I first heard about the power of using stories at work, in the context of sharing knowledge and building learning and understanding, in the 1990s.

Stories are a powerful way to share knowledge and build learning and understanding.

David Snowden, who was then a Director at the IBM Institute for Knowledge Management, was a chief exponent of the use of narrative to convey complex messages.  (Snowden’s work has since evolved, and there is an informative and somewhat entertaining account of David Snowden on David Gurteen’s website.  Gurteen is himself somewhat of a guru of Knowledge Management.)

what makes stories so powerful?

Paul McGee tells us why stories are so powerful in his article “The power of telling stories” for the April 2017 issue of the Training Journal.  He reminds us that we have been using stories since the cave paintings 20,000 years ago, and we continue to engage with stories through books, TV programmes, film and in our day-to-day conversations.

And the reason, he tells us, why good stories are so engaging, is that they activate every part of the brain.  Not only the language processing parts, but every other part of the brain.  The more sensory and action words we include: how things look, smell, feel, and the actions involved – the more we engage the parts of the brain that would be activated if the listener was actually experiencing the event themselves.  They don’t actually need to be experiencing it for this to happen..

The result of telling a good story in this way is that it engages the emotions as well as the intellect.  Emotions make a story more memorable, more inspiring, and so are more likely to lead to commitment and to action.

When and How to tell a good story?

1.  Choose your opportunity and your topic

Stories can be shared about just about anything – but they do need to have a point to be effective!

Here are some situations I can think of – and that I have experimented with in my work with RiverRhee:

In a one-to-one mentoring or coaching situation to give a verbal example of how to do something, or not to do something based on your own experience of doing so.

In a training course or workshop, to convey some key principles, a framework or a methodology.

During a presentation, to get people’s attention and/or to illustrate some key points that you want to get across

2.  Think of a main character or characters, an event, and an outcome

As McGee says, in the Training Journal article, artistic licence is fine.  The story does not have to be true, although you might find it easier to create it, and to be convincing, if it has some basis on reality.

Christopher Booker, in “The Seven Basic Plots” (Bloomsbury, 2014), argues that these different plots (including comedy, tragedy, quests, rags to riches, encounters with monsters, voyages, rebirths) actually resolve themselves into some basic common denominators.

So, as he says, a typical story unfolds as follows: “once upon a time there was such and such a person, living in such and such a place… then, one day, something happened”.  That happening leads the main character (hero or heroine) into some experience that changes their lives.  There is conflict and uncertainty.  Ultimately there is some form of resolution.

One of my most powerful stories of this type illustrates how people can react to changes that they initially perceive as positive.  The words used in the change curve below mirror, to some extent, those for Booker’s story plot above.

Positive change curve – from “The Effective Team’s Change Management Workbook”, RIverRhee Publishing, 2013

Although I can’t share the details of the change here, it was a family event that we had instigated, thinking that it was the right thing to do (uninformed certainty).  No sooner had we initiated it, than I literally felt like I had gone cold with shock (informed doubt!).  We persevered for a while, but eventually realised that the solution was not going to be as easy as we had thought, and that we had to start exploring other options (realistic concern).  Eventually we did find a way forward and are in a much better place (emotionally and intellectually!) now (informed certainty).

3.  Add some sensory detail – and try some metaphors

I learnt, in my NLP Practitioner training, about the wide range of words we can use when we talk to bring our own experiences alive, and to communicate more effectively with others.  We use some of these words automatically when we speak, and often neglect the wide array available to us.

So if we deliberately think about appealing to all of our senses, the results would be something like this:

  1. For visual language use: see, look, picture, blue, yellow, light, bright, dark, transparent etc.
  2. For auditory language use: hear, sound, loud, quiet, clank, click, tinkle, shrill etc.
  3. For kinesthetic language use: touch, feel, damp, dry, wet, sharp, hot, cold etc.
  4. For auditory digital (inner dialogue, or self-talk – this is more language based) use: understand, think, explain, process etc.

In fact, in our NLP course, we also used the power of metaphors as an aid to communication: telling a story that does not even have to directly mention the principle or method that you are trying to get across.  People draw their own inferences from the story – and the fact that they have to ‘work it out’ can make the final message even more powerful.

It can take a little courage to trust your audience to make the right inferences, and I generally err on the side of telling them – as with the ‘urban myth’ I use for explaining the importance of finding root causes to address sources of waste in Lean and Six Sigma and process improvement!

when and how will you try out stories at work?

As McGee suggests in his article, and as my own experiences show, it takes some courage to have a go with story-telling, to share perhaps personal stories, and to embellish the stories with sensory detail.

Choose a situation to begin: a one-to-one conversation, a course or workshop, a presentation.

Develop a story that you are comfortable with.

Write a list of prompts to remind you of the key points.

Test it out on a friendly audience.    Rehearse.

Remember the very long tried and tested history we have of the effectiveness of stories.


Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.) Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  

RiverRhee is a support supplier for One Nucleus and a CPD provider for CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals).

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. 

She is a member of CILIP and of APM (Association for Project Management) where she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.





Fake work – a real opportunity to enhance team effectiveness

‘Fake Work’, by Brent Peterson and Gaylan Nielson is an excellent dissertation on a common cause of frustration and wasted time and effort at work.  According to the authors’ research, 53% of workers believe that they do work that does not count, and 54% feel that their creativity, talent and intelligence is under-used.  Unfortunately fake work is so well-established in many organisations, that not only have cartoon strips and television programmes (e.g. Dilbert and The Office) been based on them, but people actually delight in following them!

Fake work is at the heart of what I aim to help people with to enhance team effectiveness, hence this blog of my impressions of the book’s content.

What is fake work?

The authors define fake work as: “effort under the illusion of value”.  Whereas real work is “work that is critical and aligned to the key goals and strategies of an organisation.”  “It is work that is essential for the organisation’s short-term and long-term survival.”

Most of us will be familiar with the more obvious sources, or potential sources of fake work:

  • Meetings that have no clear purpose or agenda, fuzzy start and end times, and actions that are either ill-defined or not properly followed-through;
  • E-mail threads that include long cc: lists of people who have no direct connection or interest with the topic under discussion.  And e-mails themselves with unclear purposes / content or that could have been better addressed through a direct conversation;
  • Searches of the internet, and indeed use of social media with no clearly defined aim or structure to the search / use of the tools;
  • Phone conversations again that ramble on beyond their original intent.

There are other more insidious forms of fake work though:

  • Teams or individuals that are asked to spend time pulling together recommendations which are not reviewed because management have already decided on their direction;
  • Reports (such as monthly reports), that are either not read, contain more information than is needed, or duplicate previous reports;
  • People coming into work early, or leaving late because that is the expected norm, or because they feel they need to look busy.

Why is there so much fake work?  What are the causes?

The authors describe 4 main causes of fake work:

  1. Strategy: the organisation’s strategy is unclear, or work is not aligned to it. “Probably the greatest generator of fake work is employees and their leaders who don’t regularly review the work they are doing and its relationship to company strategy.”
  2. Job descriptions: the individual’s remit is unclear; they do not have clear priorities; deliverables and timelines are not well defined.
  3. The team: there is a lack of cohesiveness within the team; poor communications; attitudes and behaviours promote or condone fake work. “Everyone has something to contribute  to a company, but no single person can successfully contribute anything if his or her efforts aren’t aligned to the team’s and the company’s strategic goals.”
  4. Management: inadequate at addressing all of the above; not providing the necessary coaching and support to promote ‘real’ work.

How to address fake work?

The authors take their readers through a series of paths, which are essentially a variation of cycles such as Deming’s Plan, Do, Check, Act.

  • Plan: covers the importance of defining the company’s strategy, required behaviours, measures of success and communications that will enable everyone to understand the strategy and align what they do in relation to it.
  • Do: requires managers to role model the right behaviours for real work, communicate, coach and support their teams.  It also requires team members to understand the different attitudes and strengths within the team, and how they can complement each other, as well as to challenge behaviours that do not support real work.
  • Check: involves reviewing work against the measures of success, obtaining feedback, checking assumptions, and also listening to the stories that are circulating within the organisation.  This latter is an interesting take on the work of Snowden and Denning who use stories for sharing knowledge within organisations.
  • Act: is about taking action as a result of the ‘check’ step to review and adjust plans and so correct behaviours.


Although the authors do not mention it, process improvement techniques such as Lean and Six Sigma, are ideally placed to help people check for, understand and address fake work.

The following reflection, however, provides an excellent way to address fake work at the ‘helicopter’ view: “Think through all the activities you do in a given day.  How many of them are real?  How many of them are fake?”  I’ve certainly found this a very useful perspective to take in anything I do!


1. “Fake Work”  by Brent D. Peterson, Gaylan W. Neilson

2. Deming’s PDCA cycle – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PDCA

3. Steve Denning on storytelling – see http://www.stevedenning.com/Business-Narrative/default.aspx

4. Elisabeth Goodman is Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, a consultancy that uses process improvement and knowledge management to enhance team effectiveness.

Follow the links to find out more about RiverRhee Consulting, and about Elisabeth Goodman.