Tag Archives: storytelling

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.






Knowledge Management: past, present and future – notes on a NetIKX seminar (#NetIKX60)

By Elisabeth Goodman

Knowledge Management past and present

It’s NetIKX’s 21st year since it’s original formation in 1992 as the IRM (Information Resource Management) group under Aslib.  This seminar (in March 2013) was an opportunity for Stuart Ward (Forward Consulting) to reflect on the past and present of Knowledge Management, and for Alison (Lissi) Corfield (Independent KM Specialist) to help us reflect on its future.

As we know, there are many different definitions of Knowledge Management, Stuart suggested that it’s essentially about helping people to share the knowledge that they have in their heads: their ‘tacit’ knowledge to enable the creation of new ideas.   His view is that once that tacit knowledge is made ‘explicit’, or written down, then it is essentially information.

Stuart suggested that an organisation needs the following for an effective Knowledge Management strategy:

  • Clarity of understanding and purpose: what the organization means by Knowledge Management
  • Engagement of everyone in the organization (he cited Lewis Platt, past CEO of Hewlard Packard, as a role mode in creating a knowledge sharing culture)
  • To be delivering value to the organisation from the Knowledge Management strategy (e.g. establishing and facilitating what an organisation needs to know to succeed)

NetIKX in its present and previous forms has had the benefit of many well-known speakers, amongst them Elizabeth Orna, David Snowden, Nick Willard, David Skyrme, Chris Collison and Nick Milton.

As we know, stories can be a powerful way of sharing knowledge, and past speakers have encouraged delegates to bring objects to a seminar as a starting point for such stories.  Stuart diverted us with a story based on locking his car keys in his boot to illustrate the value of organisations (in this case the AA) having effective Knowledge Management strategies for sharing solutions and accessing them!

Common themes that Stuart pulled out from these and other speakers included:

  • Knowledge Management is about people more than technology
  • Top management engagement is essential
  • You should identify what you know, what you need to know, and then bridge the gap
  • It’s important to link your Knowledge Management strategy to your organisational goals and objectives
  • Put processes in place to enable the translation of tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge
  • Measure when you can

Knowledge Management future

Lissi Corfield brought goodie bags and questionnaires for us to complete in real time to involve us in constructing what the future of Knowledge Management might be.

She asked us to consider several things such as:

  1. To what extent the organisations we were involved in had Knowledge Management strategies backed by a CEO at one extreme, or were just a collection of related activities
  2. What kind of activities were taking place in our organisations e.g. Communities of Practice, Learning Interventions, cultural initiatives, storytelling, technical projects, ‘yellow pages’, knowledge audits
  3. Which related organisations we were drawing on e.g. NetIKX, LIKE, CILIP, Aslib, ISKO, Gurteen knowledge cafés; or commercial ones such as TFPL Connect, the Sue Hill breakfast club etc.
  4. Which specialists we were aware of (e.g. as per Stuart’s list) and did we know how to get in touch with them

Lissi also asked us to consider what might happen next with Knowledge Management.  Would it for example:

  • Become very specialized (for example by being adopted / applied in different disciplines)?
  • Disappear into another discipline (such as ‘Big Data’ or Social Media)?
  • Merge into the mainstream (become just what people do)?
  • Get a better name (such as ‘common knowledge’ or even ‘common sense’!)?

Lissi believes and hopes that Knowledge Management will both become very specialized, and merge into the mainstream.

What the delegates thought: knowledge management is here to stay

As is traditional with NetIKX meetings, we split into syndicate or discussion groups to explore some of the seminar’s themes, and all opted to discuss the future of Knowledge Management.

The consensus was that it would continue to be around, although it might not necessarily be called Knowledge Management.  In fact it seems like organisations are reinventing it all the time!

We also thought that although knowledge is continuously being encoded or ‘outsourced’ (for instance through Microsoft style sheets, SatNavs, online customer reviews of products, surgical techniques, flight simulators etc..), new knowledge will keep developing.

One delegate suggested that it’s the sheer complexity surrounding the various roots and sources of knowledge that is the reason why Knowledge Management will continue to be a separate discipline…


Delegates were asked to complete a short survey before the seminar, which included identifying the four most important knowledge assets in our organisations.  We’re waiting to see the results of this survey, but for RiverRhee Consulting I suggest that these are:

  1. Our people – their expertise and experience
  2. The capabilities that we teach our clients
  3. Our approach to training
  4. What we learn from working with our clients

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, a consultancy that helps business teams to enhance their effectiveness for greater productivity and improved team morale. Elisabeth has 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry where she has held line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and in Lean Sigma and is a member of CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals), and APM (Association for Project Management).