True Tales and Tall Tales

True Tales and Tall Tales:
The Power of Organizational Storytelling

By Beverly Kaye and Betsy Jacobson
Abstracted from
Training and Development Journal,
March 1999

Stories play an important role in the workplace. Stories can be vivid
and memorable, helping achieve levels of understanding in ways that are
meaningful and relevant. Because storytelling is a collective act, we
are encouraged to share meaning through interaction, thereby establishing
a cohesion that might otherwise be unattainable. When organizational stories
are communicated in ways that enhance people’s understanding, the stories
create and disseminate valuable shared meaning. A leader can tell stories
that help people understand the organization’s heritage. A good story
taps into the intellect and emotions of the audience; it enriches listeners
in their learning and expanded feelings.

The key to the power of storytelling lies in a simple three-part sequence
discussed at length in this article by Jacobson and Kaye, resulting in
a determination of whether the stories are true tales or tall tales:

The story: Someone tells it; someone (or more than one) listens.

The understanding: Both the listener and the teller begin to understand
something that before was known to them only superficially.

The shared meaning: Groups use their shared understanding as a metaphor
leading to a kind of shorthand that facilitates a wider understanding
of other things.

Stories also entertain, influence, teach, inform, and uplift. All organizations
can benefit from sharing stories, and everyone is potentially an excellent
source or teller of stories, albeit with some coaching (and perhaps coaxing).
Storytelling is a form of communication that can be learned. The most
valuable stories told in organizations are those that teach, inspire,
motivate, and add meaning. These stories are created from personal experience
in the past, from ideas and questions concerning the present, and from
a personal vision about the future. The authors present valuable tips
for creating a repertoire of stories. Tips include: looking for patterns,
looking for consequences, looking for lessons, looking for utility, looking
for vulnerability, looking for the future experience, and looking for

Many opportunities for storytelling already exist in organizations and
more can also be developed. These opportunities, or channels, by which
storytelling happens in organizations include:

· Spontaneous — casual, opportunistic occasions for storytelling

· Existing — regular, ongoing occurrences during which storytelling
can occur

· Deliberate — planned opportunities for exchanging and sharing
stories with the goal of organizational learning

All of these channels typically require the following types of planning
and support:

Storyteller coaching — coaching for leaders who tell stories should
emphasize the importance of their unique insider’s view, including their
own family issues, thoughts, struggles, concerns, role models, and so

Topic assistance — in learning groups and forums, topics don’t always
come naturally. People often need prompts such as sentence stems.

Audience consideration — the listeners need to understand why they’re
there, and they should have a desire to be there.

Debriefing — some stories have to be digested over time by the listeners
in order to fully comprehend the meaning and learning.

For a deeper understanding of how stories affect the workplace and can
be utilized effectively in an organization, follow the authors’
guidelines and consider the sample questions presented in this article.