Story, storytelling and changing

Around the turn of the century, the world took a narrative turn, according to Christian Salmon in his book Storytelling, bewitching the modern mind. Practice embraces the power of stories in several disciplines and settings i.e. politics, science, health care, management, communication and even in the army. Driven by this development, different stories and storytelling appeared on the scene. Below you will find a description of story and storytelling as an interactive intervention in change. Stories play a crucial role as David Boje writes Stories are the blood vessels through which change pulsuates. Scroll over the titles and experience how this unique method influences behaviour and the role of story in intentional and unintentional change, in theory and in practice.

What constitutes a story?

The dynamics of storytelling

How Stories of Change works with storytelling

What storytelling could do for you


It is tricky to find a definition of story. As soon as experiences and perceptions are imprisoned into a protocol, they could lose authenticity and become an artificial construction. Some people would argue that a good story has a beginning, a middle and an end. But the most powerful stories are usually very small and do not follow a nice sequence. That is because they are sensemaking devices (Buchanan & Dawson). Some say that stories have narrative elements like a hero, enemies, friends. But stories are multi interpretive (Boje, Tesselaar) what sounds like a hero for you, might illustrate a friend to me.

Stories are about experiences and events. They are not factual. Some scholars argue that plot is what distinguishes a story from a report (Czarniawska, Gabriel e.a.). The storyteller organizes events in a certain sequence and from a certain frame. This changes every time the story is told. And so, stories develop in dialogue with the listener and changes both the teller and the audience based on situation and context. I have to disappoint you but on this site there is no definition of story, because this would only restrict you. There are lots of practical examples and stories from and about experiences in real live organizations and communities; in my opinion the only way to recognise how stories shape and develop reality….

Stories are told in dialogue and interaction between the teller and listener. It is, in fact, a negotiation. When we make sense, we create stories, also in our own mind. Some scholars call this storying – like a verb. David Sims is one of them and talks about an “inner dialogue” in which story emerges. Stories trigger reaction and are often a call to action. That is why they have a major influence on people’s behaviour. Stories can mobilize (Bate) or halt people to act. This energy occures while a story is told; as we adjust the story to our audience and decide real time on: the frame, the sequence of events, tone and emotion. Buchanan & Dawson and Tesselaar argue that is what make stories little change instruments in themselves. We re-tel stories naturally while we try to convince listeners of our argument or relay our knowledge and experiences. It is that dynamic that forms the power of storytelling. Some scientist say that a story is dead and loses its power once it is told (Boje, Greenhalgh).

Instigating changes. Making stories visible and sharing them outside their natural habitat, causes mobilization and understanding. A leader or director does not usually hear every day, common stories, other then politically oriented versions. Boje calls them stories of the little men. Like the CEO of a medium sized organization exclaimed: My people have not secrets to me but reading through these stories opens a brand new world to me! The words, the layers of meaning and the perspective, give a clear and honest picture of what is going on in communities and organizations. The collection of stories, I refer to as a storyweb, shows the challenge between structural targets by management and the cultural reality of the workforce.

Understanding the reality of organization or community members. Stories narrate about themes, language and time. wat er aan de hand is in de organisatie of gemeenschap. They give context. For example: a patient narrates about how she experiences being paralyzed. The doctor listens and comes with a diagnoses; there is no physical or mental illness so no explanation for the paralyzes.
The patient simulates. But simulation leads to paralyzes… Does that mean its not real? Can the patient just walk away from the complaint? No it’s a daily reality that she cannot walk. In her stories about being ill there is always a diagnose hidden (Greenhalgh & Hurwitz). But the doctor has to listen differently and be prepared to accept stories as the truth of the narrator (Gabriel, Tesselaar).

Change the flow of story; sensemaking stories live in the informal organization. Management stories and corporate stories in the formal organization. They show completely different dynamics. As soon as sensemaking stories become visible, the words change, they are put into a different context and are retold in the formal organization. Alignment and connection become appararent in a co-created story. This contains a shared (negociated) identity of the organization and structure and culture find each other in a logical sequence. This story is based on the persception and wish of leadrs, followers and their environment.

Anticipate on emerging changes and connect these with intentional changes. See the example on the homepage where a director tries to sell hi story using the wrong metaphor during his new year’s speech. With the best intentions, he embarrasses his team leaders. He would have been better off listening to his people, using their stories to bring his workforce in a logical development from the present into the future. Using the stories and the language they know, he engages the workforce. He should have stayed close to his own values and show that he understands the themes and words everyone in the company uses. This causes his people to feel heard and taken seriously. Like Jürgen Habermas says (casual translation) when people agree on words they agree on the content.

Bate, P. (2004) The Role of Story and Storytelling in Organizational Change Efforts, The Anthropology of an Intervention in a UK Hospital, Intervention Research. International Journal on Culture, Organization and Management 1(1): 27-42

Boje, D.M., (2001), Narrative Methods for Organizational & Communication Research, Sage , London

Buchanan D., P. Dawson, (2007), Discourse and Audience: Organizational Change as Multi-story Process, Journal of Management Studies, 44:5, July 2007

Czarniawska, B. (1997) Narrating the Organization. Dramas of Institutional Identity. The University of Chicago Press

Gabriel, Y. (2000) Storytelling in organizations. Facts, Fictions and fantasies. Oxford University Press

Greenhalgh T. B. Hurwitz (1999) Why Study Narrative? British Medical Journal Vol.318: 48

Scharmer C.O. (2009) Theory ‘U’ Leading from the future as it emerges, Berret Köhler

Tesselaar S., (2012a) The Story of a KISS, Storytelling in Organizational Change, LAP Lambert Academic Publishing

Tesselaar S., (2012b), Time for Storytelling – Storytelling and change. In: Handboek Communicatie in Organisaties – 25 Jaar Handboek Public Relations (E. Blokland, M. Neijzen, S. Wagenaar) Kluwer