What Storytelling Is (Not)

Everybody is talking about "storytelling" lately...

When you hear the word "storytelling" so much, it seems like anything and everything can be storytelling. But it's important to define it so you know what I'm talking about. As written previously, I define storytelling as a dynamic exchange between the tale, the teller, and the audience. Understanding what is not storytelling--according to the definition I am developing based on the tradition of storytelling in librarianship--may help to further illuminate what storytelling is. But perhaps I should start with a quick definition of what storytelling is.

Stories are fascinating; lots of  people are deeply interested in story structure, but I focus most on storytelling. To understand the "telling" part, I see benefits to focusing on the dynamic of storytelling as a three-part interchange. We learn about listening from this model in ways that other models miss by focusing solely on the story. We also learn about generating collective meaning as well as divergent meanings, as when the teller or different audience members take a different meaning from the same story.






Trust is the central key to the dynamic interchange of storytelling. Not trust with one's life, perhaps, but trust in one's story and in the teller to take the audience on a journey and bring them safely home again. I usually think of three categories that help to further define what I mean by storytelling by way of contrast.

Storytelling is Not...

So what is not storytelling? To understand this, I suggest we examine three alternative pratices that often get lumped in with storytelling but which I see as distinct from storytelling.

1. Storytelling is not acting.
Though a great story is dramatic, storytelling is not acting because the teller is saying words that s/he wants to say, chose to say, intends to convey. The audience trusts that the storyteller is choosing to tell this story, not memorizing someone else's words. We may love actors, enjoy actors, swoon over actors, but we would be fools to trust them.

2. Storytelling is not comedy.
Storytelling may be uproariously funny, and some stories are deeply and inherently comedic, but humor and laughter can't be the storyteller's only goal. It might be better to say:  a storyteller is not a comedian. Laughter is amazing, it heals and unites people possibly like nothing else, but a storyteller's primary obligations are to the story and the audience rather than to comedy. Comedians may tell stories, but at the end of the day we know that they will break all the rules of trust if it gets a good laugh out of us. Or the rest of the audience, laughing at us.

3. Storytelling is not marketing.
I can see this being controversial, but the basic difference comes down, again, to trust. When someone you trust tells you a story that turns out to be all about selling something, you lose trust. If a storyteller is involved, then many attempts at marketing tend to distance that teller from the audience. The audience may love the products, may buy the products, may identify with the products, but that doesn't make for much of a story. It's just a purchasing transaction. Sometimes if the company hires a famous person as their storyteller, then there's a certain appeal, but at least some percentage of fans will question why this admired person is now selling them something when they did not do so before. There may be gaps here related to celebrity status that was always related to selling something, but in that case the story will tend to be minimal. The substance will most often be drama rather than a meaningful story.

I met a marketing professor recently and, when I told him I studied storytelling, he said "That's what I do! Marketing is storytelling!" I was taken aback, but I had time to think later about why I disagree on several counts. Marketing involves a kind of audience research that is qualitatively different that the audience familiarity and knowledge that storytellers cultivate. Storytellers want to share meaning with their audiences; marketers want to sell products. Again, some marketers want to sell meaningful products to their markets in meaningful ways, and that's great. But marketing doesn't qualify as storytelling because it flattens out that important third dimension of the triangle: the tale. The tale becomes a tool of transmission rather than an entity open to interpretation by both teller and audience.

Living stories...

A real storytelling interaction leaves the tale enlivened, changed, and perhaps enriched by every telling. You know you've heard a story when you were so engrossed you lost track of time and said "wow" the minute it was over. Even the teller has a feeling of connection and perhaps transformation based on the experience. Next post, I'll explore ideas about how various forms of communication (videos, blog posts, tweets) may or may not work to create a storytelling experience.

Story Across Organizations

What happens when stories are doing translation work between organizations? What does it mean when a story has to travel between different groups? How is inter-organizational storytelling a tool for coordination, collaboration, and leveraging collective resources? To understand how storytelling might work in these contexts, we have to back up and think about what these contexts are.

In my (frequently co-taught) course Youth Services Community Engagement , we talk extensively about how the purposes of various organizations serving youth in communities lead them to collaborate (or not). Examples of the kinds of organizations we discuss are: school and public libraries, homework help programs, Scouting and other clubs, LGBTQIA and allies organizations, religious youth groups, and crisis nurseries as well as organizations that serve youth by serving families such as food banks, shelters, etc.

When considering how different organizations are structured and function, there are a few key aspects that help facilitate inter-organizational collaboration:
  • Mission in action
  • Leadership styles and structures
  • Relative sizes and statuses of organizations
  • Cultures of organizations

Simply put, organizations with more similarities in more of these dimensions find it easier to collaborate. But that may also foster community imbalances or inequities, in that organizations may cluster together in groups because of shared or disparate organizational cultures. In my classes, I've found that students run into similar themes again and again related to these four areas, which I'll elaborate below.

Mission in action
How does this organization enact its purposes? Community organizations have missions, broad or specific, and mission matters. I use "mission in action" because the way that the mission and/or vision of the organization is written or told will definitely align with many of the activities of the organization. But not all. Because the day-to-day work is always evolving in response to community needs, and as those practices evolve the mission does too. Some call this "mission drift" in a negative sense, but I prefer to see it as a neutral process through which organizations may change over time or modify their practices to re-align with their core mission. When organizations share a mission that includes serving youth, then there is good potential for some form of collaboration. In this case, the story we tell about mission and the story our work tells are both highly valuable toward crafting a shared story about the value of the collaboration.

Leadership styles and structures
Leadership means both who's in charge and what governance structures (boards, advisors, etc.) determine who's in charge. Leadership may also involve issues like typical rates of turnover in organizational leadership. For a public library, leadership typically turns over infrequently, sometimes on the order of decades. For your average Boys and Girls club, leadership will turn over more frequently, due in part to the lower rates of pay available for directors. Leaders with similar styles will often work well together, and leaders with similar governance structures will have an easier time translating their shared missions into actions. Complexity or difference in any of these dimensions may make collaboration more challenging. How leaders or boards motivate people toward the shared mission is often most visible in the leaders' stories, and those stories offer much implicit information about leaders' styles.

Relative sizes and statuses of organizations
If a big organization (a school district) is coordinating with (or even hiring as consultants) a smaller organization (such as a tutoring company or a local homework help volunteer program), then there will be some need to translate between the two organizations. The smaller community organization is often lower status, and so they may need to attune to the purposes of the larger organization in their coordination work. Leaders of the smaller organization may find that they need to know many key players in the big organization while, at the same time, those in the big organization may know only one contact in the smaller organization. It may be that each organization has its own story, and that's fine as long as there's room for the other organization in each of their stories.

Cultures of organizations
Culture matters. Organizations have cultures. People have cultures. Sometimes organizations share cultural expectations with groups of people. In my own experience, I've found this to be the case in religious and LGBTQ organizations, respectively, where belonging means identifying collectively to some degree. Similar dynamics can arise with any group, of course, but sometimes culture matters more than other times. If two organizations have radically different cultures, they will need a very strong story of mission overlap to overcome potential barriers. Once trust is established, acknowledging cultural difference can help to nuance the story of the collaboration, but in the beginning collaborators often have to navigate cultural difference without these explicit acknowledgements. The story matters deeply here. That story needs to take account of the purpose of the collaboration, the benefits (shared goals or advantages of leveraging resources collectively), and the specific benchmarks for success. The story of the collaboration is perhaps most important when organizations have very different cultures.


When we talk about storytelling, often the hope is that story can be the conduit to exciting uncharted realms! I believe we often wish to be transported by story. But in establishing cross-organization collaborations, it is also important to be grounded by story in a well-evidenced way that fits with organizations' goals. Many of the claims made for the possibilities of storytelling will turn out to be wildly exaggerated if you don't also take these elements into account. Story can do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of creating meaning and bringing people together, but it helps to understand your context and analyze these aspects of organizations.


Dedicated to Kirstin Phelps, who did an absolutely masterful job of defending her dissertation proposal, a case study of inter-organizational collaboration with a focus on understanding leadership in multiple dimensions. Congratulations Kirstin! With special thanks to Sheila Bishop for sharing some of her forthcoming work on collaboration. Thanks also to my co-teachers Liz Hoiem (fall 2014) and Rachel Magee (fall 2015) for their inspiring collaborations in 490YS and elsewhere. And thanks to Danielle Chynoweth and Ashley Booth who were inspirational to me in developing this post.

What I mean by "Storytelling"

I've noticed that there are two common definitions of "storytelling" floating around. The most common one is "the way you tell a story." In other words, it's all about the teller and the tale. There are scads of books about plot construction, screenplay writing, and other ways of telling stories. They cover every possible medium. So when people come to my storytelling workshops, they often expect to learn about story and how to perform. And I do indeed teach some of that. But it's incidental to my main point, which is the second definition of storytelling.

As I use it, storytelling means a complex interplay and dynamic exchange between three elements, each of them vibrant and changing moment by moment.


  • the tale
  • the teller
  • the audience

You can this of this as a triangle:


The best way to visualize this is as a dynamic triangle(1). There are three interrelationships happening in any dynamic storytelling exchange: the teller and the audience, the tale and the audience, and the teller and the tale. Each of these connections is in motion.

For example, a great storyteller brings a story to life anew with each telling. This means the tale is similar each time but never precisely the same. A great audience laughs, gasps, applauds, boos, hisses, or simply radiates attitude in ways that impact the live teller in the moment, which in turn instigates a minor change or adjustment to the tale. A great story is adaptable enough that it can be deeply meaningful to many tellers and audiences, and survives the test of time through retelling.

A great storytelling experience is one that brings these three elements into contact such that the moment is profound and irreproducible. A recorded or written story can have this effect too, but that means the audience is probably bringing a strong interest in the story (or genre, or topic) already, and has some way of responding (comments, likes, etc.).

Storytelling also involves earning (and keeping) the trust of the audience. At some point I'll make a full post on what storytelling is not, but in short: storytelling is not comedy (who trusts comedians??) and storytelling is not acting because we trust that the words spoken are the teller's own. Even if some of them are memorized, the teller knows the story by heart and can bring it to life with the kind of passion, urgency, and intensity that lets the audience know this story is for them.

Great tellers show the audience that the story is being told just for them. They demonstrate that they want this audience to know this story. In a world of digitally available stories, maybe it's so easy to forget about the audience because so often we are the audience and we are losing ourselves in a world of story. A good teller never forgets the audience. An exceptional teller knows that the story is only meaningful if both teller and story connect with the audience.

(1) Hat tip to Betsy Hearne, who taught this to me first, and to Doug Lipman here, who shares similar ideas in his book Improving Your Storytelling.

Storytelling at Work


The real work of storytelling is not just talking, telling, or even framing the tale. It's knowing what to ask and when to listen.


I'm launching a new research project today, and I'm hoping to talk with many of you who are reading this in the course of this research. The project is called Storytelling at Work, and it's about understanding how storytelling matters in the workplace. I hope to address questions like:  In the everyday world of work, what stories do we tell and what stories do we hear? How does storytelling work for people in everyday life? When does a story make or break the success of a workday, a project, or even an organization?

I plan to conduct as many interviews as possible, aiming for someplace between 50-100 over the next year or two (1-2 per week or more when time permits). Each interview will take about 30 minutes. In this way, I am optimistic that I'll be able to draw together an informed picture of storytelling at work while not over-relying on any one person, workplace, or kind of work. This project is deliberately open-ended, and interviews are just one of the methods I'll be using to gather information along this path.


Would you like to talk about how storytelling matters in your work?


If you're interested in being interviewed, you can learn a bit more and sign up here:
Storytelling at Work Interview Consent:
https://illinois.edu/fb/sec/9992030


Have questions? I'd be glad to answer them: kmcdowel@illinois.edu. We can also set up a time to talk via phone or Skype, just email me and we'll make a plan.


The interviews will be guided by the following questions, which I'll send to folks who consent to participate. If you're curious about what kind of conversation this 30-minute interview will be, then these questions give you a pretty good sense of the topics I'm hoping to cover.

Storytelling at Work Questions:

  •      When have you used storytelling in your interactions with colleagues, as a teller or listener?
  •      How have you used storytelling in any of your professional communications, from practical daily interactions to presentations?
  •      How might storytelling function as a tool for thinking about the work of your organization?
  •      Could you see your own career trajectory as a story, and how has that story changed over time?