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?