Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

Who will bell the cat? Story telling techniques for people who work with people in organisations

Marie Finlay
Professional Storyteller and Private Consultant

Christine Hogan
School of Management and Marketing
Curtin University


The purpose of this paper is to illustrate how stories may be used by facilitators/teachers and how they can use them to elicit stories from participants. The purpose of this paper is to explain why we use of story telling in our work. Its relevance to teaching and organisations; illustrate various story telling techniques; tell favourite stories and why we use them; describe exercises for facilitators to introduce participants to story telling and draw conclusions and make recommendations.

Full version including nine stories from different countries is available from Chris Hogan.

Reasons why we use story telling in our teaching and work with organisations

Why tell stories? People like them. They like to tell their own stories and they like to listen to them. But, we don't all have the same levels of skill to tell or listen to them. Story telling is not only a combination of skills, but also an art form. Stories take us back to childhood. The traditional children's stories are related to the world and help them understand life through the adventures of archetypal figures, for example the hero, the martyr, the wanderer etc as described by Pearson (1989).

In organisations and society stories play a dual role, they act as powerful directives for member's behaviour, and they can also teach specific lessons. They are the "glue" that holds the culture of an organisation together. The stories provide a blueprint for "the way we are in this place", how we deal with things here, what is "ok" and "not ok". They articulate the way in which the organisation is special, different from other organisations. These stories are for the most part unconscious. At a conscious level, stories can embed values, articulate vision and give meaning to events.

Affective Domain

Hogan teaches story telling techniques to her Graduate Diploma in Human Resource Development students. Story telling and listening engage everyone in the affective domain. Many learning situations involve participants in cold, analytical, left brain activities. Story telling evokes a different response from participants in workshops when compared to more analytical approaches. For example, in a workshop to facilitate the development of a policy on the handling of violence in a hospital Hogan sought to bring the rationale within the policy to life. She asked the group "Are there any stories you have got of ways in which violence occurred and was dealt with well and not so well?" The results were stories told from the heart with great feeling and emotion for the perpetrators, victims and onlookers. As one story was told people "hooked in" their experiences. When she suggested that we stopped for lunch there was a consensus to continue..."just a bit longer as this is so interesting".

Organisational life and Empowerment

Just as individuals are products of their stories, so are organisations. Maintenance of stories helps to add stability and purpose to departments and organisations. Yet in these days of "turbulence", "restructuring" and "downsizing", stories are lost and/or different stories are told. The major stories circulated at this time are stories of decline, injustice and despair. Many individuals are left alienated, depressed, even ill. Management frequently dismiss or repress these stories, there is no opportunity for them to be told.

Working in organisations, Finlay uses "The Hero's Journey" to enhance the empowerment of others so that they can see their situation in a different way, as an archetypal journey. (Archetypes are deep and abiding patterns in the human psyche that remain powerful and present over time) Joseph Campbell first wrote about the Hero's journey in "The Hero With a Thousand Faces" (1973). He describes the stages of the universal journey and the challenges and dangers that faced the hero at each stage. The hero is the person who "takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost, or to discover some life giver elixir" (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1: Hero's Journey

The stages are:

Working with the journey, Finlay tells the story of "Star Wars", a modern myth, a story most people are familiar with and a wonderful example of the mythical journey. After the story, Finlay invites people to tell personal stories. In describing, for example, the role of Ben Obi Wan Kenobi she asks people to tell a story about the people in their lives who played the role of helpers/mentors. What was the gift they gave? What meaning does this have for the present situation? This questioning is repeated at various stages.

Finlay also uses the story of local/national heroes/heroines such as the late Fred Hollows. The process places individual experience in a larger context, work lives are seen as heroic, each person a hero in their own story. It gives meaning to the changes being experienced and strategies to cope with them.

Exercises in story telling techniques

a. Warm up

This is a non threatening and enjoyable warm up for people for whom the story process is new. Choose a partner and decide who will be the story teller first and who will be the "giver of words". The giver of words asks the storyteller "Tell me a story about.....". The storyteller begins, the other puts words into the story at a reasonable pace. The words can support or challenge the storyline and the storyteller must react and adjust the story accordingly. After 3 minutes, partners change roles and repeat the process.

During the reflection time the facilitator asks "What was most difficult part of the exercise?" "Why?" "Who supported, who challenged?" "How was that?"

b. Retelling

This activity is useful in developing active listening, and a storytelling ability in the participants. Retelling in threes is less threatening for beginners. One person tells a story, the others listen for the content and the feeling. When the story is finished, the two listeners stand, link arms and jointly retell the story. Each of the group tells and retells a story.

In the de-briefing the facilitator asks "What was it like to have your story told?", "What was it like listening to a story knowing that you were going to have to repeat it next?"

c. Surfacing the culture of the organisation

Close your eyes, as you think of your organisation what image arises? Is it an animal, an object, a colour? Draw the image. Find a partner, discuss your image and how it reflects the organisation as you see it.

The facilitator debriefs this exercise by asking individuals to show and explain their drawings. If the participants are from the same organisation, commonalities of images may occur. Perceptual gaps may occur between people from different levels of the organisation. Individuals often want to tell the story behind the image drawn.

d. Creating the myth

Work with the image, the feelings that the image engenders. Decide on the time ie present, past, future. What is the landscape, how does it reflect the mood, feeling? Who are the characters ie the heroes, villains, magicians. Use "story" language. Remember that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end, and that the ends aren't always tidy. Begin with "once upon a time" or something similar.

Conclusions and recommendations

Story telling is an under-estimated, but powerful teaching-learning tool. Story telling techniques can be learnt and practised by anyone. They are free in the monetary sense but more importantly they liberate the mind. Reason and Hawkins (1988) have explored the use of story telling within the context of qualitative research methods and co-operative inquiry. This is an area that the authors believe is well worth pursuing and will do so at a later date.


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Please cite as: Finlay, M. and Hogan, C. (1995). Who will bell the cat? Story telling techniques for people who work with people in organisations. In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p79-83. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/finlay.html

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