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What is your intention?

By Graham Williams and Terrence Gargiulo

Storytelling is used more and more in business.

“Most (stories) are not used as simple entertainment….(but) used in many different ways; to teach, correct errors, lighten, assist transformation, heal wounds, re-create memory.” Clariissa Pinkola Estes

The storytelling movement in business has really taken off. Hundreds of tertiary educational institutions offer programmes with story modules, a growing number of books on the subject are being published, many more businesses want to use storytelling in their internal and external communications. This is good news. After all, our cultures and psyches have built-in mechanisms to relate to stories. Stories are natural. We find meaning in stories, and they fulfil many functions.

But a lot of the focus is on telling to win

In storytelling for business, the emphasis is on:

  • The creation of an organisation’s story for purposes of conveying its history and values in a way that appeals to, and forges an emotional connection with potential recruits, potential clients and other stakeholders - whether or not the espoused values are true .
  • Teaching leaders to tell stories that convince and persuade followers.
  • Teaching employees to use story in order to sell a concept, product or service.
Dave Snowden: “A lot of storytelling practitioners are so wrapped up in the work they do that they believe story is inherently good and fail to realise that it’s the core of propaganda and manipulation of ideas. we see the pattern at a nation-state level and in companies where orthodoxy starts to create a pattern into which everyone has to fit, a dangerous change to attitudes and ideation from where tyranny will always develop.” 1

A recent book for example has the give-away title ‘Tell to Win’, and is endorsed by none other than ex-President Bill Clinton as follows: “…masterfully demonstrates that telling purposeful stories is the best way to persuade, motivate, and convince who you want to do what you need.”

On a much larger scale, ‘astrosurfing’ (which takes propaganda to another level) is an attempt to promote self-interest and orchestrate opinion by attributing the views of a few to a many. The intent is to manipulate, deceive, ‘imitate’ grassroots’ opinion. The term derives from Astro Turf - synthetic carpeting.

As with so many things, intention influences the way we use them – to build up or diminish, to create or destroy. A storytelling – to - win focus carries some potential for misuse - to manipulate others into doing what you want, telling in order to serve self. In short, used in only this way they become tools for the Machiavellian, narcissistic, even sociopathic. (a noose)

It’s time to exercise caution

Of course it is sometimes in order to use storytelling in business to motivate, to persuade, to impress, to trigger a modification of behaviour, feeling or thinking, but we advocate a wider focus and more noble intention.

cautionWe like the idea of a self-regulatory traffic light system for storytellers:

How the system works

Stories themselves are by nature in the neutral zone. However, with wrong intention, tactlessness or deliberate misuse we can end up in the potentially dangerous zone. In this zone we are in danger of trying to impose, being manipulative, self-serving, losing credibility. We rob listeners of their freedom to interpret.

And in the neutral zone, caution is needed. An entertaining story or joke, for example, often is told with the intent and expectation of eliciting a pre-determined response from the listener. Far better to strive to be often in the positive zone, where the stories that are shared belong to both teller and listeners, create synergy. They invite the telling of stories in return; an exchange. They are non-directive. An open, honest, vulnerable, real sharing happens. Dialogue takes place.

“People are best convinced by reasons they themselves discover."

Benjamin Franklin 2

Snowden believes that “this is key to micro-narrative approaches, creating multiple interaction between many people and their stories.”1 When people are glued together by listening and sharing, there is no need to impress, convince. A real emotional connection takes place. Things happen naturally. (a halo).

Snowden points out that “a parable always carries with it ambiguity.” 1

Thus before proceeding we need to ask ourselves:

"A parable never tries to convince you. It takes you unawares, it persuades by tickling you deep inside.” Osho 2
  • What can we do to improve our approach?
  • Can we introduce elements or motives from the positive zone – for example can inspiration and motivation come via the promoting of re-framing, can we sell by bringing understanding, can we convince via the transfer of accurate, authentic purpose, information, knowledge and wisdom?
  • Is our aim or intent to gain or/and to share?
  • Can we move away from ‘journalistic-type’ one-way telling and instead create a space for dialogue, feedback?

This applies to all types of story, fictional or real, and situations. It comes down to maturity, an other-orientation, a clear intent to co-create and build, to “enlarge, enlighten, enliven” 3 and enable. Authentic story sharing creates attention, interest, has impact, and attracts loyal clients and colleagues.

Two stories:


A committed disciple travelled each day to be mentored by his Guru, crossing a stream to get there. One day the rains poured down, the stream flooded and became a river. There was no way of getting across and the disciple sat down in despair, with his head between his hands. A sudden thought struck him: why not invoke the Guru’s power? And so he stood up, chanted “Guru, Guru, Guru………” and walked across the river. The Guru was hugely impressed. When the disciple had left, he went down to the river, chanted “Me, Me, Me…..”, stepped into the river and sank like a stone.

20 years ago, I was entranced by a Maggie Smith performance at the Globe Theatre in London. Lettice, a tour guide, shows people around 16th century Fustian House, one of its features being a Tudor staircase to which the public is denied access. The Fustian family motto is “by a fall I rise”, derived from an incident where the visiting Queen of England trips on the hem of her dress at the first stair at the top of the 15-step staircase and nearly falls, but her escort John Fustian takes hold of her arm and saves the day. Initially her descriptions are straightforward and factual, resulting in disinterest and boredom. So she responds by embellishing the story. The staircase becomes “The Staircase of Advancement!” Now the Queen’s dress has 100 precious pearls sewn in, a gift from a Sultan, and the heaviness of the dress caused her to stumble. Fustian rushes to the rescue, and is given a knighthood for his noble act. Lettice’s story continues to grow as she succeeds in giving her tourists a more interesting and memorable experience. The staircase becomes “indisputedly the most famous staircase in England!” The Virgin Queen of England is garlanded by diamonds gifted by Czar Ivan the Terrible. Now when she trips and is sure to be maimed or killed, John Fustian leaps from the bottom to the top in a single, mighty bound to save her, “catches her in his loyal arms, raises her high above his head, and rose-cheeked with triumph cries up to her: ‘Adored Majesty! Adored and Endored Majesty! Fear not! You are safe!”, much to the enjoyment of the tourists, who applaud loudly. Lettice is found out, and fired for her unethical behaviour.

And what matters most to me after all these years is the unforgettable watchword handed down to Lettice by her mother: “Enlarge! Enliven! Enlighten!” 3 As well as how we get there! Surely these are guiding principles for all corporate storytellers.


  1. An email exchange with Dave Snowden, Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Cognitive-Edge Pte Ltd
  2. Osho The Man who Loved Seagulls St Martin’s Griffin NY 2008
  3. Shaffer, Peter Lettice and Lovage Andre Deutsch, London 1998

Graham WilliamsGraham Williams is an author, coach and certified management consultant who has worked all over the world. He is a thought leader for the Institute of Management Consultants in South Africa. Formal disciplines are psychology, economics and business strategy. Graham is a neuro-linguistic practitioner. You can read more about Graham on his website

Terrence L GarguiloTerrence L. Gargiulo, MMHS of is an eight times author, international speaker, organizational development consultant and group process facilitator specializing in the use of stories. He holds a Master of Management in Human Services from the Florence Heller School, at Brandeis University, and is a recipient of Inc. Magazine's Marketing Master Award, the 2008 HR Leadership Award from the Asia Pacific HRM Congress, and is a member of Brandeis University’s athletic Hall of Fame. He has appeared on Fox TV, CN8, and on CNN radio among others. Terrences website is

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