Summary of the Storytelling panel at WCF Davos

On March 9, Katja Schleicher, Kirk Cheyfitz, Shawn Callahan and myself were invited to a debate on Storytelling at the World Communication Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The panel was brilliantly moderated by Guntram Kaiser, CEO of KaiserCommunication. It was designed as an interactive debate with the audience. This post is a summary of what was asked, and what was answered during the hour we were on stage. 


ExpectationsFor starters, and after welcoming everyone to the session, Guntram had collected all available flip charts in the building and recruited enough volunteers to make sure the entire discussion would be duly recorded. He asked the public “Why are you still here?” as an invitation to say out loud what their expectations were and had them written down so as to make sure they would all be met.

Some of those expectations were:

  • How to excite others with our stories.
  • How to tell contagious stories.
  • How to make a story “sharp”.
  • To get convinced that storytelling is not just a buzz word.


Instead of having the moderator reading their resumés, this panel decided to hand out a personalised postcard to members of the audience. introduce each other in a rather unorthodox way.

WCF Davos Postcard

Kirk Cheyfitz kicked off by introducing Katja Schleicher, whom he had just met the night before. He said that Katja, “…in her life and her work is both a story practitioner and a storyteller who believes passionately in the power of storytelling to persuade, to convey and to convert. She loves Hollywood and is a huge fan of Marlene Dietrich. She reminds me of the fact that every aspect of our lives involves drama.”

Then Katja presented  Shawn Callahan as a colleague from the other end of the world who was “…not into Hollywood at all! His company is called Anecdote, not story, and that is a meaningful choice. Shawn, instead of working with drama, offers a very easy and effective process to follow for clients who want to use storytelling in business.”

Shawn presented Eva as “…someone who similarly to myself, bases her work on real life experiences and is completely in love with storytelling.” He highlighted her bubbling personality and typically Dutch forthrightness, adding that he expected her to be very direct in her answers to some of the questions.

Eva Snijders said about Kirk that “…if you would ask him, he would describe himself as a writer at heart”, but that to her, he was one of the biggest and kindest liars she had ever met. She rapidly continued to explain that storytellers are often referred to as liars and that she highly admires Kirk’s craftsmanship in terms of Story shaping. “He sits at home, she said, does a lot of research and then works tremendously hard to produce the best story possible”.

After these introductions, Katja added that these were already a tool for the attendees to take away: by talking about somebody else and choosing new and very specific words to describe them, they could start connecting in a different way, having their audience sit at the edge of their chairs.

– Questions and answers –

Storytelling Panel WCF Davos 2015

GK: What is a good story? 

SC: When you can actually see a story in your mind’s eye, it’s a good story. An easy way to achieve this, is to picture a specific moment, like “my first day at work” and then ask yourself “what happened”?

KC: No matter whether we’re talking fiction or non fiction, there has to be a truth to a story, a universal Truth that gets to the audience. This is what makes it credible and attractive. The purpose of story is not to please the teller, it is to connect to the universe and to each other.

KS: There has to be a connection between you and the story, it has to mean something to you. But, beware! As soon as you share a story, your audience can hold you responsible. You will be sharing a part of yourself and in doing so, you will be vulnerable.

ES: We experience the world through our senses. Being alive means that we see, hear, smell, taste, feel the world around us. When we share a story, we actually guide the other person to experience what we experienced at a given time. That is the beauty of stories: they help us emphathize with someone else by feeling what they were feeling at a given moment. (A picture alone is not enough to achieve that.)

ES: Katja and I are good friends, but we do not agree on Hollywood movies. Personally, I do not like the fact that we are being told that all storytelling has to follow the Hollywood standard. So if you ask me, what makes a good story, I would say it’s the capacity to stay with you. There is a huge difference between the impact you receive in the cinema, and the film you remember for weeks and months to come.

SC: I was coaching a Senior Executive for a Pharmaceutical company in Singapore. She had to go to Germany to pitch the success of her project. I was tryingg to get her to tell me when the turnaround happened. Suddenly, she stopped herself and said: “I got it. It was the day the president came visiting from Germany”. When she had said that, her eyes stared glowing. I could see that she was reliving the experience. Mary Angelou said: “you remember what you feel”. It is emotion that inspires action.

KS: Exactly. Exactly, the five senses! Try and recall if there was any music when X happened. And do so with all the senses.

KC: We used to remind ourselves at our agency that no one buys anything for a reason. You can throw facts at people for ages, they will not engage with numbers, you have to evoke emotion.

ES: To go back to that one question, “How to tell contagious stories”, I ask my clients what inspires them . It’s very hard to start with “I want to make my audience cry”. Instead, ask yourself, “What makes me happy, or sad?” Your stories will become more contagious when they’re closer to yourself.

Q: Eva, you said a good story is one that stays with you. In today’s world, there are so many stories being told, how can we make sure my story is the one that stays with my audience (and they don’t just pass on to the next one)?

ES: First of all, we need to get rid of the idea that we need to create more impact. There are so many impacts per second, we just can’t compete.

But instead of answering your question, let me tell you a little anecdote. A few months ago, I met with an acquaintance whom I hadn’t seen in ten years. We made an appointment at a juice bar in the centre of Barcelona at half past eight. To catch up, we talked about the usual; jobs, family life, common friends. Then he asked me to please tell him more about “this storytelling thing” (the last time we had met, I was still working in PR). So I told him about my work and we exchanged thoughts about communication and how the business had changed over these past years. We also mentioned what you just said, that there is so much noise today, that it becomes increasingly hard to be heard and remembered. And I explained how people crave stories, just like we crave oxygen, food, and attention. My friend objected: “But, Eva, people don’t have time for that!” My answer was: “Could you please look at your watch?”. He did. It was half past eleven. We had sat there for three full hours, with just one glass of juice and our stories.

I believe that answers your question?

SC: We’ve been telling stories for thousands of years. They’ve proven very successful. And there’s a hierarchy in stories, based on biological factors, and this is cross-cultural. First there’s the stories that have to do with death. These stories spread wildly. Second, there’s the ones that have to do with the state of our children. Anything that happens to a kid, gets to the top of the news cycle. [To the audience] What do you think the third one is? [Someone answers: “Sex”. Shawn: That is actually the fourth, and in my experience, it’s very hard to work into business storytelling.] The third category, in fact, is power. It comes in may different flavours: you can have power through money, celebrity, beauty… People who have power can affect us, significantly. Leaders, as people who have this power, need to be aware not only of the stories they tell, but also of the ones that are being told about them.

KS: Power may be defined differently across cultures. But remember that when you, as a leader, tell stories, you empower others to tell theirs. It doesn’t matter whether it is a 140 character tweet, a keynote, or a speech to your employees; what you say, empowers your audience. And sex may be a difficult topic, but it’s one that speaks of first times; a question like “How did you meet your wife?” or “When did you first fall in love?” immediately triggers a specific experience.

ES: Stuart Bruce posed a question on Twitter earlier, are we allowed to answer that?

Eva at WCF Davos

Q: The problem I have with stories is that sometimes I can remember the story, but not the purpose, or the teller. What does that mean?

ES: One thing is my purpose or intention as a teller, one completely different thing is what you extract from it. Whatever the story means to you, is ok. And as far as authors are concerned, sometimes it is important to know who wrote a story, but the story is more important than the teller. Many of our colleagues who are performing storytellers, tell stories that are centuries old, and the authors are unknown.

KC: Let’s go back to those fifty thousand years for a second, because we all remember the cave paintings of the buffalos in the South of France. There is an anthropologist who reckons these were the first religious pictures, they were stories surfacing from the spirit world that created power for the teller. These images drew people’s attention to that spirit world and told them that this guy who painted them, was connected to it. It is inherent in our culture to be drawn in by imagination.

Q: If the recipient doesn’t get what I intended, has my communication failed?

ES: Storytelling is like dancing, a dance between my intention and your comprehension. I cannot control what you understand, only influence it.

KS: If we use all five senses, we can influence it. We can’t however, and shouldn’t try to control the narrative.

SC: There are a few things you can do. First of all, test your stories, ask a focus group what they get out of them and you will see patterns emerge. Second, never use the “s” word, don’t say “I’ll tell you a story”. Third, preface your stories with a point, start with “Small things can make a big difference. Three weeks ago…” People will get that and look for the evidence. Frame the story, but never tell your audience what the meaning is once you’ve finished, because you’re taking away their control on finding the sense.

KS: Storytelling is only the very last part of the process. This is why you need to develop your stories, digging deep into yourself, your organisation. Then, you find the right words, the ones that trigger the kind of response you are looking for and you test the stories. Once you’ve told them, the best thing that can happen is for people to retell your stories. If so, you will have created evangelists for your brand or your company.

KC: I disagree with Eva. The first question you need to answer is what you are trying to accomplish and whom you are trying to accomplish it with. The most deadly thing you can do is to tell a story that is fit for one audience to another one that doesn’t care. Great storytellers worry about their audience and what they will embrace.

Q: This panel has great energy! How do you reckon your body language and energy level helps telling a story?

First of all, storytelling is about interaction, so we energise each other. Then, it helps a lot when you talk about something you are truly passionate about. When Luis Ramos told the Thyssen-Krupp story earlier today, I felt like I wanted to join that company! That was a passionate delivery. It has to do with the truth I mentioned earlier, you cannot tell a story about stuff you don’t care about.

ES: Like Shawn said earlier, and I think we should all tweet this, “stories are not about words”. Stories are about the desire to connect with other human beings. And what you’re noticing is probably just our happiness to be sitting here, answering all your questions.

KC: The term Social Media is a junk term, what media isn’t social? What media isn’t meant to connect society and build a community?

KS: What we’re doing here, is social media. To add to what Kirk just said, that we need passion and words, we also need the “something bigger”, “the one thing that is different” and then find the right words to express that. Luis’s speech was not about elevators, it was about connection, mobility and eventually, about making the world a better place. Now, that is something we all hear!

The best thing for a story is to express extraordinary things with ordinary words. Normally, we do the opposite.

Q: Why is it we tend to talk about the negative? Why is it so hard to create and spread a positive narrative?

SC: Storytelling is not the whole thing. There are a few things we haven’t touched upon yet. The first one is Story listening; the capability to listen to other people’s stories. This is incredibly powerful to engage people. The other one, and I don’t hear anyone mentioning this, is Story triggering; it consists of doing something remarkable, something to talk about. I will give you an example:

The new CEO of the Bank of Australia, on his first day at the job, while doing a tour of the head quarters, noticed that on each floor, there was one empty meeting room. When having a closer look, he saw that on each door, there was a sign that read: “this room can only be booked by a General Manager”. He went from floor to floor and ripped all the signs.

How quickly do you think that story spread? Like wildfire! People watch what their leaders do. So if you want to create a new narrative, the best thing you can do, is behave in line with it and do something “news worthy”.

KC: News is about the unusual. If an employee would have done the same, it would have been revolutionary, a completely different story.

Journalism offers us a lot of insight on how to look at the stories in our organisation. Story listening is what good reporters do; they listen closely, hear new questions, write things down as accurately as possible to reflect not only the message, but also the tone. A good story has a beginning, a middle and a satisfying end. Stories are all around us, we just need to learn to see them.

What makes a good storyQ: I believe that a good story should have some truth in it. Furthermore, it should have a message behind the message. These two aspects are critical. What do you think?

ES: When we mentioned truth earlier, we didn’t mean “the one and only truth” like politicians and judges would use the word. Whereas we are all individuals with our own points of view, there are truths that are bigger than us. If I would say: “It is a good thing to have a friend.” or: “It is good to be loved.” I don’t think any of you would not agree with that.

ES: As for the message, I think good stories don’t have one or two messages, they have many different things you can take away from them. Good stories have layers, they are rich.

SC: An Australian Storyteller says “Stories are people, plus place, plus trouble”. Working with the idea of trouble is always going to be a challenge in an organisation. We prefer to make everything rose coloured and perfect. Stories have shapes, they go up and down, if we take all the edges out, we end up with boring, dead stories.

KC: And I think, organisations primarily do that because they are thinking too much about themselves. As a reporter, I spent my life ducking away from PR people, because they would always start a conversation with “Boy, do I have a story for you!” and it was never true.

KS: Never tell a journalist a story, it’s his job to find it. Yo can offer a few interesting, stunning points, but let him do what he does best.

Q: Storytelling has been around for so long and it has meant so much for human existence and society. So maybe we should turn the question around and ask ourselves what can corporate life do for Storytelling? 

ES: I’ll give you a short answer. Politicians, corporations, they are all part of the human race and of society, but they seem to have forgotten. So the best thing they can do, is remember who they are.

KS: You are all in communications, please, try it out and start it.

Q: Is a story that inspires a human being a good story? 

KC: Depends on what it inspires him to do. Someone earlier mentioned religious storytelling inspiring humanity. Now, of course, religious storytelling has caused more trouble in the world than other types. Stories aren’t neither good, nor bad, but they are very transactional: you will know a good one, when you see it.

What we are trying to stretch, is that a brand’s best interests are only served when their audience’s best interests are. That means what you do has to be sustainable and in the best interest of the human race. We all work under strict ethics, if not, we’d branch into propaganda.

SC: Another thing to consider is that we all assume we know what stories are. Many of the CEO’s I work with will tell me they already are Storytellers. When I invite them to tell their stories, they start with “Our Company focusses on three key areas…” and go on for several minutes. Stories are very specific things, and here’s a giveaway: if someones starts with a time marker like “last week” or “in 1991”, you will likely hear a story. If, however, they start with “I feel that” or “therefore”, you will hear opinion. With that in mind, see if you can become a Story spotter.

ES: In a written text, if there’s bullet points, it’s not a story.

Q: I find storytelling in internal communication challenging. Do you have any tips? 

SC: First thing is to keep it oral, even if you use video. Written language is different from oral language. You can repeat yourself a lot when you speak, not when you write.

Apple has a great story process. Every morning, before they start work, the manager will say something like “Gary, you got a 10/10 yesterday” (people will applaud), “Do you remember the client who bought that iMac? What happened?” And then, Gary tells the story.

There is no posters of how customer service is done, only stories about it.

So my tip “make sure your stories flow throughout the organisation”.

KS: Create the appropriate emotional environment, make people feel secure and safe.

KC: Take into account that today, there is precious little difference between internal and external communications.

ES: In one sentence: reserve time and space to share stories.

Katja, Kirk, Shawn and Eva