Telling a good story: the importance of narrative in planning

‘Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to tell stories’

Roger C. Schank, cognitive scientist

Think, for a minute or two, about the project plans, strategic plans and programme documents and even the management books you’ve read… What stands out? What creates connections? What are the bits you remember? I bet they’re the case studies, the experiences and the stories. Faiths – and I don’t just mean that in the religious sense – all over the world use story and narrative to explore beliefs and give guidance.

Before reading any further, take a few moments to identify a story that stands out for you. What did it teach you? How did it make you feel to remember it? How did it affect your practice?

The use of story makes a vital contribution to helping create quality plans that have impact in the long term. Stories are the map of human experience – they have chronology, character, scene, and insight. Stories anchor learning. Human beings are storytelling creatures. The well-known 20th anthropologist Laurens Van der Post said, ‘ninety percent of everything we know about being human we have learned through story.‘ We’re the only species that relies as deeply on communication of experience as on actual experience. Foster and encourage the exchange of stories.

In his book Things that make us smart, Don Norman summarises the importance of story:

Stories have the felicitous capacity of capturing exactly those elements that formal decision methods – logic – tries to generalise, to strip the decision making from the specific context, to remove it from subjective emotions. Stories capture the context, capture emotions… Stories are important cognitive events for they encapsulate, into one compact package, information, knowledge, context and emotion.’

That’s why at the beginning of all Appreciative Inquiry conversation protocols, the opening question is ‘tell us of a time or experience when you.……………’

It’s in our DNA

Story telling is part of our human DNA and all human experience is based on the compilation of stories.

In A whole new mind Daniel H. Pink identifies story as a key plank of the needs of the conceptual age, utilising the brain’s right hemisphere with its contribution in providing context, and the bigger picture. Story and narrative plays a big part in that. In the chapter on ‘story’, Pink recounts the development of narrative medicine. How in Bellevue General Hospital – alongside the diagnostic patient information – each patient has a narrative sheet outlining the patients’ story and emotions, as this brings a complete picture, a full context and engages the patient more in the process.

You might suggest that sharing stories is fine for health matters and having a good time sharing with your friends and colleagues, but where does it fit in with quality planning?

Before sharing some of the practical applications of story, consider this example from the World Bank, where Steve Denning has developed and led the creation ‘organisational storytelling’, which aims to make organisations aware of the stories that exist within their walls – and then to use the stories in pursuit of organisational goals. In the development of this approach Denning discovered that he was learning more from trading stories in the cafeteria then reading the bank’s official reports and documents. He realised that ‘an organisation’s knowledge is contained in its stories’ and then pioneered the World Bank in using the stories to contain and convey knowledge. His view that ‘story telling does not replace analytical thinking – it supplements it by enabling us to imagine new perspectives and new worlds…’ shows that abstract analysis is easy to understand when seen through the lens of a well-chosen story.

Another example is Richard Olivier, son of Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright, who through his organisation Mythodrama uses Shakespeare’s plays to help large organisations elicit lessons in leadership and corporate governance. Henry V is used to study leadership. Richard Olivier says ‘logical and analytical abilities alone can no longer guarantee success’ and ‘successful business people must be able to combine the science of accounting and finance with the art of story’. (Adapted from A whole new mind by Daniel H. Pink)

Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human manifestationJoseph Campbell

First, let’s look at the importance of story from the personal perspective, then look at story in individual, group and organisational planning – in particular its contribution to quality planning.

From the personal perspective, virtually all aspects of your life involve listening to or telling stories. It’s how we remember and pass on knowledge; it promotes much of our wellbeing, brings forward happy memories from childhood, about our family members and friends and engages our emotions. Stories involve the whole gamut of our emotions – they make us cry, laugh, think, be creative, make us angry and frustrated and go ‘WOW’.

For an individual starting out in business, a small enterprise reconsidering its business plan or a large organisation using strategic planning or developing a new project, service or product story can help in a variety of ways:

  1. The business start-up can use narrative to identify and promote the passion, knowledge, and drive that supports developing their business idea
  2. As Steve Denning from the World Bank says ‘An organisation’s knowledge is contained in its stories’ . Opportunities for staff and colleagues to share stories about when the organisation was at its best, and to mine the existing company memory can provide the foundations for quality planning
  3. Sharing of stories about commitment, skills, contribution, and ideas can be used as part of the selection of team members for planning teams
  4. Use story telling as a way to develop ideas, models and approaches in the quality planning process
  5. Add stories and case studies to the content of quality planning documents to help explain potentially difficult concepts or to reinforce ideas and actions. This approach will help both foster better understanding and increase connectivity. Consider using different forms of digital media for planning, for example, adding short videos embedded into digital reports
  6. Stories can both add to the qualitative aspects of reports plus providing a counterbalance facts, figures and projections

The organisation development philosophy Appreciative Inquiry is a great methodology for capturing stories and using them to co create and co design organisations and community futures. Appreciating People can provide AI training and AI essentials: a practical guide to Appreciative Inquiry can be purchased from our web site, where you’ll also find case studies/stories that can be downloaded.

We question ourselves through others by way of stories, advice, and gestures; and we receive our answers form listening to others reactions.’

Jeremy Aldana


Tim Slack