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stories: what are they and how to tell them

Over the last two years, storytelling has been something I have been deeply interested in. One of the things that I have found fascinating about stories and how people tell them is the way in which thoughts, feelings and information is shared with anyone who will listen. Stories are essentially about how we communicate emotionally. Not just what happened, but why did it happen, and how do we feel about it. In this way, stories are an immutable component to how we interact with others in that conversations require us to engage with another person. In doing so, we inevitably and unavoidably express how we see and think about the world around us. Through stories, we offer the personal and social fabric of our lives, tacitly implied through our uttered construction of the world.

Appreciating that stories exist and are told between people is fine. But what could this mean for coaching? The phrase ‘storytelling’ is growing in its presence in webinars, podcasts and coaching or management lingo. We’re told that as leaders we should become much more proficient in ‘telling stories’. But what does this mean? What does this look like? If you’re like me, stories in coaching feels like something with a lot of potential, yet detail is the key. For me, the big questions I’m hoping to explore are: what are stories? How do we tell stories (and how should we)? What makes a great story? How can I use a story? Sometimes when talking about storytelling, or similar metaphors for coaching practice, we can lose sight of what this actually means for coaches. The limited suggestions I give – I am definitely not an expert – will hopefully tie storytelling to some context. These have been helped by conversations and insights given by others, and these credits will be listed below for your own further reading.

what are stories? (and what makes a good one?)

The first and most fundamental aspect to what stories are is that they are a journey. In literature and theatre (and obviously other media), stories have been noted to take the form of one of narrative forms:

  1. Overcoming the monster – a protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonist force that threatens home.
  2. Rebirth – an event forces the protagonist to change and become a better person.
  3. Quest – a protagonist sets out to get an object or get to a location, facing many obstacles along the way.
  4. Voyage and Return – a protagonist goes to a strange land and after overcoming the threats it poses or learning an important lesson, they return home with experience.
  5. Rags to Riches – a poor protagonist gains power/wealth/a mate, loses it all and gains it back, growing as a person as a result.
  6. Tragedy – a heroic protagonist with a major flaw which ultimately leads to their eventual undoing.
  7. Comedy – the circumstances the protagonist is in become more and more confusing, but is at last made clear in a single clarifying event; the protagonist triumphs despite adversity.

In each of these, there is an underlying journey; literal, emotional or one in which we see the development of an individual. No matter the context, a story begins at home and either ends back home or elsewhere, but in each case there is change.

In Will Storr’s book, The Science of Storyteling, he outlines a classic five act process for how stories progress. First, stories outline the context: who the protagonist is, where the story will take place, and indicate a critical problem that faces the community of characters in the story. Here, it’s important for anyone who listens to the story to know what the context of the events are to help build a picture of why future events happen. In the opening of a story, we want to know where we are and what the key problems or challenges that are faced by the characters of the story. We can use this to make sense of if we feel the ensuing story is either meeting those objectives or not; and if not, why not.

Another key element to a story is how a problem acts as a catalyst for change. Problems in stories often range in significance, but they are often tethered to the protagonist and are reflective of aspects to a character that need to change in order to grow. A really simplistic example could be a person who faces a problem of planning their best friend’s wedding, who’s asked them to be their best man/maid of honour. The bride and groom have asked them to plan the venue and help organise several key events, including delivering the ring. However, this problem is magnified somewhat by the friend’s ‘loose’, juvenile and reckless lifestyle: organisation and project management is clearly not one of their strengths. But they want to do right by their best friend, who is due to be married soon. Clearly, this problem is centred around the individual’s poor organisation, the gravity of which is amplified by an impending wedding that they have a key stake in. In this way, the problem faced by the protagonist calls for change; to solve their challenges, they will have to change themselves somewhat or their lifestyle, and in so doing they will grow.

Furthermore, in these stories, change is not easy to obtain nor sustain. A protagonist will face obstacles on their journey to change in order to solve a problem. To extend the example above, maybe an elaborate stunt planned for the wedding is no longer possible or goes wrong, or that they must navigate the wife’s group of friends, or that amidst his planning, he has love of his own that is causing him trouble. In these cases, these obstacles are further opportunities to draw a protagonist’s attention to their flawed character, laying the foundations for future change. These build to a turning point. In other words, the obstacles that occur whilst the protagonist seeks to tackle the surface problem (i.e. to plan a wedding) help them see that the real problem is actually somewhat deeper than what they initially thought (i.e. their lifestyle). A turning point, then, is a moment of clarity as a result of facing mounting obstacles while trying to solve a bigger problem.

Finally, a story usually needs a resolution. In short, where have we arrived? Have we solved the problem? Has the protagonist learned anything? Whether resolving the problem or not, those who listen to the story should be able to identify a key message or moral that was a decisive factor in the events. For example, what caused our protagonist to change (or not)? As well as this, what does this mean for our lives? Stories have a unique ability for us to interpret them in relation to ourselves. At the end of our story-listening experience:

“…we may find ourselves wiser, more receptive, more understanding, nurtured, and sometimes healed” (Witherell, 1995, pp. 40-41).

This quality of a story is not to be sniffed at. At the core of the storytelling experience is how we interpret the happenings, events and utterances of the story. In this way, what is in a story is significant to what we take from it…obviously.

However, the point of this is not just that events in stories are important. It’s how they are drawn and arranged together that makes them meaningful. For coaches, this is especially important when beginning to think about the stories we look to tell our athletes. What, other than a structure, do we need to be aware of when planning our stories?

Firstly, resonance. When a story is resonant with its audience, the events, happenings and general emotional or metaphorical journey is identifiable and relatable with what can generally be assumed as qualities of universal human experience. In the example of the wedding planner, it’s not unreasonable to assume that almost everyone has been through a period in life where they have been disorganised or had to learn how to get things together. However, it is important to note that the depth to which a story resonates with its audience is individual-dependent. In the context of the coach, it’s important to know your own audience and your players. Knowing this will help you cater your story content to those that are listening or participating.

Is my story resonant?

  • Do the key events of the story relate to similar events in the lives of your audience? (e.g. does the environment of the story match with your environment?)
  • Is the moral of the story developmentally relevant in your context? (e.g. does the story’s message give insight to where your players or environment could develop?)
  • Is the content engaging or identifiable? (e.g. think about your players: will they identify with the story and the characters?)

Secondly, coherence. The key to any story and message being communicated well is the extent to which it is coherent (for both the storyteller and the story-listener). The coherence of a story is the way in which a story feels purposeful, deliberate and meaningful. Coherence has two component parts: continuity and causality. Continuity is the way in which the arrangement of the events and happenings in the story make sense. For instance, is the order of occurrences in the story meaningful? Is there a clear journey undertaken? Also, causality is the justification for such events occurring in the first place. Causally connected events make sense because the previous event, to some degree, supports future events happening. Understanding why a particular event occurred can be traced backward in the story.

Is my story coherent? Does it make sense?

  • Do the events of the story connect well? (e.g. are there gaps in the story? If so, why?)
  • Is the order of events justified? (e.g. why do the events happen in that order?)

Thirdly, profluence. In talking about how stories progress, John Gardner identified that good stories have a sense of moving forward and of going somewhere. He called this ‘profluence of development’, which, in layman’s terms, refers to the direction and momentum a particular story or journey has. Momentum is an interesting idea that bears fruit when we think about the effect engaging stories have on story-listeners. If you’ve ever found a Netflix series that you’ve religiously binged, or a book that has you hooked, turning page after page, you may have found a story that has momentum. A story that has momentum is one that has significant problems, challenges and events that are weighty enough to push the journey forward. Momentum helps carry the story forward when there are minor sidetracks or bumps in the road. For instance, while we might be willing to learn how the friend handles adversity in organising a wedding, the real momentum of the story is driven by us as readers wanting to know how this will all turn out. The moment we lose that is the moment a story loses momentum. This is helped by the direction of a given story: the present direction (i.e. where are we going?) and a possible future direction (i.e. where can we go?). Having strong direction gives a story-listener an idea of where the story is going, therefore building momentum and engagement in the current events.

Is my story going somewhere?

  • Does the story make it clear where it can go? (e.g. what is the end goal? What is the purpose of this story? Might this change?)
  • Do the events of the story feel like they are going somewhere? (e.g. how is the purpose of the story reinforced through events and happenings?)
  • Does the story have momentum enough to afford some diversions? (e.g. is the story’s purpose potent enough to survive the trials and tribulations that will occur when tackling the problem?)

half-time break: what to think about

Before we look to understand what storytelling looks like, let’s first consolidate what we already know. Use these points as opportunities to reflect on stories that you want to tell in your environment. Feel free to challenge them, or put them into your own context.

  1. A story is a journey to solve a problem or flaw in the protagonist’s world. This problem is intimated by obstacles faced along the way, but when the protagonist finally understands the problem they can begin to resolve it. In doing so, they may need to change but this will help them grow.
  2. Good stories resonate. A challenge for the coach is to cultivate a story that resonates across a wide range of individuals, or caters for each individual.
  3. Good stories are coherent. In short, the events and happenings within a story need to make sense when arranged together, as do they need to justify each other. For instance, X or Y happened because Z happened.
  4. Good stories move forward. Stories that keep its audience engaged have a direction and momentum strong enough to withstand diversions or obstacles.

how are stories told? (and what does that look like?)

Now we have an idea of what stories are, we can begin to look beyond the confines of the narrative and look at the process of storytelling. Stories are living things that are made between the storyteller and the story-listener. Telling a story requires the active participation of someone who will listen and make sense of the story’s emotional content. In this way, stories are socially-constructed. Stories aren’t just events, they are interpretations of events made by the storyteller and the story-listener.

Knowing this, as coaches we have several methods to convey our stories in such a way that they can be interpreted together with our players. We can describe these as ‘narrative artefacts’, or in other words, things we as coaches can put in place to bring the story to life. For example, stories can be interpreted together through shared values. One facet of stories is their ability to communicate something that appears to reach beyond the world of the story and into our own. From a story, there are moments when we can interpret events in relation to our own lives. This is the effect of ‘the moral of the story’. The morals of the stories we listen to give us insight into the espoused values of the narrative as well as our own values. In the coaching context then, we can use the moral of the story to impart emotionally resonant information as to the values we want to embody in our environment. For example, we could use the Avengers’ story as a demonstration of the importance of different characters using their individual skillsets to work together. We could also use the story of Muhammad Ali to demonstrate our attack philosophy. Fundamentally, values can be communicated through the moral of the story for emotive power.

Also, we can lay out certain landmarks in the story to put it into context. This is important to make a story lived rather than just talked about or briefly referenced in a team meeting. Landmarks are key episodes that can be used to compartmentalise certain moments in the team’s season or journey. This can be done by attributing key life or season moments to key moments in the story. For example, using Apollo 11 as the season’s story, take-off can be identified with the first fixture (the preparations before take-off as preseason) and so on. Landmarking critical events in the story with ‘real’ events can help bring these events to life. As well as this, by providing landmarks, the coach can help athletes frame the season as a whole. There is a great story about a baseball coach who, in preseason, laid out 162 baseballs on a table in front of his team. He pointed at the last 40, “These games, these are the games that we need to win.” He pointed back to the initial 122 balls, “These games are for you to work to get into the team that plays in the playoffs. I don’t mind how you play, as long as you’re happy that you’re giving yourself your best shot to get into that team.” In this story, the coach used baseballs to frame the season, give it context and set out some landmarks for the players to make sense of the season. This is proactively landmarking the season, but landmarking can also be done in the moment or reflecting back on events. Either way, laying out landmarks can be useful to make sense of what is happening and why it’s happening.

Other ways that stories can be made to be lived in an environment are through totems and vernacular. Totems are physical objects that represent a particular part of a story. For example, the Crusaders used boxing gloves, signed by every member of the team, to be awarded to a player at the end each game. This ritual, supported and made physical by a totem, helps to tie players’ experiences of the environment to a broader story. In a sense, totems are physical reminders. If totems are the physical objects that are ascribed some story-oriented meaning, then vernacular is the way in which those in the environment can speak meaningfully about those objects. Using team-specific vernacular is an opportunity for a group to rewrite jargon in a way that makes sense for that individual team and their story. For instance, for a team using an Apollo 11 story, space or rocket-inspired language could bring to life and find added meaning for technical and tactical information. Having a vernacular, or a way to speak about a story in relation to real experiences, is important to let a story flourish in an environment. If there isn’t a way to keep talking about the story in your environment, then the story may be starved of oxygen and may not have enough momentum to last through the obstacles of the journey.

I won’t go into much more detail regarding how to construct story-driven values, landmarks, totems or vernacular. David Sharkey provides an excellent first-hand account of how he constructed these with his teams, and has some interesting material that offers many opportunities to think about how coaches can use storytelling (or ‘theming’) in a developmental context. The end of this post will signpost you toward his article. In relation to this blog post, it’s important to appreciate what stories are and some ideas of how they are told to understand how we can use them in our coaching contexts. So, in short, stories are brought to life by:

  • Talking to each other in an environment about a story. Stories are co-created; a story’s meaning and value can’t simply be imposed on a team.
  • Sharing values that are communicated within a story. The values or moral of the story should resonate with the team to help them identify with the struggle within it.
  • Identifying landmarks that either proactively or reactively lay out a story. Either way, landmarks help make sense of events and why they are happening or have happened.
  • Creating rituals around totems that represent an important value or moment in a story. These can be useful to tie actions and behaviours to the story, and make clear the team’s connection to what happens in the story.
  • Speaking a vernacular that is specific and owned by the team. This doesn’t need to be overtly connecting a story to real experiences, but what is important is that a way of talking about the story and what is happening with the team now is co-created between everyone in the team. Everyone has their own way of making sense of things; language can be a useful mediator.

what next?

Stories are a part of how people communicate things, events and experiences to each other. In this way, utilising our storytelling impulse to help others make sense of the world (or game, or match, or season) can be exceptionally rewarding. Below, I’ve highlighted some further resources that provide some useful insight to storytelling between people. These should prove to be useful reflective material around our role as coaches and how we can talk meaningfully about experience in ways that can be heard, understood and interpreted.

  • David Sharkey, “The use of themes in coaching: A framework for coaches”:
  • Herminia Ibarra and Kent Lineback, “What’s your story?”:

  • Frank Rose, “The art of immersion: Why do we tell stories?”:


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