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Teaching management by telling stories.


"He (Jesus) did not say anything to them without using a parable." Mark: 4:34

Storytelling is one of the world's most powerful tools for achieving results (Guber, 2007). It is particularly appropriate for all students of business as Pheffer and Sutton (2006a) stated "when used correctly, stories and cases are powerful tools for building management knowledge" (p. 67). Yet, far too few business professors use this learning tool to its fullest potential. Part of the problem may be due to the profession being dominated by left-brain thinkers. A larger part of the reluctance may have to do with the image that the moniker of storytelling conjures up. For many, it's a mental picture of kindergarten teachers with their children gathered around them on the floor and then reading the words and showing pictures from a book. But, you know what? It works! It works for people of all ages, not just small children. One doesn't' have to be trained in drama, go overboard with theatrics, show pictures, or dress in character. One simply needs to relay a story to the other person. Stories suck us in as children and as adults. Story telling plays an important role in the learning process.

In today's university technology-laced teaching environment, professors are sometimes guilty of overlooking the most obvious and effective teaching tool of all. Even in my relatively short span as a management professor (30+ years), I have seen classrooms go from chalk and blackboard, to one filled with so many electronic gadgets, instructors are confused which ones go to which ones. Professors act like Nintendo players moving around with all the electronics. In today's technology-laced teaching environment, the merits of blogging, vlogging, moodleing, podcasting, wikiing, and tweeting (whatever those are) are touted as the instructors' tools of tomorrow.

It is safe to assume that all professors have wondered on occasion "just how much are my students taking in?" Maybe even more importantly, is the question of "how much are they retaining?" I have to admit that for many years at the start of my career, I thought my teaching role consisted primarily of transferring facts, explaining concepts, or developing technical skills. Throughout my career, in all my courses, I did try to incorporate appropriate examples. Then several years ago, my students began writing comments on class evaluations like the following:

* "he can relate the course really well with different real-life stories"

* "good story teller"

* "excellent lecturers, the best I've had, very interesting and it was like story time!"

* "he has many stories and examples that pertain to the curriculum"

* "like the way he applies the chapters to real life stories"

* "stories and examples reinforced the material"

Now, I will be the first to admit that not all my student reviews are that complimentary, but it did open my eyes to the impact that my stories were having on students and their learning. I will also admit that some classes are more attuned to storytelling than others. I teach organizational behavior, business strategy, and business ethics, all of which are, or can be, filled with stories. But whatever the class, there are opportunities to use stories as a teaching tool.

It is one thing to acknowledge from a common sense approach that storytelling is a powerful communication tool, but it is a lot more convincing when there is research evidence to back it up (Pfeffer & Sutton, 2006b). Osborn and Ehninger (1962) found that in storytelling the listener is not a passive receiver of information but is triggered into a state of active thinking. The listener must consider the meaning of the story and try to make sense of it.

Kouzes and Posner (2002) found that storytelling results in the listener being more engaged; their attention and interest are fostered. Borgida and Nisbett (1977), Zembe (1990), Wilkens (1983), and Conger (1991) all found that information is more quickly and accurately remembered when it is first presented in the form of an example or story, particularly one that is intrinsically appealing.

Martin and Power's (1982) study compared the effectiveness of four different methods to persuade a group of M.B.A. students of an unlikely hypothesis, namely, that a company really practiced a policy of avoiding layoffs. In one method, there was just a story. In the second, the researchers provided statistical data. In the third, they used statistical data and a story. In the fourth, they offered the policy statement made by a senior company executive. The most effective method of all turned out to be the first alternative, presenting the story alone.


Stories paint pictures in students' minds. Doug Lipman (1999) refers to this as "the transfer of imagery". An advantage that radio had over television was that the stories heard over radio forced one to create mental images to coincide with what they were hearing orally. Think back to the teachers that you remember the most. The ones that had the most impact on your learning. Odds were that they were great storytellers. One of my most remembered teachers was a sixth-grade history teacher. His stories of traveling around the world would immediately capture students' interest with the mere intro of "let me tell you a story". They later named a new high school after him, imagine a sixth-grade history teacher!

Not only do stories create pictures in one's mind, these stories stick in the mind. How many remember the "three pigs' story?" Now, how many remember anything from that nonparametric statistics class? What do you overhear students talking about outside of class concerning what went on in the classroom? Odds are, it's not the numbers or the bullets from some PowerPoint presentation, but the retelling or the rehashing of the stories that the instructor shared in class.

Even in classes or lessons that deal in abstraction, formulas, statistics, etc., stories can be an effective tool there also. Stories have the power to communicate the abstract. Neurologists say that our brains are programmed much more for stories than for abstract ideas. Tales with a little drama are remembered far longer than any slide crammed with analytics. Gary Klein (1998) believes that "we value stories because they are like reports of research projects, only easier to understand and use."

Storytelling is more powerful than any pure logical argument. As Ms. Simmons (2000) writes, influencing people through scientific analysis is a "push" strategy. It requires the speaker to convince the listener through cold, hard facts. That sets up an antagonistic conversation. Storytelling is a "pull" strategy, coaxing listeners--disarming them, even--into imagining outcomes toward which facts would not lead.

Telling stories makes the job of any professor easier. One does not have to remember abstractions, bullets on a PowerPoint, or some list on a crib sheet; one just has to have a short compilation of pictures or images in their mind to make a great lecture work. Conditioning students to expect stories in your class tends to keep their interest level up and that's particularly important in those extended hours classes. Professors need to make what is important interesting.

If you don't have a story to tell, one that evokes mental pictures, people on the receiving end tend to forget the message. President Calvin Coolidge, admittedly, a man known to be one of few words and who also refused to use the telephone while in the White House, when asked by his wife who stayed home that Sunday, "What did the preacher talk about in church today?", simply replied "Sin". I would venture a guess that the Preacher dealt in abstractions that Sunday and failed to tell a story.


Stories told by management professors should make a point. There should be a lesson to be learned. If the story conjures up a mental image, there is a very good chance that the student will remember the lesson. Because the mental picture is in the professor's mind also, it makes it immensely easier for the professor to remember the lesson they are trying to convey.

Sometimes just one picture is all it takes. Just picture a CEO in front of a large group of his/her employees smashing an egg on his/her forehead. The picture is vivid and the lesson is obvious. Another picture image is that of the gravestone in a cemetery--zero in on the dash between the born and death dates. The lesson here is that what is important lies in the in-between. There are many places where this could be used as an analogy.

Ross Perot's snake story is easy to remember and easy to tell. "At GM, if you see a snake, the first thing you do is go hire a consultant on snakes. Then you get a committee on snakes, and then you discuss it for a couple of years. You figure the snake hasn't bit anybody yet, so you just let him crawl around on the factory floor. We need to build an environment where the first guy who sees the snake kills it" (Moore, 1988: 48). There are literally hundreds of excellent leadership stories--just picture Herb Kelleher of Southwest Air pitching bags of luggage in the airport on Thanksgiving Day and you've got another apt example (Freiberg 1998: 283).

There are an infinite number of good sports stories that easily transpose into management lessons. Bear Bryant (1974) and his "faith of the mustard seed" speech (borrowed from the bible) to his football team on Friday midnight before Saturday's game can illustrate the mysteries of motivation. Lou Holtz's (1998) story of setting goals early in his career during a depressing time in his life after reading The Magic of Thinking Big can illustrate the validity of the power of goal setting. I used to keep folders containing material collected over time on each management topic discussed in my classes. Today, I keep folders containing stories concerning management topics.


The sources of stories that can be used in management classes are almost as infinite as the number of possible stories. A short list of possible sources would include movies, television, sports, magazines, novels, biographies, history, military, seminars, peers, and people in general. Everybody has a story, make that plural: stories. Just listen in on any conversation taking place between individuals. They are telling stories. It is OK to borrow, just be sure to give appropriate credit for your source. Most of the ones I use are second or third hand stories.

Professor Leigh Hafrey (2005) uses films like The Apostle and Crouching Tiger to create an entire seminar. Oftentimes, it is the attendees' task to find the management lessons contained in the film and generate their own stories from them. I have liberally used films, or just specific scenes, to reinforce management principles. Films like: Lonesome Dove, O Brother Where Art Thou, Hoosiers, Gung Ho, and Network are just a few I have used. Television shows are replete with appropriate examples. Some of the ones I have used over the years are: Homicide, Hill Street Blues, Boston Legal, and yes, although difficult to admit, My Name is Earl.

Presidents and politicians, both past and present, provide numerous examples for leadership, power, politics, committees, and decision-making stories. A three hour credit semester class could be devoted exclusively to the recent (2008) Frontline two-part series entitled Bush's War. It is an extensive, fairly unbiased look at the events and people surrounding the Iraq conflict. There are multiple stories (with their ensuing lessons to be learned) concerning decision-making, leadership, followership, group dynamics, power and politics, delegation, and the list goes on.

One must be remindful of any potential age differences that might exist between professors and most of their students. Some stories are classic, meaning they are timeless. Others become dated and/or of little relevance to the students. Even some of the classic John Kennedy ("I want to hear what you think, and not what you think I want to hear") stories are somewhat dated for today's generation of students. Your task as a collector of stories is to be constantly on the outlook for newer, more interesting ones.

The number of business-related books on the shelves of retailers today is astonishing. It is next to impossible for a management professor to stay current in his or her readings. The literary success of people like Tom Peters and Ken Blanchard are testaments to the popularity of good stories and storytellers. I don't know how many times over the past years I have used stories from books like: In Search of Excellence, Good To Great, Defining Moments, and A Whack On the Side of the Head. Some of my current favorites include: Where Have All the Leaders Gone?, The 33 Strategies of War, The Tipping Point, and The Carrot Principle.

I have many times more stories than I can use in my management classes, but my objective is to continually be on the lookout for even better ones. I would suggest that as you are exposed to the continually increasing number of stories out there, to always be thinking: "could I use that story in one of my lectures?"


This section is by no means a comprehensive lesson plan on how to tell stories, but merely presents a few personal observations on how to become a better storyteller. The literature concerning storytelling is endless. Type storytelling on the internet and see how many hits you get. There are some very good books one can read to improve their storytelling skills. Two of my favorites are The Leader's Guide To Storytelling, and Improving your Storytelling. One could even improve their skills academically by getting a Master's in Storytelling from East Tennessee State University.

From my experience, what does it take for stories to work in class? They have to be easily understood, and told from a personal perspective. They need to be plausible. Recent is better, but old can work too. Students need to be able to get the point. Sometimes a little extra help here is needed to assure that the lesson is learned. The maturity level of your students, combined with their work experience would make a difference in how explicit you have to be in getting the lesson to be learned across.

Good stories need to be some combination of the following: salient, succinct, funny, emotional, moving, cleaver, true, short, current, or personal. The storyteller should feel comfortable telling the story, and reasonably sure that the audience will be likewise. Keep in mind that you are trying to convey the mental image you have in your mind to your students.

The best stories need to stand the test of trial and error and time. Not every story is going to work. Not every joke Jay Leno tells is funny. Like in baseball, sometimes you hit a home run, sometimes it's a triple, double, or single; and sometimes you strike out.

Now, some might be hesitant to tell stories out of the mistaken belief that they are not capable of becoming a competent storyteller. I share a personality trait with Denning (a leading advocate of storytelling in business), that of being a taciturn person. I just don't talk a lot outside of class. My wife frequently says things to me like: "you never talk, I know you do in class, why don't you to talk to me?" And, I have to be honest with you here, it's not just her I don't talk much too, it's just that I am not a big talker. However, a classroom provides a different environment. Professors are expected to talk and your stories will get better the more you tell them. It is only through practice, like everything else, that you get better. Your delivery, timing, emphasis, volume, and overall storytelling skills will improve over time. Good faculty should be continuously honing their speaking skills.

One of the great things about telling stories in classes is that you don't need props. In fact, props may detract from the learning experience. There is no need for elaborate setups, time consuming PowerPoint presentations, or dealing with technical failures. How many times have you had a technical malfunction in your classroom? The bane of many a presentation has to be the unadulterated overuse of PowerPoint. Rich Karlgaard (2007), publisher of Forbes magazine, advises avoiding PowerPoint and telling stories instead.

So, just stand up and tell your stories. Be yourself. Be comfortable in your own style of presentation, you don't have to be a cookie cut of the same mold that every Toastmaster's class would have you be. A word of caution, don't overly depend on stories to accomplish your job as a professor in class. Don't string together multiple stories--one after the other. Also, don't be guilty of telling too many personal stories, especially those that have no relevance to the subject matter at hand.


Most would agree that effective communication is the key to success in the world of business. While story crafting and telling are skills worth learning by all, it may be critical for leaders of others. Think of some of the great leaders throughout history. Most were invariably great communicators: Presidents Lincoln and Reagan; Churchill, King, McArthur, and Hannibal to name a few. Jesus used stories and parables to make his messages more powerful and lasting. Leaders have to have the ability to persuade and stories have the capacity to do just that.

Maybe business programs should include a class on the art of storytelling--after all they are producing the leaders of the future. Being able to tell the right story, at the right time, in an effective manner, would seem to be an essential leadership skill. Nike is but one of many companies that utilize several senior executives who spend much of their time serving as corporate storytellers. They do this in an attempt to gain both employee and customer buy-in (Ransdell, 2000). It is sometimes hard to convince novice students, seasoned executives, and some management PhD's of the importance of those "soft" skills that are so desperately needed by leaders.


Some might say that this advocacy for storytelling in management classes is either too simple, too obvious, or too mundane, or all three. But I agree with Pfeffer and Sutton (2006a) that one of the lessons both they and I have learned over the years is that being effective managers (or professors) often entails being the master of the mundane or simple.

Hopefully there will be a rebirth of storytelling in business classes as a primary teaching tool. This ancient tradition of narrative is not just another management or teaching fad. It pervades every culture and will continue to serve as the chief communication tool. Everyone loves a story. It was Elie Wiesel (1966) that commented, "God made man because he loves stories!" The noted management professor, Dr. Warren Bennis commented, "Man cannot live without stories any more than he can live without bread!" Management professors shouldn't overlook the impact that stories can have in conveying their messages. Now, "Once upon a time--".


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James Harbin, Texas A&M University--Texarkana

Patricia Humphrey, Texas A&M University--Texarkana
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Author:Harbin, James; Humphrey, Patricia
Publication:Academy of Educational Leadership Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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