Story Telling, Anecdotes and Conversations

The Boyhood of Raleigh by Sir John Everett Millais, oil on canvas, 1870. A seafarer tells the young Sir Walter Raleigh and his brother the story of what happened out at sea.

On my mind this morning are a couple of blog posts that seem to fit nicely together. Interesting reads, and there is even a test at the end! I’d encourage you to take a look at both of these, and then, if you’re feeling brave – take on the really nifty storytelling “test” that the folks at Anecdote have put together. (I’m pleased to say that I scored a 10 for 10!).

Let’s start with a Nancy Dixon post over at conversation matters titled, “Conversations That Share Tacit Knowledge” in which she discusses probably one of the key points about sharing tacit knowledge. Nancy suggests that “Tacit knowledge needs to be shared through conversation.”

Arnold Lakhovsky, The Conversation

Which I completely agree with. Sort of. But that probably has more to do with how you would define a conversation.

A Wikipedia definition of conversation is that it is “interactive, more-or-less spontaneous, communication between two or more conversants.” And that this “Interactivity occurs because contributions to a conversation are response reactions to what has previously been said.” Now where I think that it gets interesting is in understanding what exactly is considered to be “communications.”

So what is communications?

A simple definition of communications might be, “Communication is the activity of conveying meaningful information.” Where I think that it gets interesting though is in understanding that human communications can typically be classified as being of one of the following types:

  • Oral which refers to spoken verbal communications including discussion, speeches, presentations, interpersonal communications, etc.
  • Nonverbal which is the process of conveying meaning in the form of non-word messages which includes gestures, body language, posture, facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, object communications, etc.
  • Visual which conveys ideas or information through visual representations including signs, drawings, graphic designs, illustrations, video, television, etc.

Perhaps you’re already connecting the dots on where I’m going with this.

While I somewhat agree with Nancy’s statement…I think that it might be limited in perspective.

Nancy states that:

“Our tacit knowledge is drawn from our experience as well as our years of study and is stored in bits and pieces in our brain, that is, it is not stored as answers or explanations but as fragments. What we call “tacit knowledge” is the human ability to draw on those fragments to construct a response to a new problem or question.”

Again, no problem with that statement.  But where I think that I’m getting hung-up is that Nancy’s opinion that “Tacit knowledge needs to be shared through conversation” was in fact based upon her response to the question, “What’s the most effective way for people to share their tacit knowledge?”

I’d like to suggest that the “most effective” way to do whatever, is going to be at least in part based upon the situation at hand.  At the very least, it might well be that the “conversation” has to include other aspects or elements of communications (i.e., the other “types” of communications).  And then there is the whole issue of whether or not a conversation is a conversation only when it is spontaneous….and how does that then color the world of “other” kinds (see below) of conversations?  Or how about mentoring as an example – where you may or may not have “conversation” per se, and instead it could involve a lot time spent by the person being mentored simply watching to see what the mentor does and then asking/being told why.

So I can’t completely agree with Nancy’s conjecture that “our most effective knowledge sharing tool is conversation.”  Effectiveness is situational, depending upon the opportunities available and desired results.

Having said that, perhaps my main point here (so far at least) is that Nancy’s statement should perhaps be rewritten to say that, “Communicating is an effective way for people to share their tacit knowledge.”  And then we could agree that a conversation is one effective way to communicate.

Which brings me to the second half of this post – other effective ways to communicate that result in sharing of tacit knowledge.  Such as “storytelling.”  And “anecdotes.”

Storytelling is conveying of events in “words, images and sounds, often by improvisation or embellishment.”  And “crucial elements of stories and storytelling include plot, characters and narrative point of view.”


An anecdote is a “short and amusing or interesting story about a real incident or person” and an “anecdote is always presented as based on a real incident involving actual persons, whether famous or not, usually in an identifiable place.”

So as I understand it, although stories and anecdotes are similar, there is that subtle distinction that allows for a “tall tale” story, rather than an anecdote that has that “ring of truthfulness” to it. (I’ve also asked one of the guru’s of anecdotes, Shawn Callahan, to weigh in on this so perhaps he’ll have another or additional perspective.)

And so with that, I’d like to point out a very interesting post by Shawn Callahan about storytelling, or rather a failure to tell a story! If you watch the linked video I’m certain that you will agree with Shawn that it wasn’t a story at all (actually was nothing more than sort of an advertisement or perhaps short infomercial).

But the real knowledge nugget of Shawn’s post is the autopsy of the “story” in which he describes exactly why it wasn’t a story, and he also presents what makes for a story. And in reading Shawn’s “post-mortem” it is pretty easy to understand that storytelling is a nifty way to transfer tacit knowledge.

And that’s where you can have some fun and at the same time test your own story-telling recognition prowess in the form of a “storytest” that the folks at Anecdote have made available. So give that a whirl and see if you have the skills necessary to be able to “spot a story.” I’m pleased to say that I scored a 10 out of 10! [Oh, by the way -- Shawn has built in a way to be able to Tweet and Facebook your how about sharing yours here and there!]

And once done with that, follow the link provided to read Shawn’s analysis of why or why they were not stories for each of the ten examples. I won’t give that link away as it would make it easy as Shawn describes it, to “cheat” on the answers, but one gem from the results post is worth culling out – four features to look out for to spot a story:

  1. Time marker: stories often start with a time marker such as “In 1991 …” “Just the other day” “Last Tuesday …” “When we last spoke to the CEO …” The archetypal time marker is, of course, “Once upon a time” but I find this opening less common in a business context.
  2. Place marker: sometimes a story will start with a place marker such as “We were outside Jim’s office …” “At basketball …” “On our way to the client …”
  3. Characters: stories feature people (or other people-like entities such as Thomas the Tank Engine) doing things. They have names, speak and take action.
  4. Events: stories have one or more events. These events might be moments in time or scale up to eons.

So where does this leave us in this post?

I agree with Nancy, but think that there is more to it than just saying that tacit knowledge needs to be shared through conversation as the most effective way to share tacit knowledge. There are many other ways to communicate, other than verbal conversations. And there are other ways beyond basic conversation in which you can share tacit knowledge – such as storytelling and anecdotes.

Dr. Dan's Daily Dose:
Communicating is an effective way for people to share their tacit knowledge. And conversation is one effective way to communicate and transfer tacit knowledge, as is storytelling, sharing of anecdotes, or even the use of metaphors.
About Dr. Dan Kirsch