“Intentional Story Telling” as a tool for transferring knowledge and wisdom

Part 3 of 6 Part Series on Effective Knowledge Transfer: “Intentional Story Telling” as a tool for transferring knowledge and wisdom.

The Civil Engineer – May 2012

In a skills and knowledge hungry world, where a veritable army of enthusiastic graduates and middle managers, all armed with a myopic focus on rapid promotion at the speed of thought and who are jostling with increasing restlessness for position, whilst waiting impatiently beneath the wings of the remaining baby-boomer technical experts, Intentional Story Telling offers one of the most “time tested” and effective means of sharing and transferring knowledge, experience and wisdom, whist at the same time being a lot of fun for both the story teller and the listeners (Refer to Part 2 of this Knowledge Transfer series where we talked about the importance of “fun” being used to embed the learning process in our long term memory).

Since the early development of written language by the more advanced cultures of our early Human evolution, the ability, techniques and privilege of writing was usually bestowed only upon the spiritual leaders and royalty of the various nations and almost everybody else had to rely on the ability to “tell stories”, or participate in various forms of either individual or participative narrative communication forums.

Indeed, whist we are biologically referred to as Homo Sapiens as a species, we are sociologically referred to as Homo Narans – or, story telling people. Most indigenous cultures on the continent of Africa relied solely on this form of effective communication for several millennia, until written language was introduced by the various settlers from Europe. African cultures however, remain rich in stories and there is a lot to be learnt from this tried and trusted form of passing on one’s cultural heritage to the next generation, via story telling – instead of today’s unrealistic and failed reliance on technology systems and autocratic management practices alone.

Story Telling provides us with the essential “context” and other important environmental or sociological conditions at the time, which are often lost in the stark and emotionless world of the written word.

So where does Story Telling fit into the complex, technical world of Civil Engineering and just what is Intentional Story Telling ?

If we accept the simple definitions of “Knowledge is Information in Context” and  “Wisdom is the key output of a significant event, where critical experience is gained for the first time, just after the moment that you actually first needed it, ” then Intentional Story Telling is about an expert, or equally experienced technical person, engaging with a group of less experienced staff, in a structured narrative communication, with a view to transferring critical information in context and thus ensuring the transfer of key knowledge and wisdom – the wisdom component being successfully introduced, as the listeners are now “armed” to identify and avoid the recurrence of similar events and outcomes, due to being either “prepared for the early signals” or empowered to know the appropriate evasive action to take – forewarned is forearmed in the high risk and complex world of Civil Engineering.

The following Intentional Story Telling methodology has been researched, developed and honed over nearly 10 years of practical implementation by Mentoring 4 Success™, in order to provide Mentors and Experts with the ability to participate meaningfully in the preparation of our next generation of engineering leaders and technical managers.

Intentional Story Telling – the methodology:

Firstly, the key ingredients for effective Intentional Story Telling are:

  • Focus on the critical Central Message and don’t get side-tracked.
  • Keep to between 7 and 10 minutes – any longer and you are probably introducing various other messages – keep focused.
  • Prepare well and use a checklist or model as below to ensure maximum effectiveness.


1. Use a Central Message – the main purpose and point of the story:

Intentional Story Telling is not “bed-time story telling” – they must not put people to sleep. They should be short, sharp and inspirational, with a very clearly articulated Central Message. Do not dilute the impact or effectiveness of the story by having multiple messages and keep true to the message by avoiding wandering off or getting side-tracked.

2. Consider Multiple Learning Styles  – appeal to Auditory, Visual, Sensory and Kinaesthetic styles:

The 100 billion neurons in our brains are all wired in different ways and developmental psychologists have identified 4 primary “learning styles”, with many of us using a combination of styles, depending on how we have learned to adapt our own basic style, in order to cope with how we have been taught in the past. So by combining some story telling (auditory) with good pictures or graphics (visual) with some emotions (sensory) with some props or physical examples (kinaesthetic) will ensure that we engage with all the learning styles for maximum “brain – story” wiring and retention.

3. Plan a Logical Story Structure – use a well-planned start, middle and end:

Keep your Intentional Story Telling impactful, by planning a compelling opening message, followed by a well-structured and engaging middle content element and then a powerful closing, or “call to action”. Ideally, the start and end components should comprise 25% of the whole story and 75% should be reserved for the more detailed content in the middle.

4. Use Metaphors and Analogies – comparisons, strong associations and figures of speech:

Anybody with a reasonable education will have been endowed with a plethora of metaphors, analogies, sayings, proverbs, allegories, parables and figures of speech over time and these are very powerful “learning hooks” onto which we can hang new experiential learning. The brain has already developed a level of comfort and understanding with the associated imaginary symbolism created in our brains with these connections and if we can make strong tangible, cognitive connections to these metaphors and analogies, the brain can process the embedment and recall functions for any newly acquired knowledge, with ease.

5. Ensure a Connection to your Listeners – engagement through constant involvement:

In order to ensure a successful connection to your listeners, place a subtle pressure on them to participate by regularly asking random individuals for their opinion, own experiences or some input – this keeps everyone engaged and ready to answer questions and thereby improves the embedding and learning process as each listener, almost sub-consciously, prepares themselves to answer your next question.

6. Employ the Power of Personal Experience – use own experiences and anecdotes wherever possible:

In order to ensure maximum impact, always try to use your own stories and experiences which will guarantee that you have all the facts at hand if cross questioned and you can also add the important component of credible personal emotion. There is nothing worse than being a “journalist for someone else’s story” and not being able to answer unexpected, but important questions – the listeners brains will instantaneously detect insincerity and a lack of integrity and discount the validity of the story – unless you clarify the situation upfront. Personal stories are always preferable though.

7. Introduce a Strong Emotional Connection – use personal style, tone, variable pitch, facial expression, targeted emphasis, body language and strategic silence to invoke the listeners emotions

Long term memories and effective memory recall are all functions of the brain which are enabled by the Limbic System, or Emotional Brain. Therefore, the more emotional connections we can facilitate the listener making during the Intentional Story Telling process, the stronger will be their memory of the story and their ability to recall the salient points and lessons from the story, long after the story is told.

8. Test your Influence on the Listeners Thinking – regularly identify and magnify key “learnings” through observation and questioning, to influence the listeners thinking:

Intentional Story Telling is designed to significantly improve and influence your listeners thinking and quality of future decision making. It is therefore essential to randomly select one or two listeners from time to time and ask them thought provoking questions such as “what could or should we have done differently” or “what can you start doing differently in future as a result of this story” – the story teller must look for tangible shifts in behaviours and the way thing will be done or improved in future, in order to validate that their story was successful.

In fact, this is one of the best ways to do a self-assessment on one’s self as a new “Intentional Story Teller” and to check your personal effectiveness and ability to share and transfer knowledge and wisdom and the model discussed here will help you focus on the areas you need to improve.

9. Focus on Leading to Action – get commitment from the listeners that appropriate action is required and will be taken:

Effective Intentional Story Telling by experts should always lead to some form of appropriate action, if only to undertake to record the story in the organisations knowledge repository for future accessibility, with the recording activities to be done by the listeners to improve embedment.

There are various ways of recording and storing expert stories and knowledge such as “Tacit Knowledge Discovery and Capture” and “Retrospective Analysis” and these will be covered in a future article on “Effective Knowledge Transfer”. However, for the purpose of this article, the key to effectively gathering, packaging and storing of knowledge and wisdom through stories, is to use a simple story capturing model which combines purpose, text, visuals and summarised lessons, with key words and  tags for searching and recovery purposes – and avoid long, verbose policy and procedural amendments.

10. Unpack the Relative Value Concept – expose the “not so obvious” consequences of the story for improved quality of strategic and critical thinking:

Most stories have a strong Cause and Effect correlation or sequence, which can be played out by the experienced story teller and which may not have been so obvious to the less experienced listeners. This may include potential financial loss, reputational risk, staff flight, competitor response or legal consequence to name a few and it is a good idea to highlight these other considerations in order to build the strategic and critical thinking capability of your listeners.

11. Key Lessons Learned – summarising the key lessons and knowledge gained from the story:

The Intentional Story Telling session should end with a powerfully facilitated review and consensus based agreement on the “Key Lessons Learned” from the story – ideally, the story teller facilitates and guides the listeners to summarise between 3 and 5 Key Lessons Learned from the story and to consolidate these lessons in some form of knowledge asset, which will be either communicated or captured and become accessible by “appropriate others”, via some form of organisational or functional knowledge repository.

In conclusion, Intentional Story Telling is at the core of strategic sustainability and competitive advantage, as it is a simple, but formalised and structured way for experts and experienced engineers to share and transfer critical knowledge and wisdom to less experienced staff, in such a way that they have the maximum capability of recalling the “key lessons required”, before the acid invoice of life’s expensive lessons is issued yet again.

(Intentional Story Telling is a registered process and copyright of Mentoring 4 Success™ (Pty) Ltd and forms part of the unique 12 part Mentors Toolkit™)