Stories: More Than Mountaintops

Stories and Mountaintops

Some clients doubt their own ability to use stories in their communication repertoire because they equate storytelling primarily with famous speechmakers like Dr. Martin Luther King, Steve Jobs, and Winston Churchill. They hear top story practitioners and exclaim, “What great skill – but I could never do that!”  While these three icons of public speaking certainly have much to teach us about communication, we shouldn’t make the mistake of limiting our definition of oral storytelling venues to mountaintops.

Stories have a place in many communication settings, or learning spaces.  Most of the people reading this probably aren’t addressing live audiences of thousands regularly, but we do use stories at campfires and watering holes all the time.  Stories help us teach, motivate, and connect in our classrooms, workplaces, coffee shops and homes.  Dr. David Thornburg, one of the first employees of the famed Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), shares a framework to help us think about various learning spaces in his paper, Campfires in Cyberspace.


“One of the distinguishing features of humans is that we are storytellers. In fact, with the possible exception of certain marine mammals, we may be the only storytelling species in existence.”

Mountaintops: One to many. Keynote speeches and formal talks. Mountaintops are “big tent” events and are highly visible.  In this learning space, stories are usually more theatrical, performance-based, and grand in design.


Campfires: One to many; The one rotates. For millennia, the campfire has been used as a teaching situation, to impart knowledge and traditions from one generation to the next.  The setting is more interactive than mountaintop, and the roles of “tellers” and “listeners” flex as the conversations flow. We listen differently at the campfire than we do at the mountaintop. Campfires allow us to suggest counterpoints; the mountaintop does not. The modern-day campfire equivalent would be semi-scripted events like small meetings, sales calls, and other meetings with an agenda that allows for discussion. Most board meetings and staff meetings in today’s corporate world tend to have a campfire quality.


Watering Holes: Many to many. The least structured context.  Watering holes are informal situations where we gather to build camaraderie and share organizational information.  Yes, this includes gossip! Actual watering holes and the modern-day equivalents of coffee break rooms, smoking areas, bars, restaurants, barber shops, general stores and parks tend to be democratic places where informal credibility outweighs rank and title.

Mountaintop story telling style seems too grandiose and would be out of place here. We’re unscripted and speak more honestly at watering holes. Stories and short anecdotes encode knowledge in a way that allows it be passed quickly through the group, making watering holes a “transfer station” for stories that spread quickly. Watering holes tend to be where the most revolutionary ideas get traction  Companies have been started on the proverbial cocktail napkin and new governments have been founded based on simple stories that began at a watering hole. If you’ve ever had a “meeting after the meeting,” at a bar, you probably recognize that watering holes are where much of the real business of life gets done!

Story. Think more broadly about how you define “story.” Assess your own story skills. In which contexts are you most effective as a communicator? In which are you not? Why? How does story fit into your strategic communication toolkit in each learning space, and how do you flex your style to the space?

* Mount Blackiston photo courtesy of ws_canada

Posted in Communication, Learning, Sales, Story Tagged with: , , , ,

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