A Story About the Power of Stories

The power of stories is well-described in the business literature.  Some of the most famous are stories about story-telling: 1001 Arabian Nights, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and its American version, It’s a Wonderful Life.
The why of stories is also well-explained. One author suggests that stories are powerful because they plow common ground, create meaning, build community, and are memorable.
There is, however, another reason why story-telling is so powerful. Let me illustrate by, of course, a story (thanks to Charlie Ortman).
A man was shipwrecked on a desert island. Years went by. A decade. Then another. 

One day a rescue ship arrived. The rescuers found the man healthy and happy. “Is this your house?” they asked, pointing to a comfortable dwelling the man had constructed. “Yes,” he said.

“And this lovely hut over here?” 
“That’s my church,” the man said.
“And what’s this?” the rescuers asked, pointing to a somewhat disheveled, faded hut.
“Ah,” said the man drily, “that’s the church I used to attend.” 

I’ll resist the temptation to say what my interpretation was. Later, I realized it could have been interpreted in another way–at least one other way.

Stories Permit Influence without Rejection

It’s my observation that generally the worst way to get someone to do something is to tell them that they should do it—and then try to justify the advice. There is a human built-in resistance to taking advice, unless accompanied by a serious attempt to first hear out the advisee.

Stories provide a powerful supplement to the critical role of listening in this reciprocal dance.

There is something Teflon- and Rorschach-like about stories. In their telling, the fingerprints of the story teller are removed. The listener hears largely what (s)he wants to hear, without the usual baggage of resistance against the advisor. This is often true even when the teller’s intended meaning is clear. 

Consider the story of the shipwrecked man. 
What meaning do you hear in that story? 
Please add your comment below—so we can all see how our own meanings differ.   
5 replies
  1. Jim Gorman
    Jim Gorman says:


    Hi Charlie.
    I Saw the blog post this morning on the bus on the way in.
    I have no idea why he would build a church then switch churches.
    A funnier story, if funny is the goal, is that the two shacks represented the mall he shops at and the one he used to shop at, as malls in suburbia tend to fall out of favor and become ghost towns when a newer, hipper mall opens. 
  2. john
    john says:

    Great reminder of the power of stories.  I particularly like how you remind us that a story invites the other to explore the idea as oppossed to forcing the idea upon them.

    The first church represented the thoughts and fears that the sailor had as he spent his first few years on the island. "How do I get off"?  How will I survive"? "What will I do"?

    The second church represents the comfort that the sailor has now found on his beautiful island. He now realizes he is going to survive, that he can have a good life and that there is enough.

    Take Good care,



  3. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Perhaps the first church represents the "church of fed knowledge and beliefs", i.e., man-made premises, assumptions, knowledge, and information, data, "stories," etc, and the latter represents an an awareness of self and life that is removed from such, an awareness that arises from inside, from our True and Real Self, when we shed our ego "mind" (and the database we call our brain) so they are no longer interfering with our be-ing.  Two different levels of consciousness.

  4. John
    John says:

    The second church is what he became passionate about after the initial time spent in the first church.  During is first devotion he just attended and went through the motions. At some point he heard a different message and believed more than ever before. Finding the appropriate message for him, he became comfortable with everything around him. His outlook was positive as seen in his health as well as his state of mind upon his rescue.

  5. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Fascinating.  Each interpretation is different, and all differ from mine.  Just goes to show the power of stories to stimulate conversation and creativity.

    Many thanks to all.  I’ll throw in my interpretation in a while…


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