Social Leadership Storytelling Certification: Technique #1 – Diagonal Storytelling

Today i am #WorkingOutLoud and sharing one of the techniques i’m using for the Social Leadership Storytelling certification. This one concerns ‘Diagonal Storytelling’, which is an activity intended to stretch storytellers out of their comfort zone, and help to connect people across the organisation. The activity takes a couple of hours to complete. This is a draft version, shared as part of my own development of the idea.

Diagonal Storytelling


Diagonal Storytelling is a technique whereby we bring together a diverse group of individuals, and help them explore an aspect of the business, using stories, that cross between different perspectives.

In Diagonal Storytelling, our role as Storyteller is to:

  • Approach people to be part of the group, to support membership
  • Set the context for the exploration
  • Support individual storytellers to find their power, stance, and voice
  • Ensure nobody is left behind
  • Establish and support new relationships (diagonally across power gradients or perceived permissions)
  • Guide the exploration
  • Help the group capture their discussions and co-create the story
  • Share the story
  • Provide a reflective space for participants


Organisations can tend to be good at vertical stories (usually cascaded down within the formal system), and horizontal stories (often tacit, tribal, flowing out through closed trust networks), but lack really structured and integrated opportunities for diagonal dialogue. This is about cutting through the hierarchy, to create new storytelling, co-creative, and story listening, spaces and opportunities, all of which help the organisation to become more Socially Dynamic.

At the heart of the notion of a Socially Dynamic Organisation, is the idea of ‘interconnection’, an organisation that is not simply interconnected horizontally, but rather diagonally, cutting through formal structures.

Similarly, when we look at how people grow their social/tribal structures, they tend to scale within broadly similar groups, so we grow more connections in similar tribes. Part of interconnectivity is that we cut into new tribes too.

Learning Outcomes

  • Understand the principles of, and the techniques of how to, facilitate Diagonal Storytelling, the context it works best in, and how to create conditions for success
  • To master the skills of support for participants in diagonal storytelling, setting the context, explaining rules, holding everyone safe
  • To build capability to shape, guide, capture, and share, the resultant stories

The Technique

In Diagonal Storytelling, we cut layers across the formal structure of the Organisation, to build a group who can bring different perspectives to a narrative. For example: we may pull together a discussion group with two people who are senior, two at our own level, and two who are new starters in the organisation. So cutting diagonally through the structure. Maybe you have three levels, or ten, but choose a diagonal slice.

Choosing who is in this group is a CURATION activity: Social Leaders start with curation, choosing their own space, and finding others to form part of their immediate community in practice.

To engage in a Diagonal Storytelling group will require the HUMILITY of senior leaders, and the bravery of junior members. For us, as the Storyteller, it will require a capability to HOLD OPEN SPACE, in providing clarity, and an understanding of how power gradients can silence weak voices.

It is also our responsibility to ensure that recognition and respect is shared through the group, by making clear the difference between formal participation, and tribal induction or membership: one being a formal badge, the other a social one.

With this group, set a challenge: maybe it’s a one hour webinar, or a lunchtime meeting, to explore a subject.

Subjects may include:

  • Where our organisation finds it’s pride
  • What is our purpose
  • Who is the most innovative company that we see
  • What blocks us from change
  • Who are our most effective leaders
  • Where does learning happen
  • What one thing could we change to be kinder
  • Or you could tackle really specific challenges, around current projects, business issues, or strategic imperative.

Providing a Scaffolding

The storytelling should be shaped by the group, but you can provide a scaffolding. This may take the form of a diagnostic structure, or a narrative structure.

An example of a diagnostic structure would be (with this example based around the question ‘where do you see excellent competitive behaviour):

CURATE an example (where do you see it)
INTERPRET that example (why have you suggested this? Make it relevant to the group)
Move the LOCATION of the story – comment on each others suggestions
WHY are they competitive – agree, together, what is different – is it the people, the budgets, the facilities etc
NARRATE your conversation – capture a story – either a story of consensus, where you agree, or a story of difference, where you capture your shared differences

A narrative structure would be more like this:

We agreed that we face this CHALLENGE – start with an introduction and CONTEXT
Our HISTORY in this space is like this…
In the wider world, we see this INNOVATION
Our shared SUGGESTION is that we do this…

Recognition and Respect

At the culmination of the activity, you can review, and award, recognition and respect. This may take the form of any of the following:

1. Postcards, where each person write their experience on a digital postcard, and sends to the group
2. Allocation of ‘Thanks’, where the group thank one person each, and explain why
3. Recognition through CONNECTION, where each person makes one wider connection for one other group member, diversifying their network further

For diagonal stories to be written, we need to develop strong Social Leadership, so that individuals, at every level, can engage outside their formal power. And so that those same individuals can award social recognition and respect to the people, wherever they sit in the formal system, who contribute the most.
Finding a Story Sharing space

Once you have your Diagonal Story, you can agree where to share it. Ideas would include finding an existing storytelling space, or creating a new one. For example:

* An available internal blog, or newsletter
* Just sharing your story internally, to the group, to strengthen bonds
* Forging a story that you can use to create, or open up, a new storytelling space e.g. your own ‘Explorer’ community
* Start a Social Leadership SEED community

Capturing your learning

After you have practiced this technique, capture your learning in your Social Leadership Passport.

Use this format, to explore what you would do next time around:

1. What will i START to do more of next time
2. What will i STOP doing next time
3. What will i CONTINUE to do just the same

Alongside this, capture the following. As i completed the activity:

1. This is what i SAW happening – describe individual, and group, behaviours, and consider what lay behind them e.g. did one person not engage, why? Talk to participants to capture this
2. This is what i HEARD people say: gather reflections from the group
3. This is how i FELT as i carried out the activity – were you nervous, excited, depressed etc

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
This entry was posted in Social Leadership, Storytelling and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Social Leadership Storytelling Certification: Technique #1 – Diagonal Storytelling

  1. Dave Lee says:

    I love the framework. This feels quite “doable” as the organizing storyteller. What’s missing: it’s not clear to me if the storyteller should be a particupant in the group or stand back as facilitator. I can see both roles being used. Also, what of these instructions should be shared directly with the group? Which should be spoken to the group? How much of this choice is at the discretion of the storyteller? Finally, both in general practice and specifically toward this certification, does it matter if the storyteller is an employee of the oeganization being discussed or could the be an outside figure (ie, consultant or advisor?)

    All in all, a final first draft.

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