Strategic Communication And The Storytelling Covenant

By J. Dean Spence

Made between two people or parties, often with blood sacrifices or sacred meals, covenants were common in antiquity. The Hebrew Bible relates many stories of covenants between God and Israel. In fact, in The Complete Bible Handbook, John Bowker writes, “So important is the idea of covenant in the Bible that the two parts of the Christian Bible came to be called…the Old and the New Testament (testamentum being a Latin word for covenant).”

Jason B. Ohler in Digital Storytelling in the Classroom tells us that a covenant exists between storytellers and their audiences:

“Storytelling is an ancient social dynamic that is built on an unspoken covenant of trust between tellers and listeners. Tellers trust that they will receive the attention of the listeners and not be distracted during their delivery. In return, listeners trust that the speaker will honour their time and attention by telling a story that is interesting and engaging and that creates and resolves a state of expectation. In addition, tellers trust that they will be granted a good deal of latitude in telling their stories. They don’t like to be questioned during the story delivery or told to hurry along. On the other hand, listeners trust that the speaker’s story will follow a path that makes sense. If it is too unbelievable, or wanders too much, either skepticism or impatience will kill the story.”

Here is a list of other features of the storytelling covenant, according to Ohler:

  • Listeners are not disappointed by what happens next in the story
  • Listeners feel that what happens in the story makes sense but is not predictable
  • Tellers stay on topic and don’t add irrelevant detail
  • Tellers feel they have the audience’s complete attention from beginning to end of story, without interruption
  • The story wasn’t too long, and the payoff at the end was in proportion to the listeners’ investment of time, trust, and attention

Perhaps we can call the storytelling covenant “covenant-like” because what Ohler is talking about seems a shadowy reflection of, for example, the Mosaic Covenant between God and the Israelites: a covenant that is everlasting, a covenant that lights up the path to Israel’s destiny as holy people, a covenant like an exclusive marriage with dire warnings about the cost of infidelity.

The storytelling covenant is one without a Mosaic archetypal figure to mediate it: the storyteller speaks/writes and the audience listens/reads.

We can further adapt Ohler’s understanding of the storytelling covenant for the stories that strategic communicators tell. Such stories and their concomitant covenants will have as many iterations as there are communication functions. For instance, the covenant between a communicator in investor relations will differ from the covenant between a corporate communication storyteller and his or her audience…

Initially, (I will return to this topic in future blogs) we can say that the storytelling covenant between a strategic communicator and his or her audience involves everything Ohler outlined as well as a promise to provide value-added content about his or her company or client’s products and/or services, and to provide a clear call to action. And the audience’s responsibility is to decide whether or not to answer that call to action by downloading a PDF, registering for an event or program, entering a contest, making a purchase…



[Scene: Yesterday, today and tomorrow near the watercooler of XYZ Inc. in the city of Anywhere]


AUDIENCE: (inquisitively) Tell me a story that will convince me to by Product X.

STRATEGIC COMMUNICATOR: (enthusiastically) An accountant, a CEO and a CFO walk into a bar. The CEO is holding Product X and says to the other two…


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