In today’s dynamic and unpredictable business landscape, effectively managing crises is paramount for any organization’s success and continuity.

Crisis simulation exercises have emerged as invaluable tools for assessing and enhancing an organization’s readiness to respond to various threats and challenges. However, the traditional approach to these exercises often overlooks a crucial element: storytelling. In this comprehensive guide to storytelling for crisis preparedness, we delve into why incorporating storytelling in crisis simulations is not just beneficial but essential for bolstering organizational preparedness.

In the realm of crisis preparedness, the roots of storytelling can be traced back to the origins of war gaming. Historically, military strategists have employed war games to simulate complex scenarios and test strategic responses. These simulations often incorporated narratives and fictionalized scenarios to engage participants and encourage strategic thinking. Over time, the principles of war gaming have profoundly impacted corporate training and crisis management exercises.

Today, corporations and organizations across various industries are adopting war gaming methodologies to enhance their crisis preparedness efforts. By integrating storytelling elements into tabletop exercises and full-scale simulations, they create immersive learning experiences that mirror the dynamic nature of real-world crises. This approach engages participants on a deeper level and fosters critical thinking, collaboration, and decision-making skills. As highlighted by Deloitte, crisis war gaming and risk modeling have become increasingly prevalent in corporate risk management strategies, providing valuable insights into potential vulnerabilities and effective response strategies (source: Deloitte).

Why are crisis simulations necessary?

Crisis simulations are structured exercises to simulate real-life emergency scenarios in a controlled environment. They allow organizations to test their response mechanisms, evaluate their crisis management strategies, and identify areas for improvement. These simulations enable teams to experience firsthand the pressure and complexity of managing a crisis, thus better preparing them to handle similar situations.

Moreover, crisis simulations allow organizations to validate their crisis management plans and procedures, ensuring they are robust and effective. By simulating various scenarios, organizations can identify potential gaps in their preparedness and take proactive measures to address them. Additionally, crisis simulations help organizations build resilience by fostering a culture of preparedness and continuous improvement.

Learning Under Pressure

In preparation for operations, we engaged in numerous live fire exercises during my time in the Army, but one stands out vividly in my memory. It was an exercise during the build-up to the Gulf War. I was eighteen when the intensity was palpable, and every decision carried immense weight. As live bullets landed by my side, it dawned on me that the choices I made were crucial not just for myself but also for the safety and well-being of my fellow soldiers.

That day was a profound lesson in trust and teamwork, which I carried into the corporate world over 20 years ago. The experience taught me the importance of cohesion, communication, and collective responsibility in navigating high-pressure situations. It underscored the significance of relying on one another and working seamlessly as a team to overcome challenges and achieve our objectives.

Why is crisis preparedness important?

Crisis preparedness is the cornerstone of organizational resilience. Organizations face many potential crises in today’s interconnected world, ranging from natural disasters and cybersecurity breaches to public relations crises and supply chain disruptions. The ability to anticipate, respond to, and recover from these crises is critical for maintaining business continuity, safeguarding reputation, and protecting stakeholders’ interests.

A well-prepared organization minimizes the impact of crises and demonstrates reliability and trustworthiness, enhancing its long-term viability and competitive advantage. By investing in crisis preparedness, organizations can mitigate risks, improve their reputation, and build trust with stakeholders, positioning themselves for sustainable growth and success.

Building Trust Through Preparation

During my tenure supporting a global organization’s crisis management training and exercises, the catalyst for our involvement stemmed from a significant recall incident within their operations that had been mishandled. The organization sought to overhaul its crisis management approach, recognizing the urgent need for improvement. Our role was pivotal in guiding them through this transformation process.

One standout moment during our collaboration was the implementation of immersive crisis simulations. These exercises replicated real-world scenarios, including ones mirroring their previous recall crisis. Witnessing the team’s response to these simulations highlighted weaknesses, particularly in communication and decision-making under pressure. Despite initial challenges, the debriefing sessions following each exercise served as crucial learning opportunities, allowing the organization to pinpoint areas for enhancement.

Over time, our partnership bore fruit as the organization demonstrated marked progress in its crisis preparedness. They fortified their response capabilities through proactive measures such as refining communication protocols and clarifying roles and responsibilities. These efforts improved their readiness to handle future crises and fostered a culture of collaboration and preparedness across the organization. Our journey with them underscored the transformative power of practical crisis management training and exercises in building resilience and organizational readiness.

Podcast Resource: War Gaming Techniques

How does storytelling improve your organization’s preparedness?

Storytelling adds a powerful dimension to crisis simulation exercises, transforming them from mere drills into immersive learning experiences. By incorporating narratives and characters into the scenario, organizations can contextualize the crisis, evoke emotional responses, and stimulate critical thinking among participants.

Storytelling humanizes the crisis, making it more relatable and engaging for participants. They are better able to empathize with the challenges faced by those involved. Moreover, storytelling fosters collaboration and communication among team members as they navigate the narrative’s twists and turns.

Participants are encouraged to think creatively, make strategic decisions, and adapt to evolving circumstances, mirroring the dynamic nature of real-life crises. Through storytelling, organizations can identify gaps in crisis response capabilities, refine decision-making processes, and build team confidence.

Uniting Teams Through Shared Narratives

In a recent crisis simulation exercise, we crafted a significant data breach scenario. The storytelling aspect allowed us to fully immerse the executive leadership team in the situation, leading to intense discussions and debates among team members. As they collaborated to address the crisis, they forged stronger bonds and gained a deeper understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The shared narrative enhanced our preparedness and strengthened our team cohesion, laying the foundation for more effective crisis management in the future.

How do you create a tabletop exercise crisis storyline?

Creating a compelling storyline for tabletop and other types of exercises requires careful planning and creativity. Identify the exercise’s objectives and conduct a risk assessment to determine potential scenarios. Develop realistic role players such as regulators, media, and other critical stakeholders and narratives that reflect your organization’s challenges during a crisis.

In any crisis simulation exercise, engaging each participant is crucial. We often refer to this as “feeding all alligators,” meaning that every individual invited to the exercise should have relevant information or “injects” tailored to their role or group. While some participants may play more significant roles based on the storyline, such as the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) during a cyber-attack, every player contributes to the overall effectiveness of the simulation. By ensuring that each participant is actively involved and receives pertinent information, organizations can create a more immersive and realistic experience, allowing everyone to contribute effectively to the learning and preparedness process.

Define participants’ roles and responsibilities and craft a timeline outlining the sequence of events. Integrate multimedia elements such as videos and photos to enhance the storytelling experience. Finally, debriefing sessions following the exercise will be facilitated to reflect on lessons learned and identify areas for improvement.

Following these steps, you can create an exercise crisis storyline that is engaging, relevant, and conducive to learning and development.

Blog Resource: How to Ensure Your Crisis Management Tabletop Exercises Create a Buzz

Crafting Memorable Scenarios

During a recent full-scale exercise, we had the opportunity to support a customer in validating their emergency response plans driven by regulatory requirements. This exercise involved coordinating with community first responders and various layers of the organization’s operations and communications teams. The scenario presented was a simulated ammonia leak, a potentially catastrophic event if not managed swiftly and effectively.

To create a realistic environment, a smoke machine was employed to simulate the leak, adding urgency and authenticity to the exercise. Firefighters from the organization and the local community worked seamlessly under a unified command structure, highlighting the importance of collaboration and coordination in emergency response situations.

The exercise served as an excellent demonstration of the benefits of planned simulations. It provided invaluable hands-on experience for all participants, allowing them to test their response procedures in a controlled environment. Additionally, it fostered a sense of unity and teamwork among the various stakeholders involved.

Of course, as with any exercise, the exercise evaluations identified opportunities for improvement, which supported the After Action Report (AAR) and Remediation Plan. Over 100 individuals participated in the training exercise, from the initial planning stages to the after-action report. Each phase offered unique insights and opportunities for improvement, ultimately strengthening the organization’s preparedness for real-world emergencies.

What are the three main benefits of storytelling in crisis simulations?

Enhanced Engagement and Learning: Storytelling captivates participants’ attention and immerses them in the scenario, fostering active participation and deeper learning. By connecting emotionally with the narrative, participants are more likely to retain information and apply their knowledge effectively in real-life situations.

Improved Decision-Making and Problem-Solving: Storytelling challenges participants to think critically, make tough decisions, and solve complex problems under pressure. Storytelling exercises help participants develop their decision-making skills and resilience by simulating realistic scenarios with high stakes, enabling them to respond effectively to crises.

Increased Teamwork and Collaboration: Storytelling encourages cooperation and teamwork among participants as they work together to navigate the challenges the narrative presents. Storytelling exercises strengthen team cohesion and resilience by fostering communication, trust, and mutual support, enabling organizations to respond more effectively to crises as a unified force.

Resource: Storytelling is the Cornerstone of ICMC’s 2024 Annual Conference


Finally, storytelling is a cornerstone for enhancing organizational preparedness and resilience in crises. By incorporating narratives into simulation exercises and ensuring the active engagement of all participants, organizations can create immersive learning experiences that transcend traditional training methods. Storytelling captivates participants’ attention, stimulates critical thinking, fosters collaboration, and strengthens decision-making skills.

As highlighted throughout this article, crisis simulation exercises provide invaluable opportunities for organizations to test their response mechanisms, evaluate their crisis management strategies, and identify areas for improvement. However, the integration of storytelling truly elevates these exercises, transforming them from routine drills into dynamic and impactful learning experiences.

Furthermore, by “feeding all alligators” and ensuring that every participant is fully engaged and provided with relevant information, organizations can maximize the effectiveness of their simulation exercises. Whether the CEO makes high-level strategic decisions or frontline employees manage day-to-day operations, each participant plays a vital role in shaping the organization’s response to crises.

Ultimately, the power of storytelling lies in its ability to humanize the crisis, making it more relatable and engaging for participants. By embracing storytelling, organizations can better prepare their teams to respond effectively to the unexpected challenges that lie ahead. In doing so, they enhance their resilience, strengthen their ability to navigate uncertainty, and emerge more robust in adversity.

As we navigate an increasingly complex and unpredictable world, storytelling will play a central role in shaping the future of crisis preparedness. By harnessing the power of narrative, organizations can build a culture of resilience, adaptability, and innovation that enables them to thrive in the face of any challenge.

Rob Burton
Rob Burton

Rob is a Principal at PreparedEx where he manages a team of crisis preparedness professionals and has over 20 years of experience preparing for and responding to crises. Part of his leadership role includes assisting PreparedEx clients in designing, implementing and evaluating crisis, emergency, security and business continuity management programs. During his career Rob has worked for the US State Department’s Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program, as a crisis management consultant in Pakistan and Afghanistan where he negotiated with the UN and Pashtun tribal warlords and he served with the United Kingdom Special Forces where he operated internationally under hazardous covert and confidential conditions. Rob was also part of a disciplined and prestigious unit The Grenadier Guards where he served Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at the Royal Palaces in London. Rob was a highly trained and experienced infantryman serving in Desert Storm and commanded covert operational teams and was a sniper. Rob has keynoted disaster recovery conferences and participated in live debates on FOX News regarding complex security requirements and terrorism. Rob has a Queen’s Commendation for Bravery.