Anecdote newsletter February 2007

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —February 19, 2007
Filed in Business storytelling

This newsletter was sent to our subscribers a week ago. If you would like to receive this information with all the other of our newsletter subscribers, just go here. I’ve also created a new category ‘newsletter’ so you will be able to view all the newsletters we send out in the future.

Good morning,

I have just discovered an excellent exercise you can try with your colleagues, clients and loved ones. I’ve used it a couple of times this week and people get it. It’s called ‘tappers and listeners’ and is one of the many engaging stories in Dan and Chip Heath’s new book, Made to Stick. Here’s how it works. Ask your audience to participate with you in a little game. You will tap out a song with your fingers or a pencil and you ask the audience to guess the song. Pick two songs everyone knows well—I was using Happy Birthday to Me and Advance Australia Fair. Most people are unable to guess correctly, though Happy Birthday is a lot easier than Advanced Australia Fair. In fact, Elizabeth Newton, a PhD researcher from Stanford, found that, on average, only 2.5% of the listeners she tested could guess the song. But here is the rub. When she asked her tappers how likely it was for the listeners to guess correctly, they expected the listeners to get is right 50% of the time. The tapper has the song in their head and can hear it as clear as a bell. They are cursed with their own knowledge and expect everyone else to hear it as easily as they do. Every communication suffers from the same dynamic and this newsletter is no exception. I’ll do my best to fill in the taps with a few melodic whistles.

With that said, welcome to our first newsletter for 2007. We hope you have had a good holiday break and are have broken all your new year’s resolutions :-). It has been a fast start for us being busy getting ready for our workshops in the USA, helping a community of chocolate experts see their social networks, coaching a Paris-based CFO on storytelling, using stories in a leadership development program, and leading a change management initiative in support of an IT implementation. All this activity might make us tired if we didn’t love our work so much.

We were going to have a theme for this newsletter like ‘Doing knowledge strategies’ or ‘Getting a community of practice started’ but some other tidbits of interesting information appeared that we thought you might like (as an aside, Shawn has written a 3-pager on how to start a community of practice and if you would like a copy, just sent him an Why don’t we start with a mystery story?

Why should we care about mystery stories?

Robert Cialdini discovered a secret to learning in 2005. As a world-leading psychologist he was surprised he didn’t already know this secret but now swears by it. He was researching a new psychology book we wanted to write for a general audience and wanted to know the characteristics of effective science writing for an informed public readership. Most of his review confirmed what he already knew: must have a clear and focussed point, well written, concrete examples. The big surprise for Robert was that the best examples where written in the format of a mystery story.

Robert’s laboratory is his classroom so he tried out the approach there. A typical lecture, before using the mystery story format, would end with his students starting to pack up five minutes before the lecture’s scheduled finishing time. When he presented the same information as a mystery story, and he was yet to reveal the who’d dunnit, the students remained totally engaged and didn’t move, even after the lecture was supposed to have finished. It was like magic.

So here is the structure Cialdini discovered in his review and then wrote up in volume 24 of the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.

  • Pose the mystery
  • Deepen the mystery
  • Home in on the proper explanation by considering (and offering evidence against) alternative explanations
  • Provide a clue to the proper explanation
  • Resolve the mystery
  • Draw the implications for the phenomenon under study

To test this out I wrote a blog post using the mystery format called ‘What is happening to Melbourne’s trains?’ I would be grateful to receive your feedback. Just leave comments on the blog post.

Cialdini, R. B. (2005). “What’s The Best Secret Device for Engaging Student Interest? The Answer Is In The Title.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 24(1): 22-29.

How to find great stories to retell

Telling a story is an effective way to spark action, convey values and communicate ideas. Facts alone are insufficient. So how do you find great stories to tell? How much detail do you include? What do you leave out? What is the best way to present your story?

Our storytelling process is a simple set of activities to help you find relevant and powerful stories, help you decide how to construct your stories, and suggests a set of tips for the best possible storytelling.

The best stories to tell are your own stories. You know them. They’re real. And hopefully they’ll sound real. Authenticity and plausibility are hallmarks of successful business storytelling. The starting point is to become aware of just how effective stories are in communicating ideas and sparking action. Before you have this awareness interesting things will happen and you will barely notice them as great material. You need to become mindful and take note of your experiences. A good way to do this is to search through your personal history for remarkable events. This search is harder than it sounds because we need prompting to remember our past. Therefore, a good way to make progress is to enlist the help of a provocateur, an interviewer.

In eliciting stories from an individual, the role of the interviewer is to help you remember what you know.

What Does The Interviewer Need To Do?

The interviewer’s job is to create a relaxed, conversational environment that helps you remember your past in a way that encourages a candid response. They need to put you at ease, listen to what you say and really care about the conversation. If you sense the interviewer does not care or is distracted you are less likely to reveal your experiences.

The reason why you would want to reveal your experiences is that it will help you remember other experiences. The more stories you retell to the interviewer, the more aware you become of your own stories and the number of potential stories for retelling increases.

The following approach is for conducting one-on-one interviews. If you have a group of people who you would like to share their experiences, we suggest you read the Ultimate Guide to Anecdote Circles

One-on-one interviews can be quite arduous for the interviewer. The interviewer is under pressure to keep the conversation going while trying to remain focussed on what the interviewee is saying, keenly observing possibilities for unearthing new and interesting stories. Consequently, they need to do their homework and be prepared.

What Does Doing The Homework Involve?

The interviewer needs to know the interviewee’s important life/business events. What jobs has she held? What projects has she been on? What roles has she performed? Whom has she worked with? How long has she been with the organisation? The interviewer needs to collect as much information as they can in order to pinpoint important events and relationships that might form the basis of questions.

How Do You Work Out Which Themes To Explore?

It’s impossible to garner every story from a person’s life so a substantial amount of selection is required before you start. Selecting a few themes to explore is a good approach. Three themes are usually enough for a 90-minute interview. I suggest you choose the themes based on the ideas you wish to convey in the stories. The themes will influence the questions that we will create to elicit the stories.

Simply brainstorming the themes is an effective approach.

How Do You Create Story-Eliciting Questions?

We have outlined a process for creating story-eliciting questions in the Ultimate Guide to Anecdote Circles. In addition to this resource, here are some further suggestions:

Start with the simplest and least confronting questions. The following format can be a useful way to get started:

“You started in the HR department in 1995. What was it like when you started?”

This type of question gets people in the right mindset to reminisce. Another way to phrase this context-setting question is to ask:

“What was the HR department like when you worked there?”

After you get your subject talking you can then get into asking your meatier questions. Don’t forget: one question at a time, relish silence and listen carefully.

Colton et. al. (2006) provide some excellent example question templates. 

  • “Tell me about a time when …” “Tell me about a moment when …”
  • “you or your project faced a dilemma in a project
  • “you or your team experienced a significant turning point
  • “you dealt with a real crisis on a project. What happened before, during and after it?
  • “you felt really proud to be part of something
  • “you took a real risk and it paid off or didn’t pay off
  • “you were really inspired by what was going on around you
  • “you encountered an obstacle and overcome it
  • “you saw (one of your organisation’s values) really brought to life/being acted out
  • “your partnerships were working really well
  • “you saw positive changes happen as a result of your work

Throughout the interview, you will need to adapt and respond to the stories being told. Colton et. al. (2006) provide some common situations and possible responses.

Setting the scene: “I’d like to hear you tell your story in your own words, to get under the skin of it.” “Are your ready to start?” “Take a moment to think back …”

Beginning: “So tell me about how you first got involved with/ met/ starting doing X?” “How did it begin?”

When things are too general: “What were some of the memorable moments?” or “for instance?” or “can you give me an example, so I can picture it?”

Qualifying the difference: “Can you pinpoint a time when you really saw you were making a difference?” “What did that feel like?”

Engaging emotions, finding turning points: “Can you remember a particularly magic or moving moment? One that really sticks in your mind?” plus follow-up comments like “what did that feel like?” or “you must have been proud to be part of it”.

Audiences and messages: “Who should hear this story?” “If you were telling this story to X what key messages would you want them to take away?”

Catchy title: “Hearing you tell your story I listened for nice turns of phrases. But if this story were a book, what would its title be” Can I suggest X?” Note: this is a really important part of the process. Titles should contain the essence of the story and make it really memorable. People also appreciate you playing back their words–it makes them feel both heard and creative.

Digging deeper: The best results were when we reflected back saying things like “so it sounds like you really had your work cut out …” etc.

Direct and indirect: Direct questions can sound quite intimidating and block people: “Were you frightened?” Whereas indirect questions can prompt deeper recall and develop empathy” “It sounds like that might have been quite frightening for you?”

Interrupting: Interrupting, to check facts or to express surprise can send people off in a different direction to the story they wanted to tell. Containing your surprise is important to prevent diversion from the original direction.

Silence: Holding long pauses feels unnatural but allows the story to unfold.

What Other Ways Can An Interviewer Help A Subject Reminisce?

On our blog, we reported on a project that aims to help the elderly reminisce as a form of therapy. This reminisicience work has many good ideas for memory triggers to help people recall their stories.

Related Blog Posts & Whitepapers From Anecdote

For our readers in North America – Narrative Techniques for Business workshops in Seattle and Boston (end of March)

There are only a couple of weeks left to register and receive the early bird discount for our Narrative Techniques for Business workshops. If you are interested in getting hands-on experience with our techniques simply check our the workshop description and send me an email requesting a registration form.

Social network analysis workshop in Melbourne

On the 22nd and 23rd March Andrew will be running a 2 day workshops titled “Practical Social Network Analysis: Skills and techniques for facilitating organisational change.”

This workshop is for those looking to:

  • Build their confidence and expertise in applying the theory and practice of social network analysis for facilitating change

  • Gain an understanding of the key concepts and models which inform the practice of social network analysis and sensemaking for change in organisations

  • Gain enhanced understanding and capability to use and apply the specific software tools for conducting social network investigations within your organisation

As a special offer, the first 5 participants to register for this course will receive a free copy of Rob Cross’ book “The Hidden Power of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations.” Regarded as one of the most practical and comprehensive guides written to the application of social network analysis within organisations.

To find out more about this course including how to register simply down load the registration brochure here:


About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


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