Did you ever think the good old movie training montage, found in such classic’s as The Karate Kid, Team America, or the Rocky movies, could beautifully sum up all the elements of deliberate practice?
I have been doing some work over the last few weeks on developing a ‘Deliberate Practice Program’ that will help to make learning stick even more for participants in our programs such as Storytelling for Business Leaders.
As my mind was very much tuned into the whole area of ‘practice’, I watched a scene from The Kings Speech last week with added interest. The scene was a montage where Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush) and Bertie (Colin Firth) were undertaking a series of exercises and drills to help the future King overcome his speech impediment. What I realised is that I was actually watching all the elements of deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice is a concept outlined by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, who is is widely recognised as the world’s leading researcher on expertise. He has studied how people become experts in a whole range of fields, and looked for the consistent attributes of what they do to make them achieve these superior levels of performance. The consistent feature they have identified is not some natural born talent, or the hours they practice, but how they practice – specifically how they undertake deliberate practice.
The key attributes of deliberate practice are:
- Repetition – Performing the task occurs repetitively rather than at its naturally occurring frequency
- Focused feedback: – Task performance is evaluated by a coach during performance
- Breaking the task down into its parts and practicing these individually and then as a whole
- Immediacy of performance – After corrective feedback on task performance there is an immediate repetition so that the task can be performed more in accordance with what is required/expected
- Stop and start– because of the repetition and feedback, deliberate practice is typically seen as a series of short performances
- Active coaching – Typically a coach must be very active during deliberate practice, monitoring performance, assessing adequacy, and controlling the structure of training
- Emphasis on difficult aspects – Deliberate practice will focus on more difficult aspects, for example, when flying an airplane normally only a small percentage of the flight time is taken up by takeoffs and landings. In deliberate practice simulators, however, a large portion of the time will be involved in landings and takeoffs
- Focus on areas of weakness – in real life situations people are striving to achieve the task and therefore are unlikely to do the things they see as a weakness or they think will stop them achieving. Deliberate practice therefore allows time and space to practise these elements
- Work vs. play – deliberate practice feels more like work and is more effortful than casual performance
Now, watch the following clip from the movie ‘Cool Runnings‘ and tell me how many of these elements exist?
During my first week here at Anecdote I sat in on an Anecdote Circle at a large Government Department here at Melbourne. It was the first time I had seen one of these run by Shawn and I was therefore very keen to see how he did it, and anything I could pick up and and use myself in the future.
One of the things I noticed quite early on was that Shawn would start by asking one of the pre-prepared, scripted questions and if he did not get him any stories from the group, he would follow it up by turning the more formal question into one that contained an idiom. So “Think of a time when you saw somebody manage (x) roles in a way that made you think, “Wow. If everybody worked that way, things would got a lot more smoothly around here”. Got followed up with; “when have things gone as smooth as clock work?”. There were many more examples of this throughout the session, and each time it seemed to get great results at eliciting stories.
When I raised it with Shawn afterwards he wasn’t even aware he used this as a a technique, but in talking it through and making him aware of it, he began to realise he used it all the time. He even told me a story that Mark had told him of doing some story elicitating work and asking; “When have you been most elated at work, or most disappointed?” He got a load of blank stares and shaking of heads, until one of the guys piped up; “We don’t get ‘elated’ or ‘disappointed’ we either get ‘stoked or ‘gutted'”.
I think the use of idioms and slang work in eliciting stories for a number of reasons. They give a far greater richness than can be delivered from just words alone. ‘Gutted’ has a far greater impact than ‘disappointed’ for example, it has a far greater emotional reaction. Also by using the right idioms for that audience it shows them you are ‘talking their language’ therefore building rapport, trust and the relationship. It shows you understand them and are part of their ‘community’. It also increases your chances of the question being understood.
This technique really came to the fore when we started collecting stories at a large electricity generating company. We were doing this out in these huge power stations, with he guys (and they were mainly guys) dressed in their work boots and protective clothing, with a natural distrust of us as “city boys”. Using idioms and slang in the majority of our questions really worked as a way to get them to tell stories. It put them at ease, used language and terms they understood, and created a degree of informality that seemed to help them to tell stories.
We have also used this insight into some of the questions we have developed for eliciting family stories in Zahmoo, which can be found in the ‘Online Resources’. Examples of using idioms include things like; “Do you remember a time when Mum or Dad went through the roof over something you did?”, “What was something your spouse has done that just blew you away?”, “Did you ever get off on the wrong foot with someone who then became a good friend?” or “Have you ever been at death’s door?”.
We also have used slang to get people to recall moments and tell stories about them. Examples include; “When did you really come a gutser as a kid?” or “What did you put the kibosh on that you wished you hadn’t?’.
I would therefore strongly recommend trying to consciously use idioms and slang when asking questions to elicit stories. The results I have seen in different settings, groups and people have proven to me they really do work as a way to help people recall moments, and therefore be able to tell stories about them. Go on, have a crack!
If you read this blog there is a good chance you firmly believe in the power of stories. You might have also come to the conclusion, like I have, that it’s mighty hard to find stories when you need them. A better strategy is to collect stories when they’re told, index them and be able to re-find them when they are needed (see how Joan Rivers does it). You can check out Zahmoo as a way to keep track of your stories. Or have a look at our Story Finder.
For this strategy to work you need to be places where stories are told. Better still, you need to create the conditions for stories to be told.
Here are five conditions that are important for stories to be told.
- A caring listener. The person listening to the stories cares about and is interested in them. People have a finely tuned sense of whether others care about what they are saying and if they detect disdain or even a little boredom they’ll truncate their stories or just stop altogether.
- Free time. Remember those times when you had a long road trip with a friend or colleague and the stories you heard. Stories seem to emerge when we are not under pressure or constrained by formality. Loose meeting agendas are more likely to encourage stories than highly structured gatherings.
- Common ground. A while back I called my brother. He lives in Arizona. He’s a wine salesman (a bloody good one) and he was telling me what a talented sales manager he has. I asked him to share an example of what this talented guy did. My brother hesitated. In fact he kept giving me high level descriptions rather than a story. Then I realised I didn’t share his wine sales rep knowledge and might not appreciate (or get) his story. So I said, “just pretend I’m an experienced wine guy.” He then shared a great example. Common knowledge and language is needed at some level before stories are shared.
- Tell stories. Stories beget stories. One of the best ways to encourage someone to share a story is to tell one yourself.
- Memorabilia. One of my most enjoyable projects involved helping an energy company collect stories from retiring specialists. One was Mike, the network controller. His job was to keep tabs on the entire electricity grid and solve problems as they happened. His office was filled with maps, computer screens and whiteboards filled with notes and sketches. Storytelling was easy for him. He would grab a map of the grid and tell me the story of how a substation went down and how they fixed it. Unfortunately Mike retired before we had finished the story collection but he invited me to his home a couple of months after retiring to finish the job. We were in his lounge room with pictures of his family on the wall and keepsakes from overseas trips on shelves. When we got started I quickly discovered he struggled to tell me his work stories and when he did have one they weren’t as rich with detail as the ones from his office. Picking places and artefacts that remind people of their stories can make all the difference.
What others would you add to this list?
I had a throughly enjoyable afternoon on Saturday learning not only how to make great coffee, but being surrounded by stories.
The course was a present from my wife for Christmas and took place at the Home Barista Institute, just round the corner from the Anecdote office here in Melbourne.
The course was delivered by Rita Zhang who began by telling a fantastic ‘Who am I’ story. She told a series of shorter stories about how she fell in love with coffee, how she used a mentor to help her develop her business and how she started teaching courses on coffee. She brought to life each of the scenes in real detail (e.g. describing a sunny Saturday afternoon when she went and visited a ‘bright spot’ coffee shop that her mentor recommended), she used suspense and surprise in the stories (e.g. how she lifted up a takeaway coffee from the same shop and discovered a love heart drawn in the latte foam) and also linked them together to create a cohesive account of how she came to be there, teaching that course, on that day. These short stories gave a fantastic insight into Rita and where her passion for coffee came from.
Stories were also included in two other aspects of the course.
Each of us had to introduce ourselves by telling stories of good and bad coffee experiences we had had. After seven years in the UK I had no shortage of bad coffee stories! It was a nice way to be introduced to the other attendees and hear a bit about them and why they were there, in a very non-threatening and insightful way.
Stories were also used by Rita to bringing to life the history of coffee, right through from how coffee was discovered (the story of the ‘dancing goat’), through to how Pope Clement VIII played a key role in coffees acceptance into Europe in the 1600s.
Overall a fantastic day, not only because I was learning how to make great coffee (which now requires some serious practice on my part!), but also because I was reminded, yet again, about the power of stories.
I stumbled across a blog post yesterday from Bob Sutton where he referred to the ‘Otis Redding Problem‘.
This is where you put in place too many metrics to measure individuals, teams, or business units. meaning they can’t even think about all of them at once. They therefore end-up doing what they believe are important or that will bring them rewards.
This is based on the line from the famous Otis Redding song Sitting By the Dock of the Bay; “Can’t do what ten people tell me to do, so I guess I’ll remain the same.”
This triggered a thought for me about how you could potentially use musical artists, lyrics or song names in an exercise.
Say you wanted to explore levels of engagement within a team or department. Asking straight out is unlikely to get you an accurate picture, depending on the culture, environment, who is present etc.
What you could do is get groups to come up with, say, a written ‘Playlist’ of songs that sum up levels of engagement for them within the team. Or you could give them an iPod and get them to actually create one and play it back to the room.
Maybe instead you could introduce them to the ‘Otis Redding Problem’ and then get them to come up with their own examples within the team, based on song lyrics.
I just think this type of method allows people some safety and security to “discuss the undiscussable”. It allows them to distance themselves from openly expressing how they feel, and the dangers that presents, just as archetypes or metaphor exercises might allow. It also creates a bit of fun, and lets people express some of their creativity and musical knowledge!
Anyone ever used anything like this and wanted to share how it went? Or does anyone have their own ideas on Problems/Dilemmas/Scenarios in the ‘Otis Redding Problem’ vein? Love to hear your thoughts.
Why do some business storytelling efforts fail spectacularly? I hear sponsors of some of these failed attempts (they’re brave enough to call us in after their bad experience) saying, “storytelling just didn’t suit our culture” or “we just didn’t click with the person we brought in to help us.” I suspect these are merely superficial explanations.
The storytelling spectrum is a simple but useful idea I learnt from my friend and storytelling expert Mary Alice Arthur. Imagine a spectrum of storytelling. At one end is Big ‘S’ Storytelling which includes those beautifully crafted stories we see in movies, novels, plays and even the latest Playstation games. Big ‘S’ Storytellers understand plot structures, character development, scene design and a myriad of other storytelling principles and practices. At the other end of the spectrum is Small ‘s’ Storytelling where we find the stories we tell on a daily basis in conversations, anecdotes, recounts and examples.
We’ve focussed our attention on the Small ‘s’ end of the spectrum (the anecdotes, the real life experiences) and have inched our way toward the Big ‘S’ end, but not too far for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. There’s lots to learn from the Big ‘S’ end but business people don’t need to be screenwriters or playwrights. Putting too much storytelling craft in how you communicate can lead you to fall into an even bigger trap. And this trap is similar to one discovered in robotics in the 70s.
In 1970 a Japanese robotics researcher, Mashahiro Mori, noticed that as he made his robots more humanlike their attractiveness increased, but only to a point. After that they became creepy. It was only when it was impossible to tell the robot from the human did they become attractive again. Mori called this dip in comfort levels (Shinwakan) the Uncanny Valley.
Source: Crossing the uncanny valley, The Economist, Nov 18th 2010.
We witnessed the impact of the Uncanny Valley at the movie theatres in 2004. Pixar released The Incredibles at the same time Warner Bros. released The Polar Express. The Polar Express used live action performance capture techniques to make almost humanlike animated characters with an eerie result; not what you want for a Christmas tale. The Incredibles were clearly animations and it became a box office hit.
There is something like an Uncanny Valley of Business Storytelling. We can improve our storytelling with techniques applied from the wealth of storytelling techniques used by the best screenwriters, playwrights and novelists, but only to a point. After that business storytelling drop into an Uncanny Valley. At the bottom of the valley the storyteller’s efforts seem artificial, forced and clumsy. Sometimes this happens when people in the organisation believe they need to understand sophisticated plot structures, vocalisation techniques and beats and scenes to apply storytelling. Frankly, I think you can love storytelling too much and try too hard. Sometimes a storytelling professional believes that to be a real storyteller you need to be a performance storyteller. This often results in the storytelling voice. You know that one that sounds like the person has just started a children’s story with Once Upon a Time. Again the result is the Uncanny Valley.
Yes, you can learn a lot from Big ‘S’ Storytelling but it’s folly to try apply too much. In the end so much can be achieved just helping people to be mindful of their experiences and the experiences of the people around them and work out what these experiences mean. With this understanding recounting an experience can be a powerful illustration of what you believe is important. And told as a story on the gentle hills above the valley will mean people with remember it and maybe even be inspired to take action.