Curing story blindness: building essential story skills

Posted by Mark Schenk - March 29, 2011
Filed in Business storytelling

For the past two years Shawn and I have deliberately ignored Dave Snowden’s regular pot-shots at our work and maintained the civility that we think is both appropriate and necessary when operating in such a complementary and emerging space. It hasn’t been easy to swallow at times.

In his most recent instalment Dave takes thestorytest to task. In some ways it’s flattering that he watches what we do so closely – he was one of the first half-dozen people in the world to take thestorytest. Being so fast out of the blocks, he encountered an initial glitch in the programming that reversed the scores. We apologise for this error which was corrected within hours of the site being launched. Thanks to Dave we identified it early.

But Dave’s main point isn’t with this glitch. In fact, his main point is a complete surprise. Before reading his blog post, I would have laughed at the suggestion that such a thought-leader in the field of story would describe helping people acquire the skill to identify a story as “a red herring.”

We strongly believe that it’s an essential skill to be able to distinguish between a story, an opinion and a factual report, and all the other things which are not stories. We work with business people facing real-life challenges and our job is to help them. You can’t tap into the natural power of stories if you don’t know what one is. We’ve tried to keep it practical and useful – coming up with the four key characteristics (time or place markers, characters and events) that differentiate a story from an opinion or factual account. Our emphasis is on useful and practical rather than theoretically precise.

In contrast, Dave’s description of story as being an “aesthetic experience, a means of recollection or persuasion as much or more than entertainment, a form of resonance with out past and future” falls into the category of ‘interesting but useless.’

We remain convinced that being able to identify a story is an important skill. Thestorytest is intended to help people develop that skill. Try it for yourself. Please let us know what you think.

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Exploring employee engagement

Posted by Mark Schenk - March 28, 2011
Filed in Employee Engagement, Leadership

We have been using narrative approaches for many years to help organisations with employee engagement. This 4 minute youtube video gives some insights into some of the things we’ve notice working in this field and some examples of behaviours that can build or undermine engagement. In 2009, we also posted a detailed description of how narrative can be applied to this challenge.

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True importance

Posted by Shawn Callahan - March 24, 2011
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling, Leadership

This story was told the other day by General David Petraeus (The head of all international forces in Afghanistan) just before a press conference illustrating the meaning of true importance.

“This was about 20 years ago when I was the aide to the Army Chief of Staff in the Pentagon and Colin Powell was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.One of my fellow aides overheard the joint chiefs killing time before they were waiting for the arrival of a foreign dignitary. And the topic of conversation turned to examples of true importance. And what it really meant to be truly important.And after a bit of banter, one of the chiefs offered what seemed to be quite a good opinion on this.

In my view, he said, true importance is a meeting with the President of the United States in the Oval Office, during which the President asks all of the other attendees to leave so that he can do a ‘one on one’ just with you.

All the chiefs nodded at that.

But then another chief chimed in. ‘Actually chiefs, he asserted, ‘true importance is a ‘one on one’ meeting with the President in the Oval Office during which the President is so intent on what you are saying that he doesn’t even answer the hotline when it rings’.

Well that had all the heads nodding in agreement. Until General Powell, a man who had, of course, as the National Security Advisor, spent quite a bit of time in the Oval Office, settled the question once and for all.

Chiefs,” he said authoritatively, “true importance is a personal meeting with the President in the Oval Office, during which when the hotline rings, the President answers the phone, holds it out and says – Here Colin, it’s for you”.

HT to Victoria Ward. Source: The Guardian

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TheStoryTest–build your skill in spotting stories

Posted by Shawn Callahan - March 20, 2011
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling

We developed to help you build your skill to identify stories. Quite frankly it’s hard to be a good storyteller if you can’t tell the difference between a story and say, an opinion, or an analogy or even a case study. A good storyteller’s ears prick up as soon as one starts and they also notice when no stories are being told. has 10 examples of stories and non-stories and your job is to decide which is which. At the end you’ll get a score and get a link to the answers. We want as many people as possible in every organisation in the world to build their story intelligence. It will help bring more humanity to organisations. was born from the observation that many good folk who came to our Storytelling for Business Leaders training couldn’t say for certain when a story was told. Probably about 70% were either unsure or totally off base. By the way, if you were wondering if I ‘ve told any stories so far in this post, the answer is no.

Just this week I was reminded of just how poor we are at seeing stories. Like everyone else in the story business I’m excited about Peter Guber’s new book on storytelling, Tell to Win. So when I discovered he was interviewed by Harvard Business I clicked on over and watched the 6 min video. I joked to my colleague Kevin before watching it saying “wouldn’t it be funny if he didn’t tell any stories.” Well you could bowl me over with a fluffy croissant; there wasn’t a single story in sight. A number of friends also sent me this video and I replied back saying how remarkable it was that Peter didn’t tell any stories and on more than one occasion my correspondent replied to the effect, “bloody hell, I didn’t even notice.”

By the way, the problem is rarely an inability to see enough stories, rather we often see stories in everything, even when there are none to be found. It’s because we humans are all story creating creatures who make up stories to explain anything that doesn’t quite make sense. We feel safer if we have the story.

Now, you are probably wondering, so what makes a story (and I don’t mean what makes a good story–that’s another thing altogether)? Before we answer that question go and try your skill on TheStoryTest and then we will point you to the basics of how to spot stories. Once you can do it consistently your storytelling will take off.


Using Concrete and Specific Examples

Posted by Kevin Bishop - March 9, 2011
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication, Strategy

One of the basic requirements for any form of successful communication is the listener understands what’s being said. However we often face the challenge when trying to get our message understood of the “curse of knowledge“.

Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.

The term was first coined in 1990 by a Stanford University graduate named Elizabeth Newton. She created a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: ‘tapper’ or ‘listener’. Each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song, such as “Happy Birthday,” and tap out the rhythm on a table. The listener’s job was to simply guess the song.

120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5%. But before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%. The tappers got their message across one time in 40, but they thought they would get it across one time in two. Why?

When a tapper taps, they are hearing the song in their head. Go ahead and try it for yourself – tap out ‘Happy Birthday’. It’s impossible to avoid hearing the tune in your head. Meanwhile, the listeners can’t hear that tune – all they can hear is a bunch of disconnected taps, like a kind of strange Morse code.

It’s hard to be a tapper. The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge. When they’re tapping, they can’t imagine what it’s like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song.

So, what can you do to overcome the curse of knowledge, especially if you work in very specialised areas full of jargon, technical speak and acronyms? Use specific, concrete examples.

Specific, concrete examples (aka stories) work particularly well in overcoming the curse of knowledge, because they allow us to give examples that people create and can ‘see’ in their own minds. It takes the abstractions and the jargon and makes them real by allowing the listener to understand what you actually mean.

For example, the other day I was working with a large financial services organisation and they were showing me a clip of their CEO talking about their four focus areas for 2011. In it the CEO said; “We are not easy to do business with” and then moved on to talk about the initiatives underway to rectify this.

As I watched all I could think was; “What do you mean, please give me an example so I can understand”. Don’t you think a short story showing how difficult they are to do business with would have really helped viewers understand what they meant as well as making the video much more compelling? Imagine how much more compelling it could have been if that story was also about the human impact on customers?

The CEO knew exactly what they meant by the term “We are not easy to do business with” but I suspect across the organisation there were many people who didn’t.

In Made to Stick Dan and Chip Heath tell a story about how FedEx used a specific example to bring to life the company’s strategic aim of being “most reliable shipping company in the world.” “In New York, a FedEx delivery truck broke down and the replacement van was running late. The driver initially delivered a few packages on foot; but then, despairing of finishing her route on time, she managed to persuade a competitor’s driver to take her to her last few stops.” Stories like this are tangible demonstrations of the company’s strategy and help take abstract notions and make them real for people to understand.

So if you want to make sure you are avoiding the curse of knowledge and reducing the gap between you as the ‘tappers’ and your audience as the ‘listeners’ use concrete and specific examples. When I say “concrete and specific”, I mean focus down on a specific moment and tell a story about that. This would mean instead of saying “delays in our mortgage process” is an example of “difficult to business with”, tell a story. Maybe:

Barbara Jones, a customer since she was at school, had shifted out of her house that day. She had packed all of her furniture into a removal truck, and was now parked outside the house she thought she had just brought being told by us there was a delay in processing her mortgage approval. She was now facing the prospect of a two day delay, with no where to stay, a furniture truck full of her everything she owned and her cat in a cage on the back seat. All because of the failings of our mortgage process.

Do these two things feel somewhat different?


How to connect with the “I’m Like You” story

Posted by Shawn Callahan - March 1, 2011
Filed in Business storytelling


Annette Simmons says that there are some story types you just should know and be able to tell, namely: Who am I? and Why am I here? I’d like to add another story type which will help you to connect, which I’ll call the “I’m Like You” story.

Robert Cialdini describes a fascinating experiment in his book Influence, which I’ll recall from memory. The experimenters write a letter first in English and slip it into a wallet, include some cash and then leave the wallet in a public place. When they left the wallet in a predominantly English speaking neighbourhood the chances of it being returned were much higher than leaving it in a non-English speaking neighbourhood. Then they wrote the letter in Italian and as you might expect the letter was returned more often than not when it was left in the Italian neighbourhood and so on. People like people who are more like them.

Last year Mark and I were giving a talk to the commercial division of an insurance company on how to be better business storytellers. We were told before hand that the newly appointed CEO would arrive somewhere in the middle of the workshop to give the group of 200 or so people a short talk. This was the CEO’s first encounter with the commercial division. The CEO’s minder gave me the signal that the Chief was ready to talk and he strode in confidently and said, “One of my first jobs in the UK was underwriting water boilers in the north of England; they wouldn’t trust me with anything more complicated. I remember one very cold morning …”

The CEO set about telling three short stories of how he’d done insurance work in the past and how he’d had some understanding of the work the division did. At the same time he didn’t make himself out as an expert, rather he was clearly sympathetic to some of the challenges the job presented. The stories, like all good personal anecdotes, gave everyone a sense of the type of person he was: no nonsense, hard working, fair, with a sense of humour. Of course it’s impossible to tell what people were thinking but the audience body language suggested he had their attention.

We can relax a little when we know the people we’re with are like us. We speak the same language (including the jargon), hold similar values, have similar interests and share similar stories of success and failure. There’s a much better chance that when we are with people like us they will care what we think and say.

But you can’t merely assert you’re like others. You need to provide the evidence, and in social settings evidence is supplied as stories. You need to tell I’m Like You stories.

Now here’s the catch: we judge stories on their relevance and plausibility. In this case relevance is rarely a problem because any story that shows you have some similar experience as your audience will help make the connection.

However, if you haven’t worked a salary job for a single day in your life, are a multi-millionaire inherited from your aristocratic family and then attempt to tell a story of how you toughed it out as a young fella as a way to connect to, say, your factory worker constituents (which UK politician might I be thinking about?), then there’s a good chance their bullshit detectors will sound loudly.

So start with your audience. Understand what they do. What do they value? Then search your own personal experience for something similar. Eek out an anecdote no matter how small that shows you have lived some of their life. If you come up empty think about you parents’ experiences. Never pass their stories off as your own (moral sin of storytelling) rather just tell people what they’ve told you. For example, my father was a US Marine and I’ve shared some of his experiences which helped me connect to military folk I’ve worked with over the years. And if you still have nothing don’t even try to pretend. That’s when you rely on the other story types to help you connect.

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