There is huge power in short stories used to illustrate a bigger point.
I was in London last November delivering a project for a UK government department. One of the things I miss most about the UK (along with Irn Bru, Jaffa Cakes and MOTD) is the weekend newspapers. You could get lost for days in any one of these, and be in equal measures informed, enthralled, entertained or outraged. The quality is just so good, and there is something for everyone.
I was reading The Times, and in the business section there was an article celebrating the 25th anniversary of the privatisation of British Gas, and contained a great example of the power of a short story to bring a bigger point to life.
The sale of British Gas really caught the public mood in 1986. It was central plank of the Thatcher Government’s aim to foster wider share ownership, in its own words, or bribe voters as the Labour opposition saw it.
The purchasing of shares was made incredibly easy and they were really targeted at the man and women on the street. The whole process was backed up with a whopping forty million pound advertising campaign.
On the day of the sale, 6.6 billion share orders were received, four times more than those available. A huge success, driven by the ‘average man’ entering the world of share ownership for the very first time. A massive change for British society and for British business.
At the very end of the article was this very short story that brought to life to me how much of a foreign a concept it was for people to be able to own shares:
“The story goes that no fewer than 10,000 newly created British Gas shareholders mistook their first dividend payment for a bill and sent it back, complete with an accompanying cheque”.
One sentence, but what a powerful way to bring one of the key concepts of the article alive. Owning shares, and receiving dividends from them, was so foreign that 10,000 people mistook them for a bill and actually sent them money back, rather than bank it themselves! Love it.
People need the gist: the context, the big picture, the why, before the details become important or meaningful. Read this piece of text from Drew Westen’s book ‘The Political Brain’.(1)
Yes. Its hard to read. It doesn’t make much sense and its entirely forgettable. But what happens if I tell you the text refers to doing your laundry? Suddenly it makes sense. Its a good example of what happens when we rush to the details, that tactics and the ‘what’ without taking the time to explain the ‘why’.
And yet, we often find ourselves going straight to the details and skipping over the context. This particularly applies to strategy – we are eager to tell people what we want them to do. And this is one of the reasons why a recent survey of 460 companies found that 80% of people don’t know or understand their organisation’s strategy.(2)
We’ve worked with nearly half of the ASX20 companies to turn their strategy into a strategic story and the results have been phenomenal. One of the reasons these stories work is that they explain why the strategy is being pursued. We recently had a call from one of our clients from a national organisation saying he’d just visited one of their remote sites in NSW and the staff there were able to give a pretty good overview of the company’s strategy.
For more information, read our recent article ‘How to make your strategy stick with a strategic story‘. And remember, people need to understand the gist before they can make sense of the details.
1. Drew Westen (2008). The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, page 143.
2. Vanson Bourne (2011). The link between strategic alignment and staff productivity: A survey of decision-makers in enterprise organisations. http://www.successfactors.co.uk/resources/resource-item/the-link-between-strategic-alignment-and-staff-productivity/
I’ve been in San Diego for the past three days – mainly holiday but with two speaking engagements for the annual leadership get-together for Sharp HealthCare. Its one of my biggest ever gigs with over 700 people present for each of the days.
At lunch yesterday with some of the folks at Sharp, one of the ladies from the sound booth asked me to clarify something I’d said. I’d mentioned Ned Kelly and described him as an infamous bushranger (outlaw) who had become something of a folk hero. So, Jill described that the folks in the sound booth were sure I’d said ‘Ned Kelly is a famous bushwanker’ and she wanted to know if that’s what I’d meant to say. This caused a huge outburst of laughter from everyone in the room. I’m 100% sure I said ‘bushranger’ and explained that ‘bushwanker’ would be highly inappropriate.
Sharp HealthCare are one of the major health providers in San Diego with 15,000 staff. I was really impressed with them – storytelling is one of their five ‘foundations’ and much of the day was devoted to sharing both staff and patient stories. Their vision is to be ‘the best health care system in the universe’. If you look at this clip by Dan Heath you’ll understand why I like this vision so much.
I have just got back from running our first ever Storytelling for Business Leaders course in Wellington, New Zealand last week. I thoroughly enjoyed the day, had a great group who told some terrific stories, and I am sure taught me as much as they learnt off me!
It was also a real treat to have an old friend of mine attend, one I had not seen since I left NZ for the UK nearly 9 years ago. She is also the most naturally gifted storyteller I have ever met.
When you talk to my friend you just marvel at the experiences she has, the interesting people she has meet, and situations she has got herself into.
Reflecting on how these seem to happen just to her I was reminded of a quote from a previous ‘Story quote of the week’ I posted about Ira Glass, host of This American Life, who said: “Great stories happen to those who can tell them” and boy she can tell them!
Following the course I asked if she would mind sharing a few more of her stories. She has been so kind as to write down a number of her more business related stories and I’m going to share a few of these with you all over the next few weeks. They are too good not be shared.
Back in 1997, I was working for a large law firm in Sydney. I had worked days and nights for months on a public float by the NSW Government of what, till then, had been a state asset. Quite often, I was the “only girl in the room”, but that didn’t phase me, and by and large, it didn’t matter to anyone else either. Finally, the prospectus was signed, and we had a signing ceremony at the State parliament. Everyone was in a pretty good mood. One of the older men that had been involved in the deal told me what a good job I’d done, said I should keep in touch, and took out his business card. And then stuck it in my cleavage.
I’m presenting our story work at KM Australia this year (24-26 July) and I’ll also be taking part in the debate, which has been organised in a friendly and fun way. We are debating whether tacit knowledge can and should be captured.
If you’d like to know more about the congress here’s the event blurb. I’ve been told that if you share this blog post with your Facebook friends or your Twitter followers, or any other social media channel for that matter, you’ll receive a 15% discount off the registration price.