More thoughts on why we retell stories

Posted by Shawn Callahan - April 13, 2012
Filed in Business storytelling

The following few paragraphs are part of an exercise I’m doing with Madelyn Blair. We’re writing an Essay in Two Voices, a format invented by Madelyn and Victoria Ward I believe. Here, however, you’re only hearing one voice, mine. My first part (500 words) is here. Here is my second part (250), which is partly in response to Madelyn’s first 500 words. Just as some context, you should know that Madelyn told some anecdotes about stories her grandparents used to tell her.
Family stories are such an interesting case. I know with my daughters they’d always request as youngsters a story I’d make up which we called “A Josie and Ellie story.” It had the same premise: two ordinary girls enter a magical world and have magical powers. Coincindentally, Josie and Ellie shared many charcateristics with my two daughters, apart from their names.
When reading your stories about your grandparents I could feel the warmth and patience they felt for you. It got me thinking that stories get retold when they make you feel something. I did a little investigation and found my hunch is supported by research showing that stories with emotion are more likely to get retold. In fact, stories that surprise or disgust us are particularly likely to be shared.1
Have you heard that story about the wife who cuts off the legs of the turkey and just throws them away before putting the bird in the oven? It’s a story that’s been retold umpteen times, even by us ( I think some of the reasons it gets retold is that it is about ordinary things (food, family, marriage), it’s a simple story that copes well with variation (sometimes it’s a turkey, a lamb roast etc) and there’s a clear reason why you would tell it (it conveys a lesson). It also has that surprise element. There’s probably no coincidence that stories in the Bible share these characteristics.
Everyone says emotion is a fundamental feature of stories. While this is true I think we need to delve deeper and work out ways to help people retain their emotions in their stories instead of washing them out to be what they’ve been told is more busines like.
1. Heath, C., Bell, C. & Sternberg, E. 2001, ‘Emotional selection in memes: The case of urban legends’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 81, no. 6, pp. 1028-41.


Venue announced – The Harvard Club of Boston

Posted by Kevin Bishop - April 10, 2012
Filed in Business storytelling, News

We can now confirm the venue for our ‘Storytelling for Business Leaders’ workshops in Boston, on the 5th June, is the Harvard Club of Boston.
It is a truly stunning venue. Full details about it can be found here. If only those walls could talk!
To read more about the course itself and to make use of the ‘Early Bird’ rates please go to the event page.
Really hope you can join me for a great day learning about story work at this amazing venue.

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Triggering stories and action through competition

When asked for the secret of his success in the steel industry, American industrialist Charles Schwab (1862-1939) always talked about using praise, not criticism, giving liberal bonuses for work well done, and “appeal[ing] to the American spirit of conquest in my men, the spirit of doing things better than anyone has ever done them before.”

He liked to tell this story, retold in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, about how he handled an unproductive steel mill:

Schwab had a mill manager whose people weren’t producing their quota. “How is it that a manager as capable as you can’t make this mill turn out what it should?””I don’t know,” the manager replied. “I’ve coaxed the men, I’ve pushed them, I’ve sworn and cussed, I’ve threatened them with damnation and being fired. But nothing works. They just won’t produce.”

Schwab asked the manager for a piece of chalk, and asked: “How many heats did your shift make today?”


Schwab chalked a big figure six on the floor. When the night shift came in, they saw the “6″ and asked what it meant. “The big boss was in here today, he asked us how many heats we made, and we told him six. He chalked it down on the floor.”

The next morning Schwab walked through the mill again. The night shift had rubbed out “6″ and replaced it with a big “7.”

When the day shift reported for work the next morning, they saw a big “7″ chalked on the floor. So the night shift thought they were better than the day shift did they? Well, they would show the night shift a thing or two. The crew pitched in with enthusiasm, and when they quit that night, they left behind them an enormous, swaggering “10.”

Shortly, this mill, which had been lagging way behind in production, was turning out more work than any other mill in the plant.”

Schwab’s improvised just-in-time leader board was simple, quick, cheap and powerful. Leaderboards can stimulate and motivate people to succeed. Making outcomes more visible to more people guarantees more discussion about who’s successful and why. Leaderboards are therefore a terrific way to trigger stories.

Did you see Dave’s team is leading this week, did you hear about that big deal they did last week? See Tracey’s guys have gone up since last week after she had them on that training course? What do you think is going on with Gary’s team to bomb that badly?

Visible results, tied in with competition, trigger stories. This is a central tenant of the whole gamification movement

Carnegie concludes his anecdote by quoting Schwab: “The way to get things done is to stimulate competition. I do not mean in a sordid, money-getting way, but in the desire to excell.”

Obviously, no sane organisation wants a competition right out of David Mamet’s Glengarry, Glen Ross. But if it drives the right behaviours and triggers the right stories then it can be a great way to build motivation and increase performance.

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That’s how we do it

Posted by Mark Schenk - April 5, 2012
Filed in Anecdotes

We’ve all heard it. “That’s how we do things around here.” It brooks no argument and is a strong signal that changing the behaviour might be difficult. That is, of course, if you tackle the issue directly.

An alternative might be to use this little story that was told by a taxi driver as I travelled from Coffs Harbour to Bellingen last week. The cabbie had worked as a car salesman for Toyota in a previous life. Apparently they got lots of sales training and Tom Hopkins from the US did some of the training. Tom had told his class about a family experience.

A few years ago I met my future mother-in-law for the first time. She was preparing a roast dinner. As she readied the lamb to go into the oven, I watched her cut off the shank and throw it in the bin. She then placed the tray in the oven. I was bewildered. I asked why she did it and the reply was “we always do that.” I didn’t say anything else as I didn’t want to make a scene, especially as this was the first time I had met her.

A year or so later, my new wife was preparing a lamb roast. Just as her mother had done previously, my wife removed the shank and disposed of it. Unable to contain myself, I asked why she had done that. “We’ve always done that” she replied. “But why?” I asked. “I don’t know. That’s what our family have always done” was her answer. Whenever we would have a lamb roast the same thing would happen.

Years later we were visiting my wife’s grandmother in her home where she had lived for nearly 50 years. She was preparing a lamb roast. I watched her remove the shank and throw it in the bin before placing the tray in the oven. Unable to contain myself I said “forgive me, I don’t mean to be rude, but can you tell me why you did that?” “Of course I can“ she said. “This old house has only got a tiny oven and I can’t fit the entire roast in with the shank still attached.”

Coincidentally, the very next day I was working with a group and someone said “we’ve always done it that way” and couldn’t explain why when I asked. The ‘lamb roast’ story helped him reconsider his position.

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Story triggering – reinforcing beliefs

I did a blog post in February about reconnecting with an old friend of mine, and how she is one of the most gifted storytellers I know. In that post I said I would be sharing some more of her stories, and here is one she shared with me recently.

A few years back, I attended a reception at Parliament. We wanted to share with selected MPs and officials the results of our research, which showed the considerable contribution our industry made to the country’s economy. One of the issues that both sides of the House had had with our industry in the past is that the industry wasn’t united, and there was ongoing disharmony. After a round of drinks, the CEO began our presentation. He hadn’t got more than a few slides in when the Chairman stood up from the floor, and took over the presentation, leaving the CEO still standing at the podium looking like a deer in the headlights.

Can you imagine how the story of disharmony that the audience were already telling themselves would have just been confirmed as true? How the belief of not being joined up was reinforced by these actions?
This is a classic case of story triggering. By simply taking over from the CEO the Chairman triggered a story amongst the audience, a story that just reinforced their existing beliefs.
There was nothing that could have been said by the Chairmen, or the CEO for that matter, that changed this belief. As the saying goes; “You can’t talk your way out of something you have acted your way into“.

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