It’s just over two weeks until I will be running our ‘Storytelling for Business Leaders’ workshop in Boston, MA.
Really looking forward to my time in the States and working with a number of different clients, as well as running this public workshop.
To read more about the course and to sign up, please go here.
Would be great to see you there.
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Shawn and I have spent the last couple of days working with a client helping them create their strategic story down in the Mornington Peninsula. There are certainly worse places in the world to spend a couple of days than at a winery in such a beautiful spot. It was a throughly enjoyable off-site, made even more so by working with such an energetic, passionate and fun bunch of people.
During lunch yesterday I noticed that Harry, the guy sitting beside me, was checking his emails, and on his screen was the image below from The Sun newspaper.
Obviously curious I asked him what that email was about. He laughed, and then explained it was from one of his guys who organised the teams lottery syndicate. That night was a $70 million jackpot prize on offer in the OZ Lotto, one of the biggest prizes in Australian lottery history, and as yet he hadn’t signed, or paid up.
There was no other text in the email. All the person did was send on this story about how an entire Spanish village won part of a £600 million ($960 million) lottery jackpot apart from one resident who got nothing because he didn’t buy a ticket.
That was it. They let the story do the convincing. And it worked.
Jonathan Gottschall, a literary scholar, has just written a piece for Fast Company called Why Storytelling is the Ultimate Weapon and in the process has set back the field of business storytelling with his emphasis on fictitious stories.
I can imagine that being a literary scholar gets Jonathan entwined in myths and legends and literary works to a point where it must be hard for him to see the real life stories told every moment of every day in a company. A good business storyteller recounts things that have happened to them or tells the stories they hear about in their company or other companies, and always for a business purpose. Only then should they throw in one or two fictitious tales. For me it’s all about understanding the difference between Big ‘S’ (fictitious, crafted, marketing) and little ‘s’ (real-life, experiences, anecdotes) stories. Jonathan is focussed on Big ‘S’ storytelling. Big ‘S’ should be left for Hollywood. Successful business people are more effective telling little ‘s’ stories.
The simple fact is, executives feel more comfortable with little ‘s’ stories and consequently more likely to tell them. I met a CEO the other night at a fund raising dinner. He told me he went to New York to take part in a business storytelling session conducted by actors and everyone had to act out their story. He said it was a painful experience. “I felt like an idiot, it just wasn’t my thing.” I shared the Big ‘S’ vs little ‘s’ idea and the relief on his face was instant. I said, “Now you have to get good at noticing stories and retelling them.” You only get the benefits of business storytelling if leaders are telling stories.
I agree with Jonathan’s point that we need to base business storytelling on a foundation of research. There is defintely a lack of story-specific research being done and applied. But if you dig you will find all sorts of gems like this one we wrote about on how our brains sync when we listen to a story. The research is emerging. Pratitioners need to seek it out and apply the findings.
Executives are wary of made up stories. They duck for cover when you mention fairytales, myths or legends. Most hate the idea of writing their story or acting out a story. It just smacks of hippy idealism and a big waste of time. Jonathan triggers all these stereotypes turning the ultimate weapon into a toothless tiger.
Greg Stephens, Lauren Silbert and Uri Hasson are Princeton University neuroscientists who in 2010 conducted a series of experiments showing that an audience’s brains light up (imagine they are all in a fMRI machine) the same way as the presenter’s brain when she tells a story. In their words, “Speaker and listener brain activity exhibits widespread coupling during communication.” The mere fact that our brain activity gets in sync when we share a story is pretty amazing but there are a couple of other findings which might be even more important. More on that later. But let’s start with what they did.
Their experiment (*1) starts with a young woman telling an unrehearsed story about her prom while she is hooked up to a fMRI machine–not the easiest task when telling a gripping story. They recorded her story and her brain activity. Her tale took about 15 minutes to tell.
Here’s my potted version of her story (you can read the full transcript in the extended version of the paper). It starts with the storyteller promising Charles she will go to the prom with him and then how she falls in love with another boy, Amir, and promptly forgets about her promise until Charles reminds her – awkward. She decides to keep her promise and on the big day she goes scuba diving with her family and the boat breaks down and she only gets home with five minutes to get ready for the dance. Prom night was tricky because Amir was there and she planned to hook up with him for the after-party but he was getting plastered so she had to drive him to the after-party while he played air guitar. They then see an accident and get distracted (probably by a sizzling guitar solo) and crash into the already smashed cars. The police question her and she gets a lucky break. They’re sent home without charge.
With that story duly recorded the researchers choose 12 people and asked each subject to listen to it while they lay in the fMRI tunnel. The first thing the researchers noticed was that the brain activity of the storyteller matched the brain activity of the listener–the same parts of the brain lit up on the fMRI. And as you would expect, there was a small time lag as the listener comprehended the story. The researchers were seeing the brain activity between the speaker and listener synchronise.
To test whether the listener was really responding to what was being said and not just responding to noise, they also recorded a version of the story in Russian and played this to their listening subjects. The result: when the story was in Russian there was no brain activity correlation. The listener had no idea what was being said.
Personally I think this next finding is the most significant. As I’ve said, you’d expect the brain activity of the listener to lag because it takes a moment to comprehend what’s being said. Remarkably, however, the researchers found many times when the brain activity of the listener preceded what was said. The listener was predicting what was coming next–something you can only do listening to a story. And here’s the kicker. The subjects who did more predicting did better at the comprehension test they did after they heard the story. Stories are meaningful, and really engaging stories where we are trying to predict what happens next are even more meaningful.
My one frustration with this research, however, is that the researchers seem to only select a story as their example of communication accidently because they didn’t go the next step and test the difference between what happens when a story is told compared to when it is a non-story such as an opinion. So I emailed Uri Hasson, the designated correspondence author for this research, and set out my concern. Here is his reply: “We didn’t quantify the level of B2B coupling for different communication styles so I can’t tell you the answer yet, but I share your intuition that story telling will evoke tighter coupling.”
(*1) Stephens, G.J., Silbert, L.J. & Hasson, U. 2010, ‘Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 107, no. 32, pp. 14425-30.