In praise of small stories

Posted by Shawn Callahan - March 11, 2013
Filed in Business storytelling

Leaders should find and tell stories to help their people understand the concrete actions needed to get a job done, enact a business value or even implement a strategy. Stories are our user manuals for life.

There’s a tendency, however, for leaders to find and tell the big stories in the business—it’s human nature. For example, we did some work for one of the national supermarket chains and they wanted to embed the principle “take me, show me.” This simply means if a shopper asks, for example, what aisle the tofu is in, rather than quoting an aisle number they would take the shopper to where the product is located.

They started collecting stories and were so excited to find this one: an elderly gentlemen, who visits the supermarket regularly and knows the staff, falls over, hits his head and falls unconscious. The employees find his home address in his wallet and as he is taken to the hospital they drive  to his home to let his wife know what happened and then they take her to the hospital. The employee stays with the wife until they are certain everything is OK.

Great customer service, right. But how often does this happen? I would say, very rarely. And does it help embed “take me, show me”?

Impact frequency diagram 1

The supermarket accident incident is an example of a story that has low frequency and high impact, but overly focusing on it probably isn’t helping you achieve your business outcome of embedding the principle of “take me, show me.”

A better strategy is to find and tell the many smaller stories that are happening every day. For example, as the store manager you see David in aisle 23 being asked by a shopper where a product is. David is busy packing shelves but he steps down from his ladder, and with a smile, casually escorts the customer to the product. So now the store manager is talking to Gerry in aisle 12 and mentions what he just saw David did (i.e.., he tells the story) and how much he appreciates this behaviour. And of course, during the day he pops on over to David and praises him for his customer service.

Impact frequency diagram II

If the store manager tells the many small yet regularly occurring stories, each with a similar theme or message, a larger story emerges in the workplace that is the sum total of these many small stories. Employees start to see the evidence that this is how things work around here. Robert Cialdini’s concept of social proof is triggered and people will begin the adopt this behaviour: it’s what everyone else is doing.

Thanks to Kevin for the terrific conversation that sparked this post and for Daryl’s sketches.

One Response to “In praise of small stories”

  1. Shawn Callahan Says:

    “… the most lasting and significant positive effects result from small things, done consistently, in strategic places.”
    —David Allen, “Win the self-help game,” in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.