It seems that everyone is giving advice about stories and storytelling these days. And it irks me every time I hear a story ‘expert’ say that a story must have conflict and resolution. Really?
Take this morning’s offering from Copyblogger.com, which lists 5 reasons to use stories. Number 2 says,
Stories have conflict and resolution. This structure creates suspense and holds readers’ attention.
Whenever I hear something like this I immediately think of the exception, which for me is the coincidence story. I’ve talked about this before but at the risk of repeating myself too much a coincidence story is just when something happens that’s remarkable; it’s unlikely. People love coincidence stories. This American Life dedicated a whole show to them with the title, No Coincidence, No Story.
And it’s worth knowing that a coincidence story doesn’t have a hero. Hmmm, I thought stories must have a hero, facing a challenge. We are way too influenced by Hollywood. When you listen to stories told in organisations you get a whole new perspective.
Now, here’s the bare minimum you need to know to spot an oral story. I say oral story because that’s what we mainly work with at Anecdote. This is a fundamental skill for any narrative work.
Time marker, place marker or character: stories start in one of these three ways but orally they mostly start with time markers. So if you hear someone say, “On Tuesday …” or “A while back …” or “In 1991 …” there is a good chance you will hear a story.
Events: stories are about something happening; this event followed this event, which followed that event. Good stories help you see and feel what’s happening.
People: if you hear people’s names, and in particular if you hear dialogue, then you know you are in a story.
Unanticipated: A story is a promise to the listener that they will learn something new. It has to have something that is at least a little unexpected.
Now, to make it a business story is has to have a business point. You might even preface the story with the point, such as “To succeed in sales you really have to care.” Then you tell your story that illustrates what you mean.
What do your organisational values actually mean? Do you have a list of 4, 5, 6 one-word, abstract concepts such as integrity, responsive and agile that represent your values? You might even have a few paragraphs describing each value.
Most organisations I’ve worked with have something similar and it hasn’t helped them that much. These espoused values sound good but just like having a glorious view from your office, after a while they become invisible. So, how do you keep them alive so people really know what they mean and care about them.
Earlier this year one of the banks asked us to collect stories to help their managers understand their values. They had connected their values to their performance management system and wanted to rate employees on how well they were living them. Both employees and managers didn’t really know what to say in the performance review about the values because they were unsure what they actually looked like in action.
One of the anecdotes from the bank was about a young lawyer. He’d just started with the bank and was asked to provide a series of legal documents to the folk over in retail. After he’d finished the work and sent it over to his client he realised he’d made a mistake. It wasn’t a huge mistake and chances were nobody would noticed it. At first he thought he’d let is slide but then he pull himself up and thought “is this the way I want to start my career as a lawyer?” and promptly called his client and told them what had happened. His client praised him for his honesty. He fixed the mistake and felt good about fessing up.
For the bank this is what integrity can look like. It also says something about what should happen when a mistake is found. It is one small example that illustrates integrity at the bank.
But one example is not enough. Managers and employees need a richer picture of their values and this comes from hearing a range of different stories that show a value in action.
In fact you need to create a systematic way to not only share the stories across the company but help people talk about what the story actually means to them. It’s only in this discussion that they make sense of the value.
Imagine if your your entire organisation is discussing the same story at the same time, say every month. Imagine the gradual but robust understanding everyone would have about what the values mean. And by telling their own stories (because hearing a story invariable prompts other stories to be told) they will, over time, begin to really own these values. They are no longer a set of abstract ideas handed down by the head office.
We have developed an approach to making this happen that makes use of our story bank software (Zahmoo.com) backed by a systematic and structured process. And once it is in place you can use it for any number of other story-led conversations, such as examples of your strategy in action.
Have you ever had that feeling that your executive team is all saying they understand and support the strategy but you sense that they are not really on the same page?
This is a common occurrence and it becomes starkly apparent when we are helping a company translate their strategy to a story everyone can tell. And if you’re aware that this is likely to happen, the story process can really help your executives, in their gut, understand what the strategy really means.
Here’s what I think is happening. The strategy gets developed as an analytical and rational process (and quite rightly so) and the end result is a document. The document gets passed around the executive team for comments. It’s duly read and commented on and at that point those running the strategy process believe everyone understands and is on board with the strategy.
But something quite interesting happens when they have to tell the story of the strategy. Firstly, by telling the story of the strategy they feel what the strategy sounds like. And you can literally see executives squirm with aspects of the strategy as they say it. University of Michigan Professor, Karl Weick, says that we really don’t know what we know until we hear ourselves say it. He calls this sensemaking. Our executives are making sense of their strategy.
Also by telling the story the ownership of the strategy shifts from the strategy group or the CEO to the executive telling the story. It’s now their story and all of a sudden they want to make sure it aligns to what they truly believe.
Now, as they go through this process a crucial conversation happens, one which we are ready for and help facilitate, where they voice their concerns and more often than not the strategy evolves slightly. The outcome is a strategy everyone believes in, one that’s consistent across the executive team, one they can share in their own words and one they are enthusiastic to tell.
I’ve recently had the pleasure working with World Vision Australia. In case you don’t know them, they’re Australia’s largest charity and they focus on child and community well-being across the world. You might have sponsored a child through World Vision.
A few weeks ago I caught up with their CEO, Tim Costello, and I was struck by his warmth and charm and immediately recognised his superb storytelling skills. I’m often asked, “Who are the storytelling CEOs?” And I would definitely add Tim to that list.
Tim was adept at a type of story I don’t hear that often, the analogy story. Here are a couple of examples Tim shared with me which should give you a pretty good idea of what I mean.
Tim often gets the question, “So, what percentage of the money donated goes to running World Vision?” I can hear the exasperation in Tim’s voice as a tells me this.
Here’s the story he told (in my words) to help me understand his frustration.
“Imagine you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer and your only hope rests with undergoing a complicated and risky surgery. You research each surgeon on your short-list and you ask each one, “So, what percentage of your income goes to running your business?”
“Of course this is ridiculous. You would ask about their success rate, how often they’ve done the surgery and what other complications might happen. But we rarely get asked how successful our programs are by the general public. And they are extremely successful.”
The other analogy story Tim told me was this.
“Ten years ago, or more,” he said, “the only way you could get to the countries and communities who needed help was through organisations like ours. But these days people can just jump on a plane and land on the doorstep of any stricken community wanting to help.”
“It’s a bit like someone in Ethiopia reading online about Australia’s problems reforming our education system, then hopping on a plane, catching a cab out to a local Primary School and fronting up to the principal offering to help.
The principal might ask, “Do you understand how our education system works in Australia?”
“No, I don’t. But I’m here to help,” replies our Good Samaritan.
“How’s your English then?” asks the principal.
“Not very good. But I’m here to help,” says the Good Samaritan.”
Look our for analogies from everyday life, something that everyone can relate to, and think about how that situation relates to what you are trying to achieve at work, to the obstacles and misconceptions. Then jot them down and look for places to tell ’em.