Let’s catch up over coffee
Last October, I received a call from Shawn Callahan, to see if we could catch up over coffee when he was next in Auckland.
Shawn and I had been colleagues at IBM and he came to New Zealand in 2003 to help with a major client engagement where we used anecdote circles (where people tell their stories about their experiences with a particular organisation or series of events) to help that client better understand the multiple perspectives their stakeholders had.
The narrative techniques were a particularly effective way to engage with a wide range of stakeholders.
A Trans-Tasman collaboration is born
Shawn and I had remained in contact over the years after he left IBM to set up Anecdote in 2004, and so when he asked if I would like to become a Partner of Anecdote, to sell and deliver Storytelling for Leaders programmes in New Zealand, it didn’t take too long for me to say “yes”.
I had recently left IBM to set up my own consulting business in the areas of organisation design and change management, and I saw the SFL programme as being very complementary to what I am doing for my clients.
The projects I’ve done for clients in the past 18 months have been quite varied. I’ve helped one organisation in the Distribution sector, which is going through a massive transformation, to develop a change strategy and framework, which they are using to build capability for leaders and HR Business Partners to more effectively deliver change.
Stories are powerful – we all know that. So powerful that, sometimes, a single example can overwhelm a wheelbarrow full of facts.
Business storytelling sceptics
I came across an example of this in mid-2012. I was having lunch at a restaurant in Melbourne – reputedly the best laksa restaurant in town. I was meeting some of the people at the table for the first time, so the conversation got around to ‘so what do you do for a living?’
One guy was very interested when I explained that my work is in the field of business storytelling. He asked a few questions, but was pretty sarcastic about storytelling. He went on to explain that he was a member of the Victorian branch of the Australian Sceptics Society (their website describes them as “an evidence-based organisation run by volunteer members”).
He explained that he has done lots of research on acupuncture and can scientifically prove that there is no evidence that supports the contention that acupuncture works or even to support the existence of Qi (pronounced ‘chee’) – the body’s energy field that is manipulated through acupuncture. He described the following experience:
Have you ever heard someone say, that picture really tells a story? When I first heard someone say this I just couldn’t see it. How could a single image tell a story? Surely a story is a set of events culminating into something unexpected. There needs to be more than a single image for it to be a story.
Back in 1981 a calendar was published featuring a graffitied wall in Auckland. Four foot high and sprayed on concrete was the sentence: “Ralph, come back, it was only a rash”.1 Within an instant of reading that line I was imagining what happened with Ralph and his partner, the break up, the accusations. But what might happen next? Will there be a reconciliation, a reunion? I was given the middle of the story and I provided the beginning and the end.
Pictures can produce the same effect. I was recently in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. I hired the audio tour and the friendly audio guide told me there are paintings throughout the gallery marked as the must see pieces. I looked at these pictures closely and many of them, especially the ones that included people, had that quality of making you wonder what happened before and what might happen next. The portraits often had subjects doing something: sharpening a scythe, mending clothes, walking toward a small house at sunset. Even the paintings devoid of people had things going on suggesting something just happening. In one of Van Gogh’s last paintings there’s a yellow field of wheat swirling in the wind with crows flying away. What scared the crows? They’ll probably come back and ruin the farmer’s crop. That was my story. Perhaps good painting makes us feel something because we are completing a story that the painting triggers.
How stories help us predict
Humans are hard-wired to make up a story, to make sense of what’s happening around them. Telling ourselves a story helps us predict what might happen next. It gives us context. Prediction makes us feel safe. To know what is likely to happen next helps us to decide what to do.
There was a terrific experiment done a few years ago that nicely illustrates how stories help us predict. The scientists recorded a story told by a subject while she was in a MRI brain scanner. Then they played the audio of her story to other participants as they took turns to have their brains scanned. And to everyone’s surprise the brain imagery from the story-teller synced with the story-listeners. That’s to say when the young woman recounted her prom night events her brain lit up in a certain way as things unfolded, and by just listening to the story the others brains lit up the same way. There was, however, one exception. Every now and then the listeners brain patterns would get ahead of the story. When this happened they were predicting what comes next. Of course this can only happen when it’s a story. It’s very hard, for example, to predict the next dot point in a PowerPoint deck.
When to find a strategic narrative
Our story completion skills work pretty well for us most of the time. We can predict quite accurately what’s going to happen next. But in times of change it is quite possible for competing stories to emerge across an organisation resulting in people working at cross purposes. When everyone has a different story everyone is shooting off in every direction like a startled colony of rabbits.
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Imagine you’re in an audience with 100 colleagues. You’re waiting to hear from your leader. It’s the monthly briefing. He takes the stage. A quiet rolls across the audience. He clears his throat and says, “I’d like to tell you a story.”
What are you thinking when he says that? What’s your gut response?
Most people tell me that they groan and think “do we have time for stories?” or “just give me the facts” or “this is not a performance, it’s business, get on with it.”
Now imagine another scenario. You are in that same audience again and this time the leader steps up to the mic and says, “Something important happened a couple of weeks ago I’d like to share with you.”
Now what are you thinking? If you are like most people I pose this scenario to you’re thinking “What happened? Please tell me.”
Of course in scenario two you will be also telling a story. You just don’t use the dreaded s-word. No, do not mention stories!
I head off to Europe on Saturday. I’ll be speaking at the World Communication Forum in Davos on the 10-11 March and then heading over to Berlin to run a public Storytelling for Leaders program in Berlin. At the Berlin event we will welcoming some new partners to Anecdote from Belgium and the UK, which is exciting.
We’re still keen to meet more potential partners who have a successful leadership development practice that would like to explore the possibility of becoming an Anecdote partner. Our partners are typically practitioners with deep experience working with Global 1000 corporations, great facilitators, and really want to help leaders be their very best. It’s great to meet face to face, so if you would like to catch up while I’m in Europe I could meet early on Friday 13th in Hannover or Wednesday 18th in Berlin. Please send an email to email@example.com.
Every large change program invariably starts with enthusiasm, good intentions and an energy spike, even if there are naysayers. But as time wears on, it’s easy for everyone to lose sight of the company’s higher purpose. When that happens, morale – and ultimately performance – slumps. And when a company slides into a dip, it often takes an even greater effort to pull it out of its malaise than it did to kickstart the program in the first place.
A few years ago Anecdote helped a global resources company with this very problem. They were implementing SAP globally, and a year into the program they realised that their global CFOs were unable to explain why the program was so vital to the success of the business, that people’s lives would benefit. Everyone had gotten lost in the detail of the project.
Reminding people of the overarching purpose of an effort has a significant impact on performance. Here’s one piece of research that demonstrates this.
Purpose boosts productivity
In 2008, Adam Grant, a Wharton business school professor, ran a fascinating experiment into the effect of reminding people of the purpose of their work. He recruited participants from a university call centre that asked for donations for student scholarships, and divided them into three groups. The first group was told stories that reminded them of the personal significance of their job – how well it paid, the good working hours, the new skills learned and so on. The second group heard stories about how their work made a difference to the scholarship recipients, how it positively affected these people’s lives. The third group was the control group and didn’t hear any stories.
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In 2014, with the help of several colleagues, Andrew Carton, Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School, set about studying how the specific language of leader rhetoric impacts on productivity.
The researchers analysed the vision statements of 151 American hospitals, looking specifically at those related to cardiology units. They wanted to assess how effective these corporate statements of purpose were when it came to the service provided to heart attack patients, which they did by examining readmission rates for such patients within a month of the original illness. They discovered that statements with a high proportion of image-based words and relatively few values had the greatest effect on employee performance (less readmissions), whereas those with more values than vision, or simply not much vision (lacking vivid imagery), had the least effect (more readmissions).
It turns out that leaders often use concepts rather than images to communicate purpose. So they might talk in generic terms about a company becoming a leading retailer of luxury goods, rather than talking memorably about seeing more customers smile as they head home clutching their new handbag. They also tend to overuse values – quality, innovation, accountability – which muddies the vision they are trying to convey. These characteristics may not have a huge impact on an individual employee’s ability to conjure up a standalone vision of what they’re working towards, but they do have an enormous effect on what the company’s shared vision will be. And as we all know, it’s the shared vision that really counts in organisational performance.
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Develop your own search image for stories
Once you’ve developed the ability to spot stories, the next habit is to actively notice them.
Early in the 20th century biologists observed how animals, such as birds, learn how to notice a specific variety of prey and how they become extremely good at finding them. For example, a bird can detect a specific type of worm or beetle at a distance and when they do we just stand there amazed at how they found it. Biologists call this a search image. We need to develop our own search image for stories.
The first thing to do is to keep an ear out for time markers. You’ll be surprised at just how many stories start this way and it’s a great way to start noticing stories around you.
Then take yourself to places where stories are told. Head down to the cafeteria, visit your local restaurant or diner, join in on those pop-up corridor conversations or arrive early for a meeting to hear the general chit chat, or stay after the formal part ends to hear what happens.
These informal parts of the meeting really matter. My friend Stuart French told me this story. A medical supplier that has its HQ in Australia has one of its offices in the US. The US guys felt on the outer because whenever they had a teleconference the communication equipment was only taken off mute when the proper part of the meeting started. They weren’t getting any of the chit chat. So Stuart suggested a small change in teleconference procedure. How about we let everyone hear the informal conversation at both ends of the meetings? It made a big difference, it brought their people closer together.
So go to these informal places and just listen. Notice the type of stories being told. How long are they? What are they about? Who features? Who are the heroes and who are the villains?
Finding the stories that have power
Now, notice how you respond to the stories. How do they make you feel? Do any give you a tingle of emotion? Keep a mental note of the stories that generate an emotion. These are the stories with power.
As the American author and poet, Maya Angelou, said, “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
This story created an immediate emotion for me when I read it.
The problem with a negative story
Being negative is an easy trap to fall into.
When trying to prove a point or change someone’s mind, the natural tendency is to use a story that has a negative point-of-view to warn against an outcome and perhaps shock the listener a little.
The problem with a negative story is that it is only a warning and it is only attention-grabbing. Using a stand-alone cautionary tale tells your audience how not to behave, but fails to fill the void with a better idea.
A powerful anecdote I recently heard could effectively be used in many settings. For instance, if you were coaching a young professional about how to handle questions regarding their level of expertise.
Sometimes the wrong explanation can hamper your ability to move ahead in your career. Anna visited a doctor to discuss an elective procedure. She asked the surgeon the very obvious question, “How many times have you done this operation?” The doctor’s response was, “Five.” With that answer, Anna resolved that she would not be his sixth.
Certainly every doctor – or any type of professional – needs to gain experience and practice, but there has to be a better answer to that question because no one wants to be the guinea pig.
This story is instructive, but only to a point. If the coaching ends here, many questions are left unanswered. Therefore, to truly change a mind, you also need to exemplify the desired behavior.
The perfect complement to a negative story
A second story that demonstrates the positive perspective is the perfect complement to the negative story.
A helpful secondary story could be:
There are many reasons why stories are not used in business settings. One of the reasons is that every story we tell reveals something about our character, and we tend to be very protective of our character. Another reason is an unwillingness to give out any personal information.
Turn what you say into a story
In August last year I was running a session helping people find examples to illustrate the business benefit of their products. I was listening to one participant speaking:
“I’ve got an example… I’m going on holidays soon, and have been doing the planning using XYZ Software. It’s very useful in identifying all the tasks that need to be done and keeping organised…” She continued talking for several minutes, maintaining the same vague, ambiguous speech pattern.
When she finished, I asked if she remembered the four things that indicate if something is a story or not (time marker, specific events, characters and something unanticipated). She nodded.
I explained that by adding in a few details she could turn what she’d said into a story. For example, I asked, “where are you going on your holiday and when?” She instantly turned to me and said “that’s none of your business”.
Keeping things impersonal is a barrier to storytelling
And she was right. It was none of my business.