Starting with your point doubles your business story recall

Posted by Shawn Callahan - November 21, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication

We judge stories we hear at work in three ways. First, is it plausible, did this really happen? Second, is this relevant, can it help me? Third, is it interesting, am I going to enjoy this?

Therefore when we tell a business story it’s important to make clear its relevance at the outset. We need to know what you’re talking about and why you are telling me and this helps significantly with business story recall.


There’s a clever study that shows just how important it is to make clear your topic and your point at the outset. John Bransford and Marcia Johnson, from New York University, asked participants to listen to the following paragraph and remember it:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell. After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.

We’ve shown this paragraph to perhaps thousands of workshop participants and needless to say they were universally bamboozled. I imagine you were too.
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Book review – Let’s Stop Meeting Like This

Posted by Shawn Callahan - November 19, 2014
Filed in Culture

Last week Victoria Ward and I wrote an ‘essay in two voices’ giving our impressions of a book called ‘Let’s Stop Meeting Like This‘ by Dick and Emily Axelrod. The ‘essay in two voices’ technique was developed by my good friend Madelyn Blair. Here’s a description of how it works in detail, but in a nutshell both authors write 500 words on a topic. We share it and then respond to each others piece with 250 words. Again we share that and respond with 150 words and so on until we end up with a 140 character, and of course very tweetable, statement.

Let’s start with Victoria’s 500 words and the back and forth and then we will switch to my piece and what followed.

Right at the end Victoria and I offer some reflections on the process.

Canoe team

Victoria starts. 500 words

Changing how organisations have meetings is at the heart of Sparknow’s practice. And I know it’s at the heart of much of Anecdote’s work too. Reading this book together with you, Shawn, matters to me as a way of exploring that practice together.

The authors quote Charles Duhigg on the power of keystone habits, habits so powerful that if you change those you change the organisation. That’s a reminder of how hard it is to change meetings. Rewiring for new habits takes massive, sustained, effort.

The central ‘meeting canoe’ metaphor has a useful simplicity (although I’m not sure why it’s a canoe: is it that we all stop paddling our own and get in one we paddle together? Perhaps I skimmed that part.) The structure of the meeting canoe (welcome, connect, discover, elicit, decide, attend) emphasises those things that are too easy to overlook, e.g. start by creating connections, both between people, and with the task. And the underlying principles of creating a learning environment: create a shared view of the reality you are facing, make sense of the reality, and neither flee from nor seek prematurely to fix it. Yes.

Story head on, I like the attention to beginnings and endings. There is a ‘rubber band’ analogy: participants discover the way things are and dream about the future, this creates a tension that propels them towards that future. That feels like story too. I was more taken with the ‘rubber band’ than the ‘meeting canoe’. The authors emphasise the power of talking about the future as if it were the present. Yes! Madelyn Blair of Pelerei taught me long ago with her future story.

I spend hours thinking about endings, and this as a Gestalt moment, was the single most useful new idea. Attending to the end follows a natural cycle, the cycle of experience: failure to attend to the end interrupts this natural cycle and makes future work harder than it needs to be.

There were handy techniques sprinkled through the book, especially the first aid for meetings, and in particular the role of the leader in naming rotten underlying patterns in which the meeting is stuck, in a way that allows everyone to shift on from them.

What was missing then? Two things in particular for me. The ‘red thread’ of the longer narrative in which the meeting sits: what happened before and before that, what happens after and after that? The meeting is now, but it sits in a long now. Secondly, a big hole was curation. How are you recording the meeting, and how do the different stories of the meeting travel for it to have a ripple effect, or which parts of it are private, necessarily, because it’s a hidden shared moment? None of that was really covered, and that’s a vital part of the process.

Shawn responds. 250

Thanks for practising the canoe Victoria. I felt welcomed to this essay. It’s probably a habit for you, just automatic, but it really affected the way I read what you wrote. It was inviting and exploratory. I now wonder how you read mine, which lacked such an inviting beginning.

It’s interesting we both picked up on the role of the larger narrative, or should I say, narratives. These stories stroll into the meeting with all the participants. Then there are the stories of what happened in the meeting. What’s done and how it’s done will be just as important as what’s said.

I’m very interested in how new habits form. It’s hard to create a new habit but it would be even harder to help groups of people to create them. I guess this is culture change. My sense is action comes before intention, which sounds arse-about but I reckon you act your way into a new way of thinking.

I was always a bit loose-string on the importance of beginnings, middles and ends in stories. It seemed to be in the category of true but useless. Then I met Paul Costello who showed me how signposting these parts of a story can really help in the journey. I now call out in the middles of my workshops and quickly review the past and ask the participants if they want to modify anything we have planned for the future. Damn, I’ve run out of space for the ending.
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How to spot business storytelling training that delivers

Posted by Shawn Callahan - November 12, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling

It seems everyone is offering business storytelling training these days. It was certainly rare when we started working with stories 10 years ago but all that’s changed. Everyone is calling themselves a storyteller, every company, product and services ‘must’ have a story and every man and his dog is offering business storytelling training.

If you’re looking for business storytelling training that delivers for your leaders, how do you decide which training to choose? What makes a good program? While this advice I’m about to share is not free from self-interest, we offer a business storytelling program, I’m going to do my best to describe what I think a good program should have.

Learn from storytellers

Anyone teaching business storytelling must be proficient at telling business stories. Storytelling is a craft learned through imitation and practice. Just as good writers are good readers, good storytellers are great story-listeners.

But not everyone who is attempting to teach storytelling are storytellers. I remember attending a conference in Singapore and watched one of the speakers talk about business storytelling and in his 45 minute presentation didn’t utter a single anecdote. We heard that stories are memorable and how people are hardwired to understand stories etc. etc. but without using stories to illustrate the point. In my mind, it was a failure.

Learn business storytelling from business people

Leaders in large organisations should learn business storytelling from people who have worked in large organisations. Teachers with corporate experience understand the culture and constraints as well as the opportunities corporate life offers for business storytelling and this experience helps both teacher and journeyman speak the same language. Corporate experience matters because storytelling seems so foreign for many executives. They want to feel comfortable that they are being guided by someone who has done it before with people just like them.


Focus on forming a storytelling habit

A single workshop doesn’t change behaviour because storytelling is a habit requiring persistence and repetition to develop. Charles Duhigg’s excellent review of habit research shows us that creating a new habit is a process of finding a cue, executing a behaviour, and savouring a reward.1 If we apply it to forming a storytelling habit it starts when something happens that reminds you to share a story (the cue), you then share it (execute) and then experience pleasure (the reward). The pleasure comes from seeing the influence your story creates, how it changed people’s minds or even inspired action.

It can take up to a year to develop a habit and repetition of the new behaviour in the early stages increases the chances of a habit forming.2 So after the initial training the student needs ways to remind them to find and share business stories at work and then to notice the positive impact it has. After time they’ll crave sharing stories and the behaviour will become automatic. A new habit has formed.

So look for business storytelling training that has an ongoing program that triggers practice every week or every month at least for six months. Read the rest of this entry »


Making strategies stick – tackling anti-stories Part 2

Posted by Mark Schenk - November 6, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling

At Anecdote, much of our work is focused on making strategies stick by converting them into understandable, memorable and influential stories. We often discover entrenched views that worked against the new strategy. These ‘anti-stories’ must be identified and tackled to give your strategy a chance of succeeding.

This is our second post in a series of three on how to identify and tackle anti-stories.

The first post in the series covered some general approaches when tackling anti-stories. This post looks at five specific ways you can counter them.

Story listening

1. Challenge generalisations

Anti-stories are often communicated as generalisations such as these:

  • No-one ever gets to go to those events: they always select someone from upstairs”
  • “This has never worked, anywhere, ever.”
  • “We will never be able to hit those numbers.”

These can be particularly frustrating because in many cases the generalisations simply aren’t true.

So how do you challenge them? One simple method is to find and tell a story about when the generalisation has not been the case.

We recently worked with a superannuation fund that was about to invest significantly in their new digital strategy. Opponents claimed that it was a waste of money as many of their fund members were elderly and ‘old people don’t use the internet.’ To counter this anti-story, one participant described how he’d been at a family event on the weekend and one of the kids couldn’t get past a particular level of angry birds. He watched in amazement as his 82-year-old grandmother showed the child how to do it. He finished by saying “many people think old people don’t use technology, but my grandmother does, and recent data shows that 60% of new smart phone users are over 60.” It’s a great example of how a single specific instance can stop an anti-story cold.

Generalisations also tend to dissolve when examined closely. When you hear a generalisation that is undermining your strategy, take some time to consider it further. Pose questions like, ”Has anyone else had this experience?” and “Are there any examples where this wasn’t the case?“ Allow them to explore the generalisation and decide for themselves if it is valid or not.

2. Mea culpa

Are you perfect? No. Neither are we. We all get things wrong from time to time. There is a good side to this in that admitting our shortcomings and faults is a powerful way of showing people that lessons have been learnt and things are going to change.

Past behavior can work against your new strategy.  For example, if you are introducing new values, people won’t be too excited about ‘respecting each other’ if you have a reputation for chewing staff members out publicly.

The ‘mea culpa strategy’ involves finding and recounting a moment when you did the wrong thing.  In 2011, we were helping an insurance company craft their strategic story. The Finance Manager stood up to tell her version of the strategic story around growth through acquisition: “I always used to think acquisitions were about the numbers, about how the figures looked on the page and the calculations we used to get there. I was wrong. Acquisitions are about people.”

You could have heard a pin drop as she talked about her past, about how she had always been the ‘numbers girl’ who had joined the organisation specifically to do deals and to use all of her intellect and experience to drive those deals. She admitted her behaviour had bordered on the cold-hearted, that people had just been numbers, costs to be considered in the overall calculations, nothing more. She then shared a story about how she had come to realise the importance of people, and relations and culture, in successful acquisitions. She almost seemed ashamed of how she used to be.

It was a very powerful moment, one that sent a clear message to all of those listening that things would be different in the future.

3. Show a different perspective

The first post in this series started with an example of integrating three government departments into a single organisation. Integration efforts were frustrated by the ‘divorce anti-story’. The three departments had been brought together 17 years before but it didn’t succeed and they were separated again – it was called ‘the great divorce’.

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Business storytelling training – Melbourne, Australia

Posted by Shawn Callahan - November 3, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling, News

Storytelling for Leaders

Influence without relying on authority.

Build fast rapport.

Change minds and inspire action.

Anecdote’s Storytelling for Leaders program will teach you the techniques you need to better influence, engage and inspire others – just as hundreds of leaders already have, from Melbourne to New York, London to Singapore.

This is the last business storytelling training session in Australia for 2014. 11th December. You can get your tickets here.

Organisations are changing quickly. Structures are flatter and reporting lines more complex. Staff and customers are spread around the world. And everyone is deafened by the ‘noise’ of information inundation. Yet the modern leader still needs to be able to influence and persuade in this constantly fluid environment.

The sharing of stories orally is a powerful way of cutting through. When we tell stories, people ‘get’ what we are saying – and they remember it. This is the case whether we are communicating informally (which is what we do most of the time) or in a more formal environment such as a presentation.

“Other presentations were dry and heavy, but the Yammer presentations really stood out because we were telling stories versus merely sharing data.” A Storytelling for Leaders participant describes the way storytelling changed her presentations. Click here to hear more.

More than just storytelling

Storytelling for Leaders will teach you a systematic method for becoming a better, more confident storyteller. However, the program goes further. You will also learn how to use the magic of stories to get more from others:

  • Story-triggering involves a leader doing something remarkable enough that it inspires people in the organisation to recount what happened. We show you how you can do this successfully.
  • Story-listening is the art of getting others to share stories. You’ll learn how to elicit stories from others, building stronger connections and gaining a better understanding of what’s really happening.

More than a workshop
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Acts of leadership humanity: putting staff first

Posted by Mark Schenk - October 31, 2014
Filed in Leadership

This post is part of our series on Leadership Humanity.

In 2010 I was working with a law firm in Sydney to help launch their new values. One of the values is Respect. At the launch event we collected stories about Respect: some bad, many good. One of the senior partners related an experience from early in his career at the firm:

Respect leadership humanity


[Ian] was a senior associate working in the insolvency practice. Companies that could not pay their debts would end up being placed in receivership. It was Friday and they had received notice from one of the banks regarding a small company that had defaulted on a loan. Ian wanted all the paperwork completed by midday as there was a big company social event that afternoon. They got the paperwork done and faxed it off to the regulator, ASIC. They then left for lunch. The party was well underway by the time they arrived. As Ian entered the room, one of the senior Partners there said “I think you need to head back to the office”. It turns out that in their haste they completed the form incorrectly, entering the Bank as the defaulting company. The regulator had called the bank chairman who was in a Board meeting in Auckland to advise that the bank had been placed into receivership. Not surprisingly, the Bank had immediately swung into action.Ian arrived back at his office thinking his career was over but determined to set things right. As the lift opened on the 26th floor, he looked down the corridor to the Managing Partner’s office. The Managing Partner saw him, stood up and walked briskly toward him. He stopped a foot or so from Ian’s face. He said “We are going to get through this. I want to be sure you are OK.” They then set about rectifying the error.

Ian cites this as one of the key reasons he is such an advocate for the firm and its culture. Instead of worrying about the problem. the Managing Partner’s first concern was the welfare of his staff.


Why good storytellers are great story-listeners

Posted by Shawn Callahan - October 29, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling

Philosopher and scientist Michael Polanyi, said that “we can know more than we can tell.” When you start to look around for examples of this ineffable or tacit knowledge it’s everywhere: our uncanny ability to recognise faces, how we ride a bike, how an expert judges whether an ancient statue is fake or real. We learn so much without being taught. But how does that happen?

Steven Pinker has just written a style guide for 21st century writers and he says that good writers are good readers. They simply absorb the patterns of good writing through the experience of reading. The same is true of oral storytelling. Good storytellers have heard many oral stories told. They are good story-listeners. And business storytellers need to hear business stories.

So where do you get to hear these stories?

Noticing stories in the workplace

The first step is know how to spot stories. We have covered that a few times on this blog, so here’s how to do that.

Once you can spot stories you’ll start to see them in your workplace. Every now and then you’ll see a story in a presentation or at a meeting. Pay particular attention to these stories in more formal settings because often these are the stories that have impact. When you hear a story try and notice how people respond. If it has a big impact, positive or negative, ask yourself why? What was it about that story that sent the shiver up your spine or straightened the hairs on your forearm?

Hearing what makes a good story

Let’s take a look at an oral story and see what we can notice.

Sir Ken Robinson is known as a crusader for a revolution in education where we work hard to help kids find and nurture their natural talent. This story of the choreographer, Gillian Lynne, is a terrific example of the simple and conversational style which is nicely suited for business storytelling.

The story starts at 15.08 minutes.

Sir Ken starts with having lunch with Gillian Lynne, the subject of the story, and he tells the story from Gillian’s perspective. This gives it terrific authenticity. It’s like we’re hearing it first hand.

The story is about a child. We’re hardwired to care about kids. And because we’ve all gone to school, and been a child, we can relate to the story. The ability to relate draws you in.

Sir Ken uses a few simple words to paint pictures in the story. ‘Oak panel room,’ ‘sat on her hands for 20 minutes,’ ‘turned on the radio sitting on his desk.’ This is all the listener needs to imagine the rest of the scene based on their own experiences. The audience is doing work and as such owns the story.
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Disgust and why we need to test business stories

Posted by Shawn Callahan - October 21, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling

It’s hard to imagine a more embarrassing situation for a teenager. And that teenager was me. Cast your mind back to the 1970s: flared jeans, platform shoes, silk shirts, and skin-tight pants. It was the weekend and my Mum took my dear friend, Mark, and I to the War Memorial in Canberra. I’ve never seen myself as a fashionista but on that day I wore tight, white jeans and platform shoes.


Part way though the exhibition of war planes I got a sudden pain in the gut and it was coming on strong. I knew I had to get to a toilet fast but I didn’t know which way to run. Without warning explosive diarrhoea hit and the tight white jeans were no match. Taking fast dolly steps I finally found the toilet and as I was in one cubicle stripping down, Mark was in the other asking if he could do anything. At the same time my mother is calling from the toilet door, “Is everything OK Shawn.” I left my jeans and undies behind and made a quick exit to the car park with Mark’s sloppy joe around my waist.

As you can imagine this memory is fresh in my mind despite happening 35 years ago. Last week Mark was visiting Melbourne and we caught up a couple of times and as we were driving out to dinner one night I said, “God, remember that time at the War Memorial when I shat my daks?” There was a pause and Mark said, “Nope. I have no recollection of it.” What? I couldn’t believe it.

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Making strategies stick – how to tackle anti-stories

Posted by Mark Schenk - October 16, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling

In 2009, three Queensland government departments were merged into one mega-department. Anecdote was working with the senior leadership team to communicate their new strategy and help make it stick. A key aspect of the new strategy was to integrate the previously separate departments into a single, unified team. When we spoke to staff about integration, many of them referred to ‘the next divorce’. We learned that in the early 1990’s the same three departments had been merged into a single organization. The integration didn’t work, and a few years later the departments were separated again. So, talking about ‘integration’ triggered them to think of the previous ‘divorce’.  It was seriously undermining the new strategy.

Tackling anti-stories

At Anecdote, much of our work is focused on making strategies stick. We do this by converting business strategies into understandable, memorable and influential stories. In every organisation we work with we find entrenched views – pre-existing beliefs and perceptions – that work against the new strategy. The view that there was bound to be another ‘divorce’ described in the previous paragraph is an example. We call these beliefs and perceptions ‘anti-stories’. 

To successfully execute your strategy you need to identify and tackle these anti-stories.

This series of three posts summarises some of our experiences and ideas on doing just that.

Arguments don’t work

The standard approach to changing people’s minds is to find and communicate an appropriate argument to convince them. If that doesn’t work, we look for an even more convincing argument. We have chosen the term anti-story carefully. It reminds us that that when people have a story in their heads, rational arguments generally don’t cut the mustard.

An even less successful strategy is to simply assert something. “The management team are here to support you” might sound good to the speaker…it might even be true. But if there is doubt in people’s minds about this it’s almost certain they will dismiss the assertion as ‘BS’.

You can’t fight a story with a fact, only with a better story. We have a few ideas of alternative strategies to influence people to be open to thinking differently.

The good news is that once you have identified the anti-stories, tackling them can be relatively simple.

This first post deals with some of the general strategies for dealing with anti-stories. The second post will cover some specific ways of tackling them. The third in this series deals with figuring out what the anti-stories are that you will need to deal with.
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Acts of leadership humanity – mistakes are not always failures

Posted by Mark Schenk - October 14, 2014
Filed in Anecdotes, Leadership

Shawn’s post last week got us sharing some of the great examples of small acts of leadership that demonstrate humanity and which make a difference. We will share some of these in the coming weeks. This is an example I heard last week while running a business storytelling session in Queensland.

Back in the 1990s, Peter was a junior Naval officer. Part of his qualification involved navigation skills. He was navigating the ship at night during a high-speed transit of the Great Barrier Reef. This is a very dangerous area where losing your bearings for only a few minutes can put the ship at risk of hitting a reef. Peter did lose his bearings and after trying to re-establish his position briefly he realised he needed to act. He ordered the ship to stop and called the Captain who was asleep in his cabin. The Captain came to the bridge, coached Peter through getting underway again and went back to bed. When Peter’s shift finished a little while later he reflected on what had happened. He knew this failure would set back his career by at least 6-12 months. The next day, the Captain called him to his cabin. To Peter’s amazement, the Captain handed him his qualification. Peter said “But I failed.” The Captain responded saying “You did exactly the right thing. You recognised you’d lost your bearings, stopped the ship and called me. The only reason I sleep at night is knowing my officers make good decisions. I can’t sleep if they think they are perfect and never make a mistake.”