Filed in Business storytelling, Collaboration, Knowledge
Here at Anecdote we focus on oral storytelling. Our network of partners around the world help leaders find and tell business stories to influence, engage and even inspire.
The thing is, there are very few examples of business oral storytelling on the net so we’ve started a little project to tell the stories that are catalogued in our Story Finder collection. In case you haven’t seen it, Story Finder are all the stories we’ve written in our blog that we think a business person might find useful to tell categorised by leadership topics like innovation, resilience and incentives.
Now, I wouldn’t say I’m a great storyteller but what I’ve learnt is that you only get the benefits of storytelling when you are telling a story. So here is our first example. Please let me know what you think.
Sometimes the simplest interventions can have the biggest impact.
In October 1935, US Army Air Corps brass gathered at an airfield in Dayton, Ohio. They’d come to see two aircraft builders pit their planes against each other in a series of trials, with the best-performed aircraft getting its builder a lucrative contract for new long-range bombers. In theory, the two rivals, Boeing Corporation and Martin & Douglas, had an equal chance of winning the contract. But in reality, the result seemed a foregone conclusion.
The smaller Martin & Douglas plane just couldn’t compete with Boeing’s bigger, more powerful Model 299. This imposing aircraft boasted a 103-foot wingspan, four engines (the norm was two), five times the specified number of bombs, and twice the range of its predecessors. Rumour had it that the army had pretty much already decided to order 65 of what one newspaperman had dubbed ‘the flying fortress’.
The Model 299, carrying five crew members, made for an impressive sight as it taxied onto the runway and then roared off to rise gracefully into the sky. But as the army chiefs and manufacturing executives looked on, the plane stalled at 300 feet, tipped sharply and crashed to the ground. Two of the crew were killed, including the pilot, Major Ployer P. Hill.
An investigation found that Major Hill had been preoccupied with the many procedures required to fly the complex new plane, from monitoring the variable oil–fuel mix in each engine to adjusting the pitch of the constant-speed propellers. Because of this, he’d forgotten to release the rudder and elevator controls. But while the tragedy was blamed on ‘pilot error’, the implication was that the Model 299 was too complicated to be safe – as one reporter put it, it was ‘too much airplane for one man to fly’. The army contract was awarded to Martin & Douglas; Boeing’s business was ruined almost to the point of bankruptcy.
But some in the Army Air Corps still thought the Model 299 was the better aircraft. So a group of test pilots got together to work out how further accidents could be avoided. They ruled out more training – Major Hill had been in charge of flight testing and couldn’t have been more experienced. Instead, they came up with a stunningly simple idea. Previously, flying a plane had been fairly easy for a pilot to manage. But aeronautical advances now meant there were too many things going on in the cockpit for one person to handle. What was needed, the test pilots decided, was a checklist.
The pilots kept their checklist straightforward but comprehensive, including even the most obvious actions – release the brakes, close all doors and windows, unlock the elevator controls, and so on. Everything a pilot needed to remember was there, on a single index card. And it did the trick. Using their checklist, the pilots flew the Model 299 for a total of 1.8 million miles without incident. The Army Air Corps subsequently ordered thousands of the flying fortresses, renaming them B-17s and using them to devastating effect during World War 2.
Sourced from Atul Gawande (2011), The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, Picador, New York.
“They won’t care what you know until they know that you care” (a line attributed to many but my favourite is baseball coach Yogi Berra).
This week I received an email from a newly minted executive who was off to New Zealand to take up a new post. Let’s call her Sarah.
Sarah had attended one of our Storytelling for Leaders workshops and was keen to have a few stories to tell when she started her new role. In fact, she asked me what story should she tell.
Firstly, we all need to tell many stories, many small stories. There’s rarely a time when a single story is sufficient. These small stories add up to create a big picture. I wrote in praise of small stories back in March this year and I see their power every day.
But what small stories should you tell?
Stories that show you care
I’d start by sharing stories that illustrate why you care. Why is this new role important to you and why you care about the people you’re working with. And whenever an Australia takes an executive role in New Zealand (Americans in Canada are the same), as in this case with Sarah, why you care about New Zealand.
A simple strategy to show you care about New Zealand is to find and tell New Zealand stories. Listen to the stories from your New Zealand colleagues, especially from the NZ workplace, and tell them. Avoid telling stories from Australia. This simple act shows what’s important to you.
Stories that show what you value
Then I’d start telling stories about what you value as a leader. For example it might be things like having a go, great customer service or speaking up. Share stories that illustrate what these things mean and why they are important to you and the company.
And lastly, to help you connect, share stories of how you are like the people you are working with. That you have similar backgrounds, similar holidays, similar histories in the company. Of course, never, and I mean never, make anything up just because you think it will be received well.
I saw a wonderful example of a new executive share some stories to connect.
A couple of years ago Mark and I were running a workshop for a large insurance company. It was a one day event. Part way through the day we were told that the new CEO would like to talk to our participants who made up the top 100 leaders in the commercial division of the company. They hadn’t met the CEO yet.
The CEO arrived and started his talk with a story about his first job as a young man as a insurance adjuster for a commercial insurer in Yorkshire. It was terrific little tale. He was showing he was a little bit like them and showed why he cared about the insurance business.
Then he shared another story about being on the brink of a cash flow crisis in a previous company and now how he pores over the figures with his CFO. He was making it clear that he was a numbers guy and if you come to him with a proposal you’d better get the numbers right.
He was there for only about 15 minutes but he made a tremendous impact on everyone. Not to mention the excellent example of storytelling he left us to dissect when he left.
Back in 2008 Wharton School professor, Adam Grant (author of one of my favourite books, Give and Take), conducted a fascinating experiment that highlighted how important it is to be reminded of your purpose.
He was working with a call centre that raised funds for a university. He divided the call centre into three groups. Group 1 were reminded (using two stories) of the benefits of the job; how working there could benefit their own lives. Group 2 were reminded (also with two stories) of the impact their fund-raising was having on benefactors; how their work benefited the lives of others. Group 3 was the control, they received no intervention.
A month after the intervention the study found that people in Groups 1 and 3 showed no change in the number of donations or the amount of donation raised. Group 2, however, more than doubled the average number of donations (9 to 23) and the donation size ($1,288 to $3,130).
It’s easy to get bogged down in the doing and forget our purpose. And as you can see from Grant’s research significant productivity improvements can come just by reminding people why they are doing what they are doing.
It’s worth noting that these benefits come from sharing stories rather than merely passing on a point of view or a set of facts as dot points. The stories help people feel the impact they’re making.
Grant stopped after a month. In organisations we need to continue the process and embed the story sharing into day-to-day activities.
For example Apple stores embed customer service know-how by sharing a story of exceptional service every morning in their pre-opening staff huddle. It’s done in a subtle way without even mentioning stories explicitly. On the previous day they run a random net promoter score survey of customers. Any employee who gets a 10 out of 10 is recognised in the huddle with the simple request to describe what happened to get the 10. A story is naturally told. Everyone gets a concrete example of what it takes to get a 10 and also sees how much it is valued by management and their peers.
One-off storytelling has impact for sure. But systemic, repeated storytelling changes behaviour and creates deep capabilities.
Grant, A. M. (2008). The significance of task significance: Job performance effects, relational mechanisms, and boundary conditions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 108-124.
In September this year our new partner in Singapore, Anjali Sharma, organised the first Storytelling for Leaders Program in her fine country. She also organised a photographer and videographer and put together this short clip showing you what happened on the day.
People watch the behaviour of leaders intensely, like they are on stage with a spotlight on them. This concentrated attention on leader behaviour can be used to trigger new stories and to communicate meaning. Often simple actions can be much more powerful than the words leaders use, as illustrated on the example below:
At the dinner that evening I asked several people what they remembered about the sustainability statement. The consistent reply was, “I don’t remember what the policy statement said, but I know the CEO is really serious about it. Did you see the way he walked over and hit the screen.”
The downside of this is that when leaders behave poorly or in ways that undermine strategy or values, the stories spread just as effectively.
From many perspectives, the video below is a clear message to an unappreciative boss. “You don’t value me, I have no life balance…you are a bad boss.” But if your objective was to either retain this employee or to avoid others leaving, this information would fall into the category of ‘interesting but useless’.
When people leave organisations, the reasons they give are often much less insightful than in the video. When asked ‘why are you leaving’ people mostly respond with ‘I’m leaving for a higher paying job’ or ‘it’s a better commute’ or ‘I’m changing my career trajectory’ (a personal favourite). In these circumstances, leaders need to ask different questions.
In 2012, a valued member of the Anecdote team resigned. It came as a surprise to all of us. I asked the usual questions around ‘why are you leaving’ and received plausible responses. I then asked ‘can you tell me about the moment when you first starting thinking about leaving…what happened?’ It took some time, but eventually they revealed two examples of things I had done that made them feel un-valued. These things were completely unintentional, but they had had a big impact. Once the examples were provided I could do something about them…in this case I could apologise. The apology was accepted and happily the resignation was withdrawn. Before I knew about the examples I had no basis for action. Once I had the examples my possible courses of action were crystal clear.
‘Why’ and ‘how’ questions are frequently claimed to be the most important and powerful questions we should ask. And in many circumstances they are, particularly to stimulate creativity or scientific and artistic enquiry.
But, when you want to find out what’s really going on, leaders need to ask different questions; questions that elicit specific examples (stories, anecdotes, experiences) that provide insight into the situation. In these circumstances, ‘when’ and ‘where’ questions are very useful. ‘What happened?’ is an other useful question. The best question of all is ‘can you give me an example?’ In fact, any question that elicits an example is a good question in these circumstances.
A key skill is to recognise that most of the responses people will give will be opinions, generalisations and assertions. You need to know what an example looks like and keep digging till you get one.
Its pretty much agreed that good questions open the door to dialogue and discovery. But when seeking insight and understanding upon which they can base decisions, leaders need to ask different questions.
It’s not easy to be a good boss. In a 30 year career I can count three (thanks Walt, Amy and Steve). Stanford business professor, Bob Sutton, says that acting as a shield for your employees is one of the important tasks of a leader.
And being a good boss means fostering the culture and values of the company by taking a stand and doing something remarkable so people will tell stories about it over and over again reinforcing what’s valued around here. We call this story-triggering.
This story, shared by Sutton, conveys these sentiments nicely.
Lucas’ concerns were not shared by the two heads of the Computer Division, Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith. The pair had been responsible for some big innovations in computer graphics, particularly in the area of rendering, and they were optimistic that they could turn their animated dreams into a financially rewarding reality. Nonetheless, Lucas decided to appoint a new division president, Doug Norby, to reign the group in, and Norby wasted no time in pressuring Catmull and Smith to lay off employees.
Catmull and Smith couldn’t bring themselves to start sacking their colleagues. Instead, Catmull went to Norby and argued that the division needed to remain intact, that cutting up such a potentially valuable entity didn’t make sense. But the new president was having none of it. Norby insisted that he be given a list of names for dismissal.
The two heads dug in, ignoring Norby’s demand until, one day, they were given an ultimatum. They were to appear in the president’s office the following morning with a list of names, and that was that.
The next day, Catmull and Smith did what Norby had asked them to do. They walked into his office at the appointed time and put a sheet paper on his desk. Two names were written on it: Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith.
Norby backed down, and all of the employees of the Computer Division kept their jobs. So grateful were the staff to Catmull and Smith that they all chipped in to buy the two heads and their wives a well-earned night on the town.
We’ve been blogging since 2004. And over the years we have shared hundreds of stories. Some of those stories are definitely ones you could retell as a leader so we have identified the best ones, tagged them with what we think they are about and highlighted the story in the post so you can quickly see it.
Then we have presented a link to all these stories on one page in our Story Finder.
Please let us know if you know of a great story a leader should tell.
When business leaders start building their business storytelling skills it can help a lot to see how other business leaders tell business stories.
Here are 9 examples from some of the world’s top business leaders who purposely and systematically share stories to help their message to stick. You might like to review our guide to spotting stories so the stories leap out of the videos for you.
Steve Jobs – TV media interview
Many leaders think they just don’t have time to tell a story, especially when they are doing a media interview. Steve Job shows us this is not the case and jumps straight into a story when he says, “We went into retail about 5 years ago …”
This doesn’t look like a polished story, which adds to its impact: it’s not spin, it’s just what happened. But notice how we learn about the success of the old Apple store, the risk they took with an underground location (reinforcing their rule breaker image of Apple) and the emphasise they put on design.
Barack Obama – out on the hustings
This is the first of two clips of Barack Obama telling the same story to two different audiences. It’s useful to see how stories morph depending on when and where they are told.
In this first telling we see Obama out on the campaign trail drumming up support for his candidacy. This story is the last thing he says in his speech. It’s designed to spur action.
Barack Obama – the stadium
In this telling of the Greenwood, South Carolina story, Obama is in a stadium. His die hard supporters know the story but they are keen to hear it again. There is a back and forth communication with the audience, a call and response.
Obama starts the story by saying, “It shows you the importance of one voice …” We call this a relevance statement. He is telling us why we should be interested in his story. It’s one simple sentence. Then he launches right into the story.
Notice how he paints pictures for us:
- I open up the shades on my window and its pouring with rain.
- I open up the paper and there is a bad story in the New York Times.
- She was wearing a church hat.
Stories are more powerful if we can see them happening, so be specific. And they will have even more impact if we can feel them happening, when they have emotion.
Ed Catmull – speech to Stanford University
Ed Catmull is the President of Pixar. He has an engineering background. He’s a computer scientist who has successfully built and leads a multi-billion dollar business. I think this example of storytelling illustrates how a quiet and unassuming leader can tell impactful stories.
Catmull’s speech is all about the challenges he has faced at Pixar. This is a great topic for storytelling because people love to hear when things went wrong and how they were fixed.
He starts his talk by posing two questions, both couched in stories.
The first is a broad story about how computer graphics companies who had once lead the industry made catastrophic mistakes despite being told that they were about to make them. Catmull wants to know, how do I avoid these mistakes?
At 8:15 in the clip he tells a story of how his production managers had become second class citizens. He was dismayed that he didn’t see it coming.
Cutmull pinpointed the crux of the problem. ”We had confused the organisational structure with the communication structure … Communication needs to be able to happen with anybody at any time.”
The theme of A-team vs B-team repeats at 14:27 when Catmull tells us what happens when you have one team creating a high quality movie for cinema release and the other is doing a straight to DVD release. Another tricky problem to solve.
Recovery from the A- vs B-team problem required starting Toy Story 2 over from scratch and they worked brutally hard to do it. And just so we understood just how hard, Catmull tells the anecdote about how a husband and wife team at Pixar left their baby in the car in the summer heat rushing to work (it was close but the baby was OK).
At 26:10 we learn about post-mortems and gaming the system. Great story with the lessons of why it’s important to do post-mortems differently each time.
He finishes with a story (29:18) about how we get complacent in business. At Pixar they say, “It’s the story that counts” but then discovered everyone says that. “Once you can distill an idea into a concise statement you then can use that statement without having to worry about behaviour change.” It becomes a dead idea.
John Kerry – all staff meeting
Here the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, is addressing his department for the first time and he tells a terrific connection story that says he has an understanding of the diplomatic world (I’m a bit like you) and that he shares their values. Jump to 13:40 for the story.
Howard Schultz – talk at a business conference
Howard Schultz is the CEO and Founder of Starbucks. His talk is all about the company’s remarkable turnaround.
Schultz kicks off with the story of the leaked memo (13.10) which was the harbinger of the difficulties they were about to face.
At 17:35 he tells the story of growing up in Brooklyn, a personal story showing what drives him and why Starbucks provides, to this day, comprehensive health insurance to all employees.
After realising Stabucks had lost the passion for making great coffee, he tells us about closing all US stores (24:10) for retraining 115,000 people. The beginning of the recovery.
Schultz then tell is how he gets all the store managers together (11,000 people) at a cost $32 million to inspire action (26:22 – 32:32).
Warren Buffet – talk to MBA class
This is a short clip which shows Warren Buffet sharing a hypothetical situation (a story) to get the MBA students to really think about leadership. The story is an analogy for leadership, selecting stock in companies and how to live a good life.
Indra Nooyi – media chat
Indra Nooyi is the Chairperson and CEO of PepsiCo. In this clip she tells some specific and personal anecdotes about her family life that give us insights into her character and helps humanise the CEO role.
Steve Jobs – commencement speech
Stories featured in so many of Steve Jobs presentations and media appearances. He definitely understood how to purposely and systematically tell a story to influence, engage and inspire action.
This commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005 has had 18 million views on YouTube. In it Jobs tells three personal stories and begins with the words:
“I want to tell you three stories from my life. No big deal. Just three stories.”