Narrative is the oldest and most compelling method of holding someone’s attention; everybody wants to be told the story. Always look for ways to convey your information in narrative form.1
Many years ago, I worked on a big consulting project with a brilliant engineer who had a bad stutter. I noticed that in meetings he would use the stutter as a way of maintaining ‘the floor’. He would make a point and then “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaah” and would continue with his line of thought.
When I mentioned this observation to him, he explained that in meetings, and in conversation more generally, what normally happens is that as soon as someone takes a breath or pauses, someone else will start talking. The net effect was that nobody got to finish saying anything and very little progress was made. By using the stutter to his advantage, he was able to communicate coherent messages on complex issues without constant interruption. He explained “people are too polite to interrupt when I am stuttering. I get the opportunity to think about what I’m saying and carefully formulate my thoughts.”
I was impressed. He had turned the disability into an advantage.
But it also got me thinking. I watched people’s behaviour in meetings and almost invariably someone else would start talking as soon as there was any hesitation or pause when someone else was talking. It wasn’t that the speaker lost people’s attention, it was like they never had their attention in the first place. The audience weren’t listening, they were thinking of what they wanted to say and were waiting for the opportunity to do so.
Using storytelling techniques
But, the observations above only apply when we were doing what we normally do in meetings: sharing perspectives (opinions), making assertions, sharing data and our conclusions, normally in the form of generalisations. It’s a very different effect when you are sharing examples (stories). A story is like a promise: a series of events occur that culminate in something. If you are telling a story, and stop halfway through, people will be leaning forward, asking “what happened?”
I was at a conference two weeks ago talking with Andrew O’Keefe, Director of Hardwired Humans. I’ve known Andrew for several years and attended his Human Instincts workshop at Taronga zoo. I was explaining this feature of stories to him and he came to me the next day and gave the following example of where this had happened to him:
A few years ago I was being interviewed on radio. I was sitting at home in Sydney and the host was on the phone from regional Western Australia. We were talking about leadership and instincts as part of my book promotion campaign. Unfortunately, in the middle of the interview, part-way through a story I was telling, the phone-line dropped out. As the interview was running up to the 7:30am news bulletin I assumed that that was the end of the interview. But the program producer rang me back a few moments later. She said that their switch-board had lit up with calls when we were cut off – their listeners wanted to hear the end of the story! She hoped that we could continue the interview. Of course! So after the news we continued on and I finished that story and told a few others about leadership.
Andrew published this story earlier this week in his monthly newsletter. What he didn’t say was that he was pretty sure he was telling a story about an alpha male gorilla that had a three-step disciplinary process for the members of his tribe and what happened when one of the other males crossed the line to stage three. Who wouldn’t want to hear that?
The point is that normally people are just waiting for you to finish so they can start talking. You can change the game by finding examples that illustrate your point and then following with the facts or logical argument you want to make. Examples (stories, vignettes, anecdotes) are not alternatives to facts – they are great vehicles for conveying them. The best way to think of stories: they are facts, wrapped in context and delivered with emotion. They are also the best way of getting and holding your audience’s attention.
- William Zinsser, ‘On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Non-fiction’, 2006, New York, HarperCollins. Originally published 1976.↩
Today’s post is part two of a transcript from my recent interview on the Voice America Business Channel show ‘Story Powered’ hosted by Lianne Picot. The topic of the program was communicating strategy with story, and the anti-stories that can affect changes that you’re trying to make in your business.
Lianne’s show is called ‘Story Powered™’ which is a platform for talking about all things story. Every week, Lianne chats with experts from around the world and asks them to share their expertise and experience in story powered leadership, employee engagement and business development.
Part 1 of this series introduced the podcast and allowed me to tell you a little of my own personal story about how I got started in the storytelling field.
In this post we delve a little deeper into ‘story’ and the art of business storytelling, story listening and what we call story triggering.
The podcast continues…
One of the things that you and I talked about in a previous conversation when we were planning the show was you and Shawn didn’t like using the word story at first, is that right?
We didn’t like the term ‘storytelling’. We started with what we called ‘story listening’ which is about using narrative as a form of organisational inquiry, so helping find out what’s really going on, helping to make sense of the world. We didn’t like the term storytelling because of the possibility that it can used for bad purposes. But the pull from our clients was too strong so we very quickly changed that view and started focusing on all three aspects of story work; so, storytelling, story listening and what we call story triggering. Which is really that your behaviour causes people to tell stories about you. Some of them are good, some of them aren’t.
Right, okay, that’s great. It’s interesting because you and I talked to Karen Dietz last week, and then I’ve talked with Annette Simmons, and lots of folks in the story world. We’re all kind of not that comfortable with the word storytelling. I think maybe we need to get together and come up with a different term. Because like you say, storytelling is an aspect but it’s not the whole thing.
Avoid using the ‘S’ word
Yeah, so I guess another thing when we’re coaching people, particularly when we’re working with leaders, during our storytelling for leaders programs, we encourage them not to use the word ‘story’.
… tell us why, why that is.
Today’s post is part one of a transcript from my recent interview on the Voice America Business Channel show ‘Story Powered’ hosted by Lianne Picot. The topic of the program was communicating strategy with story, and the anti-stories that can affect changes that you’re trying to make in your business.
Part 1 of the podcast episode – ‘Communicating Strategy with Story’ introduces Lianne as the host, and I get to tell you a little of my own personal story about how I got started in the storytelling field.
The podcast begins…
Hello and welcome to Story Powered, I’m Lianne Picot, your host. Thanks so much for being here and listening to the show today. I’ve really been looking forward to today’s show. I can’t wait; it’s one of my favourite topics. We’re talking about communicating strategy with story and I’m a big strategy fan, and I look forward to talking to today’s guest.
It’s Mark Schenk, from Anecdote in Australia. Today, as I mentioned earlier, we’re talking about communicating strategy with story. We’re also talking about anti-stories that can affect the changes that you’re trying to make in your business. We’ll be talking about that in a minute, but first I want to share the story of the week. I have stolen this story from the Anecdote website and I highly recommend you check it out because it’s stacked with loads of great story stuff. This week’s story’s a little different, it’s more of a research piece than a story but it’s told in story form.
Activists know that a personal story has the best chance of influencing a decision. So when they canvas support, they often ask for personal stories that will further their cause.
The problem is that many people who receive such a request don’t really understand what they’re being asked for. They may think they don’t have a story like that to share, or if they do, that they won’t be able to share it in a compelling way.
In this post, I’d like to show you how you can find a personal story to support your chosen cause, and then I’d like to illustrate how you can tell that story so it has the greatest impact.
This has been prompted by an Australian Marriage Equality (AME) campaign I’m taking part in. I’m helping to bring about marriage equality in Australia, to make sure that same-sex couples have the same right as everyone else to get married in our country. I’m doing my bit by trying to convince my local member, Kelvin Thomson, to support what 72% of Australians already support.
Last week, the campaign’s many supporters, myself included, received an email from AME asking for urgent action. The message said that the federal government was about to meet to discuss the issue, and it was possible that it would decide to allow members and senators to act on their conscience and vote to support marriage equality. We were asked to write to our local parliamentarians to show our own support for marriage equality. Specifically, we were asked to share a personal story.
More than one million emails were sent in response to this, which is fantastic. But it got me thinking, did we send the best possible personal stories? I decided to write these tips to ensure that the AME campaign and similar efforts do even better in the future.
What do we mean by a story?
First of all, what do we mean when we say the word ‘story’? Simply put, a story is an account of something that happened. To be meaningful, the story should be about something unexpected that happened that we care about. It’s a personal story if it happened to you.
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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