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.
The most effective use of business storytelling is when you can tell a story to make a point off the cuff, no preparation. This can only happen if you remember stories to tell. A good way to do that is to simply tell stories as soon as you can after finding them. Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve reminds us that to really make them stick you need to tell the story a few times spaced over time, say in a day, a week, a month.
This video illustrates a simple method I’ve developed that not only helps you remember the story, but it also helps you associate the story with things that are meaningful and relevant so it pops to mind when you most need it. And as an added bonus making the connection to meaning reinforces your ability to remember.
I found this video (and two others that I will post in the coming weeks) in a new years office clean up. I hope you had an enjoyable Christmas break and you are energised for a exciting 2015. Happy New Year. I’m really looking forward to helping you be an even better business storyteller this year.
What does the story mean to the listener?
Hi, it’s Shawn Callahan from Anecdote, another story telling tip for leaders. This is all about how do you remember the stories you need to tell, right. This is a simple tip that I use, it works very well and that is, whenever you hear a story that you think, “Yeah I’d love to be able to tell that story,” what you need to do, as soon as you hear it, is tell it to someone else. So hear the story, tell it to someone else and then this is the key thing, you ask them to tell you what the story meant to them.
So you might tell a story, they might say, “You know what that means to me? That it’s really important to push through those and be persistent even when things and times are tough,” and you go, “Oh great.” So that then becomes the tag if you like for that story.
The Victorian Police Commissioner tells her story
I’ll give you a little example. I did some work for the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction Authority. This is the group that helped Victoria recover from the terrible fires that we had a number of years ago. The chair person for the group was a lady called Christine Nixon. She used to be the Police Commissioner. She took on this role to help Victoria recover from these fires.
Now, we were running a big workshop, I asked her to see if she could tell a story at the beginning of the workshop to set it off in the right sort of way that we wanted to get things kicked off,, and I said, “Do you have a story?” And she said, “You know what, I can think of a story.” About two weeks after the fires, one the companies that provide spectacles and reading glasses, a company called OPSM, put caravans out into the fire affected areas so that if anyone had any problems with their eyes, maybe they had grit in their eyes or broken spectacles, they would help them out.
Anyway, on this one particular day an elderly couple came up to one of the caravans. The woman was complaining of grit in her eyes and so they cleaned out her eyes and that was all fine. Then they turned to the husband and said, “Can we help you out,” and she said, “Oh look, my husband is legally blind through diabetes actually, ” and they asked him, “So do you know when was the last time you had your eyes checked?” And he said, “Well, actually it’s about seven years ago.” “Seven years!” and I said, “No, no, no, that’s way too long. You have to get your eyes checked much more regularly than that.” And you know, lots of technologies have changed in the meantime.
So anyway, they booked him into the ophthalmologist, he went to the ophthalmologist. Turns out, that he has a condition that they can actually treat now with the new techniques and methods and technologies. So he goes in and has the operation. A few months after that, he regains his eye sight.
Small things can make a big difference
Anyway, as soon as I hear this story, I think, “Oh my God that’s a fantastic story.” I tell it to a lady who worked with Christine called Debra and I said, “Debra, what do you take away from that story?” And she said to me, “You know what, even in the shittiest situation, good things can happen. “Okay, that’s a good sort of message.”
Anyway, I rang up my business partner Mark and I said, “Mark,” I told him the story and I said, “What does that mean to you?” And he said, “For me, you know small things can make a big difference.” Right so I took note of that. And essentially what you’re doing by re-telling the stories, you are strengthening those synapses, those connections to help you remember the story and by asking people to give you what it means, it’s like your little tag that helps you remember it.
So, imagine you’re in a meeting, someone says, “You know what, sometimes small things can make a big difference.” That story will immediately come to mind and you’ll be able to tell it. Right off the top of your head, right there and then to give a clear illustration of actually how that happens, how it works.
Anyway, that’s a little tip for you today. Go out, use it and I hope you have a great storytelling week. Bye for now.
The link between memory and stories is tightly woven. You can’t understand story without understanding memory. Our evolution has gifted us with some interesting memory quirks including our natural urge to preference a complete story over one where essential parts are missing.
I’ve felt this effect keenly on my first visit to Washington DC. I was staying at the Willard Hotel (IHG is a customer), a grand and historic place at the top of Pennsylvania Avenue two blocks east of the White House, and met story expert and tour guide trainer, Paul Costello. Paul was taking me on a tour of the monuments of the National Mall but we started in the lobby of the Willard.
“Back in the 1870s the White House wasn’t the most comfortable place to relax as the President,” Paul begins. “Ulysses S. Grant would often unwind with a whiskey and cigar in the lobby of the hotel. Word got around that the President could be found in the hotel foyer so people would arrive seeking favours or just to get the ear of the President. After a time these people became known as lobbyists.” Wow, I thought, what a great way for that word to come about. Then Paul said, “but it’s just a myth. The term was coined from the gathering of Members and peers in the lobbies of the UK House of Parliament.”
It was such a good story. I could picture President Grant with his hand around a cut glass whisky tumbler, smoke billowing from his cigar in one of the far corners of the lobby with a gaggle of people around. I had to fight hard to include in my telling that this story is a myth.
When good stories get in the way of fact
Researchers at Western Australia have shown that when a good story is told but then it is revealed as misinformation it’s hard for our memories to let it go. Providing a retraction by just detailing the facts has little affect in correcting the misinformation. In workplaces, however, this “let’s just get the facts out,” is the default response. The best remedy is to tell a better, more plausible story, but even this doesn’t eliminate the original information. It seems that in addition to Annette Simmons’ aphorism ‘the best story wins‘, ideally it is the first story.1
The stickiness of a good story that gets out there first gives us a good insight into how our memory works. In 1949 Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb postulated that memories are created from the simultaneous firing of cells between neurons. Over time his hypothesis was short-handed to the catchy phrase, “cells that fire together, wire together.” Ever since, scientists have been trying to confirm or debunk his hypothesis. It turns out to be a very difficult thing to observe and test. But in 2014 scientists at the University of California discovered compelling evidence supporting Hebb’s theory which they published in Nature in support of Hebb’s theory.2
The forgetting curve
The flip side to remembering is forgetting and as far back as the 1879 German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus did experiments on himself to work out how quickly we forget and what we can do to slow the process. His method sounds like torture. He would learn a set of nonsense one-syllable words such as YAT, BOK and PUZ and say them aloud and then later see how many he could recall. A single experiment could involve 15,000 recitations.3 His research resulted in the forgetting curve which shows how quickly we start forgetting things. As quickly as 20 minutes and we’ve lost 40% of what we just learned. In 1 day we lose 70%. The good news is that the curve starts to flatten out leaving us with vestiges of memory for a decade or more. But not all memories are created equal. Some will last longer and we can do things to help these memories to stick.
There is not much we can do with the passing of time but forgetting also depends on many other factors including the original impact of what we’ve learned.
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2014, our 10th year in business, was a watershed for Anecdote. Our partner network has grown to 27 partners in 17 countries and it continues to grow. Apart from our partners’ deep skills and wonderful expertise, they are a great bunch of people who are a joy to spend time with. We are looking forward to our partner conference next year. 2014 also saw our first corporate partners who have licensed our programs and are delivering them inside their organisations.
To wrap up the year we’ve selected the top 10 posts which give an insight into the topics that have sparked our attention and that you have found interesting in 2014.
The last thing you want your audience to feel is that they’re simply watching a performance. What you do want them to feel is that you’re sharing an experience with them, just like what happens when people catch up informally over lunch. Here are 6 ways to keep your story conversational and authentic.
Often people mistakenly think oral stories are about words when in fact good oral stories are about pictures and emotions. When you hear a story and can see it happening you’re transported to the place where it’s taking place and you relive it with the teller. This natural and effortless collaboration between teller and listener is one of the reasons stories are so engaging. It’s all about moments.
Your willingness to share a failure can have a powerful effect. A failure story encourages the person you are hoping to work with to share their own failures, or those sensitive things that are really happening in the organisation. It helps people to open up. After you get over the hurt of the failure, you’ll find that its retelling will be extremely valuable. I recommend you have a few failure stories ready to be told.
A participant in our public Storytelling for Leaders program was Balaji V., human resources director of Mahindra Holidays and Resorts India. Right after the training he started a major narrative project as part of their brand relaunch that was designed to find the stories of success and amplify them throughout Mahindra Resorts. He put together this case study of what they did and the great results they achieved.
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Emil Zátopek was a giant of long distance running. His record still stands as the only person to win gold in the 5000 metre, the 10000 metre and the marathon at the 1952 Helsinki Summer Olympics. Apparently running the marathon was a last minute decision.
In 1968 Australian runner, Ron Clarke, visited Emil in his home country of Czechoslovakia. Emil respected Ron’s abilities. He had broken many of Emil’s records but had a string of bad luck. In Mexico City Ron suffered from altitude sickness and nearly died on the track. So despite being the world record holder he never won an Olympic gold. The two runners became friends and as Emil said goodbye at the airport, he gave Ron a hug and put a small parcel in his hand and said “this is because you deserve it, not because we are friends. Open it when you get to London.”
Ron immediately started to wonder what was in the parcel. Was it contraband? Was it a message Emil wanted smuggled out to the West. After the plane took off Ron went to the lavatory to open the parcel. When he unwrapped the box, there, with his name and the day’s date inscribed inside, was Emil’s 10000 Olympic gold medal. Ron just sat there and wept.
We all want to be inspired. And we all want to inspire others. Parents want to inspire their kids. Business leaders want to inspire the people they lead. It can sound like a lofty desire, so how do you actually do it? Let’s start by thinking about what inspiration means in practice. I’m hoping these examples will trigger memories of what inspires you.
As a teenager I loved basketball. My best friend’s dad, Walt, was our coach. After a few games one season we were close to the bottom of the ladder, but by the end of the comp we found ourselves in the grand final. At our last practice session before the big game, Walt gathered us in the middle of the court, pointed to a line on the floor and said, ‘Do you all think you can walk along this line?’ We all nodded and then proceeded to walk along the line. Then Walt pointed to a balance beam and asked us, ‘Can you walk along the balance beam?’ We said, ‘Sure thing coach’, and we walked along the beam. Then Walt said, ‘Imagine this beam crosses a deep, treacherous canyon with a fierce wind blowing across it’. He painted a picture of a very challenging scenario and then asked us to walk across the beam again. We all made it without falling. ‘Lads’, he said, ‘our game this weekend is like this ordinary balance beam crossing a canyon. It’s just another game, yes, but there will be a lot more pressure this time. Are you ready for this game?’
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Business people love structure. When I ask people after our storytelling workshops what they found most valuable, more often than not they will say they loved the story patterns. These are a few different story structures we teach that are great for changing minds, or for answering the question ‘Why?’
Story patterns are good set pieces, but they only account for a tiny percentage of day-to-day business storytelling. The majority of the time we spend sharing a business story, we are simply trying to make a point. So rather than focusing on how to use story patterns, we should be developing our ability to find the right story to make a business point. We should also be practising the art of succinctly making our point at the start of a story, which, as I recently explained, doubles the audience recall.
Now to be an effective business storyteller, you have to do two things simultaneously. You have to build both your story repertoire and the storytelling habit.
Building your story repertoire
Building your story repertoire is a process of discovery. It starts with fine-tuning your ability to spot stories. Because the best stories are the ones that evoke an emotion, you want to keep an ear out for anything that sends a chill up your spine, brings tears to your eyes, or sets the hairs on your arms on end – stories that make you feel something and which you think you can use to make a business point. (The good news here is that you can make a business point with any evocative story.)
Now you need to tell these stories to remember them. Here are a couple of reminders about how to make stories stick in your memory.
The word ‘story’ is vexed in business. Imagine this scene. A senior leader stands in front of his people to give a presentation on the company’s direction and says, “I would like to share a story with you.” If you were in that audience, what would you be thinking or feeling when he said that? When I pose this question to my workshop participants they groan and wince. They say things like, “here we go” or “don’t treat us like kids,” “just get to the point,” “what trick is he trying to pull?”
Now let’s imagine a similar scene. This time the senior leader says, “something important happened a couple of weeks ago I’d like to share with you. It’s going to affect our business.” What are you thinking now? Most people think, “jeez, what happened?” They want to know and are ready to listen.
In both cases the leader will tell a story but in the first one the audience is put off by the word ‘story.’ It has a negative connotation in many business settings. We don’t want to be told we are about to hear a story. Worse still, we don’t want to be told we’re going to hear a funny story. Let us be the judge of that.
I tell leaders in our programs to avoid the ’s’-word. Instead talk about an experience, something that happened, an example or just jump right into the story with your time marker: “Three weeks ago while I was at the Mildura plant …” People love to hear stories, they just don’t like to be told they are listening to a story.
We make a similar mistake in print. How many times have you seen on a website, a newsletter, a brochure and even in reports headings proclaiming, ‘Our Story,’ ‘Customer Stories’ or the stories are italicised and indented screaming out, “this is a story.”
Maestro Benjamin Zander – an amazingly approachable human being
My wife, Kate, and I were in Boston, Massachusetts recently visiting our son Sebastian, who’s now attending university there. Sebastian has chosen a path a bit less traveled than others and is a French Horn performance major. Although he’s been in Boston just a few months, he was invited to join the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. They’re an amazing group of young people who are privileged to work with an even more amazing conductor, Maestro Benjamin Zander.
Maestro Zander’s career is truly remarkable. He is the conductor of both The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra; he’s also been a guest conductor around the world. He’s a sought-after public speaker who presented a Keynote address at the World Economic Forum in Davos and has received numerous accolades for his humanitarian work. With his partner, Rosamund Zander, he collaborated on their best-selling book, “The Art of Possibility”. And, as we discovered, he’s an amazingly approachable human being.
On the Saturday we were visiting, we attended a 4 hour afternoon rehearsal with Maestro Zander and the full Youth Orchestra at the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology as they prepared for their upcoming concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall. Sitting there, watching Maestro Zander work with 100 young, talented people, I was amazed at the way he conducted his business.
He worked with each separate section of the orchestra with passion, joy and a level of energy I simply don’t see that often. Each section of the orchestra received individual instruction. He was complimentary when instructing, direct and respectful when critiquing and taught by telling stories. He was able to focus on the details of each section without losing sight of the holistic nature of the group. Finally, in a manner that appeared effortless, he brought everyone together to produce an amazing sound that no one part could produce on its own. Different sections harmonized wonderfully.
What leadership is all about – passion, teaching and storytelling
I realized while watching Maestro Zander that he was modeling the best of what leadership is all about – infusing one’s work with passion, teaching and storytelling; driving the group’s success forward by his own clarity of purpose and enthusiasm for excellence and, he was having fun doing it!
In his very popular TED talk, Zander explains his process and defines success most eloquently.