Communicating strategy with story part 4 – The power of anti-stories

Posted by Mark Schenk - May 14, 2015
Filed in Business storytelling

Today is the final post in a series of four based on 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.

Talk to the Elephant

In part 3 of this series, we talked about a new strategy, or communicating a new way of doing business, which is one of the most important and most challenging things a business can do.

In this post we look at anti-stories, what they are and why they are so powerful.

The podcast continues…


I’d love you to talk about something that you uniquely talk about, which is anti-stories. Potentially people in moments of discontent are creating anti-stories, or at least there are some, so tell us about anti-stories and how powerful they are.

What are anti-stories and how powerful are they?


In general, for every official story there’s going to be unofficial stories. Some of those unofficial stories can be huge barriers to changing behaviour to what you want people to adopt in order to bring strategy to life.

The first time this really became clear to us was in 2009 when we were working with a government department that had merged; so three departments had become one department.

The merged department was a huge organisation, probably 20,000 people and there was lots of integration required. One of the key focuses of their strategy was integration: why do something three different ways when it can be done one way? That all sounds perfectly logical from the point of view of the leadership team.

I was in the lift, leaving the building, and met a guy that I knew. We were having a chat and I was explaining what we did, how I’d been working with the leadership team to tell their strategic story with key focus areas of integration, etc. He just looked at me with a puzzled look and said, “Mark, we’re not going to integrate anything, we’re just waiting for the next divorce.” I sat down and had a cup of coffee with him and he told me the divorce story.

Essentially in 1992 – so really 20 years before, those same three departments had been merged. It didn’t work and 5 years later the government split the departments again into separate departments. It was called the great divorce.

Picture the leaders standing in front of their people saying, “Folks, let’s talk about integration, we need to integrate the three systems into one and all our processes. People are just going, “Yeah, right; we’re just waiting for the next divorce.”

It’s a huge barrier to integration. One of the first things is you need to do is identify; to surface these anti-stories and you have to treat it like a story. You can’t just assert that the story people are telling is wrong. You can’t just say, “There will be no divorce,” There is lots of psychological research that demonstrates that you can’t just push a different opinion at somebody. It will cause them to reinforce what they already believe. The more you assert that there’ll be no future divorce, the more people believe that there will.

Does that make sense?


It does, it makes a lot of sense. What it sounds like is you’re getting into a situation where someone is telling their story the loudest and that’s not useful either, right? We’ve lost the power of story altogether when we’re just battling it out and reinforcing current stories. That’s great and thank you Mark for sharing about the anti-stories because I think that’s where a lot of organisations get stuck.

I find this subject absolutely fascinating as somebody who used to do change management work and go into organisations where my job was to build a new story. What was always there, and historically there, was something Mark has been talking about. I didn’t know they were called this, or that you could think of them as anti-stories. I just wanted to revisit that because it’s such a substantial part of communicating a new strategy. If you don’t know what the stories are that could be working against you, the potential for success is diminished.

Mark, just share a little more about the anti-stories and how we were just talking about whoever shouts the loudest in terms of the story; that’s not going to work either. People using their power to say that story is not true; it doesn’t work either, so what works to deal with anti-stories?

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Achieving strategic alignment – Communicating strategy with story part 3

Posted by Mark Schenk - May 11, 2015
Filed in Business storytelling

Today’s post is part three of a transcript from my recent interview on Lianne Picot’s radio show where we talked about 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.

You can listen to ‘Story Powered™’ every Tuesday at 1pm Eastern Time/10 AM Pacific Time on the VoiceAmerica Business channel.

Dolphins in alignment

In part 2 of this series, we delved a little deeper into  ‘story’ and the art of business storytelling, story listening and what we call story triggering.

In this post we’re going to really get into talking about a new strategy, or communicating a new way of doing business, which is one of the most important and most challenging things a business can do.

The podcast continues…


Welcome back, it’s Story Powered and I’m Lianne Picot, your host and I’m chatting with Mark Schenk of Anecdote in Australia. Before the break we had a great conversation. Mark was telling us his story about how he ended up being a story strategist, or consultant, and it reminded me of the journey that we all take and the richness of the number of stories that we have in our lives. It’s funny, whenever I work with leaders and say, “I don’t have any stories to tell.” It’s just impossible because we have so many rites of passage and so many different things that we’ve experienced.

Now, we’re going to really get into talking about strategy and introducing a new strategy, or communicating a new way of doing business, it’s one of the most important and most challenging things a business can do. Mark, tell us why story and storytelling is such an important tool for communicating strategy, please.

What are the challenges organisations face regarding strategy?


I guess it starts with understanding some of the challenges that many organisations face regarding strategy.

Kaplan and Norton, sort of household names, they developed the balanced score card. As part of their development of the balanced score card they looked at organisations and strategy, and their summary was that 95% of people in organisations don’t know the strategy. So that was in about 2005. It’s a scary, scary figure.

There was some research published in late 2011 and it was with 450 companies, a global study, and its summary was that 80% of people in organisations don’t know the strategy. It got better; it went from 95% down to 80%.

It’s a little bit better, but whichever research you subscribe to, the point is that it’s an horrendous indictment of how strategy is communicated. It’s really hard for people to buy in strategically if they don’t what the strategy is.

Since the seventies, people have talked about how organisations who could achieve this thing called strategic alignment are much more effective than those that don’t. Strategic alignment is simply where everyone in the organisation is aligned to the strategy.

It’s really hard for organisations to achieve strategic alignment if their people don’t know the strategy. So, why is it that strategy isn’t well communicated?

1. We communicate strategy in ambiguous terms

The first reason is that we tend to communicate strategy in extremely ambiguous terms. For example “we’re going to strategically align the organisation to take advantage of the merging market opportunities by becoming far more customer centric…” – I can go on!

Impressive sounding words that are highly ambiguous are part of the problem – when human beings are presented with something that’s ambiguous, we tell ourselves a story to explain it. The difficulty with ambiguity, when you communicate strategy in ambiguous terms, is that there are many different possible interpretations of what you mean.

Instead of achieving strategic alignment, we achieve the opposite. We cause people to spear off and completely go in a direction based on their interpretation of the strategy, so it’s the opposite of strategic alignment. That’s the first reason.


Also, I was just thinking that’s amazing because not only are you not achieving your goal of communicating the strategy, you’re actively creating the creation of so many stories that no one is clear.


That’s exactly right, so you sort of get the reverse affect. Ambiguity is a key reason that strategies aren’t communicated very well.

2. We focus on the ‘what’ instead of the ‘why’

The second reason that strategy is not communicated particularly well is because we tend to focus on the ‘what.’ A lot of strategies that I see are not actually strategies, they’re strategic plans. They’re lists of things that the organisation needs to do; it’s the ‘what,’ and there’s a little bit of ‘how.’ But there is very little of the ‘why’.

Have you listened to Simon Sinek, TEDx, talk on the importance of ‘why’?

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How to detect lies with a storytelling technique

Posted by Mark Schenk - May 8, 2015
Filed in Communication

The idea that you can tell if someone is lying by analysing certain physical cues has been prominent ever since the 1920s, when the polygraph first made an appearance. Psychologists such as the influential Paul Ekman swear by the technique, and they have the backing of popular culture in the form of TV shows like Lie to Me, which featured the allegedly unfoolable Dr Cal Lightman.


But the notion has its detractors too. They include Andy Morgan, a forensic psychologist at Yale University who specialises in human memory and deception, and who has worked with various US law-enforcement agencies in the context of questioning suspects. He believes that the ‘physical cues’ method has negligible validity and that there’s a much more effective way to detect a liar, one that involves storytelling.

How to detect lies using stories instead of physical cues

In a fascinating episode of the Criminal podcast, titled Pants on Fire, Morgan says that his research has found that there’s little scientific evidence to support the idea that physical signals, including facial expressions and other forms of non-verbal communication, can give away a liar. The polygraph, for example, which measures physiological changes such as blood pressure, respiration and skin conductivity, only achieves an accuracy level of around 50% – pretty much the same as flipping a coin. Instead, Morgan recommends a technique he pioneered called cognitive interviewing.

The premise of cognitive interviewing is that there are sights, sounds, smells and other sensations recorded deep in the brain that can be accessed if you push the interviewee hard enough. Morgan describes how he and his colleagues developed the method after interviewing 1200 people, some of whom were asked to lie and some of whom were asked to tell the truth. The subjects would first be instructed to tell a story about something they’d experienced, such as a rock concert. When they’d finished, the interviewer would ask the subject to describe the experience purely in terms of specific senses: sights, sounds, tastes, smells and touch. Finally, the interviewer would get the subject to take them through the experience backwards. Using the rock concert example, the interviewee would talk about how they’d walked to their car from the stadium, then how they’d exited the stadium, then how the lights had gone up after the encore, and so on.

The difference between truth and lies

Morgan found that the use of these mnemonic props – open-ended questions about various sensations and sequences of events – dramatically increased memory recall about what had happened. The subject’s stories consequently became more and more complex, and richer in detail. Or at least, they did when people were telling the truth. When it came to the lies, even well-rehearsed ones, the subjects tended to falter and were unable to complete the interview. According to Morgan, this was because when they were prompted to dredge up deeper memories, the liars had nothing to draw on. Instead, they merely repeated what they’d already said, or waited for the interviewer to fill in the gaps themselves. He equates the memory of an honest storyteller with a high-resolution image, and that of a liar with a child’s rough sketch.

Morgan scientifically substantiated his findings by producing transcripts of each interview, and then getting a computer to count the total number of words and also the number of unique (non-repeated) words in each record. In nearly 85 per cent of cases, the transcripts that contained fewer unique words and fewer words overall related to the stories told by liars. Morgan believes that when people have to think harder about what they’re saying, such as when they’re making stuff up, it has the effect of reducing the richness of what is being said, and the language devoted to it.

So despite the proliferation of books analysing non-verbal behaviour as a way of gauging honesty, it seems that the best way of figuring out if someone is being sincere or not is to listen carefully to what they say. When we tell stories, what’s important is the richness of the detail we provide, and the depth of the content – far more so than facial tics or restless hands. Or to quote Andy Morgan, ‘Our words really do matter’.

Source: Criminal (podcast), episode 2 – ‘Pants on Fire’, 14 February 2014


How to build your decision making skills using storytelling

Posted by Mark Schenk - May 4, 2015
Filed in Business storytelling

I was recently asked by a law firm to come up with an activity they could conduct during an upcoming staff retreat. They were keen for their junior staff to learn the importance of understanding the dynamics of a dispute, not just its procedural aspects, and they were interested in doing this through the use of storytelling. They had an hour allocated for this activity.


Build reliable patterns and mental models

Several years ago, Anecdote was asked to help an organisation’s new employees quickly get up-to-speed with the various complex issues they would inevitably face in their jobs (we described that project in our September 2007 newsletter ).

On that occasion, we used a technique called Decision Games, which is outlined by Gary Klein in his book Intuition at Work: Why Developing Your Gut Instincts Will Make You Better at What You Do. With some adaptation, I felt this approach would also serve the law firm well in the conference/retreat setting.

Meaningful experiences improve your intuition and capabilities by helping you to build reliable patterns and mental models.

Now, real-life experience is the ideal, but sometimes there simply isn’t the opportunity to get it. And even if you can, it can be risky – we can’t always afford to learn from our mistakes.

Use decision games to improve decision making skills

That’s where decision games come in. Told within small groups, these are personalised stories that build to a dilemma that triggers the decision-making process, allowing participants to talk about it and share their knowledge and views.

Lacking the pressure of real-life decision making but based on lived experiences, these games can help employees learn how to effectively tackle complex issues by:

  1. Identifying and understanding the decision-making requirements of their jobs
  2. Practising how to make difficult decisions in the appropriate contexts
  3. Reviewing their decision-making experiences

Another beauty of decision games is that this story-based technique can be modified for use in just about any time frame, which means it’s suitable for almost any situation: from workshops and seminars to lunch breaks.

Here’s the modified version I have suggested.

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Tap into the power of storytelling while we’re in the US

Posted by Mark Schenk - April 29, 2015
Filed in Business storytelling, Events

We love spending time in the US, but we only get across once or twice a year. So its vital that we make the most of it when we do…

This year Mark will be coming to Orlando from 17th – 20th May to attend our first Association for Talent Development (ATD) Conference – the largest conference of its kind with world-renowned speakers, over 400 exhibitors and thousands of delegates from all over the globe.


We would love to use this opportunity to meet potential partners and clients. So, if your organisation is interested in equipping its leaders with the skills to tap into the power of storytelling in a business context, and you’d like to hear more, Mark will be spending some time at the Persona Global stand in the Expo Hall. Please do feel free to head his way to say hello and get more information directly from the source.

Alternatively, if you’d like to organise a meeting with Mark whilst he is on American soil, then send an email to


Storytelling techniques that get people’s attention

Posted by Mark Schenk - April 24, 2015
Filed in Business storytelling

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.

Business meeting

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.

  1. William Zinsser, ‘On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Non-fiction’, 2006, New York, HarperCollins. Originally published 1976.


Story Powered – Communicating strategy with story part 2

Posted by Mark Schenk - April 16, 2015
Filed in Business storytelling

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.

Learning strategy

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 triggeringWhich 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.

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An interview with Lianne Picot – Communicating strategy with story part 1

Posted by Mark Schenk - April 9, 2015
Filed in Business storytelling

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.

Lianne Picot - Story Powered

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.

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How to find and tell a story to support your cause

Posted by Shawn Callahan - March 31, 2015
Filed in Business storytelling

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.

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Storytelling for Leaders programmes set for take off in New Zealand

Posted by Ross Pearce - March 26, 2015
Filed in Business storytelling, Collaboration, News

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.

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