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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
Read the rest of this entry »
In 2014, with the help of several colleagues, Andrew Carton, Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School, set about studying how the specific language of leader rhetoric impacts on productivity.
The researchers analysed the vision statements of 151 American hospitals, looking specifically at those related to cardiology units. They wanted to assess how effective these corporate statements of purpose were when it came to the service provided to heart attack patients, which they did by examining readmission rates for such patients within a month of the original illness. They discovered that statements with a high proportion of image-based words and relatively few values had the greatest effect on employee performance (less readmissions), whereas those with more values than vision, or simply not much vision (lacking vivid imagery), had the least effect (more readmissions).
It turns out that leaders often use concepts rather than images to communicate purpose. So they might talk in generic terms about a company becoming a leading retailer of luxury goods, rather than talking memorably about seeing more customers smile as they head home clutching their new handbag. They also tend to overuse values – quality, innovation, accountability – which muddies the vision they are trying to convey. These characteristics may not have a huge impact on an individual employee’s ability to conjure up a standalone vision of what they’re working towards, but they do have an enormous effect on what the company’s shared vision will be. And as we all know, it’s the shared vision that really counts in organisational performance.
Read the rest of this entry »
Develop your own search image for stories
Once you’ve developed the ability to spot stories, the next habit is to actively notice them.
Early in the 20th century biologists observed how animals, such as birds, learn how to notice a specific variety of prey and how they become extremely good at finding them. For example, a bird can detect a specific type of worm or beetle at a distance and when they do we just stand there amazed at how they found it. Biologists call this a search image. We need to develop our own search image for stories.
The first thing to do is to keep an ear out for time markers. You’ll be surprised at just how many stories start this way and it’s a great way to start noticing stories around you.
Then take yourself to places where stories are told. Head down to the cafeteria, visit your local restaurant or diner, join in on those pop-up corridor conversations or arrive early for a meeting to hear the general chit chat, or stay after the formal part ends to hear what happens.
These informal parts of the meeting really matter. My friend Stuart French told me this story. A medical supplier that has its HQ in Australia has one of its offices in the US. The US guys felt on the outer because whenever they had a teleconference the communication equipment was only taken off mute when the proper part of the meeting started. They weren’t getting any of the chit chat. So Stuart suggested a small change in teleconference procedure. How about we let everyone hear the informal conversation at both ends of the meetings? It made a big difference, it brought their people closer together.
So go to these informal places and just listen. Notice the type of stories being told. How long are they? What are they about? Who features? Who are the heroes and who are the villains?
Finding the stories that have power
Now, notice how you respond to the stories. How do they make you feel? Do any give you a tingle of emotion? Keep a mental note of the stories that generate an emotion. These are the stories with power.
As the American author and poet, Maya Angelou, said, “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
This story created an immediate emotion for me when I read it.
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.
Read the rest of this entry »
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.
Read the rest of this entry »
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.