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.
In 1988 I joined the database software company Oracle Systems. I worked in the Canberra sales team, where my job was to demonstrate the technical capabilities of the software to clients.
One day the national sales manager arrived unannounced from Sydney and told us that he wasn’t happy with our progress. He gathered us in front of a window on the 12th floor of our inner-city office, pointed at a nearby building, and asked if anyone had canvassed it.
No-one had, so he picked a sales rep at random and said, ‘Go to every floor of that building and tell them about our software’. He then pointed to another building, and another, each time dispatching a sales rep if we hadn’t worked those offices. We did as the manager instructed, and in the process we made some of the biggest sales in the history of our branch.
We are all salespeople
Sales have changed a lot. Back then you were selling a product. You described its features and showed how it was superior to your competitors’ wares. But as Dan Pink argues convincingly in To Sell Is Human, now we are all salespeople because of the massive shift towards small entrepreneurial companies.
In 1999, when I was working for IBM, the focus had already switched to selling solutions to business problems. These solutions were integrated and complex. The customer was less interested in a product’s features and more interested in how it was going to impact their business.
Selling solutions is now an established major trend in sales. But it has come at a cost. Many salespeople are just not doing well selling solutions. The research firm CEB has shown that the gap between average-performing salespeople and star performers is close to 200% for solution sales, while it’s only 59% for transaction sales.
There is a valuable opportunity here for companies to help their average performers improve their skills and close this gap.
The Challenger Sale
It turns out that a particular style is highly effective when it comes to the solution sale. For their fascinating book The Challenger Sale, Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson surveyed sales managers about the practices of over 6000 sales reps. They ran a statistical factor analysis over the data and discovered five types of salesperson:
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There’s a way to lead more effectively from anywhere in the corporate hierarchy without the benefit of the positional authority that comes in the form of titles and reporting relationships.
Don’t wait to get into the c-suite to change minds, impact the business and leave a lasting impression. Be influential immediately.
Telling stories, listening to stories and getting others to tell stories about you in the workplace will increase your influence and effectiveness. If you want to be more influential, but lack the authority, try using these techniques:
The ability to make your superiors look good, deliver bad news, anticipate their needs and weigh in with your expertise without overstepping are all components of managing up.
Stories are a gentler way to express yourself. Rather than directing those above you, telling a short story that allows them to draw their own conclusion allows you to exert a measure of influence while also demonstrating your wisdom. Don’t just tell stories; listen for them. Understanding what your boss desires could be revealed in the stories she tells.
Lacking positional authority doesn’t mean you can’t amass loyal followers. Establish your expertise, make personal connections and change minds with the stories you tell. When stating your position, start by stating your fact-based point, and then follow with a story that illustrates your view. The story will open listeners’ minds to possibilities. Then you can conclude with your argument. It’s a winning combination for influencing people.
“Did you hear how the pitch was doomed until Shelly came up with an on-the-spot idea that the client loved?”
I visited Amsterdam in early April and met Paul Joosten and Ronald van Domberg. Both fabulous facilitators and both working in the story field. Within a few months they had become Partners in delivering the Storytelling for Leaders program and had completed their accreditation.
While many programs in The Netherlands are delivered in English, there is a strong preference in smaller organisations for programs to be delivered in Dutch. So, the Dutch translation has been completed and its first public outing will happen on 10 December.
We regularly run public workshops in Australia so people get the opportunity to experience our Storytelling for Leaders™ program. Over the next few months there will be plenty of opportunity to learn how to be an effective business storyteller in The Netherlands. Here are the program dates: Read the rest of this entry »
We judge stories we hear at work in three ways. First, is it plausible, did this really happen? Second, is this relevant, can it help me? Third, is it interesting, am I going to enjoy this?
Therefore when we tell a business story it’s important to make clear its relevance at the outset. We need to know what you’re talking about and why you are telling me and this helps significantly with business story recall.
There’s a clever study that shows just how important it is to make clear your topic and your point at the outset. John Bransford and Marcia Johnson, from New York University, asked participants to listen to the following paragraph and remember it:
The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell. After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.
Last week Victoria Ward and I wrote an ‘essay in two voices’ giving our impressions of a book called ‘Let’s Stop Meeting Like This‘ by Dick and Emily Axelrod. The ‘essay in two voices’ technique was developed by my good friend Madelyn Blair. Here’s a description of how it works in detail, but in a nutshell both authors write 500 words on a topic. We share it and then respond to each others piece with 250 words. Again we share that and respond with 150 words and so on until we end up with a 140 character, and of course very tweetable, statement.
Let’s start with Victoria’s 500 words and the back and forth and then we will switch to my piece and what followed.
Right at the end Victoria and I offer some reflections on the process.
Victoria starts. 500 words
Changing how organisations have meetings is at the heart of Sparknow’s practice. And I know it’s at the heart of much of Anecdote’s work too. Reading this book together with you, Shawn, matters to me as a way of exploring that practice together.
The authors quote Charles Duhigg on the power of keystone habits, habits so powerful that if you change those you change the organisation. That’s a reminder of how hard it is to change meetings. Rewiring for new habits takes massive, sustained, effort.
The central ‘meeting canoe’ metaphor has a useful simplicity (although I’m not sure why it’s a canoe: is it that we all stop paddling our own and get in one we paddle together? Perhaps I skimmed that part.) The structure of the meeting canoe (welcome, connect, discover, elicit, decide, attend) emphasises those things that are too easy to overlook, e.g. start by creating connections, both between people, and with the task. And the underlying principles of creating a learning environment: create a shared view of the reality you are facing, make sense of the reality, and neither flee from nor seek prematurely to fix it. Yes.
Story head on, I like the attention to beginnings and endings. There is a ‘rubber band’ analogy: participants discover the way things are and dream about the future, this creates a tension that propels them towards that future. That feels like story too. I was more taken with the ‘rubber band’ than the ‘meeting canoe’. The authors emphasise the power of talking about the future as if it were the present. Yes! Madelyn Blair of Pelerei taught me long ago with her future story.
I spend hours thinking about endings, and this as a Gestalt moment, was the single most useful new idea. Attending to the end follows a natural cycle, the cycle of experience: failure to attend to the end interrupts this natural cycle and makes future work harder than it needs to be.
There were handy techniques sprinkled through the book, especially the first aid for meetings, and in particular the role of the leader in naming rotten underlying patterns in which the meeting is stuck, in a way that allows everyone to shift on from them.
What was missing then? Two things in particular for me. The ‘red thread’ of the longer narrative in which the meeting sits: what happened before and before that, what happens after and after that? The meeting is now, but it sits in a long now. Secondly, a big hole was curation. How are you recording the meeting, and how do the different stories of the meeting travel for it to have a ripple effect, or which parts of it are private, necessarily, because it’s a hidden shared moment? None of that was really covered, and that’s a vital part of the process.
Shawn responds. 250
Thanks for practising the canoe Victoria. I felt welcomed to this essay. It’s probably a habit for you, just automatic, but it really affected the way I read what you wrote. It was inviting and exploratory. I now wonder how you read mine, which lacked such an inviting beginning.
It’s interesting we both picked up on the role of the larger narrative, or should I say, narratives. These stories stroll into the meeting with all the participants. Then there are the stories of what happened in the meeting. What’s done and how it’s done will be just as important as what’s said.
I’m very interested in how new habits form. It’s hard to create a new habit but it would be even harder to help groups of people to create them. I guess this is culture change. My sense is action comes before intention, which sounds arse-about but I reckon you act your way into a new way of thinking.
I was always a bit loose-string on the importance of beginnings, middles and ends in stories. It seemed to be in the category of true but useless. Then I met Paul Costello who showed me how signposting these parts of a story can really help in the journey. I now call out in the middles of my workshops and quickly review the past and ask the participants if they want to modify anything we have planned for the future. Damn, I’ve run out of space for the ending.
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