I’ve just spent a week travelling the California coast with my brother, Scott. We visited many restaurants and wineries but the ones that stand out did something remarkable, something out of the ordinary.
The Palace Grill in Santa Barbara is a Cajun restaurant. Lots of people line up to get a table. Lots of buzz. Our visit started off like any other restaurant dinner at a popular spot. Great service (nothing unexpected), great food (of course, what else), my brother brought great wine (another Joel Gott masterpiece).
Then at 8.30pm this noisy eating spot is brought to silence by the maître d’ and the service staff hand out the words of the song What a Wonderful World. Louis Armstrong starts singing and everyone starts, a little hesitantly at first, to sing along. All the waiters are clinking glasses with the patrons wishing them cheers and good health.
Now that was remarkable.
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Back in 2008 Wharton School professor, Adam Grant (author of one of my favourite books, Give and Take), conducted a fascinating experiment that highlighted how important it is to be reminded of your purpose.
He was working with a call centre that raised funds for a university. He divided the call centre into three groups. Group 1 were reminded (using two stories) of the benefits of the job; how working there could benefit their own lives. Group 2 were reminded (also with two stories) of the impact their fund-raising was having on benefactors; how their work benefited the lives of others. Group 3 was the control, they received no intervention.
A month after the intervention the study found that people in Groups 1 and 3 showed no change in the number of donations or the amount of donation raised. Group 2, however, more than doubled the average number of donations (9 to 23) and the donation size ($1,288 to $3,130).
It’s easy to get bogged down in the doing and forget our purpose. And as you can see from Grant’s research significant productivity improvements can come just by reminding people why they are doing what they are doing.
It’s worth noting that these benefits come from sharing stories rather than merely passing on a point of view or a set of facts as dot points. The stories help people feel the impact they’re making.
Grant stopped after a month. In organisations we need to continue the process and embed the story sharing into day-to-day activities.
For example Apple stores embed customer service know-how by sharing a story of exceptional service every morning in their pre-opening staff huddle. It’s done in a subtle way without even mentioning stories explicitly. On the previous day they run a random net promoter score survey of customers. Any employee who gets a 10 out of 10 is recognised in the huddle with the simple request to describe what happened to get the 10. A story is naturally told. Everyone gets a concrete example of what it takes to get a 10 and also sees how much it is valued by management and their peers.
One-off storytelling has impact for sure. But systemic, repeated storytelling changes behaviour and creates deep capabilities.
Grant, A. M. (2008). The significance of task significance: Job performance effects, relational mechanisms, and boundary conditions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 108-124.
It’s not easy to be a good boss. In a 30 year career I can count three (thanks Walt, Amy and Steve). Stanford business professor, Bob Sutton, says that acting as a shield for your employees is one of the important tasks of a leader.
And being a good boss means fostering the culture and values of the company by taking a stand and doing something remarkable so people will tell stories about it over and over again reinforcing what’s valued around here. We call this story-triggering.
This story, shared by Sutton, conveys these sentiments nicely.
Lucas’ concerns were not shared by the two heads of the Computer Division, Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith. The pair had been responsible for some big innovations in computer graphics, particularly in the area of rendering, and they were optimistic that they could turn their animated dreams into a financially rewarding reality. Nonetheless, Lucas decided to appoint a new division president, Doug Norby, to reign the group in, and Norby wasted no time in pressuring Catmull and Smith to lay off employees.
Catmull and Smith couldn’t bring themselves to start sacking their colleagues. Instead, Catmull went to Norby and argued that the division needed to remain intact, that cutting up such a potentially valuable entity didn’t make sense. But the new president was having none of it. Norby insisted that he be given a list of names for dismissal.
The two heads dug in, ignoring Norby’s demand until, one day, they were given an ultimatum. They were to appear in the president’s office the following morning with a list of names, and that was that.
The next day, Catmull and Smith did what Norby had asked them to do. They walked into his office at the appointed time and put a sheet paper on his desk. Two names were written on it: Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith.
Norby backed down, and all of the employees of the Computer Division kept their jobs. So grateful were the staff to Catmull and Smith that they all chipped in to buy the two heads and their wives a well-earned night on the town.
We’ve been blogging since 2004. And over the years we have shared hundreds of stories. Some of those stories are definitely ones you could retell as a leader so we have identified the best ones, tagged them with what we think they are about and highlighted the story in the post so you can quickly see it.
Then we have presented a link to all these stories on one page in our Story Finder.
Please let us know if you know of a great story a leader should tell.
When business leaders start building their business storytelling skills it can help a lot to see how other business leaders tell business stories.
Here are 9 examples from some of the world’s top business leaders who purposely and systematically share stories to help their message to stick. You might like to review our guide to spotting stories so the stories leap out of the videos for you.
Steve Jobs – TV media interview
Many leaders think they just don’t have time to tell a story, especially when they are doing a media interview. Steve Job shows us this is not the case and jumps straight into a story when he says, “We went into retail about 5 years ago …”
This doesn’t look like a polished story, which adds to its impact: it’s not spin, it’s just what happened. But notice how we learn about the success of the old Apple store, the risk they took with an underground location (reinforcing their rule breaker image of Apple) and the emphasise they put on design.
Barack Obama – out on the hustings
This is the first of two clips of Barack Obama telling the same story to two different audiences. It’s useful to see how stories morph depending on when and where they are told.
In this first telling we see Obama out on the campaign trail drumming up support for his candidacy. This story is the last thing he says in his speech. It’s designed to spur action.
Barack Obama – the stadium
In this telling of the Greenwood, South Carolina story, Obama is in a stadium. His die hard supporters know the story but they are keen to hear it again. There is a back and forth communication with the audience, a call and response.
Obama starts the story by saying, “It shows you the importance of one voice …” We call this a relevance statement. He is telling us why we should be interested in his story. It’s one simple sentence. Then he launches right into the story.
Notice how he paints pictures for us:
- I open up the shades on my window and its pouring with rain.
- I open up the paper and there is a bad story in the New York Times.
- She was wearing a church hat.
Stories are more powerful if we can see them happening, so be specific. And they will have even more impact if we can feel them happening, when they have emotion.
Ed Catmull – speech to Stanford University
Ed Catmull is the President of Pixar. He has an engineering background. He’s a computer scientist who has successfully built and leads a multi-billion dollar business. I think this example of storytelling illustrates how a quiet and unassuming leader can tell impactful stories.
Catmull’s speech is all about the challenges he has faced at Pixar. This is a great topic for storytelling because people love to hear when things went wrong and how they were fixed.
He starts his talk by posing two questions, both couched in stories.
The first is a broad story about how computer graphics companies who had once lead the industry made catastrophic mistakes despite being told that they were about to make them. Catmull wants to know, how do I avoid these mistakes?
At 8:15 in the clip he tells a story of how his production managers had become second class citizens. He was dismayed that he didn’t see it coming.
Cutmull pinpointed the crux of the problem. ”We had confused the organisational structure with the communication structure … Communication needs to be able to happen with anybody at any time.”
The theme of A-team vs B-team repeats at 14:27 when Catmull tells us what happens when you have one team creating a high quality movie for cinema release and the other is doing a straight to DVD release. Another tricky problem to solve.
Recovery from the A- vs B-team problem required starting Toy Story 2 over from scratch and they worked brutally hard to do it. And just so we understood just how hard, Catmull tells the anecdote about how a husband and wife team at Pixar left their baby in the car in the summer heat rushing to work (it was close but the baby was OK).
At 26:10 we learn about post-mortems and gaming the system. Great story with the lessons of why it’s important to do post-mortems differently each time.
He finishes with a story (29:18) about how we get complacent in business. At Pixar they say, “It’s the story that counts” but then discovered everyone says that. “Once you can distill an idea into a concise statement you then can use that statement without having to worry about behaviour change.” It becomes a dead idea.
John Kerry – all staff meeting
Here the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, is addressing his department for the first time and he tells a terrific connection story that says he has an understanding of the diplomatic world (I’m a bit like you) and that he shares their values. Jump to 13:40 for the story.
Howard Schultz – talk at a business conference
Howard Schultz is the CEO and Founder of Starbucks. His talk is all about the company’s remarkable turnaround.
Schultz kicks off with the story of the leaked memo (13.10) which was the harbinger of the difficulties they were about to face.
At 17:35 he tells the story of growing up in Brooklyn, a personal story showing what drives him and why Starbucks provides, to this day, comprehensive health insurance to all employees.
After realising Stabucks had lost the passion for making great coffee, he tells us about closing all US stores (24:10) for retraining 115,000 people. The beginning of the recovery.
Schultz then tell is how he gets all the store managers together (11,000 people) at a cost $32 million to inspire action (26:22 – 32:32).
Warren Buffet – talk to MBA class
This is a short clip which shows Warren Buffet sharing a hypothetical situation (a story) to get the MBA students to really think about leadership. The story is an analogy for leadership, selecting stock in companies and how to live a good life.
Indra Nooyi – media chat
Indra Nooyi is the Chairperson and CEO of PepsiCo. In this clip she tells some specific and personal anecdotes about her family life that give us insights into her character and helps humanise the CEO role.
Steve Jobs – commencement speech
Stories featured in so many of Steve Jobs presentations and media appearances. He definitely understood how to purposely and systematically tell a story to influence, engage and inspire action.
This commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005 has had 18 million views on YouTube. In it Jobs tells three personal stories and begins with the words:
“I want to tell you three stories from my life. No big deal. Just three stories.”
Ric Holland is the CEO of Melbourne City Mission. MCM has a long history in Melbourne being established at the time of the gold rush in the 1800s. The enormous influx of people to Melbourne back then created unprecedented homelessness and MCM was created to help people find a place to live. Fighting homelessness is still a major task for MCM today. Ric has led MCM for three years.
One of the MCM programs is called Gateway Reconnect. It runs out of King Street in the CBD and the relatively young volunteers in their 20s work on the street and meet young people who are vulnerable to homelessness.
One day a man in his forties, wearing a suit approached the volunteers on King Street.
“Are you with MCM,” he asked
When they said yes he pulled out a small photo album and then started to describe the pictures.
“This is me and my wife. We got married 10 years ago.”
“This one is of my two beautiful daughters.”
“And this one was a big day for me. It was when I got a big promotion.”
The volunteers were puzzled at first but then they worked it out. The man went through the Gateway program 20 odd years ago. Apart from his immediate family he didn’t really have anyone to show the great things that happened to him. So he decided to go back to where it all started.
This is more or less how Ric told me the story. He reenacted how the man showed each photo in the album. It was moving.
Then Ric said, on the day this happened the volunteers came up to the office and said, “We had a guy in a suit show us his brag album today. He went through the program 20 years ago and has done well.”
As you can see the first telling was a little anaemic.
But Ric knew it was a good story and asked questions and worked out the bigger story.
Now, if a story is something that happened.
A good story is when you can see what happened.
And a great story is when you can feel what happened.
Ric was able to help me see and feel what happened.
The ability to see the potential in a partly told story is one of the skills leaders must develop to enhance their narrative intelligence.
I’ve recently had the pleasure working with World Vision Australia. In case you don’t know them, they’re Australia’s largest charity and they focus on child and community well-being across the world. You might have sponsored a child through World Vision.
A few weeks ago I caught up with their CEO, Tim Costello, and I was struck by his warmth and charm and immediately recognised his superb storytelling skills. I’m often asked, “Who are the storytelling CEOs?” And I would definitely add Tim to that list.
Tim was adept at a type of story I don’t hear that often, the analogy story. Here are a couple of examples Tim shared with me which should give you a pretty good idea of what I mean.
Tim often gets the question, “So, what percentage of the money donated goes to running World Vision?” I can hear the exasperation in Tim’s voice as a tells me this.
Here’s the story he told (in my words) to help me understand his frustration.
“Imagine you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer and your only hope rests with undergoing a complicated and risky surgery. You research each surgeon on your short-list and you ask each one, “So, what percentage of your income goes to running your business?”
“Of course this is ridiculous. You would ask about their success rate, how often they’ve done the surgery and what other complications might happen. But we rarely get asked how successful our programs are by the general public. And they are extremely successful.”
The other analogy story Tim told me was this.
“Ten years ago, or more,” he said, “the only way you could get to the countries and communities who needed help was through organisations like ours. But these days people can just jump on a plane and land on the doorstep of any stricken community wanting to help.”
“It’s a bit like someone in Ethiopia reading online about Australia’s problems reforming our education system, then hopping on a plane, catching a cab out to a local Primary School and fronting up to the principal offering to help.
The principal might ask, “Do you understand how our education system works in Australia?”
“No, I don’t. But I’m here to help,” replies our Good Samaritan.
“How’s your English then?” asks the principal.
“Not very good. But I’m here to help,” says the Good Samaritan.”
Look our for analogies from everyday life, something that everyone can relate to, and think about how that situation relates to what you are trying to achieve at work, to the obstacles and misconceptions. Then jot them down and look for places to tell ‘em.
Earlier this week Shawn sent me an email. “You must see Steve Jobs: The Lost interview. It’s available on iTunes” (its the movie, not the radio show).
So, naturally I downloaded it and am halfway through it. It’s riveting. Jobs answers nearly every question with a story. When the interviewer talks about developing the first Macintosh, he asks “what is the secret of building a great product?”, Steve tells him that the secret of a great product is understanding that having a great idea is only 10% of the battle. The other 90% is getting a great team together who focus on content rather than process and understand that it never turns out the way you planned: it constantly changes and evolves and you need to make tremendous trade-offs. He tells this story:
Kevin shared this story with me the other day. It’s too good not to retell.
> A few years back, there was an ad agency called Allen Brady and Marsh (ABM). It was a very showbiz agency, and not very fashionable. They were pitching for the British Rail account against some very good agencies and to say they were considered ‘underdogs’ would be an understatement.
> If they were to stand any chance of winning this account they had to find a way to prove they knew something the other, more fashionable agencies didn’t.
> Apparently, on the day of the pitch, the top management team of British Rail turned up at the ABM offices. When they arrived at reception it was deserted.
> The Chairman checked his watch, and they were on time.
> He looked around, and there was no one in sight — just a very scruffy reception area littered with crumpled newspapers, food wrappers, cigarette butts, and cushions with holes burned in them.
> It looked like the worst agency they’d ever been in.
> Eventually, a scruffy woman appeared and sat behind the desk. She ignored them and started rummaging in a drawer. The Chairman coughed. She ignored him, so he coughed again.
> He said, “Excuse me, we’re here to see …” The woman replied, “Be with you in a minute love.”
> He said, “But we have an appointment …” and she replied abruptly, “Can’t you see I’m busy?”
> The Chairman was fuming. “This is outrageous” he said, “we’ve been waiting more than fifteen minutes.”
> “Can’t help that love” the receptionist replied.
> The Chairman had enough. “Right that’s it, we’re leaving” he declared, and the top management team of British Rail started to walk out.
> At that very moment, a door opened and out stepped the agency creative director, Peter Marsh.
> He’d been watching everything.
> He shook the Chairman’s hand warmly and said, “Gentlemen, you’ve just experienced what the public’s impression of British Rail is. Now, if you’ll come this way, we’ll show you exactly how we’re going to turn that around.”
> And he took the British Rail management team into the boardroom and went through their pitch about how bright the future could be, if ABM was their agency, which of course, it became.
This story is a great example of someone deliberately doing something remarkable (something people remark on) to make a real impact and to make people feel the need for change. It’s these kind of actions that inevitably trigger stories, and positively influence others.
How might you use this aspect of story triggering in your change initiative to show people what is different, not just tell them? How can you make them ‘feel’ the need for change?
As a manager, I have always had a lot of time for people who might not be overly talented but who always try their hardest. Highly talented people who won’t ‘put in’ don’t get much time or attention from me.
This afternoon a workshop participant told me a story he heard last week that makes this concept come to life.