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.
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.
My wife, Kate, and I decided to take a long weekend this recent US Labor Day holiday and explore New England a bit. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, CT has been on our “must-see” list for a while, so that was our first stop. It’s the oldest art museum in the USA and is one of America’s hidden gems. The museum was founded in 1842 by Daniel Wadsworth and the museum’s first building, built in the Gothic Revival style, was completed in 1844 – 17 years before America’s Civil War.
The museum was quiet on the Friday morning that we arrived and it felt like we had the entire collection to ourselves. The first gallery one enters in filled with beautiful Renaissance paintings and one in particular caught my eye, Portrait of A Man In Armor by Sebastiano del Piombo.
As I stood in front of this Renaissance painting from 1512, admiring its details, I heard a voice from behind me say, “How many faces do you see in the painting?”
I turned, thinking that a docent was engaging me in a conversation but was surprised to discover that a security guard, Mr. Angel Cortes, was standing there smiling at me. “One,” I answered. “No, there are two faces in this painting,” Mr. Cortes said. He then proceeded to show me the very faint, barely visible, second face – “the ghost” as it’s known – over the right shoulder of the Man In Armor. (BTW, the “ghost” is not visible in this print of the painting. You’ll need to visit the museum to see him.)
Read the rest of this entry »
We’ve all read and heard the word sustainability but how many of us can articulate what it means? When I started working in the sustainability space several years ago, I was frankly baffled that so many people knew the word, but so few could really explain its meaning. I still regularly ask people for their understanding of the concept and aside from sustainability officers and their troops, I continue to get a wide range of answers.
Sustainability directly involves economics, ecology, politics and culture. It encompasses wide areas of expertise and includes numerous business sectors. I like to say it encompasses the worlds of earth, air, wind and fire! Herein lays the conundrum. There is no easy way to explain sustainability; sustainability is truly Complex.
A sleep inducing definition
In 1987 the UN’s Brundtland Commission coined the definition most often quoted for the term, Sustainable Development: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
This is an important concept; perhaps one of the most important concepts of the latter 20th and early 21st centuries. But it puts me to sleep! It’s instantly forgettable (read it again, how much can you remember?!?)…in one ear and out the other… why should I care when I can’t even remember?
Why is one of the most profound and important ideas of our present era so unmemorable?
Salespeople detest brand gobbledygook.
And it’s no wonder. Have you heard brand lingo lately?
Lovemarks, saliency, brand-defined competitive sets, brand character, brand claims, brand personality, 80-slide PowerPoint presentations sprinkled with made-up words and forgettable catchphrases …
It’s hard for a salesperson to understand this brand bumf, much less translate it into something they can share with a prospect. Good salespeople do convey the brand, but they do it intuitively by sharing stories that illustrate the brand in action. Like most experts, however, they’re mostly unaware of this skill and their story repertoire. They just do it.
A systematic approach to sales storytelling can bridge the divide between brand and sales and bring the brand to life.
There are 4 steps in building this bridge. Read the rest of this entry »
We’re all rational beings, aren’t we? If I want to convince you of something, surely I just need the necessary facts or a convincing argument?
Well, behavioural science research tells us that this approach simply doesn’t work. This post describes something that scientists have known for nearly 40 years and which organisations stubbornly refuse to accept.
If the story is in their heads, it’s hard to change
Once someone has decided to believe something, they will tend to keep on believing it, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, facts and plausible arguments. Lilienfield (2002) researched a phenomenon called ‘belief perseverance’ and found that false beliefs often persist long after they are discredited. You don’t need long in a history book to discover many famous examples of this: the earth is flat; longitude cannot be solved by clocks etc. The same thing happens in organisations.
Belief perseverance helps us understand why it is so hard to change entrenched views. In organisations, this phenomenon becomes critically important when trying to implement any sort of change; changing culture, embedding values or executing a new strategy. If people in the organisation believe something that runs counter to what you are trying to achieve, traditional approaches to changing these beliefs are ineffective.
Normal approaches don’t work
The normal approach is to reach people using reason, facts and slick PowerPoint presentations. When it doesn’t work, we try even harder. We think we just need to find the right argument and we will win them over.
Not only is providing evidence to discredit a belief ineffective, it can also work against your objective by triggering the confirmation bias. Research conducted by Lord, Ross and Lepper (1979) suggests that people will not only persevere in their original beliefs but may come to believe in them even more strongly.
We often encounter this challenge when helping organisations convert their strategies into strategic stories. In every circumstance, we find what we call anti-stories, beliefs that significantly impede acceptance, and hence execution, of a new strategy.
For example, in 2009 we worked with an organisation whose strategy centred around the need to integrate three previously separate departments into a single organisation. We discovered a strongly held belief (anti-story) that integration was pointless as the organisation was bound to be split apart again in the near future. This belief stemmed from experience in the early 1990s when the three departments had been merged and then later separated again. This belief persisted despite countless assurances from leaders that it would not happen again.
Once inappropriate beliefs such as these arise, they are stubbornly resistant to change (Slusher et al 1989). Simply discrediting the evidence that caused a belief does little to change the belief itself. For example, in research by Anderson et al (1982), subjects were given fictitious research that led them to believe that either a positive or negative correlation existed between a firefighters preference for risky versus conservative choices and their success as a firefighter. Half the subjects were debriefed about the fictitious nature of the research and the other half received no such debriefing. Fascinatingly, subjects who were explicitly informed that the initial data were completely bogus held beliefs that were only slightly less extreme than the corresponding beliefs of the subjects who were never told that the data was fictitious.
Stories open their minds to new possibilities
While we don’t pretend to have a silver bullet for this challenge, we have had considerable success changing beliefs (we call it tackling anti-stories) using our storytelling, story-listening and story-triggering approaches. Our white paper on tackling anti-stories describes some approaches that can help. You can download it here http://www.anecdote.com/whitepapers/?wpname=Anti-stories
You can’t beat a story with just the facts, only with another story. Or, as philosopher Gordon Livingston more eloquently puts it, “it is difficult to remove by logic an idea not placed there by logic in the first place”.
- Anderson, C. A., Oliver, M. R., And Ross, L. (1980). Perseverance of social theories: the role of explanation in the persistence of discredited information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 1037 1049.
- Lilienfield, S. O., & Byron, R., Your Brain on Trial, Scientific American Mind January/February 2013, p47.
- Lord, G.C., Ross, L., & Lepper, M.R. (1979). Biased assimilation and attitude polarisation; The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 2098-2109.
- Slusher, M. P., & Anderson, C.A., Belief Perseverance and Self-defeating behaviour, in R. Curtis (Ed), Self-defeating behaviours: clinical impressions and practical implications. New York, Plenum Press, 1989, p11.
In 92 days we’ll be running Storytelling for Leaders workshop in Los Angeles. I’m looking forward to this week in LA because I’ll have just finished a week-long road trip with my brother between San Francisco and LA (should create lots of stories) and we are planning a get together for fellow business storytelling practitioners in the LA region (let me know if you are interested in coming).
To buy tickets to the event just click below. We are currently looking for a good venue. Any suggestions would be great.
What do your organisational values actually mean? Do you have a list of 4, 5, 6 one-word, abstract concepts such as integrity, responsive and agile that represent your values? You might even have a few paragraphs describing each value.
Most organisations I’ve worked with have something similar and it hasn’t helped them that much. These espoused values sound good but just like having a glorious view from your office, after a while they become invisible. So, how do you keep them alive so people really know what they mean and care about them.
Earlier this year one of the banks asked us to collect stories to help their managers understand their values. They had connected their values to their performance management system and wanted to rate employees on how well they were living them. Both employees and managers didn’t really know what to say in the performance review about the values because they were unsure what they actually looked like in action.
One of the anecdotes from the bank was about a young lawyer. He’d just started with the bank and was asked to provide a series of legal documents to the folk over in retail. After he’d finished the work and sent it over to his client he realised he’d made a mistake. It wasn’t a huge mistake and chances were nobody would noticed it. At first he thought he’d let is slide but then he pull himself up and thought “is this the way I want to start my career as a lawyer?” and promptly called his client and told them what had happened. His client praised him for his honesty. He fixed the mistake and felt good about fessing up.
For the bank this is what integrity can look like. It also says something about what should happen when a mistake is found. It is one small example that illustrates integrity at the bank.
But one example is not enough. Managers and employees need a richer picture of their values and this comes from hearing a range of different stories that show a value in action.
In fact you need to create a systematic way to not only share the stories across the company but help people talk about what the story actually means to them. It’s only in this discussion that they make sense of the value.
Imagine if your your entire organisation is discussing the same story at the same time, say every month. Imagine the gradual but robust understanding everyone would have about what the values mean. And by telling their own stories (because hearing a story invariable prompts other stories to be told) they will, over time, begin to really own these values. They are no longer a set of abstract ideas handed down by the head office.
We have developed an approach to making this happen that makes use of our story bank software (Zahmoo.com) backed by a systematic and structured process. And once it is in place you can use it for any number of other story-led conversations, such as examples of your strategy in action.
When you see a poem you know it’s a poem.
When you see a screenplay you know it’s a screenplay.
Most people, however, have never seen an oral story written down. Probably because it’s an oxymoron. Yet there are times when it’s useful to write an oral story down. For example, when you’re helping a company create the story of their strategy.
Let’s look at the difference between oral and written stories and then I’ll describe a significant problem that can happen when you write down an oral story for a company.
First and foremost we talk quite differently to how we write and read. For example, when we speak we say things in short bursts.
When we speak /
We say things in short bursts. //
Yet we can write a sentence that is much longer and more elaborate than we would normally speak. Punctuation helps a reader but doesn’t go far enough for a speaker (more on this below).
When we talk it’s quite reasonable to repeat ourselves. We can say the same thing a few times and no one will give it a second thought. It gives us time to gather our ideas and emphasise our point. In fact repetition helps our audience hear what we are saying.
Repetition is spurned in prose unless it’s a literary effort of Joycean proportions. But in business writing it’s a no no.
And “it’s a no no” would never pass for business writing but we could easily and acceptably say it. We can speak colloquially but brows wrinkle when we write it.
Most of the time we are speaking we use short, simple words. When we’re chatting with colleagues and recounting what happened in the meeting we all just went to (editor, please replace ‘went to’ with ‘attended’), we use short, concrete phrases.
“Did you see Bob’s face when Bronwyn said we’ll need to create a new job role? I can see this being a problem.”
People don’t speak corporateez. Most people, that is.
We don’t typically say transformation, core competency, retrospective coherence (yep, I’ve heard that), strategic leverage, commercial sustainability, I could go on.
Now let me explain the problem that often happens when you try and write down an oral story such as the oral story of the corporate strategy.
When it’s written down it looks a lot like any other business document in that there are words in paragraphs but the writing seems overly informal and even naive. Things might be repeated and there are informal phrases all over the place. So the business language wordsmiths appear and begin to make it sound like a piece of business writing. I’ve even had footnotes added!
YOU MUST RESIST THIS URGE.
Here’s what I suggest you do.
First write the story in a format that doesn’t look like normal business prose.
Much like a poem, break up the story based on the short bursts we speak in. At the end of each line either insert a “/” to indicate a minor pause and the sentence just flows on to the next phase or a “//” when there’s a bigger pause. This is how experts in discourse analysis write conversations down.
The great advantage to this approach is that it looks different. Internal comms immediately thinks, “Whoa, what in the hell is this?” And you can share with them the difference between oral and written stories.
Let me know if you have ever had this challenge and how you dealt with it.