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.
At Christmas, I was in Melbourne with my two kids. All my family live there and I needed to do what I could to ensure there was no disharmony or feelings of favouritism. So I applied Shawn’s guiding principle in these matters: ‘Families are like fish. After three days they start to go off’. So I stayed for a few days with each of my relatives.
It turns out that there is another way to maintain harmony and indeed, to build resilience in families, especially children. Have a family narrative.
This article in the NY Times claims that “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.”
Three types of narrative are described:
- The ascending family narrative which goes ‘when we came to this country we had nothing. We worked hard and look at us now’
- The descending family narrative which goes ‘we used to have it all and then we lost everything’
- The oscillating family narrative which goes ‘we’ve had our ups and downs, but no matter what happened we always stuck together as a family’
Apparently, this last narrative is the healthiest, especially for building the confidence and resilience of kids.
Many thanks to Ken Everett from Think On Your Feet® for the pointer to this article.
Filed in Communication
We have talked a lot in this blog about the power that comes from showing how you are like your audience for improving the effectiveness of your communication.
From telling stories that show you are like them (The ‘I’m like you‘ story), to using their words, phrases or idioms. There are a number of ways that you can connect to your audience by showing them that you are like them.
I saw an example recently where one of the world’s best known brands was using a similar concept here in Australia.
In a world first, McDonald’s Australia has changed its signage to ‘Macca’s’ at selected restaurants.
McDonald’s Australia, Chief Marketing Officer, Mark Lollback said McDonald’s was incredibly proud to embrace its ‘Australian-only’ nickname.
“With one in two Australains giving us the nickname Macca’s…it was a perfect time to embrace the moniker and change our [name] across the country.” Lollback said.
“Changing our signage to Macca’s is a world first for our business and we’re thrilled to be celebrating the nick name that only Australians have given us,” he added.
For me, this is an example of a brand trying to show they are ‘just like’ their audience; “so much so that we even changed our name to the name you call us!” Clever.
Filed in Communication
One of the things that we tell people in our workshops is that your stories need to be true, particularly in a business context.
Your stories should be genuine and authentic. They must also be accurate, plausible and believable. If they’re not, you run the risk of damaging your credibility.
Consider this example of UK Primer Minister David Cameron, cited in a recent [BBC article](http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-20956126):
During the first televised prime-ministerial debate in 2010, David Cameron told a story about talking to a “40-year-old black man”, who had served 30 years in the Royal Navy.
Read that again. A *40-year-old*, who had served *30 years* in the Royal Navy. Clearly, it is not accurate, nor plausible. This would mean he had joined the armed forces aged 10.
In this instance, Mr. Cameron failed to communicate and convey his wider ideas, simply because his story was inaccurate and implausible.
Don’t make the same mistake when telling your stories.
I like to ask senior executives this simple question: is there a story going around your company that’s causing you pain?
I remember asking one HR director this question who immediately sighed and said that their board recently appointed a new CEO. A couple of months after he arrived a new strategy emerged and the story employees told was that the CEO went home one night, pulled out the strategy for his previous company, did a search and replace and presented it as the new company strategy.
Now, the reality actually involved the executive team meeting a few times to work out the strategy. It’s probably a good example of what can happen without broader participation. But here’s the thing: no amount of just setting the facts straight would change employees’ minds. A recent article by Lewandowsky et. al. (2012) summarises the research on how misinformation emerges, is sustained and can be corrected. And the answer hinges on storytelling.
When a misunderstanding takes hold we formulate a story to understand what’s happening. This story is important because it’s how we decide whether what’s happening might affect us: good, bad or benign. Once we have the story in our head, and it reinforces what we believe, then we’ll retell it and with each retelling the neural connections become stronger. It sticks.
The story of how the CEO pulled his strategy out of thin air, for example, might reinforce a dim view employees have of management and this story is just more evidence of management’s incompetence. It makes sense. It’s plausible. It’s gets told.
The worse way to combat misinformation is to just set the record straight by merely setting out the facts:
- our strategy was created by the executive over a three week period
- we used a well defined and accepted strategy formulation method
- the board has approved the strategy and all the executives are committed to its execution
It turns out that by simply stating the facts merely reinforces the misinformation. The original story gets stronger.
So what do you do? Well, you can only displace a story with a better story. And in fact you need to tell two stories to correct misinformation.
The first story should explain how the misinformation happened in the first place.
For example, you might say that when Bob (the CEO) joined in May we were in one of our busiest times of the year. The end of the financial year was looming and everyone was focussed on closing sales. At the same time Bob wanted to get our new strategy in place quickly and rather than get everyone involved he only included the executive team over a short period to create the strategy. It must have felt like it came from thin air.
The second story should then explain what actually happened.
Bob kicked off our strategy process by asking Sally to manage it. We engaged the services of Acme Consulting to facilitate the process as they were already working with us to design our leadership framework. The executive met for four sessions over three weeks where we reaffirmed our purpose, assessed our opportunities and competitive landscape and made a series of strategic choices, which you have now all seen. In hindsight we should have got more people involved but moving forward we will do just that as we learn and improve our approach.
The original story can only be displaced by an alternative narrative and these two stories (plus a glimpse of the future) combine to create a new story of what happened.
A couple of caveats. 1) The stories you tell must be what happened: no spin. 2) Your leaders must be able to tell these stories orally and tell them often. Repetition matters because we believe what is told often and what is believed by our colleagues (influence psychologist Robert Cialdini calls this social proof).
Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U.K.H., Seifert, C.M., Schwarz, N. & Cook, J. 2012, ‘Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing’, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 106-31.
Cialdini, R.B. 1993, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Quill Publishers, New York.
Most leaders really struggle to use plain language, especially when it comes to communicating something like strategy.
Here at Anecdote we specialise in oral storytelling, and we see this every time we work with a group of leaders in helping them tell their strategic story, or when using stories to build employee engagement or when they are trying to influence change in their organisations.
They don’t seem to be able to get past the formal language they are used to using in business.
Instead of talking the way they normally would when they are sharing anecdotes informally, they resort to using big words, abstractions, and terms that people just don’t use in every day speech. And it gets in the way.
Using your own language, your own words, the way you normally speak increases the chances that people understand what you are saying, and what they need to do to make this new strategy a success.
With a bit of coaching, guidance and sharing a few stories we can usually get a group of leaders to tell their stories using plain language. But its much harder when it comes to how they write. Our default when writing is not to write as we talk, but to use much more formal language, complete with lots of complicated terms and big words.
I saw a great little tip yesterday about how to make your writing more informal.
I was reading an article about Irish author Maeve Binchy who passed away yesterday. She was a hugely successful author who has sold over 40 million books, been translated into 37 different languages and, in 2000, was ranked third in the World Book Day poll of favourite authors.
Part of her success has been put down to her informal, almost ‘chatty style’.
“I don’t say I was ‘proceeding down a thoroughfare’, I say I ‘walked down the road’. I don’t say I ‘passed a hallowed institute of learning’, I say I ‘passed a school’.
When she was asked how she did it she said she simply wrote the way she spoke.
That’s the tip. Before you send anything out that you have written, read it aloud. Does it flow? Does it sound like the way you would speak? Are there words in their you would never say in conversation?
If it doesn’t flow, if it doesn’t sound like the way you speak, if you are using words you would never use in conversation – then keep editing.
Maeve Binchy also gave one more reason to use plain language, and to write the way you talk;
“You’re much more believable if you talk in your own voice.”
So move away from the big words, use plain language and you will build trust in you and the messages you are sending.
Greg Stephens, Lauren Silbert and Uri Hasson are Princeton University neuroscientists who in 2010 conducted a series of experiments showing that an audience’s brains light up (imagine they are all in a fMRI machine) the same way as the presenter’s brain when she tells a story. In their words, “Speaker and listener brain activity exhibits widespread coupling during communication.” The mere fact that our brain activity gets in sync when we share a story is pretty amazing but there are a couple of other findings which might be even more important. More on that later. But let’s start with what they did.
Their experiment (*1) starts with a young woman telling an unrehearsed story about her prom while she is hooked up to a fMRI machine–not the easiest task when telling a gripping story. They recorded her story and her brain activity. Her tale took about 15 minutes to tell.
Here’s my potted version of her story (you can read the full transcript in the extended version of the paper). It starts with the storyteller promising Charles she will go to the prom with him and then how she falls in love with another boy, Amir, and promptly forgets about her promise until Charles reminds her – awkward. She decides to keep her promise and on the big day she goes scuba diving with her family and the boat breaks down and she only gets home with five minutes to get ready for the dance. Prom night was tricky because Amir was there and she planned to hook up with him for the after-party but he was getting plastered so she had to drive him to the after-party while he played air guitar. They then see an accident and get distracted (probably by a sizzling guitar solo) and crash into the already smashed cars. The police question her and she gets a lucky break. They’re sent home without charge.
With that story duly recorded the researchers choose 12 people and asked each subject to listen to it while they lay in the fMRI tunnel. The first thing the researchers noticed was that the brain activity of the storyteller matched the brain activity of the listener–the same parts of the brain lit up on the fMRI. And as you would expect, there was a small time lag as the listener comprehended the story. The researchers were seeing the brain activity between the speaker and listener synchronise.
To test whether the listener was really responding to what was being said and not just responding to noise, they also recorded a version of the story in Russian and played this to their listening subjects. The result: when the story was in Russian there was no brain activity correlation. The listener had no idea what was being said.
Personally I think this next finding is the most significant. As I’ve said, you’d expect the brain activity of the listener to lag because it takes a moment to comprehend what’s being said. Remarkably, however, the researchers found many times when the brain activity of the listener preceded what was said. The listener was predicting what was coming next–something you can only do listening to a story. And here’s the kicker. The subjects who did more predicting did better at the comprehension test they did after they heard the story. Stories are meaningful, and really engaging stories where we are trying to predict what happens next are even more meaningful.
My one frustration with this research, however, is that the researchers seem to only select a story as their example of communication accidently because they didn’t go the next step and test the difference between what happens when a story is told compared to when it is a non-story such as an opinion. So I emailed Uri Hasson, the designated correspondence author for this research, and set out my concern. Here is his reply: “We didn’t quantify the level of B2B coupling for different communication styles so I can’t tell you the answer yet, but I share your intuition that story telling will evoke tighter coupling.”
(*1) Stephens, G.J., Silbert, L.J. & Hasson, U. 2010, ‘Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 107, no. 32, pp. 14425-30.