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.
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling, Communication, Leadership
I did a blog post in February about reconnecting with an old friend of mine, and how she is one of the most gifted storytellers I know. In that post I said I would be sharing some more of her stories, and here is one she shared with me recently.
A few years back, I attended a reception at Parliament. We wanted to share with selected MPs and officials the results of our research, which showed the considerable contribution our industry made to the country’s economy. One of the issues that both sides of the House had had with our industry in the past is that the industry wasn’t united, and there was ongoing disharmony. After a round of drinks, the CEO began our presentation. He hadn’t got more than a few slides in when the Chairman stood up from the floor, and took over the presentation, leaving the CEO still standing at the podium looking like a deer in the headlights.
Can you imagine how the story of disharmony that the audience were already telling themselves would have just been confirmed as true? How the belief of not being joined up was reinforced by these actions?
This is a classic case of story triggering. By simply taking over from the CEO the Chairman triggered a story amongst the audience, a story that just reinforced their existing beliefs.
There was nothing that could have been said by the Chairmen, or the CEO for that matter, that changed this belief. As the saying goes; “You can’t talk your way out of something you have acted your way into“.
As soon as I walked into our office I wanted to tell Kevin the story Hugh Grant told on Graham Norton’s talk show last night. It was a funny little story; an embarrasing stituation for Hugh in a French train toilet. It made me laugh. And when I told it to Kevin we both laughed together then started our day.
For some time now I’ve wondered why we retell stories and what makes a story retellable. On the surface I told Hugh’s story to simply entertain Kevin and myself. But perhaps there was a deeper motive about reinforcing my identity as someone who likes a laugh. Come to think of it the story is more liikely to be retold among blokes so this story reinforces my identity as a guy.
We run business stortelling training for a bank. We teach at their academy. We hear all sorts of stories from the bankers and many are about their leaders. For example, the CEO this year gathered his top 150 leaders in an auditorium to share the goals for the year. Thirty minutes after everyone was back after morning tea the CEO looked at his watch and said “we are going to take another short break. Everyone be back at 11am sharp.” People wandered off and checked their Blackberrys and at 11am the CEO was on the stage waiting. People strolled into the room. At 11.05am the CEO was pacing up and down the stage, clear unhappy. Not everying was back yet. At 11.15am everyone was in their seat. The CEO went ballistic: “How dare you show such disrespect for your colleagues. This tardiness is unacceptable. You’re our leaders and you need to lead by example.” This story must have been retold hundreds (thousands) of times. All of a sudden people people were attending meetings on time.
We retell stories about leaders because they wield power and their actions can affect us. So we want to know what they’re like as a person, what’s important to them and how are they likely to react. And because most employees don’t get a chance to experience the leader’s actions first hand, they need to hear the stories of what the leader does to understand them. As I said in my last post, actions speak louder than words.
We often retell a story to share an insight. My friend Darren (@darrenp3) heard about how a prominent twitterer (@maverickwoman – also a friend) was in New York and looking for a hotel for the night. She tweeted her question and Bryant Park Hotel replied saying that if she went to this website and entered her twitter id she’d get a discount, which she did and was offered a 50% off. @maverickwoman then tweeted all her followers about this great deal but heard back they were only offering her friends 10%. She contacted the hotel and they told her that she got 50% because her Klout score was 57 (an indicator of influence on the web) but her friend only had a score of 15. Darren told this story at least 10 times in 2 days. He was impressed by the sophistication of the hotel and it supported his view of the power of social networking on the web.
There are many more reasons why people retell stories and I’m just starting to explore them more deeply. Would love to hear your thoughts on why you think some stories are retold more than others.