I was the first contestant on the Millionaire Hot Seat for the night. The host, Eddie McGuire, was beaming at me just behind the monitor that was about to flash up my first question. We started off with the usual banter that begins the show and he asks me about my dad.
“Wasn’t your father in the US Marines Shawn and helped with the JFK assassination investigation?” Eddie knows I have this story ready to be told.
See here I go.
My father was a sharp shooter in the Marines in the 1960s and after Kennedy’s assassination Dad and two other military riflemen–one was an Olympic marksman–were ordered to re-enact the shooting. They set up a tower to the same height as the book depository window. A moving target was created and the three shooters used the same rifle type Lee Harvey Oswald used.
They didn’t even come close to being able to get off the same number of shots in the time period or come close to hitting the moving target. They submitted their findings to the Warren Commission feeling that the case was closed: Oswald couldn’t have been the shooter. But as we know history took a sharp right.
I was off and running. Now to answer some questions and have my shot at winning a million bucks.
From many perspectives, the video below is a clear message to an unappreciative boss. “You don’t value me, I have no life balance…you are a bad boss.” But if your objective was to either retain this employee or to avoid others leaving, this information would fall into the category of ‘interesting but useless’.
When people leave organisations, the reasons they give are often much less insightful than in the video. When asked ‘why are you leaving’ people mostly respond with ‘I’m leaving for a higher paying job’ or ‘it’s a better commute’ or ‘I’m changing my career trajectory’ (a personal favourite). In these circumstances, leaders need to ask different questions.
In 2012, a valued member of the Anecdote team resigned. It came as a surprise to all of us. I asked the usual questions around ‘why are you leaving’ and received plausible responses. I then asked ‘can you tell me about the moment when you first starting thinking about leaving…what happened?’ It took some time, but eventually they revealed two examples of things I had done that made them feel un-valued. These things were completely unintentional, but they had had a big impact. Once the examples were provided I could do something about them…in this case I could apologise. The apology was accepted and happily the resignation was withdrawn. Before I knew about the examples I had no basis for action. Once I had the examples my possible courses of action were crystal clear.
‘Why’ and ‘how’ questions are frequently claimed to be the most important and powerful questions we should ask. And in many circumstances they are, particularly to stimulate creativity or scientific and artistic enquiry.
But, when you want to find out what’s really going on, leaders need to ask different questions; questions that elicit specific examples (stories, anecdotes, experiences) that provide insight into the situation. In these circumstances, ‘when’ and ‘where’ questions are very useful. ‘What happened?’ is an other useful question. The best question of all is ‘can you give me an example?’ In fact, any question that elicits an example is a good question in these circumstances.
A key skill is to recognise that most of the responses people will give will be opinions, generalisations and assertions. You need to know what an example looks like and keep digging till you get one.
Its pretty much agreed that good questions open the door to dialogue and discovery. But when seeking insight and understanding upon which they can base decisions, leaders need to ask different questions.
Filed in Story collection
Last week I ran a workshop for an investment firm to help their senior leaders appreciate their role in fostering their culture.
Never mind, I thought, I would just get the participants to use these stories to trigger other more impactful stories.
On the day of the workshop, to my pleasant surprise, the 50 leaders were highly engaged with their stories.
It was a great reminder that people love to hear the stories from their colleagues no matter how small because each person carries with them a multitude of background books that fill in all the gaps and bring each small story to life.
It reinforced my belief that working at the small ‘s’ end of the story spectrum is not only quite different to most practitioners, it has an enormous impact.
During my first week here at Anecdote I sat in on an Anecdote Circle at a large Government Department here at Melbourne. It was the first time I had seen one of these run by Shawn and I was therefore very keen to see how he did it, and anything I could pick up and and use myself in the future.
One of the things I noticed quite early on was that Shawn would start by asking one of the pre-prepared, scripted questions and if he did not get him any stories from the group, he would follow it up by turning the more formal question into one that contained an idiom. So “Think of a time when you saw somebody manage (x) roles in a way that made you think, “Wow. If everybody worked that way, things would got a lot more smoothly around here”. Got followed up with; “when have things gone as smooth as clock work?”. There were many more examples of this throughout the session, and each time it seemed to get great results at eliciting stories.
When I raised it with Shawn afterwards he wasn’t even aware he used this as a a technique, but in talking it through and making him aware of it, he began to realise he used it all the time. He even told me a story that Mark had told him of doing some story elicitating work and asking; “When have you been most elated at work, or most disappointed?” He got a load of blank stares and shaking of heads, until one of the guys piped up; “We don’t get ‘elated’ or ‘disappointed’ we either get ‘stoked or ‘gutted’”.
I think the use of idioms and slang work in eliciting stories for a number of reasons. They give a far greater richness than can be delivered from just words alone. ‘Gutted’ has a far greater impact than ‘disappointed’ for example, it has a far greater emotional reaction. Also by using the right idioms for that audience it shows them you are ‘talking their language’ therefore building rapport, trust and the relationship. It shows you understand them and are part of their ‘community’. It also increases your chances of the question being understood.
This technique really came to the fore when we started collecting stories at a large electricity generating company. We were doing this out in these huge power stations, with he guys (and they were mainly guys) dressed in their work boots and protective clothing, with a natural distrust of us as “city boys”. Using idioms and slang in the majority of our questions really worked as a way to get them to tell stories. It put them at ease, used language and terms they understood, and created a degree of informality that seemed to help them to tell stories.
We have also used this insight into some of the questions we have developed for eliciting family stories in Zahmoo, which can be found in the ‘Online Resources’. Examples of using idioms include things like; “Do you remember a time when Mum or Dad went through the roof over something you did?”, “What was something your spouse has done that just blew you away?”, “Did you ever get off on the wrong foot with someone who then became a good friend?” or “Have you ever been at death’s door?”.
We also have used slang to get people to recall moments and tell stories about them. Examples include; “When did you really come a gutser as a kid?” or “What did you put the kibosh on that you wished you hadn’t?’.
I would therefore strongly recommend trying to consciously use idioms and slang when asking questions to elicit stories. The results I have seen in different settings, groups and people have proven to me they really do work as a way to help people recall moments, and therefore be able to tell stories about them. Go on, have a crack!
Filed in Story collection
If you read this blog there is a good chance you firmly believe in the power of stories. You might have also come to the conclusion, like I have, that it’s mighty hard to find stories when you need them. A better strategy is to collect stories when they’re told, index them and be able to re-find them when they are needed (see how Joan Rivers does it). You can check out Zahmoo as a way to keep track of your stories. Or have a look at our Story Finder.
For this strategy to work you need to be places where stories are told. Better still, you need to create the conditions for stories to be told.
Here are five conditions that are important for stories to be told.
- A caring listener. The person listening to the stories cares about and is interested in them. People have a finely tuned sense of whether others care about what they are saying and if they detect disdain or even a little boredom they’ll truncate their stories or just stop altogether.
- Free time. Remember those times when you had a long road trip with a friend or colleague and the stories you heard. Stories seem to emerge when we are not under pressure or constrained by formality. Loose meeting agendas are more likely to encourage stories than highly structured gatherings.
- Common ground. A while back I called my brother. He lives in Arizona. He’s a wine salesman (a bloody good one) and he was telling me what a talented sales manager he has. I asked him to share an example of what this talented guy did. My brother hesitated. In fact he kept giving me high level descriptions rather than a story. Then I realised I didn’t share his wine sales rep knowledge and might not appreciate (or get) his story. So I said, “just pretend I’m an experienced wine guy.” He then shared a great example. Common knowledge and language is needed at some level before stories are shared.
- Tell stories. Stories beget stories. One of the best ways to encourage someone to share a story is to tell one yourself.
- Memorabilia. One of my most enjoyable projects involved helping an energy company collect stories from retiring specialists. One was Mike, the network controller. His job was to keep tabs on the entire electricity grid and solve problems as they happened. His office was filled with maps, computer screens and whiteboards filled with notes and sketches. Storytelling was easy for him. He would grab a map of the grid and tell me the story of how a substation went down and how they fixed it. Unfortunately Mike retired before we had finished the story collection but he invited me to his home a couple of months after retiring to finish the job. We were in his lounge room with pictures of his family on the wall and keepsakes from overseas trips on shelves. When we got started I quickly discovered he struggled to tell me his work stories and when he did have one they weren’t as rich with detail as the ones from his office. Picking places and artefacts that remind people of their stories can make all the difference.
What others would you add to this list?
For all our blog readers thanks for your patience. We realise we’ve been less active on our blog than usual. The thing is, there’s been a little project on our plate called Zahmoo that’s been keeping us busy.
Today we’ve released the first public viewing of Zahmoo. It’ll soon be released into the wild–how exciting!. The place to get the very latest information and be the first to be invited to use Zahmoo will be those good folk who are following @zahmoo on twitter.
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling, Story collection
I recently read a fascinating account of how story collection made a real difference in America winning the Second World War (or at least their part in it). Rob Yeung tells the story about the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) and the psychologist John C. Flanagan in his recent book The Extra One Per Cent.
In June, 1941 the USAAF was created as part of the USA’s preparations for being involved in the Second World War. Less than six months later the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the USAAF was immediately ordered to ramp up its number of pilots, not by hundreds, or thousands, but by tens of thousands.
However, more men were being shot down than were being trained. Thousands of cadets were killed during training accidents every year, while thousands more were dropped for not being good enough. You can imagine that the decision to drop a trainee from flight school wasn’t taken lightly. It was incredibly expensive to recruit and train new recruits only to kick them out, and the Air Force desperately needed every pilot they could create.
The USAAF began to look at why pilots were being rejected and the reasons given on documentation produced by the expert tutors were things like, “poor judgement”, “insufficient progress” or even lack of “inherent flying ability.” But what did such phrases mean? No one knew exactly, and certainly these explanations were not good enough to avoid recruiting the wrong kind of candidates.
To address this issue the USAAF hired civilian psychologist John C. Flanagan. He quickly realised that most people, whether the trainee pilots themselves or the highly experienced instructors, were almost useless at explaining what contributed to even phenomenal success or dreadful failure. He wrote: “Too often, statements regarding job requirements are merely lists of all the desirable traits of human beings. These are practically no help in selecting, classifying or training individuals for specific jobs.” (1)
So Flanagan started to focus on getting people to talk about specific episodes of either triumph or failure, in forensic detail, with a particular focus on what they did, what they said, and what they were thinking at the time. Rather than asking for general opinions as to why people think they succeed or fail, Flanagan (and his army of over 150 psychologists and 1,000 assistants) solicited descriptions of what they did in the past. Rather than asking; “What do you do?” or “What do you think you do?”, the emphasis became “What did you do?”
Flanagan’s work make a tangible contribution to the war effort by allowing the USAAF to make better recruitment decisions, turning away more candidates who were unlikely to make it through pilot training or perhaps even more likely to kill themselves in the process. For his effort he was awarded the Legion of Merit for the outstanding contribution that he and his team made towards winning the war.
This story for me underpins a lot about what initially attracted me to Anecdote. Having an approach built around really understanding and making sense of what is going on through collecting real life, specific examples before rushing straight to solutions is one that just seems to make sense for me. It also reminds me of the power of making things concrete, and how abstractions, opinions and beliefs can ‘get in the way’ of understanding and clarity.
This USAAF/Flanagan story is certainly one I will be telling in the future to help make the point about the power story collection can have.
(1) Flanagan, J. C. (Ed.). (1947). The aviation psychology program in the Army Air Force (Research Report 1). Washington, DC: US Army Air Forces Aviation Psychology Program
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling, Story collection
How do you remember so many stories? I get this question a lot and for some time I didn’t really know the answer. I certainly believe stories are important, that they are memorable, help you connect with your audience and all the other many benefits we talk about on this blog. But how does one remember the right story when you need it? In the last few of months I worked out a critical element; a great way to build your story repertoire.
We’ve been working with the Victorian Bushfire Recontruction and Recovery Authority (VBRRA) for a number of months now and back in July I facilitated an event of 200+ Community Recovery Committee (CSC) leaders to help them better connect across their 33 CSCs. We helped them share their stories to make new connections.
In preparation for the event I met with Christine Nixon (then VBRRA Chairman) and Ben Hubbard (CEO) and described our story-based approach and ask whether they would like to share a story or two with me. Christine told me this.
In the first few weeks of the fires I was in Narbethong at the Black Spur Inn. I met a team from OPSM who were helping people with lost glasses and other sight problems. They told me about one elderly couple that had come to see them. The man was technically blind from diabetes. The lady had smoke damaged eyes. The OPSM team examined them both and decided the man should see an opthalmic specialist for a fresh opinion on his eye problems. Technology had changed considerably since he lost his vision and new procedures were available. They arrange the visit and ultimately this resulted in surgery that dramatically improved his vision, so much that care was no longer needed.
After hearing this story I was out in the corridor talking to Deb, who worked with Christine, and asked what the story meant for her. Deb said that it was an example of how good things can come out of terrible situations. She also said it showed that corporate involvement can make a difference. For me I thought it was an example of how small things can make a big difference. And then it struck me, this is an important practice for remembering stories: you need to ask yourself what an experience or story means, what’s the point of this story?
But knowing the point of a story doesn’t guarantee you’ll remember it. It does, however, provide a trigger for the story to be retold and the retelling reinforces those synaptic pathways that help you remember the story.
This experience made me realise that I often ring Mark (my business partner) and tell him a story I’ve just heard and we talk about the point of the story and when we might retell it. Inadvertently we had created a story remembering practice.
Yes, we also record our stories, albeit briefly. And The Story Finder helps. But there is nothing better to be able to illustrate a point with an example on the fly and having these stories in your head makes all the difference
Filed in Story collection
I didn’t realise it at the time but when we started this blog back in 2004 we were creating a type of story bank where we could go back and retrieve great stories to tell. Recently we have made this more accessible with Story Finder. We have an even more sophisticated system we use internally that allows us to manage the many stories we collect with our clients.
So I’m facinated how people manage their stories and enjoyed this short clip from a documentary about Joan Rivers on how she keeps track of all her jokes. I’m so happy we started in a digital age and don’t have to maintain a card catalogue. Love to hear how you organise your stories, if you do.
Thanks to @makingstories for the link to the Joan Rivers clip
Telling, telling, telling … So many in the field of story work focus on storytelling. Sure, telling a good story at the right time has impact. But storytelling represents a mere fraction of what can be done with business stories.
Here is one little example.
Last year I had a call from Kirstyn. She works in HR for a large engineering firm. Kirstyn runs a program for their graduate employees to build their skills over three years. This firm has some or the world’s engineering and scientific experts and the graduate employees get the opportunity to work shoulder to shoulder with these experts on some amazing projects. The thing is, the graduates often don’t make the most of it because they rarely get to hear what these experts have actually done in their careers. Why? Because they graduates are unskilled in asking story-eliciting questions.
So we set about helping about 40 graduate employees learn how to elicit stories from their expert colleagues. And after learning the basics we wheeled in some senior experts as guinea pigs to practice with. It was a great way to practice their new story-listening skills but more importantly it was an opportunity to get to know some of the more senior folk in the firm.
And because we know that people remember what they feel we asked Melbourne Playback Theatre to perform some of the stories the experts shared with the graduates.
Here is one of the stories.
Clare (not her real name) was obviously a driven woman. She was in her mid-forties and had the figure of a marathon runner. Her black hair matched her black outfit. She started her story by telling her graduates that she experienced a turning point in her career because of one particular nightmare project. She was performing a quality assurance role on an engineering project and the client didn’t like her. In fact they were hurling abuse at her but she kept telling herself that she was tough and could take it. With every insult she worked harder.
One weekend she decided to visit her parents in the country. As she was walking down the hall of her parents’ house she could see her mother’s silhouette at the end of the hallway. As she emerged into the light her Mum turn around to see her gaunt and exhausted daughter. All her Mum could say was, “Oh honey, something needs to change.” and she gave her daughter a big hug. At that point Clare decided to get balance in her life and get far away from unhealthy work environments.
You could hear a pin drop as the graduates heard Clare tell this story and their jaws dropped when Melbourne Playback Theatre performed the story for everyone.