November, 2012 | Published by Anecdote - Putting Stories to Work.
Storytelling is a practice art. You can’t learn it from a book. You can't learn it by just watching other people. You need to do it and do it often.
That's why we recently developed our deliberate practice program — to help people develop their business storytelling skills and provide opportunities to practice and to reflect on their practice.
In his recent book, The Little Book of Talent, Daniel Coyle suggests that one of the best ways to learn a new move, is to exaggerate it. We've taken this approach with one of the exercises included in the program. Here's a snapshot.
Your job as a storyteller is to transport your listener to another time and place and to immerse them in the scene. They need to be able to see it, feel it and hear it. To do this you need to engage their senses. If you, like most business storytellers, aren't used to including much sensory detail in your stories, then exaggerating those details will help.
Practice adding sensory detail by going over the top — stretch it out and overemphasise it, act in an exaggerated manner, be really flamboyant, and ham it up. As Coyle says: "Going too far helps us understand where the boundaries are."
A word of caution — don't forget to dial it back later. Make sure you find those boundaries. Whilst we can improve our storytelling skills with techniques used by the best screenwriters, playwrights, actors and novelists, we can only do so up to a certain point. After that business storytelling drops into the uncanny valley.
Go on, get out there and practice.
In this edition, we have:
Book Review - The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
Charles Duhigg is a reporter at The New York Times, and through his work he became fascinated by the whole area of habits - why they exist and how you can change them. By reading hundreds of scientific papers and interviewing many of the scientists who wrote them, Duhigg has written a well-researched look at how habits work. The book is broken into three sections.
The first part of the book focuses on the role that habits play in our personal lives. Here we learn about the habit loop. Duhigg argues a habit has three components: a cue, a routine and a reward. He says; “First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.”
An example; An iPhone dings during a meeting. Then there is a routine: The iPhone is discreetly examined. Then there is a reward: an email has arrived with an interesting title. We crave the ding and the rush of endorphins it promises.
Over time, the routine becomes so habitual that the person anticipates the reward and receives almost as much pleasure from the anticipation as from the reward itself — known as a craving. The anticipation of lighting a cigarette, for example, can bring nearly as much pleasure as inhaling the first puff of smoke.The key to changing habits, Duhigg argues, is not to avoid the cues or to change the rewards. Rather, it involves changing the routine that leads from cue to habit.
He tells a story about how he noticed he was gaining weight, at least in part, because every afternoon at 3:30 he would break and go get a chocolate cookie. A series of experiments, such as having tea instead, chatting with colleagues or taking a brisk walk, indicated that what he really wanted was a break from work and time talking with his colleagues. Instead of getting a cookie, he started taking 10 minutes to chat and found that he got the same reward from the activity. The cue stayed the same and the reward was similar, but the routine was markedly different.
The second part of the book concentrates on how habits help shape organisations. Duhigg argues it's up to leaders to make a deliberate effort to shape the habits of their organisations, and in a way that ensures a fairness for all, while making it clear who is ultimately in charge.We also learn about the power of particular habits called keystone habits (aka "crucial behaviours" in Influencer: The Power to Change Anything parlance) that help initiate a domino effect in creating habit/behaviour change. To illustrate these he tells a great story about Alcoa's former CEO, Paul O'Neill.
When Alcoa introduced O’Neill as its new boss in 1987, investors thought the new boss was pulling their leg. O’Neill didn't speak about increasing market share or earnings, instead, he pointed out the nearest emergency exits. “In the unlikely event of a fire or other emergency,” he said, “you should calmly walk out, go down the stairs to the lobby, and leave the building.” O’Neill’s sole focus that day was on how to make a habit of worker safety. A big investor immediately called his clients and told them to sell, sell, sell.
However, O’Neill soon emerged as one of the best CEOs in modern business history, thanks to his unusual emphasis on safety. By attuning employees to proper procedure, O’Neill streamlined production. “Costs came down, quality went up, and productivity skyrocketed,” Duhigg writes, knocking down the conventional wisdom of manufacturing CEOs before O’Neill.
To understand why injuries happened, executives had to become intimately involved with work processes and manufacturing techniques, which led to conversations with frontline employees about their ideas, which led to streamlining operations, which led to lower costs. “In other words, to protect workers, Alcoa needed to become the best, most streamlined aluminum company on earth,” Duhigg writes. The newly instilled habit worked. By the time O’Neill retired in 2000, Alcoa’s profits had quintupled.
The third, and last part, of the book examines the importance of habits in social movements. It uses US civil rights movement of the 1960s as a case study, going into a fair amount of detail. For me, this section is not as strong as the other two, as it kind of feels like Duhiugg oversimplifies the explanations. His conclusions from the Rosa Parks, Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 strains credibility a bit for me.
This a very well researched book on the science of habits (there are 60 pages of notes at the back), but it reads more like a gripping novel, than a scientific research article as Duhigg weaves in a large number of stories in each section. Stories about how an early 20th century adman turned Pepsodent into the first bestselling toothpaste by creating the habit of brushing daily, to how a marketing team at Procter & Gamble rescued Febreze from being a failed product by recognising that its fresh smell was the reward for a cleaning task, to how Michael Phelps' coach instilled habits that made him the most successful Olympian ever.
This is a great read. Interesting, informative, useful, practical, inspiring and story-filled. You can't do much better than that. Now it's over to you, what habits do you want to change?
Storytelling for Leaders — Melbourne (public workshop)
Have you ever noticed that our first instinct when we are trying to influence someone, is to present them with a compelling argument?
The funny thing is, the more we argue, the more we entrench their existing view.
But there is a way around this, and involves sharing real life experiences (stories) that illustrate your point of view.
This simple idea is at the core of our Storytelling for Leaders Program.
In just under a week—on the 4th December 2012—we'll be running a public 'Storytelling for Leaders' workshop in Melbourne. With only a couple of places still available for this intimate workshop, you'll need to get in quick.
How to respond to misinformation thats hurting your business
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.