August, 2014 | Published by Anecdote - Putting Stories to Work.
August 11 this year marked Anecdote's 10th anniversary. We haven't really celebrated hard enough for this milestone (having been busy with projects and travel) but we intend to. We're very proud of what Anecdote has accomplished in those 10 years and grateful for the many great people we've worked alongside as part of the journey.
The day after our birthday Mark gave a presentation to 750 people at Luna Park in Sydney. There was something appropriate about talking to such an enormous crowd with a rollercoaster operating alongside. Running a business has the same exhilarating highs and gut-wrenching lows. We've had our fair share of both.
I'm reminded of a conversation Steve Martin had with his grand-mother towards the end of the movie Parenthood. Martin was bemoaning the challenges of parenting and the uncertainty of raising kids. His grandmother said "You know, when I was 19, Grandpa took me on a rollercoaster. It went up, down, up down. Oh, what a ride! I wanted to go again. It was interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick ... so excited and so thrilled all together. Some didn't like it. They went on the merry-go-round. It just goes around ... and you feel nothing. I like like the rollercoaster. You get more out of it."
We like the rollercoaster too. We love the people who are riding it with us. We are looking forward to a many more laps of the track.
We hope you enjoy this birthday edition of Anecdotally.
In this edition, we have:
Book Review - Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities that Make us Influential
We hope that you enjoy reading Anecdotally. Feel free to pass this email on to your colleagues and friends if you think that they would enjoy it too.
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Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities that Make us Influential
- by John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut
For about a decade, the authors of this book have been helping executives and public figures prepare for speeches and high stakes meetings and pitches. As part of this work, they studied compelling people (from Oprah to Ronald Reagan to the Dalai Lama) to find out the strategies they used to influence people.
Their work has led them to the conclusion that when people make character judgments about others, they are in effect making two key assessments - about strength and warmth. Highly successful people have a combination of both.
“Strength is a person’s capacity to make things happen with abilities and force of will. When people project strength, they command our respect. Warmth is the sense that a person shares our feelings. interests and view of the world. When people project warmth, we like and support them...Strength and warmth are the principal criteria of which all our social judgments hinge.”
The first section of the book explores the main concepts of strength and warmth and I found it fascinating. The remainder of the book explores in detail the various ways we show strength and warmth: impacts of age, gender, expression, posture, word choice etc. I found the majority of the detailed content a lot less interesting and it was a struggle to finish the book.
But, the overall concept has caused me lots of thought and reflection. Not least of which is because the trickiest thing is to project both at once. There is a dynamic tension between the two concepts: as you display more strength you tend to appear colder and the more warmth you display the weaker you appear. “The ability to master this tension, to project both warmth and strength at once, is rare - so rare, in fact, that we celebrate, elevate and envy those who manage it.” [page 107]
If projecting both warmth and strength simultaneously is so difficult and so rare, perhaps this advantage will be accessible to more people through business storytelling. In other words, can we find and share stories that project both strength and warmth? I looked first for any of my own stories and then went looking on the internet.
First, an experience I had back in my days as an Air Force logistics officer. It was 1989 and at the time I was running the air transportation network in and out of Western Australia.
It was about 5.30am on a Tuesday morning and the wife of a very senior Army officer was standing on a coffee table in my VIP lounge, pointing her finger at me and yelling “don’t you know who I am...?”
In 90 minutes time, our scheduled weekly cargo flight was leaving and I had told her she would not be getting a seat on the flight. I was a relatively junior officer at the time and even her staff officer, resplendent in gold braid and dress uniform, outranked me.
Most weeks I would have 15-20 seats available on the aircraft. Back then, we had a thing called ‘space available travel.’ If there were any seats left after all the cargo and duty passengers had been loaded, I could fill any remaining seats with off-duty passengers - they got a ’space available seat’ for only the few dollars it cost for the in-flight catering. There is a big contingent of Navy, Army and Air Force personnel in W.A.. Also back then, flights to and from the east coast (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane etc) were very expensive. The soldiers were not paid a huge salary, so that meant the free flights back to the east coast were extremely popular.
We had a strict system to give everybody fair access to these flights and it was my job to administer it. To get a flight, you needed to put an application in at least 5 weeks beforehand. We normally had over a hundred applications each week.
The staff officer to the general’s wife had arrived at about an hour earlier, waving a freshly completed travel application for today’s flight. I took him down to the waiting lounge where about 50 people were crammed in, all of whom put their applications in months ago, and most of whom were there just in case someone with a seat failed to show up. I asked him which one of them he was going to tell that they wouldn’t be getting a flight because the general’s wife had ‘pulled rank’ and taken their seat.
The next few hours were a bit of a blur. I received numerous calls from progressively more senior people telling me to put her on the flight. With the backing of my commanding officer and the base commander, we stuck to our guns. In the end, the aircraft captain received a radio call from his squadron, telling him to offload one of the aircrew so that the senior officer’s wife could have a seat in the cockpit. I really pushed my luck at this point, insisting that if an additional seat had been made available, then it should be allocated to the next person on the waiting list. The aircraft captain and I had a stand-up argument about who had the authority to decide, but in the end the aircraft took off with her in the cockpit, and a very annoyed crew member standing next to me watching the departure.
There was much bluff and bluster in the aftermath, but my career didn’t seem to be adversely affected. It was one of the most trying days of my career, but on reflection, one of the most rewarding.
So, what do you think. Did this show both strength and warmth?
Another favourite example is Dan Pink’s TED talk about motivation. Watch the first few minutes - his connection story about being a lawyer
2 simple ways to help you remember a business story
Imagine you’re in a meeting and one of your colleagues makes the bold statement, ‘We need a big initiative here. It’s really the only way to have an impact’.
Now, you know that small initiatives can also spark big changes, but just disagreeing with your colleague is unlikely to change their mind, or anyone else’s. What you need to do is share a story about when a small thing made a difference. But to do that you need to remember a business story.
Over the years, we’ve developed a simple approach to remembering stories to retell on occasions such as this. It has two parts: the organic process and the story bank.
The organic process
This is all about filling your brain with stories that you will remember when you need them. It has three simple steps.
1. Notice the details
When you discover a story – our story-spotting framework will help here – the first step is to notice the details. What are the people’s names, the dates, the placenames? These are the bits you’ll quickly forget, so jot them down.
2. Tell the story to a friend and discuss it
As soon as possible, tell the story to a friend and ask them what they think the story means. Then share what the story means to you. You might say things like, ‘This is all about how small things can make a difference’, or ‘Leaders must model the behaviour they want’. By discussing the story and working out its meaning, the story will begin to sink in.
3. Share the story three times
Now tell the story at least three times, noticing the reactions you get to it. Tell a short version, a long version, and a version where you shift where you start or where you finish.
Our visual memory is strong, so when you tell the story, clearly picture the event happening – watch the story unfold in your mind’s eye. And let yourself feel what’s happening, because we remember what we feel.
Doing all this will get you comfortable with the story. It will reinforce those neurons that lock in a memory and will help you remember the story.
The story bank
The organic process works for me most of the time, but there are times when the critical details of a story elude me. In these cases, I need to go back to my story bank.
There’s a story I love to tell which I learned from Ken Robinson, about a little girl called Gillian – Ken famously told this story during a TED talk many years ago. The thing is, for a time, I just couldn’t remember Gillian’s surname, which is important for the end of the story. So whenever I thought I might be about to tell this story, I would go to my story bank to refresh my memory.
I use Evernote to keep track of my stories. The most important thing to remember when documenting your oral stories is to never write them out in full. Doing this seems to kill the power of the oral storytelling. It’s as if you start to believe a story can only be told one way. It can then move from an oral story to a literary one and, God forbid, you may be tempted to read it out.
Now this may seem heretical, but instead of writing a story out in full, just write it out using dot points or short phrases. As an example, here is my story bank entry for Gillian’s story. It’s titled: ‘Gillian the dancer story – Ken Robinson’.
Gillian was only 8 years old and her future was at risk.
School was a nightmare. Homework a mess. Disruptive in class. Never sat still. Her teachers were at their wits’ end.
The school wrote to her parents saying they were worried about Gillian and she might have a learning disorder and need to go to a special school.
This was in the 1930s and Gillian’s parents took it very seriously and took her to a psychologist to be assessed.
Best dress, told to sit on her hands, big leather sofa, feet not touching the ground. She was nervous.
The psych asked Gillian’s mum lots of questions, then turned to Gillian. ‘I’m afraid you will need to be patient for a little longer as I need to talk to your mother privately.’
As he left the room he turned on a radio.
‘Just stand here a moment and watch what she does.’
There is a little window in his office door so they can see.
She starts dancing. Beautiful movements.
‘Your daughter is not sick, she’s a dancer. Take her to dance school.’
Which they did.
Royal Ballet School.
Phantom of the Opera and Cats with Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Became known to the world as Gillian Lynne, one of the most accomplished choreographers of our time.
Building your story repertoire
The process of building your story repertoire starts with noticing stories and quickly jotting them down. After a while, it will become second nature to collect stories.
At the same time, you will notice yourself sharing a story which you might have collected weeks, even months, before and it will seem like it came out of nowhere. You now know how to remember a business story. Of course, when you share the story, never explain that you are going to tell a story (avoid mentioning the s-word), but do tell your audience the relevance of your story before you relate it in full. And when you tell the story enjoy watching as people really understand the point you're making. And some times you will even inspire people to spring into action.
People often think that reading or hearing a story is a passive endeavour. But it’s really a feat of immersion that prompts the reader/listener to conjure up their own experiences and mesh them with the story – in a sense allowing them to live it. Some research conducted at Washington University in St. Louis provided neurological evidence of this fabulous facility of ours.
In 2009, Jeffrey Zacks and his colleagues set about testing how we process stories using neuroimaging technology. Brain scans were conducted on 28 people while they read simple stories about a young boy called Raymond. The stories had been coded to pinpoint six types of situational change: spatial (e.g., Raymond moves from one room to another), object (Raymond picks something up), character (Raymond meets a new character), causal (someone initiates a new action), goal (an action with a new goal is taken) and temporal (time markers). This allowed the researchers to track responses across the brain to different parts of the story.
When the scans were compared with others taken when people actually performed these activities, the researchers discovered that the brain region activated by reading about a certain aspect of a story was the same as that engaged when doing the activity in the real world. In other words, when we read a story, our brain reacts as if it is actually happening. It’s a visceral experience.
The researchers concluded that: ‘Language may have adopted this general mechanism over the course of human evolution to allow individuals to communicate experiences efficiently and vividly’.
Source: Nicole K. Speer, Jeremy R. Reynolds, Khena M. Swallow and Jeffrey M. Zacks, ‘Reading Stories Activates Neural Representations of Visual and Motor Experiences’, Psychological Science, vol. 20, no. 8, 2009, pp. 989–99.