February, 2015 | Published by Anecdote - Putting Stories to Work.
Hello from the team at Anecdote, and welcome to our first newsletter for 2015. One month into the ‘new’ year, we have lots of new projects to get enthused about – for a sampling, check out the ‘What’s happening’ section below. We’re also excited about the ongoing expansion of our partner network around the world, now 26 partners strong. This professional network is enabling the delivery of our programs to organisations in a dozen countries, with hopefully many more locations to be added to the list over the coming year. Our public workshops reflect the breadth of our efforts. Over the next few months, the Storytelling for Leaders workshop will be presented in places as diverse as Auckland, Mumbai, Boston and Antwerp. To keep track of where you can catch us, see the listing of workshops on our website.
We’re also pleased to announce the release of our new eBook, Character Trumps Credentials: 171 Questions that Help Leaders Tell Great Stories that Influence, Engage and Inspire. Addressing various themes, from collaboration to diversity and loyalty, these questions will stimulate the discovery of great stories in your own personal history – great stories that will help you become a great storyteller.
We hope you’ve enjoyed a good start to 2015, and that it just gets better from here. We look forward to hearing about what you’re doing now and your plans for the future.
One of the key things that Anecdote is asked to do is help businesses effectively communicate their organisational strategies. And we’re happy to oblige, because it’s clearly a good idea for leaders to communicate their business plans and goals to everyone else in the organisation, and often to stakeholders outside it. The more that people understand the core strategy, the better aligned their efforts will be, and the more effective their work will be, all of which amounts to a more successful business. Right?
Well, generally, yes. But some of Anecdote’s experiences with government agencies have taught us that being crystal clear about your strategy isn’t always the best course of action. That’s because it’s fine to talk about you will do, but you can’t always talk about what you won’t do. When you have a large number of stakeholders, as does any government organisation, it’s almost impossible to satisfy everyone’s needs. You have to prioritise your actions, and plan accordingly. In other words, you can’t say ‘Yes’ to everything. Unfortunately, this reality – that of sometimes having to say ‘No’ – is difficult to incorporate into a strategy, because it’s not what any stakeholder wants to hear and things become political very quickly.
Say, for instance, that a local council is inundated with complaints about cats attacking the area’s birdlife, not to mention treating garbage bins as snack dispensers, staging midnight yowling duels outside bedroom windows, and all the other things roaming kitties are (in)famous for. Some resident groups wants all cats microchipped so they can be tracked and the owners fined if necessary, while others want the council to physically patrol their streets and remove any feline felons. The council chooses microchipping as it’s preferred strategy because that will eventually allow it to register and monitor all cats in the area, whereas patrols would be too expensive and might not change the behaviour of cat owners, which is the long-term aim. Logistically, this makes sense, but try telling that to the angry locals who want their streets emptied of cats, as soon as possible!
This is where oral storytelling really proves its worth. It’s invaluable in situations where strategy is both spoken about and acted on, but not absolutely defined in print. That’s why Anecdote continues to help businesses transform their strategies into memorable stories, and to relate those stories using successful storytelling techniques.
How to develop the vital habit of noticing stories
Once you've developed the ability to spot stories, the next habit is to actively notice them. Early in the 20th century biologists observed how animals, such as birds, learn how to notice a specific variety of prey and how they become extremely good at finding them. For example, a bird can detect a specific type of worm or beetle at a distance and when they do we just stand there amazed at how they found it. Biologists call this a search image. We need to develop our own search image for stories. The first thing to do is to keep an ear out for time markers. You’ll be surprised at just how many stories start this way and it’s a great way to start noticing stories around you. Then take yourself to places where stories are told. Head down to the cafeteria, visit your local restaurant or diner, join in on those pop-up corridor conversations or arrive early for a meeting to hear the general chit chat, or stay after the formal part ends to hear what happens. These informal parts of the meeting really matter. My friend Stuart French told me this story. A medical supplier that has its HQ in Australia has one of its offices in the US. The US guys felt on the outer because whenever they had a teleconference the communication equipment was only taken off mute when the proper part of the meeting started. They weren’t getting any of the chit chat. So Stuart suggested a small change in teleconference procedure. How about we let everyone hear the informal conversation at both ends of the meetings? It made a big difference, it brought their people closer together. So go to these informal places and just listen. Notice the type of stories being told. How long are they? What are they about? Who features? Who are the heroes and who are the villains?
Finding the stories that have power
Now, notice how you respond to the stories. How do they make you feel? Do any give you a tingle of emotion? Keep a mental note of the stories that generate an emotion. These are the stories with power. As the American author and poet, Maya Angelou, said, "people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." This story created an immediate emotion for me when I read it. Steve Gass is an inventor and he’d been working on a safety brake for high-speed table saws that immediately stopped on contact with human flesh. With the saw spinning at 10,000 RPM it was time to test out his invention in a way that really mattered. Until now Steve had only tested his invention with human flesh stand-ins such as hot dog sausages. And each time he pushed the sausage at the saw blade it stopped without a scratch on the meat. But today was the real deal. He readied himself to push his left index finger into the whirring blade. With a deep gulp he pushed his finger forward. The saw stopped. He looked down. His finger was safe. "It really works!" When I read this story I knew immediately it was relatable because it sent shivers up my spine and set the hairs on my arm on end. I told it that night to my family and just by the looks on their faces I knew it had an impact. It was a good story, but to be a good business story it must have a point.
A good business story must have a point
Nearly any story can be turned into a business story. All you need to know is why you might tell it in a business context. In this case you might think that this story is about committing to an idea to bring it to life. Or perhaps it’s about the importance of doing something remarkable to get the attention of your audience, your customers, or your funders. The Australian Nobel laureate and doctor, Barry Marshall, had to drink an infectious beaker of bacteria to demonstrate that stomach ulcers were caused by a Helicobacter pylori bacterium rather than stress and spicy foods. That’s commitment and another good story. So as you discover stories it’s important to ask yourself the question, “what’s the point of this story and when might I tell it.” Once you work that out then you have a good business story on your hands.
In 2014, with the help of several colleagues, Andrew Carton, Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School, set about studying how the specific language of leader rhetoric impacts on productivity. The researchers analysed the vision statements of 151 American hospitals, looking specifically at those related to cardiology units. They wanted to assess how effective these corporate statements of purpose were when it came to the service provided to heart attack patients, which they did by examining readmission rates for such patients within a month of the original illness. They discovered that statements with a high proportion of image-based words and relatively few values had the greatest effect on employee performance (less readmissions), whereas those with more values than vision, or simply not much vision (lacking vivid imagery), had the least effect (more readmissions).
It turns out that leaders often use concepts rather than images to communicate purpose. So they might talk in generic terms about a company becoming a leading retailer of luxury goods, rather than talking memorably about seeing more customers smile as they head home clutching their new handbag. They also tend to overuse values – quality, innovation, accountability – which muddies the vision they are trying to convey. These characteristics may not have a huge impact on an individual employee’s ability to conjure up a standalone vision of what they’re working towards, but they do have an enormous effect on what the company’s shared vision will be. And as we all know, it’s the shared vision that really counts in organisational performance.
The use of imagery counts in other ways. The researchers also found out that leaders who make vivid, image-laden statements can better articulate that vision, as opposed to leaders who rely on too much terminology and visually blurry language.
What does this all mean? It means that images really do stick. Vision statements literally need to present a vision to be effective in improving organisational practice, including in organisations such as hospitals where performance can be a life-or-death matter. Needless to say, what’s true here for vision statements is true for stories in general.
Source: Andrew M. Carton, Chad Murphy & Jonathan R. Clark, ‘A (Blurry) Vision of the Future: How Leader Rhetoric about Ultimate Goals Influences Performance’, Academy of Management Journal, vol. 57, no. 6, 2014, pp. 1544–70.