March, 2015 | Published by Anecdote - Putting Stories to Work.
Hello from the team at Anecdote, and welcome to the March edition of Anecdotally. Yes, we know that March is now behind us and we’ve eased into April, and we apologise for keeping you waiting for our second newsletter of the year. In our own defence, the past month has been an extremely hectic one. Apart from our partner network’s ever-growing roster of story training around the world and our participation in some stimulating conferences – see the ‘What’s happening’ section below for an idea of what’s coming up – we’ve been busy putting the finishing touches to our refreshed website. We’ll be launching it within the next few weeks, and when that happens, we hope that you’ll be as pleased with the end result as we are. If you’re a frequent consulter of a smartphone, you’ll certainly be happy with how beautifully the new site works on portable devices. Please do let us know what you think when you get to check it out.
In this edition, we have:
Book Review - Captivology: The Science of Capturing Peoples Attention
Your attention is immediately captured when someone calls out your name across a room – it’s a compelling moment that occurs instantaneously. A good example of short attention is a conversation you have that interests you and which you think about for a while afterwards, perhaps even briefly taking it up again. Ultimately, though, immediate and short attention are just that. You focus on something for a brief period until you either lose interest or it gets bounced by something more appealing.
Long attention, on the other hand, is the essence of persuasion. It’s where you don’t just temporarily have someone’s ear but are in a position to influence them. One example is a fixation on a particular brand, where it wouldn’t enter your head to buy that product from anyone else. Playing nothing but Taylor Swift songs is another example (albeit a disturbing one). An awareness of and interest in that singer have built up and persist to the point of long-term engagement and influence. It’s this form of attention – in the sense of how to capture it – that is the main focus of the book.
Parr says Captivology is research-driven, and this is a minor quibble I have with it. The content is not so much based on first-hand research as it is anecdotal (no pun intended), with a good deal of material derived from the author’s conversations with researchers. The word ‘science’ does not really have a starring role here but makes more of a guest appearance in the book’s subtitle. Nonetheless, the identification of seven categories of attention triggers is intriguing. These comprise automaticity, framing, disruption, reward, reputation, mystery and acknowledgement triggers.
To demonstrate a framing trigger, Parr describes how the virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell, a musician used to playing in the world’s major concert halls, once set himself up as a busker in the Washington subway. Although Bell commanded the audience’s attention while up on a stage, in the subway of the American capital, hardly anyone noticed him – his busking takings were meagre to say the least. So framing, or presentation, is a key factor in how much attention people pay to you.
For an example of a disruption trigger, where people take notice because something unexpected is happening, look no further than comedian Ricky Gervais’ meta-ad for Optus, in which he talks about how he has nothing to say: he knows nothing about Optus, and doesn’t really care to learn more. This ad has been ridiculously successful, getting much attention from ad critics and consumers alike.
While leafing through the many easy-to-read stories packed into Parr’s book, we began to see a parallel with our story work. In busy working environments, attention is a real resource. The use of the various triggers mentioned above is a great way to command more of this resource. In fact, this is exactly what story-triggering is about. Concentrated attention on leader behaviour can be used to trigger new stories and to communicate meaning.
In a recent workshop in Auckland Gail Reichert gave us a handy tip which we thought would be worth sharing. A facilitator herself, she said that in her experience, it was useful to ask three specific questions at various stages of a training session or seminar to ensure the ideas really sank in.
The three questions are:
The aim of the first question is to elicit from an attendee what they have learnt. The second question gets the person to think about the personal relevance of what they’ve learnt – its significance to them. The final question prompts the person to consider what they’re going to do now, how they might apply this new-found knowledge.
Gail said that asking these questions helps to embed learning at a deep level, and we think she’s onto something. After all, it’s a deeply held belief at Anecdote that we only really know what we know when we hear ourselves say it. Speaking our knowledge gives us that crucial point of reflection.
I was recently in Berlin running a public Storytelling for Leaders workshop with our European partners. During the session, I had several conversations with local businesspeople that took me right back to the early days of Anecdote circa 2004, when there was often little awareness – much less appreciation – of storytelling in corporate circles. I had these ‘flashbacks’ because a number of the German executives seemed bemused by the idea that storytelling held any value for their organisations. There was the notion that, at best, stories were simply entertainment; at worst, they amounted to wasteful talk, nothing more than pointless yakety-yak. Some people seemed to be asking: Why should we waste time on overtly emotional scenarios or outright fiction when what we really should be communicating are solid facts?
Of course, I'm not raising this to be critical of any cultural perceptions of storytelling. It just strikes me as interesting that some leaders are oblivious to the fact that we all share purposeful stories on a daily basis in the work context. A hard-nosed leader may insist only on the facts, the whole facts, and nothing but the facts – without embellishment. Yet stories are typically full of facts. And when a story resonates emotionally, we transcend facts and arrive at home truths.
Julian Orr’s wonderful ethnography about Xerox photocopier technicians, titled Talking about Machines, exemplifies how even the most fact-loving experts tell stories as part of an overarching problem-solving process. Orr describes how photocopier technicians tell each other stories to establish common ground, which in turn allows them to understand what’s happening when they start diagnosing a problem. Sometimes it is a single story that holds the answer. More typically, many stories are told and compared, each one subtly rearranging the facts until an insight emerges.
Orr’s fascinating account makes it clear that storytelling is part of the language of the specialist. The challenge for Anecdote, as I rediscovered in Berlin, is to help people understand that stories are also part of the language of leaders.
How to find and tell a story to support your cause
Activists know that a personal story has the best chance of influencing a decision. So when they canvas support, they often ask for personal stories that will further their cause.
The problem is that many people who receive such a request don’t really understand what they’re being asked for. They may think they don’t have a story like that to share, or if they do, that they won’t be able to share it in a compelling way.
In this post, I’d like to show you how you can find a personal story to support your chosen cause, and then I’d like to illustrate how you can tell that story so it has the greatest impact.
This has been prompted by an Australian Marriage Equality (AME) campaign I’m taking part in. I’m helping to bring about marriage equality in Australia, to make sure that same-sex couples have the same right as everyone else to get married in our country. I’m doing my bit by trying to convince my local member, Kelvin Thomson, to support what 72% of Australians already support.
Last week, the campaign’s many supporters, myself included, received an email from AME asking for urgent action. The message said that the federal government was about to meet to discuss the issue, and it was possible that it would decide to allow members and senators to act on their conscience and vote to support marriage equality. We were asked to write to our local parliamentarians to show our own support for marriage equality. Specifically, we were asked to share a personal story.
More than one million emails were sent in response to this, which is fantastic. But it got me thinking, did we send the best possible personal stories? I decided to write these tips to ensure that the AME campaign and similar efforts do even better in the future.
What do we mean by a story?
First of all, what do we mean when we say the word ‘story’? Simply put, a story is an account of something that happened. To be meaningful, the story should be about something unexpected that happened that we care about. It’s a personal story if it happened to you.
We can identify a story because it often starts off telling us when something happened, using words such as ‘A couple of months ago ...’ or ‘The other day ...’ or ‘A while back ...’
Here is a simple example from my own life. We will improve this story as we go along because I want to share how stories often start as fairly high-level, less-effective versions of themselves.
A couple of years ago, my daughter told me and her mother that she was gay. We told her we loved her no matter what. But it did get us thinking that she would have a harder life than many others because of the prejudice and inequality in Australia.
As you can see, while this is a story, it’s not the most compelling story. We will come back to how to improve it a little later. But in the meantime, let’s look at how we can find stories in the first place.
Finding personal stories to support your cause
One way to find personal stories to support your cause is to learn about the arguments your campaign is making. For each argument, look back on your own personal experiences for examples that might make a suitable story.
Take, for example, the 12 reasons why marriage equality matters that appear on the AME website. Each talking point could prompt a story. Let’s take just three of the reasons discussed and I’ll show you how to pose questions to yourself to find anecdotes that relate to them.
Many same-sex couples want to marry
Have you ever had a conversation with a person in a same-sex relationship who wanted to get married, in which they talked about not being able to marry? How did that make them feel? How did it make you feel?
You’re looking for questions that help you find something that happened. More importantly, you are looking for things that happened that made people feel something. Feelings convey empathy, which in turn helps a decision maker really understand the issue, in their gut.
The benefits for children
Do you know any children of same-sex couples? How have they grown up? Can you think of a moment that illustrates their resilient character and good nature?
Again, you’re looking for specific instances, specific moments. That’s where the stories hide.
Marriage inequality has an adverse impact on health and wellbeing
Have you ever seen the adverse impact of marriage inequality? What happened?
Questions that illicit a story always point to a moment in time. To find your stories, use the material provided by the campaign in question to trigger your own experiences. You will be surprised by what you find.
Making your stories even better
The best stories in support of a cause have a clear point, are visual in that you can see the action happening in your mind’s eye, and convey emotion.
Let me rework the story concerning my daughter with the above principles in mind:
Ever since my daughter Alex moved into a group house, she has come back to our house on Monday nights for a home-cooked meal. On one of these Monday nights, I arrived home to find my wife Sheenagh and Alex in the kitchen, clearly in the midst of talking about something important. ‘Go on, tell Dad’, Sheenagh said. Alex then told me she was gay. We immediately hugged, and I told her how much Sheenagh and I loved her and how we would support her no matter what. Later that night, after Alex had gone home, Sheenagh started crying. When I asked her what was upsetting her, she said she was worried about the harder life Alex would face because of the prejudice and inequality that same-sex couples had to confront. You can now see why we think marriage equality is so important.
The first thing to notice is that I included names in my story. People love names. It makes the story feel real. Even if you can’t use real names because of privacy concerns, it’s still worth referring to pseudonyms. Just say something like, ‘A couple of months ago, Marie (not her real name) ...’
Did you see us standing in our kitchen? Did you see Alex and I hug? What about Sheenagh crying? Did these moments make you feel anything? Did you get a sense of how we felt?
If you did, you’ll understand the simple point I was trying to make with this story: Why should our sons and daughters face a harder life just because of prejudice against them and the person they simply love and want to marry? It just doesn’t make sense in a country like Australia that prides itself on a fair go for everyone.
The best stories
Hopefully this has given you some practical ideas on how to find good personal stories to tell to support your cause. Start seeking your stories now so you’re ready for the next time you need to submit a story, or the next time you need to tell a story to help someone understand your cause.
Best of luck with finding and polishing your stories. As the story guru Annette Simmons says, whoever has the best story wins.