February, 2016 | Published by Anecdote - Putting Stories to Work.
Last year Shawn was busy writing his book and we are excited to tell you that it has gone off to the printers and we will be ready for the big launch on the 20th March. Putting Stories to Work: Mastering Business Storytelling is a cracking read full of practical ways to discover stories, remembering them, lots of ways to share them and then how to refresh them. And of course his book is full of interesting anecdotes. If you have attended one of our Storytelling for Leaders or Storytelling for Sales programs, this is the essential resource that you can go back to again and again.
Of course 2016 wil be much more that the book launch. In this newsletter we will share some of the things we are learning, new events that are coming up and some of the research we have found that might help your case for strategy stories.
We wish you have a productive and story-filled 2016 and look forward to meeting up somewhere in this wonderful world we all live in.
Early last year a CEO of a government agency, let’s call him Tim, asked whether I could coach him in storytelling. Tim had an immediate need, an important presentation to stakeholders that were less than excited about the new direction the agency was taking. Happy to help I told him we could start with six sessions and I would base it on our Storytelling for Leaders material.
This was my first real coaching gig so I called up Amanda Horne, a dear friend and experienced executive coach, and met for coffee. Without saying it Amanda ran the session with me like a coaching session and at the end we talked about her approach, which was based on asking questions and helping me work out what I wanted to achieve and then helping me find concrete activities I could do to get what I wanted done. It was a masterclass in adult learning.
I’ve now coached 10 executives. Some have been face-to-face, usually in the wonderful array of cafes you find across Melbourne. Others have been on Skype with people based in China and the USA. Both mediums seem to be equally effective. With 10 coaching clients I’m starting to see some patterns. I can’t say I have solutions to what I’m seeing yet. Maybe you can suggest good ways to respond. But let me outline two of them here. I’d love to hear what you think.
Executives don’t always see their peers telling stories and are therefore reluctant to do something different. I start all my coaching sessions, after we have worked out what the executives wants to achieve, with training on how to spot a story. You would have heard me talk about this before, but it’s vital a storyteller can tell the difference between a story and not a story. Once they have this narrative intelligence they begin to realise their colleagues don’t tell stories. And when in doubt the safest strategy is to do what others are doing. Influence psychologists, Robert Cialdini, calls this social proof.
I’ve helped my clients in two ways to overcome this stress. First I assure them that no one really can tell if you are telling a story if you don’t start by saying something as dumb as â€śI would like to share a story.â€ť So I get them to tell stories in small, low risk meetings to get them comfortable with the approach and to see the reaction of their audience, which is invariably positive. Second, we keep an eye out for exemplary leaders in their organisation who tell stories. And in most cases, especially in the big companies, we will find examples. The fact that storytelling leaders are rare spells an opportunity for my guys. Stories will set them apart.
People like to talk about storytelling yet are reluctant to tell stories. I’ve had a number of executives who love to discuss the craft of storytelling yet when I ask them to come to a session with stories to tell they have all manner of excuses for why they don’t have one to share. I think I just need to get tougher on them but I also wonder why they are reluctant. Do they know what I’m after? Are they having trouble finding stories at work? Do they still have doubts about the approach? I’m yet to work this one out fully but I suspect they don’t quite see the stories that are floating around them and how they can be told to make a business point. Maybe I will need to shadow them a day and point out the stories as they appear. That would be fun.
We’ve had some amazing successes so far ranging from one executive getting his budget approved based on a clarity story he told, to others getting standing ovations at presentations. But these are just the big, obvious things. The real value will come from the many small stories told consistently over time that engage people and help them understand what’s happening and why, that show the progress being made and remind everyone of the purpose of what’s being done. That’s how storytelling can make a difference at work.
This is what Patrick Lambe has said about Shawn's new book:
"Whenever I have a conversation with Shawn Callahan I come away feeling stimulated and enriched. We have a way of riffing off each other’s ideas and insights in a completely delightful way. It’s like taking a journey of discovery together.
This book is the next best thing to one of those conversations. Shawn is one of those rare writers whose personality shines through his writing. His book is elegant, focused and intensely engaging. Putting Stories to Work is written with the simplicity and clarity of a deeply experienced practitioner, grounded in an expansive knowledge of the background research. It’s also a wonderful exemplar of the art of telling â€śsmallâ€ť stories simply and effectively to communicate, engage and help people make sense of the world around them.
This is pitched as a book for storytelling in business, but storytelling is first and foremost an ancient social skill, often ironed out of us by the rationalism and autism of modern life. You can use this book equally well to build your storytelling skills, habits and repertoire in your personal and social life. If you want to become a productive and reflective practitioner of storytelling in an entirely grounded, non-gimmicky way, this is the book for you. And as Shawn reminds us, don’t forget to have fun while doing so. "
We have been helping companies for almost 10 years develop and share a story that explains a company’s strategy. I was originally inspired by an an article I read my Morgan Marzec back in 2007. Since then we have helped IBM, Shell, KPMG, Bayer and AMP to name a few find and tell their strategy narrative.
Each time we do a strategy story we see the impact it has for leaders to be able to share the strategy with their people without notes and illustrated with their own anecdotes. Probably the biggest benefit is simply that the story gets the leadership team on the same page about what the strategy is and what it means.
While we see the amazing benefits of strategy stories there are have been very few studies that illustrate whether they work and how they work. One of the rare examples of from Michael Carriger.
Carriger is a researcher at Trinity Washington University, Washington, District of Columbia, USA. In 2009 he selected 159 MBA students and 24 professionals from a defense contractor to participate in a study to explore the effectiveness of a strategy narrative.
The participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. One were shown the strategy as a graphic and a set of bullet points, the other were shown a graphic and a story version of the strategy.
The participants were then asked to fill in a 1-page survey that asked which of the Porter’s competitive advantages (differentiation, focus, cost) the company was pursuing that were contained in the strategy and how confident they were in their answer. Carriger also just asked them to describe the strategy.
Finally he asked how much management experience they had, their age and gender.
The results showed that the MBA participants were more consistent selecting which of Porter’s competitive advantages were being communicated and more confident in the selection when seeing the narrative.
The managers however were more consistent with picking the strategy but they wasn’t significantly confident in their answer between the story approach vs the bullet point approach.
Carriger’s research suggests that the younger, less experienced people were more influenced by the story in terms of helping them see the important elements it contained and when they heard the story they were more confident in what they understood.
Experienced managers also found the story approach easier to pick out the meaning in the strategy but they were just as confident when presented with the dot point depiction of the strategy.
It would be good to see some more research in this area. If you are a researcher and would like to collaborate on a study, please get in touch.
Carriger, M. (2011). "Narrative approach to corporate strategy: empirical foundations." Journal of Strategy and Management 4(4): 304-324.
Marzec, M. (2007). "Telling the corporate story: vision into action." Journal of Business Strategy 28(1): 26-36.