Congratulations on doing TheStoryTest—and if you haven’t done it, reading this blog post now is tantamount to cheating—shame on you 🙂
Here are the quick answers. Below we will explain why each example is or is not a story.
- Pizza innovation – no
- Basement flood at Tree Hill – yes
- Hewlett Packard’s European operations – no
- The role of a leader – no
- Gloves on the boardroom table – yes
- Pin board of movie directors – yes
- Tappers and listeners – yes
- Mark Burnett’s bathtub ‘story’ – no
- Peter Lowry Technical and Quality Coach – no
- Suggesting a Caesar salad at Southwest – yes
Spotting a story—a practical definition of a story
Many story aficionados will be unhappy with our practical definition of a story because in their mind it doesn’t illustrate the sheer beauty and intricacy of stories. And they would be right. This definition is a practical one for spotting stories. It says nothing about what makes a good story, a subject as deep as Borges’ fabled library.
At its most basic level a story is when someone does something, somewhere, at some time and usually for some reason. In other words a story describes an event (or sequence of events) at a place and time featuring one or more characters who take some action for some purpose. A story is about something that happened or might happen. What’s happening now is life.
There are four features to look out for to spot a story:
- Time marker: stories often start with a time marker such as “In 1991 …” “Just the other day” “Last Tuesday …” “When we last spoke to the CEO …” The archetypal time marker is, of course, “Once upon a time” but I find this opening less common in a business context.
- Place marker: sometimes a story will start with a place marker such as “We were outside Jim’s office …” “At basketball …” “On our way to the client …”
- Characters: stories feature people (or other people-like entities such as Thomas the Tank Engine) doing things. They have names, speak and take action.
- Events: stories have one or more events. These events might be moments in time or scale up to eons.
This should be enough to spot a story. So here are the ones in TheStoryTest.com
Examples that were stories
Story two – Basement flood at Tree Hill
Remember when we flooded the basement at Tree Hill. Smithie dragged me into his office, “Right, now your going to explain to me the facts, you’re going to tell me exactly what you did and why you ended up doing what happened.” Then it was over; that was the appropriate decision at the time, and he just walked out of the office, didn’t he, and said to everyone, “Case closed.” Nothing was a problem. If there was a problem, he’d kick your arse from one end of the room to the other and then it would be over.
Source: Collected by Anecdote (NB: The names and locations have been changed).
This is a story we collected in an Anecdote Circle. It’s exactly how someone told it. It starts with a place marker “the basement at Tree Hill.” Then the the teller talks about his manager, Smithie, and how he deals with mistakes.
Story five – Gloves on the boardroom table
We had a problem with our whole purchasing process. I was convinced that a great deal of money was being wasted and would continue to be wasted into the future, and that we didn’t even know how much money was being thrown away. I thought we had and opportunity to drive down purchasing costs not by 2 percent but by something in the order of $1 billion over the next five years. A change this big meant a big shift in the process. This would not be possible, however, unless many people, especially in top management, saw the opportunity, which for the most part they did not. So nothing was happening.
To get a sense of the magnitude of the problem, I asked one of our summer students to do a small study of how much we pay for the different kinds of gloves used in our factories and how many different gloves we buy. I chose one item to keep it simple, something all the plants use and something we can all easily relate to.
When the student completed the project, she reported that our factories were purchasing 424 different kinds of gloves! Four hundred and twenty- four. Every factory had their own supplier and their own negotiated price. The same glove could cost $5 at one factory and $17 at another. Five dollars or even $17 may not seem like much money, but we buy a lot of gloves, and this was just one example of our purchasing problem. When I examined what she had found, even I couldn’t believe how bad it was.
The student was able to collect a sample of every one of the 424 gloves. She tagged each one with the price on it and the factory it was used in. Then she sorted the bags by division in the firm and type of glove.
We gathered them all up and put them in our boardroom one day. Then we invited all the division presidents to come visit the room. What they saw was a large, expensive table, normally clean or with a few papers, now stacked high with gloves. Each of our executives stared at this display for a minute. Then each said something like, “We buy all these different kinds of gloves?” Well, as a matter of fact, yes we do. “Really?” Yes, really. Then they walked around the table. Most, I think, were looking for the gloves that their factories were using. They could see the prices. They looked at two gloves that seemed exactly alike, yet one was marked $3.22 and the other $10.55.
It’s a rare event when these people don’t have anything to say. But that day, they just stood with their mouths gaping.
Source: Kotter, J.P and Cohen, D.S: (2002): The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations. Harvard Business Press, Boston.
The first paragraph is context setting so we haven’t got to the happening yet. Then the story starts with “I asked one of our summer students …” A character doing something for some purpose.
Story six – Pin board of movie directors
Arriving in Hollywood in the late ‘60’s as a young man, a fast track ascension up the career ladder seemed challenging to me. The men at the ‘big table’ who made the major decisions were all in their 60’s with white hair or no hair. I needed to distinguish myself from my colleagues who had similar aspirations as I did. I found it in solving a problem that the senior executives didn’t even know they had.
When any movie is made, one of the most critical decisions is who the director will be. This choice was currently being decided upon by the central figure at the table who I once heard announce that, ‘he was having a tuna fish sandwich yesterday with a particular filmmaker and he believed he was available.’ Was this the whole criteria to choose a filmmaker based on a tuna fish sandwich and ‘available?!’
Even in these pre-internet days, I had a sense that information was currency, so I set about to organize the data about all the Hollywood directors on a corked wall in my office with thousands of stick pins. Like a giant Wikipedia, everyone coming or going could add to it or take from it information about availability, propensity for staying on budget and core strengths of all the directors cross-referenced against other categories as well as talent.
Without realizing it, I’d constructed a launch pad for my career by giving concrete form to the call to action of my tuna sandwich ahha! moment—the story I’d tell forward to every visitor who asked why I was doing this giant board of directors. By surrendering control of my board of directors, I allowed my listeners to embrace it, participate in it, and own it. One person told another my story, who told another person about the story, which brought more talent and influencers to my office, and my star steadily rose.
Source: Guber, P (2011): Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story. Crown Business, New York.
“Arriving in Hollywood in the late ’60s” is the time marker but the real action starts in the third paragraph when Peter is organising his pin board of directors.
Story seven – Tappers and listeners
In 1990, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology named Elizabeth Newton discovered the ‘curse of knowledge’. She created a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: ‘tapper’ or ‘listener’. Each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song, such as “Happy Birthday,” and tap out the rhythm on a table. The listener’s job was to simply guess the song.
Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5%. But before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%. The tappers got their message across one time in 40, but they thought they would get it across one time in two. Why?
When a tapper taps, they are hearing the song in their head. Go ahead and try it for yourself – tap out ‘Happy Birthday’. It’s impossible to avoid hearing the tune in your head. Meanwhile, the listeners can’t hear that tune – all they can hear is a bunch of disconnected taps, like a kind of strange Morse code.
It’s hard to be a tapper. The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge. When they’re tapping, they can’t imagine what it’s like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song.
This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.
Source: Adapted from http://hbr.org/2006/12/the-curse-of-knowledge/ar/1
This story clearly starts with a time marker, “In 1990 …” and then tells us about an experiment conducted by Elizabeth Newton. The story really only extends for the first two paragraphs and the following three paragraphs are the implications drawn from the story.
Story ten – Suggesting a Caesar salad at Southwest
Herb Kelleher [the longest-serving CEO of Southwest] once told someone, “I can teach you the secret to running this airline in thirty seconds. This is it: We are THE low-cost airline. Once you understand that fact, you can make any decision about this company’s future as well as I can.
“Here’s an example,” he said. “Tracy from marketing comes into your office. She says her surveys indicate that the passengers might enjoy a light entree on the Houston to Las Vegas flight. All we offer is peanuts, and she thinks a nice chicken Caesar salad would be popular. What do you say?”
The person stammered for a moment, so Kelleher responded: “You say, ‘Tracy, will adding that chicken Caesar salad make us THE low-fare airline from Houston to Las Vegas? Because if it doesn’t help us become the unchallenged low-fare airline, we’re not serving any damn chicken salad.’”
Source: Heath, C and Heath, D (2007): Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Random House, New York.
In this case we start with the character “Herb Kelleher” and the time marker “once told someone”. This is a good example of a specific moment because we are hearing what Herb actually said. It is also an example of a story inside a story. When Herb gives his example he tells the story of Tracy from marketing, which we can assume is a fictional story based on things that could happen. A very good teaching story as well.
Examples that were NOT stories
Story one – Pizza innovation
In pizza retailing, innovation is a key factor in bringing in customers. But beyond introducing new toppings and playing with the base, what potential for innovation is there? To solve this challenge ?What If? helped the team from Pizza Hut stop thinking about products and start thinking about insights and unmet needs.
The team got out of the office and into restaurants and the lives of their consumers—going at a variety of times during the day, sitting and eating with real customers, not just talking to the staff and restaurant managers, but finding out what it’s really like to take your family out and about.
The team identified a very simple but enormously powerful insight—when ordering pizza, the kids, Dad and Mum all want different toppings. And although it is a product that is supposed to be all about sharing, it can turn into a nightmare of negotiation and compromise—until Mum finally falls on her sword and shares what someone else has chosen.
But if you’re a family restaurant with a core target of mums, you really do need to worry about Mum losing out all the time. So the idea of the 4forALL Pizza was born from this insight—4 individual square pizzas, each with its own individual topping that come together to be purchased as a single unit. Everyone gets their favourite topping, no one has to compromise—not even Mum!
Initially launched as the Quad in the UK, this was the first example of a real product innovation coming from the UK as opposed to being drawn from the US innovation pipeline. The concept then landed on American shores, was reframed and tweaked to create the 4forALL Pizza and was launched by Jessica Simpson at Superbowl 2004. Sales records were broken as the largest pizza company in the world saw sales go through the roof across the company’s 7,000 stores.
Source: Baréz-Brown, C: (2006) How to Have Kick-Ass Ideas: Get Curious, Get Adventurous, Get Creative. Harper Element, London.
This example is close to a story but is not quite there because it is mainly a set of opinions: “innovation is key”, “the team identified a very simple but enormously powerful insight”, “you really do need to worry about Mum losing out all the time.” There are some near story components but told at a high level and therefore loses its impact: “The team go out of the office …” “Initially launched as the Quad …”
Story three – Hewlett Packard’s European operations
In Hewlett-Packard’s European operation in the late 1990s, executives had created an internal benchmarking system that compared the time it took to process computer orders at factories in different countries. The idea was to enable managers to measure their weak spots and learn from the best. But managers at the under performing factories were not interested in learning from others. It didn’t help that the French factory was worse that the Belgium. The idea that they had to go to Belgium to learn from Belgium managers didn’t sit well with the French managers. They did not believe that others could teach them useful practices, in part because they viewed their problem as unique. But they were not.
Source: Hansen, M.T (2009): Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results. Harvard Business Press, Boston.
Now you could be fooled into thinking this was a story because is starts our with a character (HP’s European operation) and a time marker (in the late 1990s) but by the second sentence we move to a viewpoint about the idea rather than what happened. The rest of the paragraph is then opinions about how the French would react to the Belgians. We selected this one because it has the feeling of a story without really being one.
Story four – The role of a leader
When one is vested with the role of a leader, he inherits more freedom. The power of leadership endows him with rights to a greater range of self-determination of his own destiny. It is he who may determine the what or the how and the when and the where of important events. Yes, as with all rights, there is a commensurate, balancing group of responsibilities that impose upon his freedom. The leader cannot avoid the act of determining the what or the who or the where. He cannot avoid being prepared to make those determinations. He cannot avoid being prepared to make these terminations. He cannot avoid seeing to their implementation. He cannot avoid living with the consequences of his decisions on others and the demands these consequences impose on him. Only time will prove the merit of his stewardship.
Source: Speech by Bob Galvin (ex. CEO of Motorola) on leadership cited in: Jick, T.D and Peiperl (2003) Managing Change: Cases and Concepts. McGraw Hill, New York.
Hopefully you got this one easily. It is straight forward rhetoric with no story elements.
Story eight – Mark Burnett’s bathtub ‘story’
One of the most high-octane advocates of telling to win that I know of in any business is Mark Burnett, who pioneered reality television. Since 2001 Burnett has been nominated for forty-eight Emmy Awards–for series such as Survivor, The Apprentice, The Contender, Martha Stewart, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, and The MTV Awards. Because Mark has turned personal enthusiasm into career rocket fuel, I wanted him to discuss this element of the tell with my UCLA grad students.
Burnett was even more emphatic than I’d expected in stressing the role of passion in the telling of business stories. “Our success or failure is determined by our level of energy,” he said flatly. “I tell my people, ‘Much more than our creativity, our level of energy inspires the people around us.’ “
To explain how this works, he told the students the story he tells his employees. “The problem for successful businesspeople is really one of energy conservation. I put in a fourteen-, fifteen-, sixteen-hour day, and I need so much energy. Think of that figuratively as a bathtub full of water that you fill every morning to the brim. You crack that plug and let it drain, so by the time you come home the last drop has gone through the drain.” Ideally, he emphasized, there’s still some energy in the tub to get you home, but if you’re confronted by “energy suckers,” you’ll be running on empty before noon.
Source: Guber, P (2011): Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story. Crown Business, New York.
The first two paragraphs are context. Then the third paragraph says we are going to hear a story. But what we are told is an analogy about a bath tub and not a story at all.
Story nine – Peter Lowry Technical and Quality Coach
Peter Lowry has raced through the ranks to become a Technical and Quality Coach. He plays footy on the weekends, hits the beach in summer and – like most of his friends – enjoys overseas travel. “I love training people. I get a huge sense of fulfilment in seeing people develop and become more knowledgeable. So often people don’t get recognition for what they do know. When I coach, I tend to focus on people’s positives. And I try and turn the negatives into a way to improve.”
Source: In a collection titled: “Stories Have The Power to Surprise” in the foyer of a large financial services headquarters (NB: Name has been changed)
This is a good example of what some PR and corporate communications people think is a story but is merely a description of someone with some of their opinions. Nothing happens.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on: