Yesterday my sister called and said, “I have an idea for a book you should write. Why don’t you collect a bunch of stories that illustrate different leadership challenges and publish them for leaders to retell.”
Good idea sis. We all need a repertoire of stories to tell and they are never easy to find just when you need them. You have to find them before you need them. You need to be a story collector.
There are three buckets to dip into to find stories.
1. Your stories
Everyday things happen that can be remembered and told as a story. I told a very small story about my sister to start this post. When something remarkable happens you need to capture the essence of it in a notebook or something like Evernote. As these stories are going to be retold orally it’s important not to write them down fully. Just jot down enough to remember the story and any details, such as names and dates you might forget. And then use the tagging features in Evernote so you can find the right story when you need it.
2. Stories other people tell you
Again, jot them down when you hear them. Most importantly, NEVER retell someone else’s story as if it happened to you. I’ve seen this happen and it’s not pretty. It’s fine to tell other people’s stories if you know they in the public domain, just say, “The other day Peter shared with me what happened at their organisation …” and then tell Peter’s story.
The art here is to ask questions that get your stories rather than opinions. The short version is, ask when and where questions rather than what, how and why questions. Have a look at our anecdote circle guide if you want to learn about how to do this in organisations.
3. Stories from other sources
Now, this is the treasure trove of stories. For business people all popular business books are written with stories. To learn how to tell these stories simple read them and picture it happening. Use all your senses to watch, taste, feel, hear the story unfold. This will help you remember it. Then sit back and think about what’s most important about this story? What’s the business porint it makes for you? With these questions answered you will emphasis the right parts of the story in the retelling. Here is a story for you to practice on:
Rob McEwen, the CEO of Goldcorp Inc., knew that his geologists were sceptical, if not downright worried, about what he was proposing. And he couldn’t blame them. He was asking them to go against a sacred tenet of mining and share 50 years worth of the Canadian company’s precious geological data with the world, to allow pretty much anyone to trawl through the information for clues as to the whereabouts of as-yet-undiscovered gold deposits.
There was also the fact that despite McEwen’s well-known doggedness, not all of his initiatives worked out. Several years earlier, when Goldcorp had first started struggling with debt, a contracting gold market and a keystone mine in Ontario that appeared to have run dry, McEwen had taken the bold – some thought suicidal – step of ramping up exploration instead of winding it down. The gamble seemed to pay off. A lode of gold was detected in the depths of the Ontario mine that was thought to dwarf the existing deposits. But subsequent efforts failed to pin down the location and value of the gold, and it was back to square one.
It was in the wake of this setback, however, that McEwen had an epiphany. He attended a conference where someone told a story about how the operating system Linux owed its success to the decision by its creator, Linus Torvalds, to freely distribute his code, allowing smart programmers around the world to refine it. The Goldcorp CEO realised he could do the same thing with his geological data. Instead of relying only on his own geologists to find the Ontario gold, he could dare other great minds to do it. It went against every mining convention, it was enormously risky, but true to form, McEwen was determined to do it.
And so, in 2000, overriding the protests of his employees, the CEO launched the Goldcorp Challenge, which dangled prize money of half a million dollars in front of the participants. McEwen was floored by the results. Over 1000 people from 50 countries – not just geologists but also programmers, mathematicians, consultants and others – used their expertise to identify 50 new sites in the grounds of the Ontario mine. Amazingly, over three-quarters of them yielded significant gold deposits. Within 7 years, 8 million ounces of the precious metal was mined by Goldcorp at those sites, and several years worth of exploration time had been saved.
Following in the footsteps of Linus Torvalds, McEwen had dispensed with the old, slow, secretive way of doing things and embraced open collaboration, harnessing the intelligence and enthusiasm of new colleagues.
Sourced from Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams (2006), Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, Portfolio, New York.
There are also books that already do what my sister wanted. One of the very first in this category is Managing by Storying Around by David Armstrong (please suggest other titles in the comments). While these books provide a good start, they are a distant second place to your own stories.
Happy story collecting.
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: