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003 – Pick one great strategy

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —January 22, 2018
Filed in Business storytelling, Podcast

With all the stories you’ll learn here in Anecdotally Speaking you will need a place, and an approach, to keep track of them so you can find good ones when you need them. So in this episode Mark and I run through some tips to create your own story-bank and give you some important advice on what to do and what to avoid.

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Our feature story is about how a CEO helped his company focus on one big thing and in the process helped everyone get an enormous amount of good work done. This example is particularly important as a tonic against compex strategies where no one has a chance of understanding what needs to be done let alone remembering it.

Thanks for all your comments on iTunes. It really does help others find the show. Keep them coming.

We would also love to hear your comments and questions. Just pop them in the comments below.

And please subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher so you get the latest episodes as they air.

Our story was sourced from Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: why we do what we do and how to change. London: William Heinmann.

Podcast transcript

Shawn:  

Welcome to Anecdotally Speaking episode three. I’m Shawn Callahan and this is my great friend and business partner Mark Schenk.

Mark:        

Hi everybody.

Shawn:

We’re here again to talk about this whole area of business story telling. Why are we here, Mark, what’s the real core purpose for this podcast?

Mark:      

The reason we’re doing it is because we know people are natural story tellers but we’re not making much of that in business. We know it’s hard and so the idea of the podcast is to give people stories to put in their pockets, to fill their story banks but also to talk about why those stories work and how you can use them in a business context.

Shawn:

Yeah, it’s so vital. You sort of need to have those stories off the cuff, don’t you?

Mark:  

There’s nothing like just having in the spur of the moment somebody says something that you disagree with and you have an example that illustrates a different way of thinking. Just the amount of times that that is valuable is tremendous. You can use it every day.

Shawn:     

Because this podcast is all about sharing stories and get into the detail of why they work etc. but one of the things that will come up very quickly is; but how do you keep track of all these stories? How do you have a place you can go to, to go through and sort of say, yeah that’s a story I’ve got to remember or I’m going to tell this afternoon or at a big presentation I’m going to give? I want to have a good connection story. How do I go about that?

We call these story banks. I guess what I’d like to do now, Mark and I, just talk about some of the experiences we’ve had with building story banks, what works, what doesn’t work. If you were to give three key things, what do you think it is?

Mark:       

I’d rather just start with the concept.

Shawn:   

Yeah right.

Mark:   

I think the concept is important. The number of people that think they’ve got a good memory. In fact, I was running our story telling for sales programme in Arizona just before Christmas, talking about the story bank and one of the participant’s goes, I don’t need that but even though we live in the world of story, having a story bank for me personally, I find it incredibly useful.

An analogy– when I was a young guy in the Air force I was renowned for my repertoire of jokes.

Shawn:   

Monty Python in particular.

Mark:    

Ah well yes, I can recite most episodes of Monty Python without notes. When I joined the Air Force I was eighteen years old and just a young guy and there were just so many jokes flying around I just started making notes. I didn’t have to make many notes; you know about the priest who played golf.

That’s all I needed and what happened I had this little note book and I had like hundreds of jokes and just before I’d go out to the bar or out to a party or something I’d just pick through it and yeah, suddenly I’ve got this repertoire of notes but look if you asked me now to tell you a joke, I’m struggling.

The idea of a story bank is it relieves you of the obligation carrying them in your head and it gives you a way by searching and browsing for inspiration.

Shawn:

So that note book was your story bank?

Mark:    

That was my joke bank and so now both of us have a story bank and it’s invaluable and I love it.

Shawn:     

So, what are some of the things you have to do or some of the systems we use? How about we start with systems? Of course, we’ve already heard the first system; get a note book and write it out.

 Mark:

Old school.

Shawn:

You get the moleskins to start writing out the stories. But here’s the thing and I think this is the lesson we’ve learnt just over the years of practise is that it’s really important not to write the whole story out, isn’t it?

Mark:

Yeah.

Shawn:   

There’s something that happens when you do that.

Mark:   

I’ll tell you for me, the first thing that happens when you try to write the story out in full; I stopped doing it because it’s hard work. For me the idea is getting them in there, getting as many as you possibly can and do it as regularly as you can, like an everyday experience. If you try and write them out in full, it’s half an hour’s work; quite frankly I don’t have it and as we both know, we don’t need it.

Shawn:

So, the approach that we like to take is just having a few dot points. It’s kind of ironic that dot points are the go to way to record stories, but we find that is just enough to remind you of the key information you need and it’s there to trigger your memory. That’s really what it is, it’s an aid memoir so you can sort of go ah, I remember that, and you can tell that story.

Mark:   

And for some you might need a bit more information, but it can be as easy as, I have a note in my note book story bank 2007, bathroom story.

Shawn:     

Right.

Mark:  

And the name of the guy who told it. That’s all I need and then bang I can take you the entire story though the entry in my story bank is the trigger to remember that story. I have it tagged, that’s another tip right because if you have it tagged and make it searchable you might have stories about leadership. Search in that tag and a whole bunch of stories about leadership come up.

Shawn:

Now jumping to the next type of story bank or solution. We use Evernote as one of the main systems for recording our stories. One of the reasons is because it has a great search and tagging ability. We can go and look for stories on leadership or what’s a connection story and stories we’ve tagged as connection stories and so it enables us to drill down very quickly.

Mark:  

One Note is the PC version, it’s fantastic. A lot of people love spread sheets.

Shawn:    

Really.

Mark:   

Great I think that’s the key, you need a system that works for you.

Shawn:

And something you’re actually going to look at right

Mark:  

Yep.

Shawn:    

One of the other things worth talking about here is how you title your stories. We have a tongue and cheek idea about this. It sort of stems from the fact that the TV programme ‘Friends’, titles every episode essentially the same way; it’s the one about or the one where. You know the one about Joey goes to fridge or the one where… and we find for some reason just that little phraseology just helps you get a title that’s kind of meaningful, has a few key elements in it like the characters and a few things that they’re doing and in many cases that’s enough to sort of trigger that story.

Mark:  

That’s certainly a good approach. It’s a great start point. I don’t have many of my stories in my story bank tagged or titled that way; as I say I’ll just have one cool bathroom story.

Shawn:   

Yes.

Mark:    

But having a title, it’s like a short hand way of referring to it.

Shawn:    

That’s right.

Mark:

One of the other things that I think is useful to think about is there are certain things we have a struggle to remember. You know in stories so the things I find hard to remember are people’s names. How hard do I find that sometimes? Dates, locations, places, numbers, like the 3 million or 200,000 did this or the 47 books.

Shawn:

Exactly

Mark:    

Those are the sorts of things.

Shawn:  

Well it’s just like in episode 2 I think it was, where the number of planes that were brought down.

Mark:   

That’s right.

Shawn:

You know I had 7,000 in my head when the actual number was 4,000. So, to have that authenticity, to have that reputation of getting it right, especially in business you have to have those numbers right. So that’s another reason for the story bank, just to get some of the details.

Mark:

Yes, because as we say to people all the time, facts wrapped in context delivered with emotion, that’s what a story is. You’ve got to nail the facts and your credibility depends on it. For example, if somebody’s telling the 9/11 story about the new head of the aviation authority and so you are telling it to somebody and you say 7,000 planes were in the air and they know it was 5,000, well yeah, your credibility falls because they go well that’s wrong, what else is wrong?

Shawn:   

That’s it.

Mark:  

So, you’ve got to nail the facts so that’s one of the really important reasons you have a story bank. Put that data in there.

Shawn: 

We hope this is enough information, if you go to the episode notes for today’s episode, or the show notes, as they say in the podcasting world, I’m using the language.

Mark:  

You sound like a pro.

Shawn:     

And if you go there you’ll have some of the links to some of the ideas and to Evernote, etc.

Now let’s move into the story for today and I guess the story I wanted to share was triggered for me because recently I’ve been doing a lot of work with people in safety.

So, I was up in Singapore doing some work with a big food company, up there with their safety team and been doing some work with a construction company here in Melbourne and again this issue of safety and this story actually has popped up a number of times. I thought maybe that’s telling me something, maybe I should tell it.

The story is about Alcoa. So, there’s the big aluminium smelter guys, American company, been around for more than 100 years and in 1987 they got a new CEO. The company was struggling a little bit.

They put in this new CEO and he has to give his first briefing to Wall street; fancy hotel down in Manhattan and the guy struts on to the stage, is wearing a lovely grey suit, he has that CEO look about him. He’s in his early 50’s, grey hair, the guy seems perfect for the part and everyone’s just ready for him to more or less say the normal things that CEO’s say but this fellow, a guy called Paul O’Neil, (got it right, names are important), he stands in front of everyone and says today I’m going to talk about safety.

Right, you imagine all these Wall Street types are going, safety, isn’t he going to be talking about profit and revenue increases and competition and all those sorts of things? No, he’s going to talk about safety and he spent the entire briefing talking about the importance of safety, the fact that they have a business that actually injures, sometimes kills their employees and that his aim, his vision was to have no accidents whatsoever.

Not once did he talk about the numbers, the operations, nothing like that to the point where he even gave instructions to all the people in the room where the exits were, how to get to the nearest places, he sort of went through the whole thing and you imagine those guys, they’d be going what is going on? Apparently, some of the Wall Street brokers advised their clients to sell right, because this guy is off his tree.

Anyway, a year into his tenure, their revenue jumped right up, they became super profitable. When he actually retired, like fifteen years later, he’d increased the value of the company by five times. If you’d put a million dollars into that business at the beginning of his tenure you would have got a million dollars of distributions through that period of time and five times the amount of money of your investment at the end. Not a bad investment.

But here’s the thing. It was all based on him focusing on one thing and all these other ripples went out to change things, like the behaviours and the attitudes and the mindfulness of the people and processes got improved and the relationship with Unions improved, there were all these other things going on. When I hear this story, I think to myself my God that’s such an instructful story isn’t it in terms of helping people understand what to do. What springs to mind for you when you hear that, Mark?

Mark:   

Well for me many things, but totally breaks the script. I can picture the bewildered faces of the brokers sitting there going what is this guy talking about but also the importance of focus.

Shawn: 

Indeed.

Mark:   

And I think this focus one for me is also top of mine because I’m also doing this project where I am helping them with their strategy and they have so many moving parts to their strategy I’m just thinking how are you ever going to get your arms around this and how is anyone going to understand by helping them tell the story of their strategy, they’ve got so many bits.

Shawn: 

Imagine doing this strategy story for our colour back there. Wouldn’t that be great? There’s just this one big thing that you’re talking about, of course you are doing the other things but they are leading with that, they are saying this is the big thing that’s important.

Mark:     

We have to deliver our operations well but the key plank of our strategy is safety.

Shawn:   

Yes. I should have mentioned I actually found that story in a book called ‘Power of Habit’ by Charles Duhigg. I really do love his work. He’s a natural story teller that guy you know it is just one story after the next. So, if you are looking for books with great business stories, Charles Duhigg is definitely one of those.

Mark: 

So, one of the things we like to do is talk about why that story works.

Shawn: 

Yeah what do you think?

Mark:  

Well firstly breaking the script thing, the surprise, the picture you painted of him, the CEO, grey suit, 50 odd all, the expectation that he’s going to be just like the other CEO’s.

Shawn:    

That’s it, that’s it and I think there’s also something there about power. We’re drawn to stories about people with power and here we have a CEO who certainly has got that power, but he subverts it in some way and I think that something we find fascinating. I think that’s why people love Richard Branson so much. Right, ‘cause here’s a guy that’s got power, he’s got power over that company but the way he operates it, he does things so differently.

Mark:   

Branson’s kind of the opposite of what you’d expect; power and approachability. In most cases the more senior you get the less approachable you become, you know power plus invulnerability.

Shawn:      

Yeah and distance, lots of distance (laughing)

Mark:     

The power/distance curve.

Shawn:     

Just a side bar, yesterday I was reading the paper and Branson has just come out with a public letter to the UK because their railway business pulled from circulation on their trains a particular newspaper, I can’t remember which one it was but one of the sort of very popular newspapers and it was made at the decision of the railway company.

Branson had no idea, had nothing to do with the decision but I just loved the way he explained it. He sort of said this is what’s happened, this is why it happened, look we weren’t involved but I really respect my people, and the decisions they make but I can see how this has upset people so I have gone back to them, wording something along the lines ‘and I have recommended to them, that they reconsider this’, which you know is code for they’re going to do it. To all those people who work on that railway, you can imagine they will be sitting there going, this is a good guy, he’s kind of with us, he’s on our side.

Mark:       

Yeah, I asked them just to review the process for which they made the decision just to check they’re absolutely certain this is the right decision for our business.

Shawn: 

Anyway, we got side tracked, back to the story, is there anything else in that story we need to point out? It’s a relatively short story really.

Mark:   

Which is good, which is good.

Shawn: 

Ideally a one to three-minute story is really what you’re after; you don’t want to go too much longer than a three-minute story.

Mark: 

And when you start timing stories, I time people telling their stories; it is amazing how much you can pack into three minutes when you are using a narrative approach. Of course, three minutes can seem like an eternity if you’re just ‘Ah yes well ah we need to strategically reposition the organisation to take advantage of the emerging market… blah blah, blah.’ That can seem like an eternity, but 90 seconds to3 minutes are kind of the number I use.

Shawn:   

I notice in Oprah, when she did her speech, both of her stories were one minute. That’s a big pressure gig right, to stand in front of the Golden Globes and do that but the way she pulled all that together with these lovely stories. We’ve just written a blog post on that on our website so if anyone’s interested in looking at that.

Mark:  

She’s already had millions of views of the YouTube video of her telling that story and people going wow how amazing it is, but it really is important to understand why it’s amazing. It absolutely is an amazing speech. When you understand why it’s amazing it really helps bring out the fact that every one of us can use that.

Shawn: 

So that’s a little bit about why that story works. Is there anything in there that we could do to make that story even better? Like, for example, I stumbled over the guy’s name. If I could get that a little bit better for me I would have wished I could nail the fact, that’s his name Paul O’Neil.

Mark:  

I guess, high stakes, maybe adding in one of the examples he might have shared about somebody being killed or injured.

Shawn: 

Right.

Mark:  

Bringing strong emotion into it, of course there’s always a cost, risk return ratio; a cost benefit, the cost is adding length to your story, the benefit is you increase the stakes, but that’s one potential way.

Shawn: 

Where would you use this story?

Mark:  

I intend to use it this afternoon as I’m talking to a CEO about his strategy and they’ve got six strategic choices which is too many. I’ll be able to tell that story and go well here’s a guy who’s made a tremendously successful business just with one choice so maybe as an option here.

Shawn: 

Cutting him down to at least four.

Mark:

I’m not arguing for one, but just to highlight that six is too many.

Shawn:  

Six is too many, I mean really people, they should be getting down to two or three. You know what the problem is I reckon with a lot of strategies is they’re trying to cover off on all the elements of their business. They might have six divisions and so their thinking we need to have one strategic choice for each. That’s not a strategy, that’s just kowtowing to the organisational structure. Your strategies should be your big bets; should be right like here’s our challenge, here’s our opportunity, we want to get over here, maybe should bet on doing these two things. People don’t do that as much as you would imagine.

Mark:      

We need to provide great customer centricity, a great place to work, we need to deliver our business effectively.

Shawn: 

And we value our people.

Mark: 

Of course, not quite a strategy.

Shawn:  

So, the key thing you are using it for is just the fact that it’s important to focus on smaller number of things to get something done.

Mark:    

That’s there. That’s one application that I could see immediately that I could use that story for.

Shawn: 

The one that I would add to that is just this idea that, if you focus on one thing it can have all these flow on effects, just so many other things. I think Charles Duhigg called it a key stone habit.

Mark:  

That’s what they are doing, it’s that block of stone that keeps the bridge up and has the impact across the full span if you like of the river.

Shawn: 

And I suppose that’s what these single things can do. I reckon this is a conversation I’m going to have with the construction company, especially to their executives there. What is that key stone? They do want to change their culture and make it one that has a whole range of improvements, but I can easily see them trying to do the six things or even the ten things or the twelve things and it’s just not going to work.

Mark:

I think that’s a great application of that story as well and as you were saying that I was thinking you know another application of that story is just encouraging people to follow their own path, to make their own choices because all of those brokers in the room have an expectation that things are done in a certain way and this CEO went just well, I’m going to do it my way and just imagine how many people were saying, ‘you’re wrong’.

Shawn:      

Yeah, absolutely.

Mark:   

And he could have easily just caved to that and just done the normal thing, but he stayed the path so yeah, just be careful who you listen to because the group-think it isn’t necessarily the best approach.

Shawn: 

Yeah, it’s the idea that we easily cave into this idea of being reasonable. ’Now let’s be reasonable, you can’t just focus on just safety, how can we just focus on safety that’s crazy’ right? And all of a sudden people get on the band wagon and that starts to build over time and all of a sudden you are back to the old system.

So, imagine the fortitude that CEO must have had to keep focused on that one big issue. The thing is who would argue against saving people’s lives and not having people harmed at work?

Mark: 

No one would argue against it, I guess they’d be arguing against having that as your singular focus so again a really good application of that story.

Shawn:

So, what do you reckon then for that story? We like to give it a bit of a rating out of ten for usefulness and impact? What for today, our colour story?

Mark:  

I’m going to give it seven out of ten.

Shawn:  

Seven out of ten! Yeah okay I’m going to give it a seven out of ten as well. I find it quite a useful story, no one falls over and just goes oh my god that’s amazing, but it does the job.

Mark: 

It does the job. It’s got great utility without being amazing.

Shawn: 

Exactly.

Mark:  

And I guess that’s one of the things we want to encourage people to focus on. It doesn’t have to be about amazing, this idea of becoming an affective business story teller. Find stories that have utility. They don’t have to be amazing; don’t have to be sagas.

Shawn: 

Fantastic. Well I think that’s a good time for us to wrap up. We went a bit longer today, you know we talked about the story bank etc. plus the story for the day but I really encourage everyone to get onto ITunes and give us a rating; it helps just to get the word out there. You can find both Mark and I on twitter, I’m on Shawn Callahan, Mark, where are you at these days?

Mark: 

Mark A Schenk

Shawn:

And the A stands for?

Mark:

I’m not saying.

Shawn:  

Ah, so we have to work that one out later.

Mark:

Yeah, that’s a little test.

Shawn:

That’s a dark secret. Good. So, ask questions, provide comments and we really look forward to joining you again in a weeks’ time and exploring yet another story. I guess for us we just want you guys to get out there and find these great business stories and really put them to work, so good luck out there.

 

To be an effective business storyteller requires practice. Our programs are designed to work in a no-nonsense way in a business setting combined with lots of practical tools and tips and ways to practice. Learn more here

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one 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:

3 Responses to “003 – Pick one great strategy”

  1. Joe Floyd Says:

    Thanks for the tips gentlemen

  2. Ed Lozano Says:

    Great podcast… I generally use parables… But, these business stories are fantastic and easier for business people to identify with.

    You inspired me to start my story bank and I chose Scrivener for tagging and labeling.

    Thanks Guys!!!

  3. Ronnie Dunetz Says:

    I appreciate your discussion about creating a story bank- I have gotten lost in this process in the past and it seems very practical and important to learn how to do it.

    Also your 90 seconds to 3 minutes for a business story is right on- lots of people don’t have a sense for “how long” things should be and this is a great rule of thumb.

    Also loved the “Power of Habit”!

    I think the application of this story of “developing your own voice” as a leader is the most compelling to me, leaders will often be cautious, afraid of opposition but what differentiates a “leader” from a “manager” is often this kind of stuff, no?

    Thanks!

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