Blog

008 – Gillian is a dancer

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —February 26, 2018
Filed in Business storytelling, Podcast

Have you ever had an employee who just didn’t fit, who wasn’t quite cutting it, and your boss suggests you should let them go? Helping people find what they are truly good at is one of the many jobs of a leader and firing someone should be your last resort. So it’s good to have a story or two in your back pocket about those times when someone flourished when they found the thing they were made to do. The right story might just give you the time to find something better for your fish out of water. That’s what’s this week’s story is all about.

ballerina

While our story is not from the realm of business it has the same message. It’s what I called an analogy story.

Here is an excerpt from Putting Stories to Work about analogy stories.

In Orlando, Florida, the retail salespeople for a global software giant gathered for their yearly conference. Kicking off the day they were to learn about storytelling, their sales leader, Tim, stepped onto the stage and asked: ‘Who’s the most successful Olympian?’ Someone called out: ‘Michael Phelps’.

‘That’s right’, Tim replied. ‘Michael Phelps won 22 gold medals in three Olympics. I remember watching the Beijing Olympics on TV and seeing Phelps race in the 400-metre individual medley. That’s the one where they swim all four major swim strokes. It’s regarded as one of the hardest swimming races. In that race, Phelps broke his own world record and won by just over 2 seconds. It was amazing to watch. In third place was another American, Ryan Lochte.

‘Now fast-forward four years to the same race at the London Olympics. Phelps is still the world record holder, but as the race goes on it’s clear he’s not going to win. In fact, he doesn’t even get a medal. Ryan Lochte wins the gold. It was a massive upset. Then it came out that Phelps hadn’t trained like he would normally do for such a big race. He took his success for granted and took his foot off the accelerator. At the same time Lochte increased his efforts and even invented a new dolphin kick to accelerate his pace for a strong finish.

‘We’ve been at the forefront of our industry for the last 10 years. We’re the Michael Phelps of scheduling software. But just like Lochte nipping at Phelps’ heals, we have competitors working as hard as they can to overtake us. So we can’t slow down or let up. Learning about storytelling today is our dolphin kick to keep ahead of the pack. It will be just one of many things we will be doing this year to ensure we stay number one.’

This story is an analogy. Tim took something his audience could understand and appreciate and compared it to the immediate business issue of keeping up the hard work to stay ahead. Analogous stories make an unfamiliar concept easy to grasp by comparing it to something we already know and understand.

Analogy stories are everywhere. The good ones will be immediately familiar and understandable—they will have much in common with the business issue you are trying to explain. Finding them requires you to reflect on what you are experiencing and to ask yourself this question: ‘How is this like what happens at work?’ Gradually you will start to see how the things that happen in your own life, in the movies and in the media, even in the past, can help make what’s happening at work more meaningful. And if you can do that, your ideas will really stick.

We learned the story about Gillian from Ken Robinson in his book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.

For your story bank

It’s the 1930s

There a little girl called Gillian. 8 years old. Schoolwork is a big problem.

Teachers are concerned. Send a letter home suggesting assessment for a special school.

Mum and Gillian go see a psychologist. Mum instructions to be on best behaviour.

Psychologist asks lots of questions to Gillian and Mum.

Then says to Gillian “I would like to talk to your Mum outside for a moment. Please stay here. We will be back shortly.”

As Psychologist heads out the door with Mum he switches on the radio and music starts playing.

Psychologist and Mum go outside of the office and they talk then the psychologist says, “Look at this,” and points through the small glass pane on the office door at Gillian.

Gillian stands up and then starts dancing to the music.

The Psychologist turns to Mum and says, “There is nothing wrong with your daughter, she’s a dancer. Enrol her in dancing school.”

She goes to dancing school and for once is with people just like her and she excels.

Gillian dances in the London Ballet and eventually becomes the choreographer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats and Phantom of the Opera.

Her name is Gillian Lynn.

Podcast Transcript

Shawn:

Welcome back to Anecdotally Speaking, a podcast that helps leaders and sellers find and tell great oral stories. Hi, I’m Shawn Callahan.

Mark:  

And I’m Mark Schenk. Now what have you been up to this week, Shawn?

Shawn:  

Awwwhhh. I tell you what, apart from getting ready for my travels overseas–I’m doing some of our programmes in San Francisco and also in New York, so that’s probably where I’ve had my focus but I’m also doing a lot of podcasting. That’s the other thing that’s top of mind for me.

Mark: 

It’s probably a bit late for many listeners but if you are interested in attending one of our programmes, we are running public programmes in Melbourne and Sydney in late March and in Hong Kong in mid-March. So, on our website, our events page, all the details are there.

Shawn:   

Yes, just jump in and you can sign up. We use Eventbrite, so you can just up and buy your tickets there. So, today’s story, what are we looking at? I believe you’ve got a good one for us.

Mark:   

See, I hate that, when somebody sets the expectation high. I believe under-promise and over-deliver is the philosophy.

Shawn: 

O.k. so here is a crappy story.

Mark:

We’ve demonstrated that you can get stories from many different sources; research papers, movies, real life experiences, well this one is from a book. And the book is ‘The Element’ by Sir Ken Robinson. It’s a book about how finding your passion changes everything.

The story is set in the 1930’s and there is a little girl, Gillian, she’s eight years old and her school work is a big problem. Her handwriting is very messy. She does not submit her assignments on time. The teacher has to interrupt the class because Gillian will just be staring out the window and if she’s not doing that she’ll be doing things that disrupt the other children.

And the teachers are very concerned; her educational prospects are pretty bleak. And so, they write to the parents and say, ‘Gillian’s educational prospects are not good. She needs to go to a special school. And, of course, back in the 1930’s special schools were for people with disabilities and it’s not a very nurturing environment.

This is a major problem and the parents are very worried. The mother takes Gillian to see a psychologist and she gives Gillian strict instructions. ‘O.k. Gillian this is very important’ (she put her best dress on) and told her, ‘you mustn’t fidget so I want you to sit on your hands’.

So, they’re in the psychologist’s office (beautiful leather chairs, wood panelling on the walls) and the psychologist is sitting there talking to the mother but looking at Gillian. The conversation goes on for a little while and then he said, ‘Gillian, your mother and I are going to step out into the corridor for a moment. I just want to have a quick talk to her. Please just wait here; we won’t be long.

The psychologist and the mum got up and walked out of the room and as they walked out the psychologist turned the radio on. They walked out, closed the door and looked back through the window in the door and the psychologist said, ‘let’s see what happens’.

And what they saw was that the music was playing and Gillian started swaying and then she stands up and starts moving very gracefully; she’s dancing and it’s beautiful. And the psychologist said, ‘your daughter’s not sick; she’s a dancer’.

And so, the parents take Gillian to a dance school. Gillian talked about that experience where she goes to the dance school and suddenly she’s with people who are just like her. They have to move to express themselves.

She becomes a famous dancer. So famous she became the prima ballerina for the London Ballet. When she finished dancing she became a choreographer and set up her own dance school and she became very well known as a choreographer. Later in her career she met a guy called Andrew Lloyd Webber and together she did the choreography for Cats and Phantom of the Opera—some of the biggest stage productions ever.

Her name was Gillian Lynne. Had the psychologist not said that to the mother then maybe she would never have found her passion and gone on to achieve such an amazing career. And the world would have lost this fantastic talent.

Shawn:

What a wonderful story. I love that story. Every time I hear that story I can really picture it—it’s a lovely story. And I think one of the reasons why it does resonate is that it’s a story about a child. At the very top of the hierarchy of things we care about is avoiding death and right underneath that is safety of children and ensuring our children are nurtured and helped along the way.

And that’s an example of that and so it sits right up there in terms of what we care about as a species. And then of course, it has all those connections with things in our own lives; parents and children, and schools, things that are totally relatable to us. Whether it’s in the 30’s or today we get a good sense of how you could be really concerned about that.

And it does build up a level of there’s a real challenge here that this family is facing essentially with their daughter. And I think that is what creates a lot of the dynamic in this story, right?

Mark:

And one of the things, for me, that makes that story work is the high stakes; the threat of special school.

Shawn:    

Yeah, it’s right there. The other thing too is like any good story, it’s an extremely visual story. When I tell that story, in addition to having Gillian sit on her hands on the sofa, I say that her legs don’t touch the ground.

So, you can imagine her sitting up there in this massive leather lounge in a psychologist’s office and how she’s really a fish out of water. So, I think the visual elements are super important. The more you can make her small in this big system that she’s in the more contrast you’re creating.

But what other things are going to be important to make this story work?

Mark:

Well, I think there are some key details that are absolutely essential. Like every story there are some key details without which the story doesn’t work. So, the fact that she was struggling at school—that’s important. The threat of the special school; that’s a key detail. Another key detail that’s vital in that story is the psychologist turning on the radio.

Shawn:      

Yeah, the story doesn’t work without that.

Mark:  

Without that there is no story. It’s really worthwhile when you are about to use a story is to understand what are the key details. What are the basics that hold that story together?

Shawn:

And I think it’s so interesting listening to people retell that story. We do that exercise in our workshops: we get people to learn the story and then retell it. Just the inventiveness of the different ways they come up with for the psychologist and the mother being able to see Gillian on the other side of that wall.

We’ve had two-way mirrors. We’ve had different types of windows or the door has a window or is ajar and they’re peeking around the corner of the door.

Mark:   

Or they go outside and peer in through a window.

Shawn:    

It’s just classic but it doesn’t matter. Those are the sorts of things that just need to happen. They just need to be able to see her dancing and as long as you achieve that, that’s fine. How you achieve that is no big deal.

I think the other thing that reminds me as I listen to that story is just that driving force that pulls people through stories which is the audience saying to themselves; what happens next?

And if they’ve got that mind-set, if you are able to generate that I think you then end up with a very powerful story. And the nice thing about this story is that it starts off with a girl who has a problem and they go to a psychologist but then it ratchets itself up; she does well, she’s a prima ballerina, a choreographer, next thing you know Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats, then the Phantom of the Opera. It just keeps going up and up and up.

And I think there’s something in that. It’s a rag to riches type story where you feel there’s something really transformative in what we’re hearing here.

Mark:

One of the things this story also shows is that stories are almost infinitely compressible and expandable. In the book, Ken Robinson takes three and a half pages to tell the story. Now, in our workshops we use a three or four paragraph version. I feel the oral version I just gave would’ve gone for maybe two minutes.

So, depending on the context you find yourself in you can tell that story very quickly and simply, because you know what the key details are, or you can tell it in three and a half pages. A lot depends on the context within which you’re telling the story.

Shawn: 

It’s true, written stories are nearly always longer than oral stories and part of it is because they’re filling in all of the context for the reader and assuming they really know nothing.

But it’s so interesting when you hear stories being told in organisations there’s all this understood knowledge. Everyone shares a knowledge, so you don’t actually have to fill in all those details.

Mark:  

You can have like a story short-hand.

Shawn:  

I talk about this in my book actually where I tell a story that my dad told me, and it was about the assassination of JFK and how they had to re-enact it as Marines in the U.S in the 60’s. And he was one of the shooters.

And I tell it from a written, literary perspective and it’s quite a long story. But then I tell it from an oral version and there is a whole bunch of things as he would have told it to us as kids. Of course, he didn’t have to tell us he was a marine, who JFK was. There is all this assumed knowledge that the group has and you can zip through these stories quite quickly when they’re organisational stories.

Mark:  

Yeah.

Shawn:   

The thing we like to chat about sometimes is the endings.

Mark:  

And we have a bit of a disagreement about endings.

Shawn:   

Yeah and I don’t know how big the disagreement is but it’s certainly a different emphasis. My preference is to finish a story and don’t have a point at the end, to just sort of finish it and let the audience work it out. So, they own that story.

Mark:  

So, your basic story pattern is relevant statement, story?

Shawn:   

Correct.

Mark:  

And mine is relevant statement, story, point.

Shawn:

Yes. I’m certainly not hard and fast on that and I’ve been thinking about the different endings of stories and certainly those two are valid endings. There are two others; getting to the end of a story and posing a question to yourself, a rhetorical question. So, you get to the end of the story and you say, ‘I guess that story really got me thinking that it’s so important not to try and ram a round peg into a square hole.’

It gives a point of view, but it doesn’t sound like you’re telling them what to think. It’s just saying this is what I think. And I find that’s a softer way of getting into the end of the story. And the last way is to simply ask a straight-out question to the audience. So, you finish your story and you ask the audience, ‘did that conjure any memories for you?’

And hopefully they would share a story with you. And again, you’re backing conversation which is again what you want to do. I think there are probably other ways to end stories as well.

Mark:      

Endings are very important. You don’t want your story to just fizzle.

Shawn:   

Exactly. The famous psychologist, Khaneman, talked about how you can listen to a record and be totally immersed in the beautiful symphony but if the record scratches at the end you go, ‘oh, it’s totally ruined’. It’s almost like you discount those first ten minutes of listening, like they don’t count for anything now because the end has been ruined.

It’s the ‘peak end effect’.

Mark:  

So, in the story there are very important peaks and there are very important ends. Now, one of the things you should always do is practice your stories but also practice how you’re going to end it or finish it.

Shawn:   

That’s very good advice. Well, that’s a great story. So, where would we use this? Where are some of the places this story would make sense?

Mark:  

Well, the first one is where you’re looking at someone in your organisation who is underperforming, and our normal response is we need to manage them out of the business. Maybe that’s not the solution; we just need to find the thing that they’re compatible with, the thing that they love doing.

And so instead of managing out of the business you can re-structure the role.

Shawn:  

So, you could be at a meeting and you go ‘you know what, sometimes people just don’t fit into that niche that we expect them to fit into. Actually, there was really interesting experience we heard about this young girl, Gillian’. And then you start to tell Gillian’s story. So again, it just helps you to make that point.

I’ve actually had the experience of seeing Gillian’s story play out in real life but with an organisational colleague.

Mark:

Oh yeah, what happened there?

Shawn:  

When I joined IBM (late 90’s) I joined about the same time as this other fellow. He was the sales guy to start with. He was hopeless, a hopeless sales guy. He wasn’t selling anything, and they persisted with him for a long time, 18 months or so, and then they switched him over to be a manager.

It turned out the guy was a brilliant people manager. He just gets the best out of people. So, this is 15 years ago when I worked at IBM and I saw him just last year. The guy has now risen through the ranks. He’s now Vice President, he’s up in Singapore. He looks after the whole software division of this one part of the business. The guy’s done extremely well. It’s the Gillian Lynne story.

Mark:  

Absolutely.

Shawn:    

But it’s something out of your business. I bet you could find examples like that inside your organisation and you could use the Gillian Lynne story or your version, the one you found in your organisation.

In actual fact, what we’re saying is that this is another use for stories. They can act as templates to find other stories which are just like that but maybe more relevant to the audience you’re talking to.

Mark:  

Indeed. And I guess with Gen Y Millennials you talk about how they regularly change roles and a lot of the time it’s because they’re looking for the role that helps them find their passion. And I think it’s a great thing because we know that when people find their passion they are so much more effective in what they do. More importantly, they’re happier.

Shawn:

It makes a big difference to life doesn’t it? O.k. this story, what are going to give it?

Mark:  

I’m going to give it an 8.5.

Shawn:   

Is that the highest you’ve given a story?

Mark:

It is the highest I’ve given a story.

Shawn:  

I love this story too. I’m going to give it an 8 but here’s the thing that makes me have a double-check on this because I love hearing that story (and it might be context) but I don’t tend to tell that story that often. I tell it when I’m teaching people, but I don’t tell it when I’m in conversation.

Mark:    

Actually, you’re right. It’s a great story and I love it and it makes a really important business point but it’s not one that I’ve used in real life working with a leader trying to influence them to go one way or the other.

One of the key things; it might be a great story, but it doesn’t have a real business application.

Shawn:   

Say, we were back in the corporate world, in that environment more often about people making judgements about other colleagues and how well they’re going maybe we would be telling that story left, right, and centre.

Mark:  

Yeah, perhaps.

Shawn:    

Whereas in our world we’re at arm’s length to that.

Mark:

O.k. so one of the questions for the listeners is would you use this story? We would love to get some comments if you think you could use this story we’d love to hear that.

Shawn: 

Put them in the blog comments. Just go the website and whack em in there and we’ll talk about it in our next episode. Fantastic. O.K. so a little review, what are the key lessons that we are trying to draw out here?

Mark:

Stories about kids are something that we’re really focused on as humans. We’re really interested in them so that story ticks that box.

Shawn:   

Yep. How you end stories—there is a range of different ways of doing it. You’ve got a make sure you’ve got a solid ending and one that you feel comfortable telling.

Mark:  

So, don’t let them peter out. Another key point from today’s episode is about knowing the key details of your story. What are the elements of the story that are essential for it to work? You need to have that clearly in your mind.

Shawn:  

Terrific. Well, thanks again guys, for listening to Anecdotally Speaking. Tune in next week for another episode on how to put stories to work.

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:

One Response to “008 – Gillian is a dancer”

  1. Ronnie Dunetz Says:

    I have found and used the Gillian story in my coaching and group facilitation- multiple intelligences, as Ken Robinson said, “It is not how intelligent are you but HOW are you intelligent?”

    Great story, thanks.

Leave a Reply

*

code

Send this to friend

down
up