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017 – All about apocryphal stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —May 2, 2018
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling, Podcast

Tags: apocryphal stories, influence stories

The web is full of stories of dubious origins, which is the very definition of apocryphal, yet many can be used to make a business point as long as you make clear that the story is most likely false.

We provide some examples of apocryphal stories and we dig into how to tell them, when to use them, and discuss the potential pitfalls.

frogs in the lake

As listeners know, at the end of each episode we give the story we tell a rating based on its likely impact and whether we might tell it. But don’t think a story lacks utility if we give it a low score. Take episode 7, Saving the Citicorp skyscraper, as an example. I gave my story a pretty good score of 8 but Mark gave it a 4. Yep, I was shattered 😉 Yet a listener and client Tully Cashman sent us an email saying how well this story worked for him.

Tully was asked to help a workgroup that wasn’t working together as well as they could and this is how he used the story.

“I am driving to the office in Singapore, I have been listening to all your podcasts whilst I dodge traffic, or take my daughter Zoe to school (trying to teach her storytelling too, as she wants to be a journalist).

Serendipitously, on Tuesday, the day before the session [with the team needing some help], my ears were graced with the saving Citicorp Tower one. Bingo I thought, despite Mark’s rating, a perfect story! The people in the team are just like the pillars that need to hold up the building (our businesses), they need to get a lot of welding done on their teaming behaviors to make sure in times of crises the wind doesn’t blow them over and have to start work as one team with a common purpose to ensure our business operations are not affected by their infighting. They also need to do this welding behind the scenes so no one knows any better and it doesn’t affect day to day-to-day operations!

So I tested it on a few of them first, they loved it, I used it to launch the meeting and asked them to rate out of 10. They gave it an 8… A visit from Mars though is still my favourite though.”

For your storybank

A farmer visits a nearby restaurant owner and says, “would be interested in a million frogs?”

The restaurateur is confused: “What do you mean you can get me a million frogs?”

“I have a pond next to my house and there are a million frogs in it.” the farmer says. “The noise is deafening. I want to get rid of them as quickly as I can.”

The restaurateur says he could take 500 a week.

So the next week the farmer arrives and he is looking sheepish.

“I only have these two scrawny frogs,” he says.

“What about the million frogs?” the restaurateur asks.

The farmer replies, “It was actually just these two that were making all the noise.”

Podcast transcript

Shawn:   

This is Anecdotally Speaking—the podcast to help you build your business story repertoire. Hi, I’m Shawn Callahan.

Mark:   

And I’m Mark Schenk. And today I want to start the programme by talking about our deliberate practice programme.

Shawn:  

Yes, it’s a very important part of what we do isn’t it?

Mark:  

Yeah, last week we talked about our workshops and I realised that I broke one of our golden rules because we don’t run workshops; we only run programmes that start with a workshop. And the reason for this is back in 2009 we did some surveys of our clients to get their feedback.

Because our objective is to restore humanity to the workplace and to do that we need people to be better storytellers.

Shawn:

Behaviour change right?

Mark:        

It’s behaviour change and there are many impediments to actually doing this in the workplace. And when we talked to our clients the feedback was mostly, ‘we love the workshop; fantastic experience, really good materials, great activities, lots of interaction, and really simple models’.

But then we asked the most important question, which is have you applied it and how has it gone? And most people were like ‘oh, I’ve been busy’ and ‘it’s really hard to do this’. And Shawn and I realised that we might as well have thrown an amazing barbeque.

Shawn:    

It would have had the same effect.

Mark:     

So that was really confronting, and we set about understanding how adults learn. And most of the effective learning occurs not in the workshop. Most of the effective learning occurs in the workplace when you apply this at work. It’s the 70, 20, 10 rule; 10% of the learning from the workshop, 20% from mentoring and coaching, 70% from on the job application.

Shawn:  

Actually, putting it into practice.

Mark:    

So, that’s when we designed the first version of our deliberate practice programme. We’re probably now on iteration number 4 of that programme and the idea is that we designed it for busy people. It takes between 8 and 15 minutes a week to do the activities. These days it’s called micro-learning.

Shawn:    

We were a bit ahead of the curve ball.

Mark:

We didn’t know that. Everyone who goes through the programme gets 6 months of follow-on activities to help extend and embed their learning. And this morning I received an email from one of the participants in the deliberate practice programme in India and it contained the story that is the subject of this week’s podcast.

Shawn:    

O.K.

Mark:

Well this is an apocryphal story, which really talks about the importance of not jumping to conclusions. A farmer walked into town and saw a restaurant owner and said to the owner would you like one million frogs? And the restaurant owner goes, ‘what, a million frogs?’

And the farmer said, ‘yes’ and went on to explain ‘I’ve got a pond next to my house and there are a million frogs in it. They’re on the verge of driving me crazy and I want to get rid of them so do you want these frogs?’

And the restaurant owner goes ‘absolutely but I can’t use a million frogs at a time. How about you just bring me 500 frogs a week and I’ll be able to use them in my restaurant and over time you’ll be able to eliminate the problem?’

So, they struck that agreement and on the first week the farmer turns up, sees the restaurant owner but the farmer is looking a bit sheepish because he’s only got two scrawny frogs with him. And the restaurant owner says, ‘but where are the rest of the frogs? You were going to bring me 500 and over time a million frogs and here you are with just two scrawny frogs.’

And the farmer, looking sheepish, says, ‘well it turns out there were only two frogs in the pond, but they were really noisy’.

Shawn:      

Noisy frogs. Good one, that’s fantastic.

Mark:     

So, apocryphal for our listeners means a story of dubious origin. And you can probably tell from the story I just told that there were dubious origins for this story; it possibly never happened.

Shawn:  

A million fogs, yeah Indian too. I was hoping for a French frog—you know frog’s legs or something like that but obviously there is another menu item that I’m unaware of.

Mark:         

I didn’t realise that I had implied Indian. I had French frogs in my head.

Shawn:    

Oh, that’s interesting. O.K., that’s our story. The question straightaway will be what do we like about this story? What does it say? What jumps out (excuse the pun)?

Mark:      

I’m going to stop myself there because I almost did a dad joke.

Shawn:   

The thing about apocryphal stories is they’re useful if they are obviously apocryphal. So, the very beginning just by saying you had a million frogs you all of a sudden go ‘what, a million frogs, surely this can’t be true?’ You think it’s the beginning of a joke or something and I think that’s useful for this type of story because you buy into the imaginary element of it with the idea that you trust the storyteller to make some sort of point.

I think that’s one of the elements that helps make it work; straight away you know it’s apocryphal. What’s related to that is it’s immediately intriguing because of the fact that you’re talking about this number of frogs. When you listen to the end of the story I know the end of the story and what it means.

To me it means you’ve got these two very loud frogs that seem like a million. It would be interesting to know how many people would get that straight away. What’s your thought on that?

Mark:      

Well I’m just going to self-assess there. I came across that story this morning in my email inbox from one of the deliberate practice programme participants. I immediately liked it and immediately shared it with a client (and I’ll talk about that in a little bit), but I made the mistake of not practising it enough and I didn’t land the ending.

Shawn:    

Right. O.K. You could feel that could you?

Mark:

I could feel it, but I could also tell from your reaction.

Shawn:     

Right, is that the end?

Mark:        

And you should always end your stories on a bang not a whimper. So, there are two lessons from that. One of them is have a strong ending. And secondly is to practise. Hopefully, it’s a useful lesson for people that even Shawn and I can fall into the trap of telling a story without practising it sufficiently for it to land effectively.

Shawn:     

Yeah, right and there is a timing element to it isn’t there? And getting the pauses in the right place.

Mark:    

But also rounding it out because that story just ended too quickly—bang.

Shawn:  

Yeah, I think you’re right. The other thing too I find it’s much better to practise the story by saying it out loud, telling people the actual story and using that as the practice rather than over-thinking it in the sense of writing it down—I need to pause there, it’d be better if I delayed that. I don’t think that type of practice works.

Mark:       

I don’t think it works either and I’ve got two examples that illustrate that. First of all, the simple example that just happened; that I read the story a couple of times, I gave you an abbreviated version in the preparation as we were getting ready for the podcast, but I didn’t say it out loud more than once. That’s the mistake. You do not get better at this by thinking about it. You’ve got to hear the words come out of your mouth.

And so, my second point here is this is such a common pattern. Just yesterday; we’ve got participants who are learning a strategic story, so we’ve turned a company strategy into a strategic narrative and leaders in the organisation need to be able to tell that narrative.

So, I get them to read the story. We have a conversation about it and then I say, ‘now you’ve got 10 minutes to tell your version of the story to somebody so pair up and tell your story. 80% of people immediately start writing.

Shawn:  

Interesting.

Mark:     

And I go over to groups and say things like ‘here’s my prediction; I’ve given you 10 minutes to prepare, I’ll bet at the 9-minute mark you’re still writing’. Oh no, no, no but sure enough at the 9-minute mark I go back and say, ‘you haven’t said a word, have you?’

Shawn:

I’ve got it nailed.

Mark:  

And the net result is the first time they think they’ve made progress but until you say it out loud you haven’t even got to your first draft yet. This is a tendency and man, I just walked straight into that natural tendency right there so there’s a bit of a lesson there.

Shawn:    

Yeah, that’s a great lesson. Still there are elements in there that work for us. We go back to the visual. Frogs are visual. We know what they look like. And I like the fact that you had those two scrawny frogs. You could have just said ‘he brought two frogs back’ but scrawny little frogs added to the story.

If I were to think about things that would make it an even better story I would like to be able to visualise that restaurant a little bit more or the farmer, something about the characters in the story perhaps. That might be layering too much on it but at the same time they’re just the sort of things you want to play with, right?

Mark:   

Absolutely, the farmer walked in and he had the overalls and the straw hat, looking like he’d been working in the field all day.

Shawn:   

Exactly. Simple things like that would really add a bit to the story. What about how would you use this? I know you’ve already put it to use right?

Mark:

I have because in the workshop yesterday one of the participants was talking about an initiative that had been undertaken that has delivered fantastic results. It has delivered $8 million in savings to the company and they’ve actually done it with a huge amount of analysis. They’re monitoring the situation closely but there are a couple of things that have gone wrong for clients.

So, there are 1,000 incidences but there are one or two where it didn’t go well and there are a whole bunch of sales folks going, ‘this system doesn’t work’. So, I sent this story to him and said, ‘you talked yesterday about the few salespeople pointing to these errors and going the whole thing doesn’t work. Maybe you can use this in the form of what we call an influence story’.

Shawn:      

Yeah, exactly. And you know the nice thing about that is that as soon as you put it in terms of the story about the frogs it can then start referring to the frogs not referring to the sales people.

Mark:     

Absolutely. It makes it much less offensive.

Shawn:     

You take it at arm’s length away from the people

Mark:   

You can put the story on the table in the centre of the room and point to the story and no one is particularly attached to the story, but the principle is embedded in the story. It’s actually a very useful device for getting people to be open to a new way of thinking.

Shawn: 

In fact, I’ve seen psychologists use this to help tackle really tough issues like bulimia where if you focus on the actual person who is suffering the bulimia they don’t change. But if they talk about a story and take it outside that person there is a much greater chance of behaviour change.

Mark:  

Absolutely. In our workshops we talk about a particular pattern called the influence story pattern and this story of the million frogs could easily be used as an influence story to help open people’s minds to a different way of thinking.

It’s the idea of a pull strategy rather than trying to push someone to change.

Shawn:

Indeed.

Mark:       

So that’s how I used it. It probably raises the issue of these apocryphal stories; are there things to avoid?

Shawn:   

In the early days of anecdote I ran a mile from apocryphal stories. I think I was put off by people doing fairytales and things like that in organisations. I’ve seen it happen a few times where they would run an exercise where you had to create a fairytale and it just drove me nuts. From that point I decided no, I’m not going to do that.

But over the years I’ve seen the power of these apocryphal stories and I think they’re great if used sprinkled on rather than thickly layered.

Mark:

Yeah, and they can become a metaphor for describing an issue, a challenge or a strategy.

Shawn:  

Definitely. A question I have is how much do you say that this is an apocryphal story versus leaving the audience to work it out?

Mark:

That’s a very good question because if you start by saying ‘this is untrue’ then it’s not going to work.

Shawn:

That’s right so have them in two minds thinking maybe this is true.

Mark:    

Maybe the alternative way of doing it is to start with your relevant statement (which is good practice), then tell the story, land your point and then say ‘now, obviously this is an apocryphal story, but it has some relevance to our current situation though’.

Shawn:     

I think putting it at the end; coming clean if like makes a lot of sense.

Mark:  

There are some apocryphal stories that sound just like true stories. You don’t want to give the impression that you are giving people the fair dinkum facts when you’re not doing that at all.

Shawn:  

Great, so where would you use it? You’ve used it in that situation of helping people understand a scenario that was going on in the organisation. It’s sort of like the squeaky wheel gets more oil. It’s that type of story isn’t it?

Mark:   

Where people are jumping to conclusions. They’re taking one small incident and they’re extrapolating either good or bad as he result of a single incident.

Shawn:   

Exactly.

Mark:    

Now just a few thoughts before we finish, on the use of these apocryphal stories. There are some real benefits to using them because they’re obviously untrue and they’re much less offensive than real life examples.

For me there is one big pitfall with these apocryphal stories and that’s about overuse. In fact, I wrote a blog piece on this in January and the point is, even if the story is fantastic, if you use it to much or the audience has heard it before where it’s become a hackneyed story it loses its power.

It might be an absolutely fantastic story, but your authenticity and credibility are not increased if your audience has heard it before multiple times.

Shawn:  

What’s your favourite hackneyed story?

Mark:   

Well I’ve got several but my favourite hackneyed story, one I think you should run a mile from using is the story about the two CEOs who were in the jungle and they were walking through the jungle and they see a lion. The lion has got their scent and is stalking them and it’s pretty obvious the lion is going to have a feed so panic sets in.

But one of the CEOs sits down and removes from his backpack a pair of runners. He takes off his big, heavy walking boots and puts on the runners. And the other CEO looked at him and said ‘you’re a fool, man. You can’t outrun that lion’. The CEO putting on the runners turns to his friend and says, ‘I don’t have to outrun the lion; I only have to outrun you’.

It’s kind of a good story but oh man, please don’t use it because it’s overused, and you might find some people who haven’t heard it, but a lot of people have. So, those stories you really want to avoid—good story–overused.

Shawn:  

It just reminded me; because there are so many good stories on the interweb and especially Facebook seems to be using stories to entice you to do different things. I had one texted me the other day essentially about a limousine that broke down and this mechanic happened to be driving past, helps the chauffeur, they fix the limousine, but he doesn’t get to see who is in the limousine (darkened windows). But off he goes.

A number of months later he happens to meet the same chauffeur, found out his name and things like that and within a couple of days he looks into his bank account and his mortgage had been paid off by the person in the car. Guess who it was. Donald Trump.

Mark:  

Oh no.

Shawn:  

Yes, true.

Mark:

A true story?

Shawn:

No, not true but the guy who was telling me this really believed it was a true story because he even prefaced it by saying ‘I think this is a true story; it was told to me by my pastor.’

Mark:   

Oh, credibility.

Shawn:  

I had to say to him I’m pretty sure (I don’t know) that’s just a story that’s going around the web because other people have said ‘I’ve heard versions of that with other rich people’.

Mark:  

It’s like cutting off the lamb shank before putting it in the oven.

Shawn:   

So, you’ve got to be careful when you hear a great story. It’s worth doing a little bit of a check on the internet to see if it’s just a meme that’s doing the rounds on Facebook because you don’t want to be caught out telling something with your hand on heart saying this is true when in fact it’s not. It’s going to make you look silly.

Mark:      

So, there are two very good reasons why you want to be very careful about using these apocryphal stories. And probably a very good extension to finish with is even though the apocryphal story is of dubious origin it’s potentially useful because we make it clear or it’s clear from the story itself that it’s of dubious origin, that it’s not true.

The worst thing you can do is then take a leap of logic that says making stories up is fine because it’s not. If you start to make stories up and use them in a business context chances are people will either see through it or they will find out that it’s actually made up, in which case your credibility and authenticity will be forfeit.

Shawn:

Absolutely.

Mark:  

So please don’t make them up. There is no need. There are so many great stories that you have and that are out there in the world that you can use.

Shawn:

O.K. let’s wrap this up. Let’s have our ratings on this one, Mark.

Mark:     

It’s my story so you go first.

Shawn: 

I think this is further down on our list. I would say I would give this story a 5.

Mark:

Whoa, dagger to the heart.

Shawn:

And probably because it’s not the style of story I would tell. It doesn’t fit into the style I would have in my back pocket. But also, for me it needs to be rounded out to be a stronger story so that when the punch line is delivered we know exactly what the point is. And I think that is the bit that was missing but that’s practice and rounding out the story. What about you?

Mark:

I would give it 6 out of 10. I really like the story because it teased out a couple of really important issues about storytelling for this podcast but in terms of utility it’s got limited utility, but I have already used it to help a client with an influence story. Even though it’s a 6 it still has potential application.

Shawn: 

Fantastic. Anything else before we finish off?

Mark:  

Only the usual reminder that if this story has triggered any experiences of your own that you want to share please go to our website: anecdote.com/podcast and let us know your story and it may well be featured on a forthcoming issue of anecdotally speaking.

Shawn:     

Fantastic. Thanks again, guys, for listening into anecdotally speaking. And 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:

4 Responses to “017 – All about apocryphal stories”

  1. John Groarke Says:

    G’day Shawn and Mark

    The most entertaining and memorable podcast to date … a great listen!

    How about dropping the “apocryphal” … which I had to look up at dictionary.com … and … drum roll please … wait for it … with “FAKE”.

    You have my permission to use this in your programs!

    Bonza – John

  2. Shawn Callahan Says:

    Fake stories. Sounds dangerous John. Glad you liked the show.

  3. Dave Stokes Says:

    I think this is a borderline ‘apocryphal story’, but perhaps closer to an ‘incredulous stupidity story’! You guys be the judge ;>)

    Are you paying attention?

    It can be a challenge to stay wired in to everything that’s going on around you.

    It was just another day around the dining table at the home office, my partner (let’s call her Pat) was sitting across from me. Let’s just say that the atmosphere was a little ‘frostier’ than usual. Nothing too weird, just a bit cranky. The light banter was taking a day off! “If you can’t say anything nice…” (you know how the rest goes). Sometimes that’s a good excuse to get deeply involved in your own tasks.

    So, we’re working away when I half-notice that Pat is listening on the phone to a mutual friend (let’s call her Suzie) telling a long one –sided story. My graces were sour enough to think she had the phone loudly on speaker just to annoy me. The droning on was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore, when suddenly the doorbell rang.

    Without a word, Pat got up from her chair to answer it, while the friend on the phone continued to bang on. Now this caught my attention. “How rude!”, I thought.

    I could hear her trying to get rid of the ‘cold caller’ through the fly screen, but taking far too long about it as the friend rabbited on without missing a beat. I couldn’t contain myself and grabbed the phone to offer my apologies for my partner’s now totally obvious ‘bad hair day’.
    The call had gone on so long that the screen had turned black, as I looked at the phone and tried to interrupt the diatribe.

    “Suzie, Suzie… hang on a sec… she’s answering the door… Suz… can you hear me?” She wasn’t responding so I – unlike my partner – listening politely for an opportunity to break in. But after a couple of attempts, I felt sure that bad reception meant Suzie couldn’t really hear me. “Do you want to try hanging up and calling back?… Suzie… it’s Dave!” Still no response.

    At this point, the front door closed. My partner came back to the table, took back her phone, unlocked the screen and hung up the call.

    “What are you doing???!” I said. Quite indignant by this stage. She curtly responded:

    “I’ll listen to her voicemail message later when I’ve got the time!”

    It was one of those moments where you want a small escape hatch to appear, so you can jump right through it to anywhere other than where you are now. I was very red faced!

    Anyone else got a story of presumption, crossed wires and embarrassment like this?

  4. Shawn Callahan Says:

    Seems pretty true to me Dave, so not an apocryphal story, just an embarrassing one 😁

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