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038 – Dolphin kicks out number one

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —February 18, 2019
Filed in Business storytelling, Podcast

Micheal Phelps broke both his personal record and the world record when he won the men’s 400m Individual Medley Final at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Four years later, he battled for 4th place in the same event. Don’t become complacent, it takes hard work to stay on top.

Dolphin kick story

A few years ago, Shawn was working on a project for a software company based in the United States. He was invited to attend a sales conference in Orlando, where he heard a sales leader he had been coaching share a story with his sales team. In this episode, Shawn retells that story. 

The story contrasts Michael Phelps’ record breaking swim in the men’s 400m Individual Medley Final at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and his swim in the same event at the 2012 London Olympics. You can watch a video of the 2008 event here, and a video of the 2012 event here. The story contains a number of valuable business points, including: don’t become complacent, it takes hard work to stay on top. 

If you would like more information about the events Shawn and Mark mention in this episode, click here. 

For your storybank

Tags: complacency, goals, hard work, inspiration, persistence, swimming

A few years ago, Shawn was working on a project for a software company based in the United States. The company invited him to attend one of their sales conferences, which was held in Orlando. 

He was sitting amongst a particular sales team, when one of their leaders jumped behind the podium. 

The leader asked the group, “Who has won the most medals in the history of the Olympic Games?”

Someone towards the back of the room responded, “Michael Phelps!”

He was correct. Michael Phelps has won 23 gold medals and 28 medals overall. 

The leader said, “I remember the 2008 Beijing Olympics…” He continued to describe how he remembered watching the men’s 400m Individual Medley Final on television. 

He watched Michael Phelps glide through the water, win the event with two seconds to spare, and beat both his personal record and the world record. His teammate, Ryan Lochte, came third.

Phelps and Lochte swam in the same event at the next Olympics, the 2012 London Olympic Games. The sales leader again watched the event on television. 

This time, Phelps only just qualified for the final. He was allocated a lane towards the edge of the pool. Lochte had performed better and was allocated a lane in the middle of the pool. 

As soon as the race started, the leader could tell Phelps wasn’t in it. Lochte, meanwhile, was swimming very well. 

Lochte finished the event in first place, Phelps finished in fourth place. 

Shocked Phelps had lost the event, sports reporters rushed to ask the swimmers, “What happened?”

Phelps had become complacent, he hadn’t been putting as much into his training as he had in the past. In contrast, Lochte had been putting everything into his training. He had even modified his kick for his butterfly and breaststroke, referring to it as his ‘dolphin kick’. 

Finishing the story, the sales leader said, “We have to be careful. We have been number one for so long, in some ways we are just like Phelps. We’ve won 23 gold medals, we’re out in front. It would be so easy for us to take the foot off the accelerator and end up like Phelps in London. We need our own dolphin kick. Our competitors are just like Lochte.”

The sales team responded so well to the story that Shawn could hear them asking, “Yeah! What’s our dolphin kick?”

Podcast Transcript

Shawn:

Welcome to Anecdotally Speaking, a podcast to help you build your business story repertoire. Hi everyone, I’m Shawn Callahan.

Mark:

And I’m Mark Schenk and before we get into the podcast, the story for this week, I had a little experience on Tuesday night that was I think happens a bit too much in business and it’s one of the reasons why we have this podcast, trying to help people have a repertoire of stories.  I was on a, essentially a sales call with the CEO of a bank and in the lead up to the call a whole bunch of, by the way, I only had 20 minutes for the call, a whole bunch of people had given me advice.  So, the CEOs advisers, etcetera on how to run the call.  The CEO likes facts and data, stick to that.  Just outline the structure, try not to give any stories.  We’ve tested stories with them and they don’t work.  All this sort of advice.  Of course, I just ignored that and did what I normally do which is to use an example to illustrate the issues and points and after 20 minutes, the end of the call, the CEO looked around at his team and just said, “Right, let’s do this”.  But that happens all too often and the reason we’re doing this podcast is to help people understand that the stories are incredibly accessible and really powerful tools that you can use in the business context and we want to see more and more people doing it.  And so, here’s Shawn, it’s your turn this week.

Shawn:

Yep yep. I’ve got one for you.

Mark:

To add another pod, another story into people’s business story repertoire.

Shawn:

Yeah, good.  Okay so this one actually, I stumbled across this a few years ago.  I did a project for a software company in the US that I guess was the industry leader in workforce management.  That was their thing.  And I was invited to go to this sales conference which was down in Orlando and help out one of the big sales teams you know, the sort of the team that looked after one entire sort of division around financial services.  So, they probably had about three or four hundred people in the room and their sales leader started off the day, jumped up on, you know, behind the podium, and he…

Mark:

Did he have rock music?

Shawn:

No, not rock music.  It wasn’t, I’ve seen that old rock music sort of fob machine thing but he didn’t go down that path.  No, he just got up there and he said to everyone, “Who is the biggest medal winner in the history for the Olympics?”

Mark:

Michael Phelps.

Shawn:

And someone yeah, at the back goes, “Michael Phelps”.  And he goes, “Yes, absolutely.  He’s won twenty-two medals.”  Gold medals, right?  That’s just his gold ones.

Mark:

Holy smoke.

Shawn:

Twenty-two gold medals.  And he, the leader sort of says, “I remember when the Beijing Olympics were on”, he was sitting there watching TV, watching the swimming and it came around to the final of the 400m medley.  Now this, you know, this is one of the toughest swims you can have, it’s four different strokes, each at 100m which means you’re going flat-chat for each one, right.  So, you know, breaststroke, it’s back stroke, it’s freestyle, what’s the fourth stroke in the medley? This is the question.

Mark:

Butterfly.

Shawn:

Butterfly, exactly.  That’s the hardest one, I think.  And he’s sitting there and he watches Michael Phelps just plough through that water you know, glide, I should say glide through that water.  And in the end, he wins the race, not only breaks his own personal record, he breaks the world record and he beats everyone by more than 2 seconds.  Now 2 seconds in a swimming people is like forever.

Mark:

It’s quite a distance, it’s not a close race.

Shawn:

It’s not a close race.  So anyway, absolutely, absolutely kicks butt and does a great job and you know, another gold medal added to his tally.  Fast forward to the following Olympics, we’re talking now in London, right.  Which by the way I thought was a great Olympics you know, so bloody well organised it seemed.  Anyway, the London Olympics again, it’s that same race but this time, Phelps only just scrapes in, only just scrapes into the qualification for the final, right.  And so instead of being in the middle of the pool, he’s not on the outside of the pool.

Mark:

So, who is in the middle?

Shawn:

Well, in that first race, this is a good point, in that first race a young fellow from the US called Ryan Lochte came in second you know so it was that two seconds.

Mark:

So, is this is Beijing?

Shawn:

Yeah, this is back in Beijing.

Mark:

Right.

Shawn:

So, Ryan Lochte actually comes in second.  So, this time around at the qualifications, Lochte is actually in the middle, right?  So anyway, swim starts, you could tell almost immediately that Phelps is not in it and by the end of the race, he doesn’t make a place.  He doesn’t really get a look-in.  Lochte actually just kills it, right?  Wins the race.  And of course, everyone’s going, all the writers, the reporters, they’re going, “What happened? Why is Phelps so missed out on this?”  And as they dig into it, they discover that Lochte sort of you know, sort of fell off his training a little bit, he.

Mark:

Sorry Phelps?

Shawn:

Phelps sorry, yeah Phelps fell off the training a little bit, he just sort of really wasn’t putting the hours in that he would normally put in and quite frankly, he became complacent, right?  Whereas at the same time in that same period, Ryan Lochte was just going overboard, right.  That black line at the bottom of the pool was like a permanent fixture in his eyesight.  And he’d even come up with a new what he called a dolphin kick, right?  A particular type of dolphin kick for not only the butterfly but his breast stroke sort of legs.  And you know, these things just made this massive difference.  So, the sales leaders you know, up there and he’s told this story and at the end he goes, “Now guys, we’ve got to be so careful.  We’ve been number one for so long, right?  And really in some ways, it’s just like Michael Phelps.  We’ve won the twenty-two medals, we are right out in front and we are so, you know, it’s so easy for us to take the foot off the accelerator and end up you know, having that terrible situation that Phelps faced in London, right?  We’ve got to have our own dolphin kick.  We’ve got to be pushing hard because our competitors are just like Lochte.  They’re doing whatever they can to actually take that number one lead from us”.  And I tell you what, as he’s telling this, the whole crowd is going wild right. They’re sort of yelling out, “Yeah, we’re dolphin kicks, where’s our dolphin kick?” And it was great and again, not dislike our Hidden Figures story, right?  Instead of having you know, what’s our Fortran?  These guys are all looking at what’s their dolphin kick? Anyway, that’s the story. And it was one that really sat in my mind as one for a leader you know, really had an impact on those guys.

Mark:

So, they, you were part of an offside event with that organisation?

Shawn:

That’s right.  I was teaching them stories.  And I was coaching that.  I knew about the story before I heard I because I was coaching that sales leader on how to tell that story.

Mark:

Okay.  And did you do some testing that evening at the bar, at the dinner?  Were people talking about it?

Shawn:

Yeah, absolutely!  And you know, not only could they, they all had all the information and the details and you know, he had all that detail sort of built into his story so yeah, it had a ripple effect.  It was nicely going through the organisation.

Mark:

That’s good.

Shawn:

So now, hearing that story Mark, what sort of things in there do you think that really helps that story along?  What makes that story a useful one?

Mark:

Well I think the first thing that makes that story really useful is that it’s so relatable.  Look, even if you’re not a sports fan, if you don’t know who Michael Phelps is, you do know what the Olympics are and you know what a swimming pool is.

Shawn:

Yes.

Mark:

And that twenty-two medals, or sorry, twenty-two gold medals in the Olympics is an incredible feat so even though you might not be a sports fan, it’s still a relatable story.  So, I think it’s got a big advantage in that way in that you don’t know, need to know anything about Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte or swimming and you can still appreciate the impact of that story.

Shawn:

Yes, and imagine it I suppose, that’s the key thing. You know, there is a great image of Phelps I think on the front of Sports Illustrated where he’s got all twenty-two gold medals hanging around his neck.

Mark:

Is he able to keep his back straight?

Shawn:

Well the guy’s a pretty strong looking guy so I suspect he won’t have any troubles there but it kind of looks like chain mail, you know, across this you know, guy with you know, is it more than a six-pack?  Maybe you can have an eight-pack.  It could look like that anyway.

Mark:

Yeah.

Shawn:

But I think some of that visual element is really quite important.

Mark:

I think for me again you know, it’s historical so we know it happened.  It has a nice timeline, a nice ups and downs and I think any story worth its salt has those sort of shapes to it, right?  You know, you have the highs, you have the lows.  And you know, this particular leader set it up nicely to make his one point.  He was just trying to make one point which this story served that point beautifully, right?

Shawn:

Indeed.  One of the things that I like about it and why it works is that you actually package the story within a real-life application of the story.

Mark:

Right, yes.  So, you’ve seen it being used.

Shawn:

Exactly and so when we’re asking people to change, they’ve got two questions.  Can I do it?  And, is it worth it?

Mark:

Yeah right.

Shawn:

And that story answers both of those so I think that’s an important part of that story.  It’s a concrete demonstration that leaders do, that leaders can do this and that they can do it with great effect.

Mark:

Actually, you’re making a really important point here too because I often get asked, and I hear other people being asked this and they’ll say, “So what’s the real power and characteristics, why does stories work?” Right?  And the novice will say, “Stories work because they have a beginning, middle and end and they convey emotion and they really”, and they describe what a story is.  I mean, if you’ve even got like half a bit of nous you should be realising, you should be telling a story, right?  Like I’d be telling that you know, the story of the two CEOs, the incoming and outgoing because you know, there’s an outcome.  I could tell this story.  You know, there’s lots and lots of stories and that’s why it’s so important to have stories where you’ve seen leaders actually tell effective stories.  Right, in terms of just getting people to take up the idea.

Mark:

Yep and so one of my favourite examples was the contrast at the conference in the US where the president of an association got up and gave an absolutely, an amazing presentation, highly technical, beautifully written…

Shawn:

He had the Madonna mike, didn’t he? You know?

Mark:             

Yeah, the whole thing.

Shawn:

Beautiful suit.

Mark:

Yep, and from a presentation skills perspective, he would have got ten out of ten.

Shawn:

Right.

Mark:

From a presentation skills perspective.  But not from a communication perspective.  Simon Sinek was followed him and he walked on stage just in a pair of sneakers and some jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt and just started by talking about being in Las Vegas recently and staying at the Four Seasons and running into the barista and he told this little story and that night, no one could even remember the president’s speech even though it was technically perfect and beautiful slides.  But everyone could remember Simon Sinek talking about Noah the barista in the Four Seasons.

Shawn:

Yep.

Mark:

So, using stories to answer the question about why stories work and can leaders use them is the best way.

Shawn:

Yeah indeed.  So, what do you reckon things we can do to make this story even better?

Mark:

Well I think for me one of the things that we could just be aware of is that it’s a sports story.

Shawn:

Good point.

Mark:

Because blokes in particular love sports stories and in many cases and of course, this is a generalisation, they’re not so good for female audiences.  I’ve had, I’ve had feedback many times from people who’ve heard leaders overuse sports stories for baseball etcetera, things that people can’t relate to as well.  I guess the Michael Phelps story is not so bad as a sports story because it’s, swimming is a sport.

Shawn:

You get across the genders a little bit more, don’t you?

Mark:

Exactly.  And it’s also you know, the Olympics so we know what the Olympics are so it is reasonably relatable but we need to be aware that sports stories have their limitations and we shouldn’t be really not overdoing the sports stories.

Shawn:

Yeah, that’s a good point.

Mark:             

And so, if you are a leader and you’ve got a pocket full of baseball and football stories, then maybe you disperse them or park a few of them away and find some stories like the Hidden Figures stories from the last episode.

Shawn:

Yeah, yeah definitely. Yeah that’s good.  The, I think the other thing that you could do to make this an even better story is I suppose it’s just some of the other details.  Key details are always important to have and I sort of messed it up a little bit and you helped me out in that story which was great because I kind of forgotten to talk about Lochte in that first little part of the story.

Mark:

In the Beijing Olympics.

Shawn:

That’s right, in the Beijing Olympics and you’ve got to have that.  So, you know, clearly, I was just you know, one of those things that sometimes you forget elements of the story that need to happen in certain places for the story to actually work and lucky you knew the story and were able to prompt me to answer those along the way.  But I think it just comes through telling the story a few more times I mean, I hadn’t really told that story a lot of times and it just becomes natural, you know, when you tell it. Practice.

Mark:

Yeah and I think a lot, one of the great things about story is that even though you might get the details out of order or even a little bit incorrect, the gist will carry.  What you do need to be aware of and probably the one where I did is where you said Lochte when you meant…

Shawn:

Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s right.

Mark:

Phelps.

Shawn:

But even an audience would probably pick that up, you know in terms of the mismatch.

Mark:

Yeah.

Shawn:

But the, but going back to this topic of practice I think is really important one because I’m a big believer that you don’t want to practice in front of a mirror, right?  You don’t want to practice like you’re an actor learning a script. I think the better way to practice is actually tell the story in real life, you know?  As situations arise where that story is a good one to tell.  And you know, you’ll have a run of a story you know.  Like, you’ll have a story that you love and you’ll tell it a bunch of times and once you’ve done that and you know why you’re telling it, it’s kind of locked in and then you know, three months later, and the situation arises, you’ll be able to tell it without any troubles whatsoever.

Mark:

So, I’m going to disagree with you to some extent about the use of mirror.  For me, the best way to practice is as you say, in real life.

Shawn:

Yeah.

Mark:

Where you’re getting people, you’re watching people, they’re asking questions.  And by the way, the questions that people ask are some of the best indicators of the sorts of details you need to include or exclude.

Shawn:

Yep.

Mark:

From your story, so really pay attention to the questions.  So, doing it live is the best way.  If you don’t have that opportunity, then talking to a mirror isn’t a bad way of doing it because for me, just saying it and hearing yourself say it is an advantage.  I think for me, the thing you don’t want to do is to practice it in your head where the words don’t come out of your mouth.  And I’ve done this myself in the lead up to conference presentations where I’ve been given a key note and I’ve decided to tell a different story as my connection story and I’ve got this great thing in my head but I haven’t heard it come out of my mouth yet.

Shawn:

Yes.  You’ve sort of got to like train your mouth, don’t you?

Mark:

Yeah, so if you don’t have a live audience, then I do think that talking to the mirror is a good way of doing it.  But please don’t think that practice, practice, I don’t include playing it in your head as practice because you don’t know what’s going to come out of your mouth until you actually say it.

Shawn:

Yes, I agree.  You’re sort of getting your lips around it. Mirror, I wouldn’t still use a mirror if I had to practice it, I would find someone, I would find a warm body to, so I can get a bit of reaction to it.  My own reaction whilst telling it is not you know, it’s sort of mixing things up, the teller and the listener.  But yeah, anyway.  Practice is what you definitely need to do.  Okay, so, anything else we want to add to things that make that, or are we pretty all done there do you think?

Mark:

Yeah, I think so.

Shawn:

Okay.

Mark:

So, it works pretty well.

Shawn:

Okay.

Mark:

Now how do we use it in a business setting?

Shawn:

Yeah well, the obvious one for this leader was just an inspiration around keep working hard to stay number one.

Mark:

Yeah, motivating people to maintain a high tempo.

Shawn:

That’s right.  And what it takes, it requires real effort to do that.  So that would be one use of the story.

Mark:

And so, for a front runner, that’s a great way of motivating people to avoid becoming complacent.

Shawn:

Yep.

Mark: 

One of the things I like about that is you could also tell that same story from the Ryan Lochte perspective whereas if you’re not the market leader.

Shawn:   

Yeah, that’s right.

Mark: 

How do you become market leader?

Shawn:    

Yeah.  It’s an interesting one too because in some ways you know, when you read between the lines of that story, Lochte only won because Phelps became complacent so that’s something you have to deal with in, potentially in that story but what if you don’t have a competitor who has become complacent?

Mark:   

Well for me the story, the way you told the story, the way that sales manager told the stories, emphasising the detail of Phelps becoming complacent was a key part of his point that he’s trying to make.

Shawn:  

Yes, that’s right.

Mark:   

And so, when you tell the story for a different purpose, you emphasise different parts of the story so I would deemphasise the Phelps complacency and increase the emphasis on the work and the creativity and innovation of Lochte.

Shawn:

Yeah.

Mark:

So, he worked his backside off and came up with new things so you tell the story differently to make a different point.

Shawn:   

Yes.

Mark: 

Of course, one of the key things about the use of story effectively is always being clear on your point.  So, if you’re telling that story you need to be sure, are you telling it from the, don’t get complacent angle or from the perspective where you’re trying to make the point about working hard to get to the front.

Shawn: 

Yeah, yeah, definitely.  That’s a good one.  What else?  So that’s a couple of different places to use that story.

Mark: 

So how to use it?  I think there’s an opportunity because the Olympics are recorded.  They’re played live so there’s an opportunity to really increase the effectiveness of this and use it even more effectively by having the videos of those races.

Shawn:

Yes.  Yeah, that’s right.

Mark:

Probably edited because four by one hundred is probably a big long.

Shawn:    

A bit long.  Yeah, it would be interesting to see if they are available.  I know the IOC is pretty tough on all that stuff so.

Mark: 

Okay well let’s see if they are available.

Shawn: 

It would be nice to see it though if they would be available because that would be great.

Mark:  

We’ll try and find them and stick them in the show notes, definitely. Most definitely.

(music)

Shawn:

Okay, let’s come up with a little bit of a rating for our story, Mark.  Since I think it’s up to you to kick off the rating.

Mark:    

Right, so my rating; and as I’m giving this rating, I’m comparing it to the Hidden Figures from the recent episode.

Shawn:  

Yeah that’s right, that was our first one for the year.

Mark:  

And for some reason, I’m tempted to give this story a lower score but I can’t, I think that’s just an emotional reaction.  From a logical perspective I think it is as useful as the Hidden Figures story as long as we’re aware that it is a sports story and we shouldn’t overuse a sports story.  So, I’m going to give it an eight.

Shawn:

Eight, okay, right-t-o, fantastic.  Well, I’ve got a feeling this is less useful like it doesn’t have as broader use as maybe the Hidden Figures story so I’m going to give it a seven but I think it’s a good story, great story to have in the back pocket and if I was you know, sort of heading into a group that I felt needed some you know, sort of inspiration to you know, sort of really push hard and kick out the front, it would be a great one to tell.

Mark:  

Well I asked for this episode, I think the thing to notice is we’ve put some of our events on our website, I think we’ve mentioned that before but go and check those out, you’ll sort of see that on the events page.  We’re heading off to ATD aren’t we again, this year so that’s going to be in Washington DC.

Shawn: 

In May.

Mark:    

In May so if you’re heading to Washington DC.  I’ll be in Amsterdam in June but again, we’ll put these on the events page so you can, if there’s opportunities for us to catch up, please call out, we’d love to do that.

Shawn:       

Okay so I think we’ll just wrap that up, thanks again for listening to Anecdotally Speaking and yeah, tune in next week where we’ll have yet another episode of how you can put your stories to work.

 

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:

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