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041 – Icing breakers and presentation matters

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —May 13, 2019
Filed in Business storytelling, Podcast

Does presentation matter? Here’s a story you can tell or trigger to convince your colleagues that it does.

storytelling chocolate cake

If you regularly read our blog, you will be familiar with story-triggering. Story-triggering is what occurs when someone does something so remarkable that the people who see, or experience it, tell stories about it.

In our last episode, we shared a story which you can tell or trigger to make a business point. In this episode, Shawn shares a similar story. There’s no backwards brain bike in this story, but there is cake. 

The book Shawn mentions at the beginning of this episode is Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick. 

For more information about the events Shawn and Mark mention in this episode, visit our events page. 

For your storybank

Tags: changing minds, connection story, first impressions, presentation, story-triggering

A young man walked into the first tutorial of his first graphic design course at university. He chose a seat at a desk and sat down, waiting for the class to begin. 

Suddenly, a man burst in from the back of the room, carrying a large, messy chocolate cake in one hand and a pile of serviettes in the other. 

He asked each student, “Would you like a piece of cake?” 

They all declined. 

The man disappeared out the back again, before returning.

This time, he was pushing a silver service trolley with a cake knife, ceramic plates, fabric serviettes, and a pristine chocolate cake. 

He again asked each student, “Would you like a piece of cake?” 

“Oh yes, please,” they all responded. 

Each student took a slice and soon there was no cake left. 

The man pushed the trolley to the side, walked to the front of the room, and said, “See, presentation matters,” before introducing himself as the class’ tutor.  

Podcast transcript

Shawn:

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

Mark:

And I’m Mark Schenk. And before we get started with the story this week, a quick heads up; Shawn and I are doing some travelling over the next few months and running some public workshops. I’ll be running a public storytelling for leader’s workshop in Washington on the 23rd of May.

Shawn:

Fantastic.

Mark:

And Shawn you’ll be in London?

Shawn:

Yeah, 18th of June is when I’m doing the public workshop.

Mark:

Fantastic and all the information is on our website: anecdote.com/events if you’re interested and want some information about those.

Shawn:

Yeah, it’d be great to see you.

Mark:

So, Shawn, you’ve got a story for us this week.

Shawn:

Yeah. My story today is a relatively short story and it’s one of those interesting ones in that you can either, as a business leader, tell it or you could do it.

Mark:

That sounds interesting.

Shawn:

It gives you some flexibility, right? This is one of those stories you hear once and it’s just really stuck in my mind, it has a little bit of cleverness about it. And I heard it when the Heath brothers, Chip and Dan Heath, came out with their book, Made to Stick.

Mark:

The success factors?

Shawn:

Yes—4 or 5 different things that make the difference in terms of whether something will be made to stick. And in one of the chapters they talk about this story. But after they wrote that book they were both very interested in what they could do to help the education industry.

So they put a call out to all their readers to submit stories of where they’d seen teachers do remarkable things that grabbed their students.

Mark:

So, remarkable as in worth remarking on, not necessarily amazing things?

Shawn:

Things that worked. Things that when they saw or heard them they stuck in their minds. One guy wrote in and said this happened years ago when he did his 1st year graphic design course at university.

You know what it’s like at the 1st year? You don’t really know what you’re doing, you’re going to your 1st lecture, 1st workshop or whatever it might be. You’re piling into the classroom not knowing exactly what’s going on.

Imagine that situation and as the students settle down, they’re all sitting at their desks. The next thing you know this person bursts out from the back of the room with a big chocolate cake in his hand with some paper serviettes and he’s going around asking everyone, ‘do you want some cake?’

There’s no easy way to cut it; he’s just got a knife and he hacks off a bit of it. The icing is dripping off it, it’s crumbling. The students are going, ‘oh, no, it’s o.k.’

Mark:

So, not the most appetising cake.

Shawn:

No, no takers on this cake. Anyway, without any explanation he disappears out the back again. And then moments later he has this silver service trolley and comes out into the class with this beautiful, pristine cake with plates, cotton material serviettes, and again is saying, ‘would you like some slice of cake?’

He’s got a beautiful cake knife and, of course, the kids are going, ‘yeah, I’ll have some cake’. And the next thing you now the whole cake has gone. And then he stands in front of the whole class and he said, ‘see, presentation matters’. And that’s where he starts his course on graphic design and presentation and the importance of it.

And the guy who told it said to this day he remembers the whole experience. Of all the bazillion things that could’ve happened he remembers that as it were yesterday. I think with that story you could tell it to make a point about the importance of presentation but you could also do it.

Mark:

So, when we come to talk about how we might use that story that’s one of the things.

Shawn:

Exactly. It’s a short little story; what do you reckon?

Mark:

What is it about that story that works? Why does that story work?

Shawn:

Well, for me it’s visual.

Mark:

Yeah, the dripping icing.

Shawn:

And the other thing is the emotion that it triggers is around disgust and, as we’ve said before, it’s one of the super strong emotions that we have.

Mark:

So that must have been one pretty bad looking cake to generate disgust.

Shawn:

But I think it was just his hands. There was nothing between the cake and his hands.

Mark:

Oh, he’s got the cake on his hands.

Shawn:

So, he’s generating this whole vibe so there’s that element, that emotion running through it. And, of course, they’re all very uncertain; they don’t know what’s going on either.

Mark:

I remember those early times—it doesn’t matter whether you’re 1st or 2nd but 1st lecture or tutorial you’ve got no idea what to expect. Most of the time you don’t know who the lecturer is.

Shawn:

Exactly. So there are those elements but is there anything that jumped out for you?

Mark:

Just how quick and easy it is to tell that story. That’s one of the things I really liked about it.

Shawn:

Yeah, I do wonder how much of that prelude I gave about Chip and Dan Heath and their book. For me it provides context for our listeners who might be interested in that book so I chose to include that bit. I thought it would be a nice gentle way into the story.

Mark:

A bit of back story, a bit of context so that the story makes sense and you wouldn’t need to do that if you were going to use that story in a business context necessarily.

Shawn:

No. You might have to do something just to get into the story.

Mark:

Cool. So, if you take out the context it’s even shorter.

Shawn:

And easier to tell.

Mark:

It’s probably a 2-minute story. We should time that.

Shawn:

It could be even shorter than that.

Mark:

So, contrast was one of the things I loved about that

Shawn:

It all hinges on that doesn’t it? If you don’t have that before and after it doesn’t really make the point.

Mark:

And humans love contrast. The past was black and now it’s white; it’s a very effective part of any story.

Shawn:

I guess the other things that’s really interesting about it is that I could imagine that the story becomes a metaphor, or at least a language element that people would use moving forward through that course.

Like, he could be another 3 weeks into the course and talking about a specific situation and say, ‘this looks like a crumbly cake situation doesn’t it?’

Mark:

‘That cake doesn’t look very appetising, maybe we could do something to make that cake look better.’

Shawn:

That’s right and everyone would know what you’re talking about on a visceral level.

Mark:

And all you have to say is mention ‘cake’ and they’ve got a metaphor, a language that makes sense to them.

Shawn:

Indeed.

Mark:

And the other thing that I love about it is that he could’ve spent that first hour telling people how important presentation is but he didn’t. He spent the first 2 or 3 minutes showing them.

Shawn:

You’ve made me think of something. You could say ‘the research shows that presentations that have got high quality 63% response rate blah, blah, blah’.

Mark:

Hang on, I just fell asleep there.

Shawn:

Last night I was watching Brené Brown do her Netflix special and I thought it was so fascinating because here was a researcher with 20 years of full on research, a dataset of 400,000 participants (this is stuff I’ve heard before—I didn’t hear it on her Netflix special last night)—not once did she mention data. She said there was research.

Mark:

But not one statistic?

Shawn:

Not one statistic.

Mark:

Really, wow.

Shawn:

And she essentially just told stories about her and her husband and her and her kids, stories about those day to day things which illustrated the points, the outcomes of her research.

And I thought this is bloody brilliant because essentially what she is doing is saying ‘I need a general audience, because the general audience is going to be the big audience so if I can talk to a general audience I would talk to them like this’.

But out of that general audience there’s a subset who’d be interested in my book. So, they’ll go and buy the book, which is great, and they’ll learn about the research. And then there’s a subset under that who’ll go and find the research papers but if she starts too low she loses so many of the other audience.

Mark:

I was working with some PhDs and post-doctoral researchers in convergent Nano bioscience—wow, I can even say that. And one of the big challenges they’ve got is called outreach—having the ability to communicate their research in a way that somebody understands and can make use of.

So, what you’re saying about Brené Brown makes a lot of sense because most of the time they start with a technical description of their research. Of which there is only a tiny population who will be interested but it’s important research that every human is potentially interested in if they can communicate it in the right way.

So stepping away from the facts and the data and the technical language into that plain language is a great way to create that outreach.

Shawn:

She’s kind of living her message. Her message is around vulnerability and the importance of vulnerability. If you’re a researcher, how vulnerable are you if you stand up in front of an audience and don’t use all your statistics and data but you go for emotion?

You’re putting yourself out there because you know a whole bunch of boffin heads are going to be after you saying what an idiot you are.

Mark:

Her first TedTalk she admitted that she’d had a breakdown and this caused her enormous stress. After doing it she said, ‘I can’t believe I did that, that I told 500 people in a room that I had a breakdown’.

And I was talking to one of my friends and of course it went on to YouTube—4 million. So, that show, don’t tell thing is a really important part of the story you shared about the cake. He didn’t go up there and give the presentation on stats; he gave them an experience that provided an enduring lesson that 20 years later this person has remembered.

That’s one of the powers of show, don’t tell and creating a situation where somebody has an emotional reaction and because we remember what we feel. So that’s a great example of that.

For me, one of the other things I really like about that is that when you start a new course with a lecturer you don’t know who they are. You don’t know what the course is going to be like—most people probably had pretty low expectations. But within just a few minutes he has demonstrated that he is an interesting person by his actions.

It’s kind of like he’s triggered a connection story—built rapport and connection so that’s one of the things I really like about that—he’s created an experience that’s demonstrated that he’s perhaps innovative, interesting, thinks a bit differently, maybe it’s going to be practical.

Shawn:

It’s going to be fun.

Mark:

Goodness, this is university we’re talking about. So from a tiny little story there are a lot of things we’ve liked about it so that’s pretty cool. So, how do we use this? And you gave a broad categorisation of use at the start when you said you could tell it or do it.

Shawn:

I remember back in the day when I was working for Oracle, back in the 80s, I started life as a technological sort of guy and we would do these big tenders, massive tenders—we wouldn’t sleep for 2 or 3 days.

Mark:

As the deadline for the tender approaches?

Shawn:

Yeah, it was crazy but I reckon there would be times during that process where you’d just be pulling it together and throwing it however it comes. But if you were a smart tender manager you might actually either tell that story or—let’s say you’ve got to the point where you’re now producing the materials to send to the customer—that might be when you bring out the cakes. You know what I mean?

Mark:

Or maybe tell that story and bring out an old tender that was a dog’s breakfast.

Shawn:

Exactly. I think there are lots of possibilities in that story.

Mark:

I’m reminded of how you could have used that story to great effect in the early days of Anecdote.

Shawn:

What do you mean?

Mark:

Well, when we first started money was tight (it’s always tight) and whenever you gave a presentation you’d get our designer to build the slides.

Shawn:

Instead of the little stick figures.

Mark:

Instead of clipart you’d send off to the designer and you’d have beautiful slides and it always caused me angst, what’s he doing spending our money on these things?

Shawn:

What’s Callahan doing?

Mark:

And of course you could have told that story.

Shawn:

‘Cause it has helped hasn’t it.

Mark:

I look back and I think that’s one of the most important pieces of the philosophy of Anecdote; is the importance of design.

Shawn:

So there you go; you could have done the cake story.

Mark:

If you are ever in a situation where you need to justify spending on design, that cake story could very well be your friend.

Shawn:

Indeed, I like it.

Right so we should give it a rating, so you go first.

Mark:

I think it’s a really good little story and I’m going to give it a 7.

Shawn:

I’m going to give it an 8. It’s got good use. It’s not hard to tell, it’s in my back pocket, I don’t know how often I’d tell it but it’s a good one to have.

Mark:

A high effect for a very short story.

Shawn:

Fantastic, anything else we need to cover off before we finish up?

Mark:

Just another reminder about the workshops in London and Washington on our events page if you want more information, we’d love to see you there.

Shawn:

Actually if you want to just meet up in London or Washington just give us a hoy. It’s always great to meet people doing interesting things. I remember one of the nicest experiences I had in London, I was walking down the river there and I get a text message from the mayor’s office. And I think gee what’s going on here? And a couple of people wanted to meet me at the mayor’s office.

Mark:

The Lord Mayor of London?

Shawn:

That’s right, so I went down to that Hive building and it turned out that the communications specialists in the mayor’s office were using our techniques, specially the story listening techniques as opposed to the storytelling techniques as part of a change programme that they were running and they were using it because they didn’t want any written down stories.

They wanted them all to be oral stories and they just wanted to say thank you and it was a lovely thing. So just the ability to meet people and find out what they are doing with these sort of story techniques is always a wonderful thing.

Mark:

So if you would like to meet Shawn or I in Washington or London then send a note to people@anecdote.com –that will get to us. We’d love to see you. We love talking to people about story as you can tell and we’d love to have a conversation when we are in these overseas locations.

Shawn:

Great, well thanks for listening to Anecdotally Speaking and stay tuned for the next episode where we will be putting more stories to work.

Bye for now.

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:

2 Responses to “041 – Icing breakers and presentation matters”

  1. Venugopal Dytha Says:

    Excellent and crisp anecdote

  2. John Groarke Says:

    This story is a NINE (9) boys … BRILLIANT anecdote (!) that I will now deploy in my courses and workshops,

    GO WELL with your overseas adventures!!

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