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049 – Second best thing to having the actual experience

Posted by  Anecdote International —November 7, 2019
Filed in Business storytelling, Podcast

Mike Adams recounts an event that he’s never forgotten, despite not being there. When you can’t experience something first-hand, stories are the best way to learn. 

049 red helicopter

Shawn is still away so, this week, Mike Adams joins the podcast. Mike is the head of our Story-Powered Sales program. He is also the author of Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell

Mike shares a story about an event that he has never forgotten, despite not being there. It illustrates how stories are the second best thing to experience. 

The podcast Mark and Mike discuss in this episode is Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History.

For your storybank

Tags: aircraft, communication, memories, safety, storytelling

In the late 1980s, Mike was working as an engineer on oil rigs in China. His employers had a ‘work anytime, work anywhere’ policy, and soon transferred him to Australia. He would be based in Darwin and work in the Timor Sea for a few months. 

When Mike arrived in Darwin, another engineer from his company met him at the airport. He was there to escort him to a heliport, from which he would be taken out to sea. 

The engineer had two black eyes. 

“How did you get those?” Asked Mike. 

“Two weeks ago, I was headed out to the Timor Sea, just like we are, and I was in a helicopter crash…” 

The helicopter was flying at 3,500ft when its engine stopped. There were 15 people on board, including two helicopter safety specialists. 

The specialists gave the group a training lesson and told them what they could expect as the helicopter descended. 

“As soon as we hit the water, dive down towards the exit. We’ll help you get out and grab the life rafts.

“Before we hit the water, take off your headsets. Wrap them up and put them beside you.

“At our last accident, two people drowned after getting caught in the cables. They weren’t able to get out.”

When the helicopter crashed, all 15 people got out. The engineer was the last to exit and got kicked in the face by the person before him. 

The life rafts didn’t inflate, but the United States and Australian airforces were conducting an exercise nearby. They winched the group out of the ocean within an hour. 

Besides some chemical burning from the helicopter’s fuel, and the engineer’s two black eyes, the group escaped uninjured. 

Podcast transcript

Mark:

Hello and welcome to Anecdotally Speaking– a podcast to help you build your business story repertoire. I’m Mark Schenk.

Mike:

And I’m Mike Adams.

Mark:

You’ve probably noticed Shawn is not here hosting as he normally would because he’s skiving off in the South of Spain with his wife having a 5-week holiday, which is fantastic. So, I’m taking over the hosting duties and with me I’m very pleased to introduce Mike Adams.

He’s joined Anecdote recently. He’s the award-winning author of 7 Stories Every Sales Person Must Tell. And one of the things I love about having Mike joining us is we’re able to have great conversations. So, Paul, Shawn, Mike, myself; we go to the pub, have a beer, glass of wine and have great conversations about all things to do with stories. So, Mike, it’s great to have you onboard.

Mike:

Thanks. It’s great to be in Anecdote, tremendous to have the intellectual horsepower of the Anecdote team to share ideas and stories with.

Mark: 

It’s very kind of you to say. Mike’s got a story; an experience he had so I’ll just throw to Mike and he can tell the story and then we’ll talk about how that story can be used in business and why it works.

Mike: 

Thanks, Mark. This is a story from very early in my career. I graduated as an engineer and worked on oil rigs. In the late 1980s I was working offshore in the north of China and I was transferred to Australia on very short notice.

We had a ‘you work anytime, anywhere’ policy and within 24 hours I was transferred to Australia for a few months. And when I arrived in Darwin to go out to the Timor Sea, an engineer from our company met me at the airport to take me around to the heliport and he had 2 black eyes.

I, of course, asked him how he got 2 black eyes and he told me he had been in a helicopter crash the week before. He’d survived a helicopter crash in the Timor Sea.

Mark: 

And you’re about to jump onto a helicopter and fly out into the Timor Sea.

Mike:   

I had a high interest in this story, Mark. And in a dead voice (I think he was still suffering some post-traumatic shock) he told me they’d been cruising at about 3,500 feet going out to a rig about 2 hours out into the Timor Sea and the engine just stopped.

Mark:  

Was it day or night?

Mike:   

It was daytime and there were about 15 of them onboard. The engine stopped and they started auto gyrating down into the ocean. He said that onboard were 2 helicopter safety specialists who were going out to the rig to do an audit. And these guys gave them a training lesson on the way down before they hit the water.

The first thing they said was the helicopter is going to turn upside down pretty much immediately it hits the water and it’s going to fill up immediately and you’re going to have to dive down to the exit. We’re going to help you with that. We’re going to be stationed at the door and we’ll get the life rafts out for you.

And there’s one very important thing we’re going to tell you just before we hit; to take off your headsets, wrap them up and put them beside you because the last accident we investigated 2 people drowned because they got caught up in the headset cables and weren’t able to get out of the helicopter.

My new friend was telling me all this and I’m taking it all in. Everything happened exactly as they said it would and the engineer with the two black eyes—he was the last one out and he got kicked in the face—he was a little too anxious to get out.

Mark: 

I would be too.

Mike:   

All of them got out and they had their lifejackets on and they tried to inflate the life rafts—they both sank. They were extremely fortunate there was a joint US/Australian Air Force exercise going on and they were picked up within about an hour and taken back to safety.

And no one was injured apart from a bit of chemical burning from the fuel in the water. Because I’ve spent a lot of my career in dangerous industries; mining and oil and gas, I used to tell that story pretty often. And the point I would make then was that you may not be so fortunate as to have the safety guys sitting next to you when it’s happening. Maybe you’d like to have that knowledge ahead of time.

And it was always a story that when I told it people listened and got it. An interesting following-on story. I didn’t include that story in my book but I was really thinking about all the stories I used to tell in my career and wondering how true they are. We want to tell true stories and not get caught out with inaccuracies.

And that story; I’d heard it once in the 1980s—did it even happen. I was just wondering so I went online and managed to find the accident report so I thought at least the crash happened. So, then I started investigating on Facebook and LinkedIn trying to find people I knew who had worked in the company at that time.

Eventually I got the name of the person who was picked up, John Patel, he was living in Sydney and I contacted him and he was absolutely blown away that anybody knew about that thing. He’d been spending his whole life trying to forget about it and I’d remembered it. And he came along to one of my public storytelling workshops and he told that story and we’re friends again and have reconnected.

And it turns out I had remembered some things he’d forgotten and he was able to fill in a couple of things that I didn’t know and so get a more complete story.

Mark: 

I think when we come to unpack this story we’ll tackle that other dimension about truth and memory because that triggers some memories that I have where very famous public events have been mis-recalled.

Mike:

Yes, it’s easy to do.

Mark:

So, we’ll tackle that as a separate issue but let’s talk about why does that story work. I’m going to start by saying that story is compelling because it’s about life and death. And we’re totally wired for anything to do with life and death because it’s about survival of the species and we love to know that our clansman that walked down that path and got attacked by a Sabre tooth tiger. We pay absolute attention to that because it helps us stay alive.

Mike:  

It’s a survival thing.

Mark:  

So that’s one of the first reasons that story works; it’s about life and death. What about for you?

Mike:  

The tonal voice it was told to me (stressed out), the two black eyes, it has some imagery in the story as well that makes it work.

Mark:  

Yeah, the two black eyes prompting the question that revealed the experience is a really important detail in that story.

Mike:  

It is, it’s the thing I remember instantly about it. Why does the story work? It’s a life and death experience. How relevant might it be? We’ll talk a little bit more about that.

Mark:

We’ll talk about how it can be used in a business context. It’s also relatable; a lot of people fly (not so many in helicopters) in aircraft.

Mike:

And most of us don’t take any notice of the safety instructions.

Mark: 

I don’t think so. So that was 1988 so 31 years ago and you just remember it like yesterday.

Mike:

Correct.

Mark:

We’ll talk more about that because the emotion contained in that makes it incredibly memorable. And I would wager that if you happened to be in a helicopter, even if you’ve never been in a helicopter crash or done the training that you could not only remember it vividly but help other people do in that autorotation phase what the safety instructors.

It’s just one of those incredible teaching stories.

Mike:  

Exactly right. In fact, I would tell the story if I was in that situation.

Mark:

You may not have time to tell that story. You might go ‘folks, 1988, similar situation, here’s what’s going to happen’. The autorotation phase is probably only going to take 60 to 90 seconds.

Mike:

That’s right.

Mark:

You’ve got a lot of information to get out in very short space of time. I gathered that the two safety investigators on the helicopter from the way you told the story that they were pretty calm about it.

Mike:

Yes, they were calm and saving everyone’s life.

Mark: 

That’s awesome because it’s not their job.

Mike:  

That’s right.

Mark:

Their job is investigating accidents. So for them to step up as they did is fantastic and I’m assuming all 15 got off.

Mike: 

Everyone survived. Two black eyes was the worst injury.

Mark:  

Wow, that’s an extraordinary thing. So, how can we make that story even better? What would really amp up the effect of that story? I’ll start by saying I don’t know there is a lot because it’s compelling.

Mike:    

I think the discussion is more about how could you use the story rather than make it better.

Mark: 

I guess the questions I was asking as the story unfolded indicate the things you could add in such as ‘night or day?’ ‘Did everyone survive?’ and things like that. I would imagine if you were telling that in different scenarios you would talk about the 15 people surviving.

So let’s talk about business application.

Mike:  

The big one for me is we have a tendency in business to itemise and process and bullet point here’s what to do.

Mark: 

So we have a helicopter accident and we’re going to write everything down in a procedure. We love that.

Mike:  

Don’t we?

Mark: 

And we think we’re solving the problem.

Mike: 

That’s right and yet we’re not doing it in any kind of memorable way whatsoever.

Mark: 

It’s not contributing to behaviour change.

Mike: 

And it won’t be recalled when it’s needed.

Mark: 

And there’s no way, if you were ever in that situation that you’re not going to recall that story.

Mike:

That’s right.

Mark: 

But it’s highly unlikely that you’ll recall the procedure that you read in 1988.

Mike:  

You just wouldn’t would you? We all sit through the safety briefings on the flights and how much attention do we pay and do we really even have any sense of what it would be like to go down in a plane and what might happen?

Mark: 

I fly a bit too often. I can remember them even though I don’t listen to them anymore.

Mike:  

That’s so many repetitions.

Mark:  

1,000’s of times. If you don’t have 1,000’s of repetitions? You had one and it has instant recall for you.

Mike:    

That’s right.

Mark:

So, the business point here is process and procedure has its place but there is no substitute for vicarious experience. As a species we didn’t have processes and procedures until recently; it’s the stories that have helped us survive as a species.

Mike: 

If you think about what we know, most of it we never experienced; we learnt it through stories and this is the way to pass on information. We tend to forget that in the business world don’t we?

By all means write the procedure but can you find ways in the company to get people to tell about an experience in a story that will be so much more memorable than just trying to itemise or bullet point it.

Mark:  

Exactly and if we just talk specifically about safety. One of the big changes in safety is understanding that most of the stuff that’s going to help people be safe at work is behavioural.

Mike: 

Correct.

Mark: 

Sure, there’s environmental and process factors but a lot of it is behavioural. There’s a Canadian neurologist, Donald Calne, and I love one of his quotes: ‘logic leads to conclusions and emotion leads to action’.

And if your objective is behaviour change then the emotion contained in a story such as this one is a great way to contribute towards behaviour change.

Mike:     

That’s right because contained in the story are all the triggers to help you remember what to do and to actually help you to do that. Because you can imagine yourself swimming down out of the helicopter. You have the instruction of the action contained in the story as well as here’s what happened.

Mark:  

If we can just shift focus here to accurate recall because you did the test with John and maybe some of the details changed. There are many events where out memory is not an accurate recollection of the event.

Mike:  

That’s right and what we know about memory is that a lot of what happens with memory is post-processing. The hippocampus works by us sleeping on it and then replaying it and that’s very easily corrupted. And it’s easy to get an incorrect memory of what happened. You see that in legal cases all the time with witness statements.

So we need to be a little careful with our stories because our credibility relies on people trusting our stories. And this is particularly true of sales people. I work with sales teams and sales people stat from a long way back when it comes down to credibility.  They’re in a category of people who may not be trusted and so how they build their credibility and trust is crucially important that they tell true stories.

Mark: 

For those who are listening, the last 2 days Mike and I have been in Sydney where Mike has been running sales teams through the Story-powered Sales Programme and I got to sit in on Wednesday with one group of about 10 young sales people.

Mike:

Yeah; average age 25, I’d say.

Mark:  

I’m just trying to think whether any of them had in their personal story ‘I didn’t want to be a salesperson’. All of them were going ‘I didn’t want to be in sales’.

Mike: 

It wasn’t their career ambition, that’s for sure.

Mark: 

That speaks to our view of sales and the credibility.

Mike:  

That’s right. They hadn’t seen it as a career option but they were pretty bright, switched on people that took to storytelling very quickly, which is most encouraging.

Mark: 

Well when you show them how accessible it is and how useful it can be they picked up on it very quickly. Now on this issue of memorability and the accuracy of our recall, Malcolm Gladwell in his podcast, ‘Revisionist History’ did two episodes on this very topic.

Mike: 

I heard those.

Mark:    

There was a broadcaster in the US, Brian Williams, and he had been a reporter in the Desert Storm in Iraq. He was in CH47 Chinook helicopter–there were a number of helicopters. He was in the lead helicopter, which was struck by small arms fire, and was forced to the ground. The other helicopters had to come down and form a defensive position. They were eventually rescued.

He told this story about 10 years after the event and one of the helicopter pilots called in and said, ‘no, you weren’t in my helicopter, I checked the logs’. It turns out that
Brian Williams was in the 3rd helicopter. It wasn’t the one that took the small arms fire. It arrived about 10 minutes after the incident and formed part of the defensive perimeter.

And so people think he’s a liar but Gladwell makes the argument that he’s simply recalled the event differently.

Mike:  

He’s a human. In that process of hearing people tell the story and replaying it, it’s very easy to put yourself in that and to think that was your memory. We need to appreciate that the purpose of our memory is not to remember the past; it’s to predict your action in the future. It’s to keep you alive.

And so his memory in terms of prediction how he might behave in the future was a perfectly valid use of his brain and it’s how our brains work. The trick is to be aware that we can easily mix up our memories and to make the effort to check our facts.

Mark:

As you did. In our conception of story in business they are facts wrapped in context. They are delivered with emotion and you have to check your facts. So for those of you out there who have a story you tell from years ago. I know I’ve done that. I’ve had a memory from my football days, my ambition to be selected and play in the big time. And I changed the story; over years it got better.

One day I was talking to my son and I realised that it was not exactly as I said.

Mike:     

My wife performs that function with me.

Mark: 

So, checking the facts is a very important thing because your credibility and authenticity are on the line so get your facts right.

Mike:

I like to tell salespeople that there are 1,000’s of stories you can tell—most of them are pretty low grade. It’s finding the best stories and checking they’re true. If it’s not quite true then we just need to find another one. It’s sifting through to find the best true stories; that’s what I coach people to do.

Mark:  

And one of the beauties is there are so many stories out there that are available for you to use; you don’t need to use a fake one. That brings us to an application for that story, which is in a sales setting where you’re trying to sell storytelling in a safety situation. That’s just a no-brainer.

I’ve seen many organisations that use not only those experiences (helicopter incident) but people who have had accidents actually telling their story as a way of really reinforcing the behaviours they want people to avoid but also getting them to do the behaviour they want.

Mike: 

The story is the 2nd best thing after having the actual experience. Our Sydney partner, Paul Ichilcik, you had him on the previous podcast, he went to see a mining company just this week and I told him that story as one you might tell a safety manager. He was meeting with a safety manager and he did tell that story.

And he was asked one question, which he couldn’t answer: the date when it happened. It comes back to do you know the facts of the story? The story still worked.

Mark: 

But the date is one of those key details.

Mike:    

Time and place—critically important.

Mark: 

O.k. so a fantastic story of luck—you could say he was ‘dead lucky’ that he had those 2 instructors on the helicopter that day. I’m really taken with the calmness they exhibited in talking the company through the experience—it is extraordinary—that’s one of the things that will stick in my mind.

It is a very useful story particularly if you want to make the point about the difference between process and experience as ways to get people to remember the behaviours you want them to undertake in the future.

Mike:

Way beyond safety. The application of getting people to tell their story rather than write out a process or instruction—that’s the message.

Mark: 

So now we get to the part of the podcast where we give that story a rating. Because you told the story I’m going first and I’m going to give it a 7.5. A powerful story—one of the only shortcomings of that story is there are only a few situations where I might be able to use that but it would be incredibly powerful in those situations.

Mike:

Yes, that’s right. The wider way to use the story would be as an example of why we should collect stories to share experiences rather that write processes. You could use the story in that context.

Mark:

What about you?

Mike:

I think 7.5 is about right.

Mark: 

Fantastic. That’s the end of this episode of Anecdotally Speaking and join us again next week for another opportunity to find out how we can all put stories to work. Thanks, Mike for joining us and look forward to having you on another episode.

Mike: 

Thanks, Mark.

About  Anecdote International

Anecdote International is a global training and consulting company, specialising in utilising storytelling to bring humanity back to the workforce. Anecdote is now unique in having a global network of over 60 partners in 28 countries, with their learning programs translated into 11 languages, and customers who incorporate these programs into their leadership and sales enablement activities.

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