I'm reading John Medina's Brain Rules and thoroughly enjoying it. Here's a snippet illustrating his humorous style while making an important point.
Any learning environment that deals with only the database instincts [our ability to memorise things] or only the improvisatory instincts [our ability to imagine things] ignores one half of our ability. It is doomed to fail. It makes me think of jazz guitarists: They're not going to make it if they know a lot about music theory but don't know how to jam in a live concert. Some schools and workplaces emphasize a stable, rote-learning database. They ignore the the improvisatory instincts drilled unto us for millions of years. Creativity suffers. Others emphasize usage of a database, without installing a fund of knowledge in the first place. They ignore our need to obtain deep understanding of a subject, which includes memorizing and storing a richly structured database. You get people who are great improvisers but don't have depth of knowledge. You may know someone like this where you work. They may look like jazz musicians and have the appearance of jamming, but in the end they know nothing. They're playing intellectual air guitar.
Apart from a great last sentence, this paragraph is a warning against the pendulum swinging between rote and improvisation. I suspect we are at the impro end at the moment and at risk of being guitar heros.
Marketing folk confuse me sometimes. For example, they talk about brand stories yet they forget the story bit.
For example, if you Google the phrase "brand story" the top hit is a blog post by Mark Thomson. Reading his post you'd be forgiven for thinking stories are superfluous to crafting a brand story because while he uses the word 'story,' often actually, he doesn't explain what he means by a story nor give any examples of brand stories. His advice is to be clear, consistent and give it a bit a flair. A nicely formatted set of dot points could meet his criteria for a brand story.
Let me show you a brand story and then I'll share with you why so many marketers, journalists, and political spin doctors talk about narrative but don't appear to really get it.
At a minimum stories are set in a time (at the turn of the century, three months ago, in 1996, when I visited Grandma, a long, long time ago—you get the idea) and events happen which are linked together inferring causes and effects. If you haven't got these two basic features—a time when things happened and things actually happening—you don't have a story. And these features are merely the pre-requisite. Having them certainly doesn't guarantee a compelling story.
I'm surprised how many people talk about stories yet can't actually determine whether stories are present or missing. I'd say about half of the people attending our storytelling courses are confused about what a story actually is and it's one of the things we spend a good amount of time to ensure everyone's got it. Without this understanding you can't work with stories.
Even our very best political journalists seem confused. Here's Michelle Gratton, political editor for The Age newspaper said recently:
Having a "narrative" — which is just a sexy and fashionable way of saying a government should present what it is up to in an overall framework — gives people the feeling their leaders know what they're doing, and that the ends of policy are both worthwhile and consistent with the means. (That is, of course, provided the narrative is convincing.)
And here's ANZ's chief economist, Saul Eslake, suggested narrative (according to Michelle) for the Rudd government.
"If I were advising the Government, I'd be trying to say that there are some downside risks as a result of global factors; that because of this inflation is likely to fade away; that the budget had got the balance right; that if things got worse, it has the funds to ease fiscal policy," Eslake says.
"It could also say that Australians are exposed to the international credit crunch not because banks are up to their gills in dodgy mortgages, as in the US and Europe, but because we have a huge current account deficit — and that we want to address that through better productivity, skills and other reforms including tax reform."
Saul's suggested narrative are merely a string of ideas. You could craft a story from Saul's ideas but in themselves are far from a narrative.
When someone asks me about Anecdote I tell versions of this story.
Ever since Isaac Newton published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687 people have viewed the world around them as measured, predictable and conforming to defined laws of physics. The world is a machine and we only need to understand how that machine works so we can optimise each part.
Fredrick Taylor introduced Newton’s mechanical perspective to business in the 1880s and 90s. Taylor strongly believed that well defined procedures executed with precision was the best way to run a business. His ideas took off and this mechanical view of the firm dominated business thinking for the last 120 years. It worked remarkably well.
Since the industrial revolution we have seen things speed up and the information revolution has seen the world become more connected with changes accelerating every day. The 21st century, however, marks a tipping point where the mechanical view begins to falter. We need new ways to conceive the way businesses work that reflect their complexity and their essential human nature.
In 2004 we started Anecdote in the belief there was a new way to conceive of work that was organic, human-centred and reflected the complexity every business experiences in the 21st century. So we set about developing techniques and tools based on stories, a uniquely human faculty, designed to facilitate change more effectively, foster learning and collaboration and advance the natural leadership capabilities that exists in every organisation.
We believe this human-centred approach marks the future of organisations. There is still a long way to go because the majority of businesses still work on the basis that they are a machine with levers to pull, wheels to turn and cogs to grease.
The thing is, it's not the only story we tell that helps people understand who we are and what we stand for. There isn't a single brand story rather organisations should have a repertoire of brand stories that everyone knows and can tell.
My guess is that marketers, advertising agents and political Hollowmen use the term 'story' and 'narrative' so often that there is a belief that everyone knows what it means but only a subset of the group actually get it and the rest are too frightened to admit their ignorance.
Filed in Business storytelling.
The world's been carefully watching Obama vs McCain. It's interesting to see how the media are comparing their stories: Obama's parents' American dream, McCain's journey in Vietnam, Sarah Palin's hockey mom experiences, and Joe Biddin's childhood struggles. Who tells the best stories? Whose stories make the most impact?
While politicians have mastered the art of storytelling, the world of business if far behind. Carmine Gallo points out two reasons why Business Leaders don't use narrative to present their ideas:
- Most presenters are afraid of opening themselves up in a business context.
- Many deliver presentations created by folks with whom they have had little personal interaction.
Most people accept that stories convey more meaning to the listener than any amount of data or analysis. Yet we don't see narrative complementing data as much as we'd like to.
Telling stories is not difficult. It's actually quite easy once you give it a little practice. The hard bit (in a business context) is opening up to the idea of tapping into our experiences and sharing them.
“The best way to persuade people is with your ears - by listening to them.”
One of our clients is a large engineering firm (perhaps Australia's largest) and I've been working with them over that last 12 months helping to establish some communities of practice. Our first one focussed on technical draftsmen and is off and running well. Their domain is well defined, they have good participation and have developed a strong rhythm of activity. From the outset I've encouraged them to collect their stories of success such as the one about how the members designed and delivered a three-hour course on diagram naming and part number databases (to the uninitiated this sounds prosaic, but part numbers is a massive issue for engineers). They've run it three times and it has been a resounding success.
The other community of practice has a sprawling domain: engineering. I tried to advice against such a broad domain because it fails the basic identity test where I ask whether people stand up proudly and say, "I am an engineer." It turns out they are more specific than that. They are mechanical engineers, print circuit board engineers, or electronic simulation engineers, to name just a few of the possibilities. So this CoP has limped along and today the core team sat down to redesign the approach.
After a good discussion we identified two technical sub-groups in the engineering community that we could focus on: print circuit board designers and another group that uses a particular systems analysis tool. The third group was role based and while we didn't pinpoint the exact engineering role to focus on we recognised that there were roles like project engineer and engineering manager who might value learning from their colleagues. This role-based community also enables the broader engineering-related issues to emerge while also keeping the conversations lively and relevant to the participants.
This might be obvious to the many CoP experts out there but we learned today that you can overly focus on technical groupings to establish CoPs and forget about role-based groupings. In this case there's still a strong desire to maintain a broad engineering-wide domain but we will foster the CoP by focussing on specific sub-groups and over time look for ways to connect these groups.
I spent a fair bit of Thursday at the Melcrum Strategic Communications Summit in Sydney, where one of our clients was presenting on the use of narrative in their manager development program, exploring their OCI results and embedding their new corporate values.
One of the other speakers told how their CEO started blogging internally (at the behest of the comms team). Initially, much of the blog content was written by the comms team...and surprise, surprise, no-one took any notice. It wasn't until the CEO started blogging about things like how he spent his weekend (at the Saints game with his son) that staff started reading his blog. The speaker correctly identified that people are not interested in the 'corporate speak' on the blog - it just isn't credible. And that it felt a little dishonest having the content done by the comms team.
Filed in .
In case there are still people out there who believe we act as rational decision makers, take this scenario.
You're in a shop to buy a new ipod and you hear from a friend that two blocks down the street you can get the same one $50 cheaper.
Do you go?
Yes. Of course. It's $50 buck straight back in your pocket.
You are in a shop buying a multi-thousand dollar flat-screen TV. You hear from a friend that you can get the same TV two blocks down the street for $50 cheaper.
Do you go?
Of course not. It's not worth the effort.
BUT IT IS THE SAME $50 IN YOUR POCKET IF YOU DO!
Our new workshop now has a new name. We're calling it
Putting Stories to Work: Delivering meaningful Change and Engagement
What managers need today is a tool that empowers them to inspire people into action. Narrative techniques can deliver a range of benefits to an organization. It's just a matter of learning the techniques and then putting them to practice.
We've redesigned our narrative techniques workshop with a focus on engagement. Over two days we aim to teach managers how to create a resolve among their staff so that they see the value of the change efforts being undertaken in the organization and participate enthusiastically.
There will be lots of opportunities to practice the techniques and learn from each other's feedback during the sessions. Join us on November 11 and 12 in Melbourne. And if you're keen for us to come to your city, we'd love to hear from you.
A few posts ago I described one of the reasons why stories are memorable: they evoke emotion.
But stories are also memoriable because they create a framework for us to hang ideas, facts and concepts from.
- After each class, tell a “story” about the material covered—a five minute summary of the concepts that drove the lecture.
- Don’t bother writing it down. Instead, just say it to yourself while walking to your next class. Treat it like you’re a literary agent or movie producer pitching the lecture at an important meeting.
- Cover the big picture flow of ideas, not the small details. Answer the question “why was this lecture important?”, not all the information it contained. Play up the flashy or unexpected.
Read the rest of Cal's post for good examples and the full reasoning.
This is also relevant for those of us in the workplace who attend conferences, seminars or just have to bone up on a new topic for, say, a new job.
Tell stories to hear stories
Listen to stories to remember your stories
Mark and I penned these observations while developing our course on storytelling. The first one, "tell stories to hear stories," reminds us that a good way to find stories is to tell some yourself. Here's an example. When I see my teenage daughter after school I would often ask how her day went, whether anything interesting happened at school, and the standard response is often monosyllabic: yep, nup. In fact the more questions I'd ask the shorter the answers. So I changed tack and rather than ask questions I simply recounted something that happened in my day. I would launch into something like, "I met a bearded lady today. This morning I drove down to Fitzroy to run an anecdote circle for ..." and immediately my daughter would respond with an encounter from her day. A conversation starts and it's delightful.
Our second reminder is the flip-side to the first. If you want to remember your own stories go listen to other people's stories and then don't forget to jot your anecdotes down. Many of our stories are ephemeral, flooding our memory banks when the conditions are right and evaporating just as quickly. Often a story will come to mind and you will have no idea why you would ever retell it but make a note anyway. Just being aware of our stories is an important first step in the effective application of business narrative.
Filed in Collaboration.
It's easy to talk about what collaboration is or is not or the types of collaboration. What's difficult is to change your practices (read behaviours) to improve your chances of an effective collaboration. Here are seven personal skills that we all need to master to give collaboration a chance.
- How to apologise
- How to advocate your point of view without harming your collaborator's feelings
- How to spot when a conversation gets emotional and then make it safe again to continue meaningful dialogue
- How to listen and get into the shoes of your collaborator
- How to define a mutual intent that will inspire action
- How to tell and elicit stories
- How to get things done so you have something to show for your collaboration
What are some of the fundamental characteristics of a great collaboration? And how does my list of seven stack up against your experience?
Filed in Business storytelling.
This workshop has turned out to be one of our most popular offerings. In the last few months we have delivered it to sales people in IBM, engineers in Allinta and have just received word we have been selected to deliver it to NAB leaders throughout the bank.
The great news is that you can attend this workshop in Melbourne in a few weeks time. It's all about using storytelling techniques in a business context to improve communication and staff engagement.
We focus on three areas in the one day workshop:
- helping people find stories to retell. We call this prospecting for stories
- learning about different story patterns and when to use them. What is a vision story? What is a sparking action story? How to use a values in action story?
- practising retelling your experiences in an engaging and memorable way that suits the context
If you're interested, just email us and we will send you a registration form.
The cost is $495.
It will be held in Brunswick
Starts at 8.30 and finishes at 5.00pm
If you want to learn more check out the workshop blurb.
Do you remember where you were when you first saw the those two jumbo jets plunge into the World Trade Center? How well do you remember what you were doing when you saw it? Can you remember the room you were in, the people in the room with you, what you said, what you thought?
When strong emotions surge through us our bodies respond by pumping adrenalin into our blood stream. In addition to preparing us to run or fight, adrenalin enhances our memories of what was happening when the emotion hit. This biological response was probably a very good feature of our species in times past because you want to remember exactly where that T-rex, that scared the bejesus out of you, hangs out.
Stories create emotions too and therefore there's no surprise that we remember the best stories, they ones that touch our hearts, make us laugh or even just create a feeling of puzzlement.
Last week I was teaching our storytelling for business leaders workshop to an energy company and I started the day with a Jumpstart Storytelling session. One of the most popular stories was this one which was originally told by a CEO many years ago but remembered clearly by the participant.
In prehistoric times there was this family that lived in a cave. They were very happy in their cave. They led a good life but one day they noticed across the valley another cave that looked pretty good. So after many weeks of discussion they made their mind up to move to the new cave. As they crossed the valley they noticed just how rich the soil was and thought it would be even better to settle there and till the soil. Which they did.
The CEO never explained the story nor mentioned it again, but the discussion it started about what it meant continued for years.
Richard Maxwell and Robert Dickman say stories are facts wrapped up in context and delivered with emotion. The three factors are equally important: fact, context, emotion. But emotion is often set aside in a business context and we are only now seeing its inclusion as a legitimate factor to consider.
The relationship between emotion and memory was first brought to me attention in Maxwell and Dickman's book, The Elements of Persuasion