Kevin shared this story with me the other day. It's too good not to retell.
A few years back, there was an ad agency called Allen Brady and Marsh (ABM). It was a very showbiz agency, and not very fashionable. They were pitching for the British Rail account against some very good agencies and to say they were considered 'underdogs' would be an understatement.
If they were to stand any chance of winning this account they had to find a way to prove they knew something the other, more fashionable agencies didn’t.
Apparently, on the day of the pitch, the top management team of British Rail turned up at the ABM offices. When they arrived at reception it was deserted.
The Chairman checked his watch, and they were on time.
He looked around, and there was no one in sight — just a very scruffy reception area littered with crumpled newspapers, food wrappers, cigarette butts, and cushions with holes burned in them.
It looked like the worst agency they’d ever been in.
Eventually, a scruffy woman appeared and sat behind the desk. She ignored them and started rummaging in a drawer. The Chairman coughed. She ignored him, so he coughed again.
He said, “Excuse me, we’re here to see ...” The woman replied, “Be with you in a minute love.”
He said, “But we have an appointment ...” and she replied abruptly, “Can’t you see I’m busy?”
The Chairman was fuming. “This is outrageous" he said, "we’ve been waiting more than fifteen minutes.”
“Can’t help that love” the receptionist replied.
The Chairman had enough. “Right that’s it, we’re leaving” he declared, and the top management team of British Rail started to walk out.
At that very moment, a door opened and out stepped the agency creative director, Peter Marsh.
He’d been watching everything.
He shook the Chairman’s hand warmly and said, “Gentlemen, you’ve just experienced what the public’s impression of British Rail is. Now, if you’ll come this way, we’ll show you exactly how we’re going to turn that around.”
And he took the British Rail management team into the boardroom and went through their pitch about how bright the future could be, if ABM was their agency, which of course, it became.
This story is a great example of someone deliberately doing something remarkable (something people remark on) to make a real impact and to make people feel the need for change. It's these kind of actions that inevitably trigger stories, and positively influence others.
How might you use this aspect of story triggering in your change initiative to show people what is different, not just tell them? How can you make them 'feel' the need for change?
As a manager, I have always had a lot of time for people who might not be overly talented but who always try their hardest. Highly talented people who won't 'put in' don't get much time or attention from me.
This afternoon a workshop participant told me a story he heard last week that makes this concept come to life.
It's grand final week here in Australia. This is when two of the most high profile sports, Australian Rules Football and Rugby League, have their final games to decide who becomes the champions this year. It's the equivalent of the Superbowl in America or the Champions League Football Final in Europe.
My local rugby league team, the Melbourne Storm have made their grand final. Seeing them all over the newspapers and TV this week reminded me of a story I heard a few months ago when I was listening to local sports radio station.
The CEO of the club, Ron Gauci, and the Football Manager, Frank Ponissi were being interviewed, and one of the questions they were asked was about the 'culture' they had created within the team, and how much this contributed to the team's success. Now, we have all heard this type of questions answered many, many times with a response like; "Culture is really important for this team's success. We work hard to create that culture. It's one of the reasons for our success". An answer that tells you exactly nothing about what they do to create the culture or what that culture looks like in reality.
What was great in this interview, and the reason why I remember it now, is Frank Ponissi didn't do that, he instead told this story:
The week before the Melbourne Storm had played the Manly Sea Eagles, one of the fiercest rivals, on the Monday night. The game, which they won 26-22 was a very bruising affair, and had taken its toll on the players.
By the time the team bus got back to their Hotel it was close to 1 a.m. and everyone was shattered. As the players trudged off the bus, two of the players, Australian half-back, Cooper Cronk (top) and New Zealand back-rower, Sika Manu (below) were down on their hands and knees, crawling from the back of the bus to the front picking up any drinks bottles or rubbish left behind.
Now both of these players had got an absolute hammering in this game, and were both carrying knocks and bruises. Cronk especially was feeling it as this game was just after the State of Origin series, which he was heavily involved in.
When they finally got to the front of the bus they handed the rubbish to the bus driver and apologised as they thought they might have missed some up the back of the bus.
"That's an example of the culture we have worked hard to create here at the Melbourne Storm" he concluded.
I did a blog post in February about reconnecting with an old friend of mine, and how she is one of the most gifted storytellers I know. In that post I said I would be sharing some more of her stories, and here is one she shared with me recently.
A few years back, I attended a reception at Parliament. We wanted to share with selected MPs and officials the results of our research, which showed the considerable contribution our industry made to the country's economy. One of the issues that both sides of the House had had with our industry in the past is that the industry wasn't united, and there was ongoing disharmony. After a round of drinks, the CEO began our presentation. He hadn't got more than a few slides in when the Chairman stood up from the floor, and took over the presentation, leaving the CEO still standing at the podium looking like a deer in the headlights.
Can you imagine how the story of disharmony that the audience were already telling themselves would have just been confirmed as true? How the belief of not being joined up was reinforced by these actions?
This is a classic case of story triggering. By simply taking over from the CEO the Chairman triggered a story amongst the audience, a story that just reinforced their existing beliefs.
There was nothing that could have been said by the Chairmen, or the CEO for that matter, that changed this belief. As the saying goes; "You can't talk your way out of something you have acted your way into".
I've been in San Diego for the past three days - mainly holiday but with two speaking engagements for the annual leadership get-together for Sharp HealthCare. Its one of my biggest ever gigs with over 700 people present for each of the days.
At lunch yesterday with some of the folks at Sharp, one of the ladies from the sound booth asked me to clarify something I'd said. I'd mentioned Ned Kelly and described him as an infamous bushranger (outlaw) who had become something of a folk hero. So, Jill described that the folks in the sound booth were sure I'd said 'Ned Kelly is a famous bushwanker' and she wanted to know if that's what I'd meant to say. This caused a huge outburst of laughter from everyone in the room. I'm 100% sure I said 'bushranger' and explained that 'bushwanker' would be highly inappropriate.
Sharp HealthCare are one of the major health providers in San Diego with 15,000 staff. I was really impressed with them - storytelling is one of their five 'foundations' and much of the day was devoted to sharing both staff and patient stories. Their vision is to be 'the best health care system in the universe'. If you look at this clip by Dan Heath you'll understand why I like this vision so much.
I have just got back from running our first ever Storytelling for Business Leaders course in Wellington, New Zealand last week. I thoroughly enjoyed the day, had a great group who told some terrific stories, and I am sure taught me as much as they learnt off me!
It was also a real treat to have an old friend of mine attend, one I had not seen since I left NZ for the UK nearly 9 years ago. She is also the most naturally gifted storyteller I have ever met.
When you talk to my friend you just marvel at the experiences she has, the interesting people she has meet, and situations she has got herself into.
Reflecting on how these seem to happen just to her I was reminded of a quote from a previous 'Story quote of the week' I posted about Ira Glass, host of This American Life, who said: "Great stories happen to those who can tell them" and boy she can tell them!
Following the course I asked if she would mind sharing a few more of her stories. She has been so kind as to write down a number of her more business related stories and I'm going to share a few of these with you all over the next few weeks. They are too good not be shared.
Back in 1997, I was working for a large law firm in Sydney. I had worked days and nights for months on a public float by the NSW Government of what, till then, had been a state asset. Quite often, I was the "only girl in the room", but that didn't phase me, and by and large, it didn't matter to anyone else either. Finally, the prospectus was signed, and we had a signing ceremony at the State parliament. Everyone was in a pretty good mood. One of the older men that had been involved in the deal told me what a good job I'd done, said I should keep in touch, and took out his business card. And then stuck it in my cleavage.
From a story perspective, Christmas is a prolific time of year. As we gather with friends and families we recall the memories of the past and create new stories as presents are unwrapped, as turkeys emerge from the oven (or the Weber BBQ in the Schenk household), as Dads relive past triumphs with a half-century in the backyard cricket and, for some, as family members rub each other up the wrong way :-)
Stories help us reconnect with old memories, relive special moments and learn more about our friends and families. They also help turn strangers into friends.
Here are some questions that might help create a fun and story-filled festive season:
- What was your funniest moment in 2011?
- What was the high point of the year for you? What happened?
- Same question, but the low point.
- What was your best Christmas present ever?
- What was your most memorable Christmas ever?
- The best thing you have done this year?
- Which family traditions from your childhood have you continued with your own children?
- When was the last time you mentally wanted to punch someone at Christmas time?
- When did you realise that Santa is a fake and reindeer can't really fly?
Its also important to remember one of our favourite mantras - little things make a big difference. Now, I'm the first to admit I am not very good at this but I did something on Friday...a friend had surgery and was coming home around lunchtime. I went to her place and put on the breadmaker so she came home to the smell of fresh-baked bread. She was really pleased and a few days later I overheard her telling her parents on the phone about it...
We'd like to thank all the people we have worked with this year and all our friends, all over the world, who have helped make 2011 a rewarding and successful year.
Best wishes for the festive season and for a happy, healthy and successful 2012 from all of us at Anecdote
I found myself watching parliamentary question time today on TV (OK, I was tired. I did yoga for the first time last night). There were lots of questions about when exactly did the leaders of the government and the opposition know about Qantas CEO's, Alan Joyce, decision to ground his airline. It was a heated debate. (BTW, why can't anyone speak normally in parliament? Everthing is said in staccato, like a basketball coach shouting instructions to his team mid-game). Anyway, Anthony Albanese, the transport minister, steps up to the dispatch box and tells a story about how he was at Sydney airport after the planes were grounded and how he met a distressed American couple who were unable to get home. Now, we'll have to check Hansard tomorrow morning for the exact wording but Mr Albanese went on to say, "the woman was 43 weeks pregnant and needed to get home."
Sheenagh and I looked at each other and said, "43 weeks pregnant! What is she doing flying at 43 weeks? How is she 43 weeks pregnant? Maybe she's an elephant (OK, that was too harsh)." Gales of laughter float around our house. I note on the Qantas website this policy about flights over 4 hours, "For routine pregnancies, you can travel up to the end of the 36th week for single pregnancies and the end of the 32nd week for multiple pregnancies (e.g. twins)."
Mr Albanese's story failed the plausibility test.
Whenever we listen to a story we instinctively match the experience we're hearing with our own experience and if there's a significant mismatch the story's, and the storyteller's, credibility crumbles, no matter how true the event.
The plausibility test occurs as the story unfolds but we have another test we unconsciously make before the story hardly gets started: the relevance test.
Especially in business settings where everyone is pressed for time (That's what people say. I'm not convinced), if we know a story is about to be told we want to know there's a good chance it'll be relevant. To help the listener judge the potential relevance of a story we often prepend a short statement suggesting, or simply stating, the point of the story.
"The Qantas grounding was causing incredible distress for people. It was a good thing the government stepped in. I was in Sydney aiport on Sunday ... [the pregnant woman story]"
Sometime it just takes a slight slip up in facts to lose credibility with a story ... [The Anthony Albenese story of the 43-week pregnant woman]
With these two tests in mind business storytellers should be thinking of ways of conveying the relevance of their stories so they're afforded the air-time to recount their experiences.
They also should be thinking how to increase the plausibility of their story. Facts matter. Details matter. Names of people and places help. But most importantly will your audience believe what you're saying. The best advice comes from the master screenwriter and director Quentin Tarantino in this scene from Reservoir Dogs, lovingly called The Commode Story. Be warned: do not click on this link if you are offended by intense cursing or your workmates in the adjoining cubicles might be offended. The Commode Story.
I love short stories that say so much.
Being a Kiwi, this is an incredibly exciting time for me with the Rugby World Cup currently underway in New Zealand. As part of keeping up to date with all the current news about the cup, the teams and the players, I came across this blog on the BBC website from British journalist, Ben Dir.
Ben spent some time in the small (population 750) Canterbury town of Southbridge with a gentlemen named Neville Carter. Now for those of you who aren't aware of who Neville Carter is, he is the father for the current All Black Number 10, Dan Carter, one of the greatest players currently playing in world rugby.
Ben was trying to understand some more of where Dan Carter came from, what values helped shape him and what kind of person he really was by talking to his father, sister and people he grew up with. Neville Carter told this very short, and simple story that for me tells so much about Dan Carter and who he is as a person.
It was just after the devastating Christchurch earthquake of the 22nd of February, 2011;
"Daniel was staying with us for a few nights and he told us he had an appointment in town, but we found out he spent the day going round three retirement villages. He called in to see how they were, had a cup of coffee, found out how their knitting was going. We only knew about it because one of the old guys who used to play rugby out here rang me to say Daniel had just dropped in.
"Those old people had been through a horrific experience, so for an All Black to drop in and say g'day and have a yarn with them, it put a smile back on their faces. We're probably more proud of the things he does behind the scenes than what he does on the rugby field."
I just love the fact that very short, very simple stories can say so much.