We help lots of organisations turn their strategies into memorable and concrete strategic stories. In doing so, a key factor is ensuring its not a 'Pollyanna' story'. You know the ones…everything is upbeat, previous successes are emphasised, failures are not mentioned. Theses stories might be politically correct but risk being viewed as inauthentic or not believable.
I recently watched this Steve Denning video of his TEDx talk in late 2011 on the topic of 'Leadership storytelling'. In it, Steve describes exactly the same concept in a very succinct way. He calls them 'Titanic Stories'…"700 people arrived safe and happy in New York after their voyage on the Titanic."
This story only works if two conditions are met: (1) listeners don't know about the 1500 people who died on the trip and (2) you can keep it that way. As soon as either condition is not met your story, your strategy and your credibility will plummet to the icy depths never to be recovered.
The golden rule in business storytelling is 'be authentic'.
Filed in Business storytelling.
Over the years I've had the pleasure of meeting and working with some terrific business story practitioners.
And because we love to know who are the really great story folk in our region, I thought I'd share who I think are the best story practitioners who are great to work with in the world today and where they are located. Would love to hear who YOU would add to the list. Just add a comment below.
Mary Alice Arthur - New Zealand - http://www.getsoaring.com/
Madelyn Blair - USA http://www.pelerei.com/about-pelerei/madelyn-blair.php
David Boje - USA http://peaceaware.com/vita/
Sean Buvala - USA - http://seantells.com/
Steve Denning - USA - http://www.stevedenning.com/site/Default.aspx
Bob Dickman - USA - http://www.first-voice.com/
Karen Dietz - USA - http://www.polaris-associates.com/AboutUs
Eva Snijders - Spain - http://evasnijders.com/
Terrence Gargiulo - USA - http://www.makingstories.net/
One Thousand and One - Australia - http://www.onethousandandone.com.au/
Limor Shiponi - Israel - http://www.limorshiponi.com/limor/
Tony Quilan - UK - http://narrate.typepad.com/about.html
Annette Simmons - USA - http://www.annettesimmons.com/
The Storytellers - UK - http://www.the-storytellers.com/
Story Worldwide - UK - Sarah Kelleher http://www.storyworldwide.com/profiles/sarah-kelleher/
Victoria Ward - UK http://www.sparknow.net/victoriaward.html
Sheila Wee - Singapore - http://storywise.com.sg/storytelling/
Filed in Strategic clarity.
Last week I flew to Vienna to help a pharmaceutical company develop their strategy. It was a two day event. We used the first day to explore their current situation and past by, among other things, creating a massive visual history across one wall. We delved into the important events that have shaped them and the lessons they've learned so far. We looked at the challenges they faced and told stories of how these challenges were really impacting their work. For me this is the foundation for any strategy. The executives need to know and share the problems and opportunities they want to tackle. They need to get talking and make some real choices.
On the second day we focussed on the future. I stepped them through a visualisation to get them out of their heads and then we shared stories of where the future was already happening in their business. We call these Gibson stories inspired by William Gibson who is reported to have said: "the future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed." This idea of finding things that work and then work out ways to do more of it certainly appeals as it avoids the dreaded problem spiral (if you look for problems you will find them) which can drain the energy from even the most upbeat group.
Towards the end of the second day we had things on every wall: purpose statement, goals, illustrations of a desired future, strategic themes. You can imagine that the participants might feel a little punch drunk by this stage as each new idea smacks them about the head. Then we finally we pulled it all together with a strategic story. I'm always amazed by the effect. All of a sudden everything falls into place for them. It has meaning. It's something they can now explain to others.
I like to finish a workshop by getting everyone in a circle and just asking, "so how do you feel right now? Not what you think, but how do you feel?" For many they felt energised and a sense of accomplishment. They all admitted to feeling a little confused half way through and wondered how it would come together. I warned them they would. For others they wanted to get to the next step and work out the plan. For me I wanted them to keep their strategic conversation going because no matter how good a two day event might be it's often the beginning of the decisions they have to make. Executives need time to let the possibilities sink in. But it's far better to make some real decisions, put them into action, learn from experience and adjust moving forward.
I had a meeting on Friday with a senior leader facing a common problem. There are many changes going on and his people have developed the view that 'head office doesn't know anything about what we do and their restructures don't make sense' along other related non-productive views. He wants his team on the front foot so they are part of the change agenda and avoid have the changes 'done to them'.
I was reminded of an activity described by Fred Kofman(1) that I use in nearly every leadership program we run. The activity helps show people that their explanations aren't constructive without telling them so (telling them usually just creates resistance to your message).
The activity aims to illustrate that we can choose how we respond to situations (response-ability). Kofman stands at the front of the room and drops a pen, then asks "what caused the pen to fall?" "Gravity" is usually the first answer. Sometimes people point out that "you dropped it." Both answers are correct, but Kofman points out that the usefulness of the answer is related to our purpose.
If your purpose is to prevent the pen from falling again, pointing out that the pen falls "because of gravity" will not help you. Essentially this means that as long as there is gravity the pen will fall, and there is nothing you can do about it. On the other hand, if you say that you dropped the pen, there is something you can do about it. The exercise demonstrates the important distinction between self-empowering explanations ("I dropped it") and explanations that remove your power to influence the situation ("gravity caused the pen to fall").
In Kofman's words, your explanation determines if you will be a 'victim' or a 'player.'>
1. Kofman, F. (2006), 'Conscious Business: How to build value through values', Sounds True Press, page 33.
Filed in Business storytelling.
We've said often on this blog that you just don't get the benefits of storytelling (meaning, memory, caring) unless you are telling a story.
Their point was simple. Data on its own is not enough. People have to make sense of it and stories can make a difference. Can't disagree with that.
But as you read through the article you notice that they don't give any examples of stories about data and then their three points of advice had nothing to do with stories.
A recent commenter on the piece, Nahum Gershon, nailed it when he said:
I think the article somewhat confuses storytelling with providing clear presentations of the essence of data and information. Not all effective and rational explanations or scenarios constitute a story. Using storytelling elements could make a representation more effective and it would be beneficial that data scientists learn the art of storytelling to make their presentations even more effective.
This is a common mistake. Everyone is talking about stories these days but when you ask them what they mean they are often can't really tell you a story.
So what could they have said which would help Big Data Scientists actually use stories? Well, I think they could have mentioned that stories have structure (and yes, there are variations). Here's a simple one that could help a scientist (or business leader) to tell a story about their data.
- In the past it was like this ...
- And then something happened (that we didn't expect or was remarkable) ...
- And as a result of that ...
- Until finally ...
The famed influence psychologist, Robert Cialdini, discovered another story-based way to present scientific data and wrote it up in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.
Just reveal your big data as a mystery story.
Here's the structure:
- Pose the mystery
- Deepen the mystery
- Home in on the proper explanation by considering (and offering evidence against) alternative explanations
- Provide a clue to the proper explanation
- Resolve the mystery
- Draw the implications for the phenomenon under study
To test this structure out a while back I wrote a blog post using the mystery format called ‘What is happening to Melbourne's trains?’
My advice to scientists, however, is don't write your stories, just tell them while presenting your data. A story told and a story written are worlds apart. But that's probably for another post.
The best stories contain data. To think "on the one hand is the story" and "on the other hand is the data" is just wrong headed. Now we need to help scientists find and tell the stories that bring their data to life.
Cialdini, R. B. (2005). “What’s The Best Secret Device for Engaging Student Interest? The Answer Is In The Title.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 24(1): 22-29.
"Government managers secure the resources they need to operate not by selling products and services to individual customers, but by selling a story of public value creation to elected representatives of the people in legislatures and executive branch positions."1
Private sector leaders have it easy: they sell their products, they generate revenue, they manage their costs, and while they're making profits and creating value, they keep their jobs and stay in business.
Public sector leaders, on the other hand, obtain resources by gaining support and legitimacy from politicians, public opinion and a myriad of other invested institutions each pulling and pushing in their own directions. Then, as the work gets done, it's difficult measuring the impact it has made because the outcomes often emerge years after initiatives are implemented and working out what caused what is near on impossible. It's a tough gig.
According to Harvard Kennedy School Professor, Mark Moore, the strategic challenge for public sector leaders is "… the ability to imagine and articulate a vision of public value that can command legitimacy and support, and is operationally doable in the domain for which you have responsibility."1 Business storytelling has a role to play in each of the three elements of Moore's strategic challenge: public value, legitimacy and support, and operational capability.
Firstly, public sector leaders need to tell the story of the public value they intend to create. And like all good strategy this is best done by creating the story with your stakeholders rather than creating it alone and springing it on the unsuspecting. We call it a strategic story but don't think is merely a single story to be parroted throughout the organisation. Instead it's more like an original score where each leader composes their own arrangement and tells their own anecdotes to bring it to life.
Legitimacy and support comes from both external and internal sources. Externally, politicians and leaders in other institutions must stand up for and support your vision of public value. And of equal importance, your leaders and managers inside your department must be engaged, believe and actively support the direction the department is taking. Time and attention are the valuable resources you need and storytelling and story-listening will help cut through the noise.
Lastly, you'll need the organisation capabilities to make your initiatives happen. Government is inherently noisy because, unlike private enterprise, unhappy customers just stop buying your products. Public sector stakeholders don't have that choice. So they get vocal. And in this noisy environment you need to be heard and you need to get your message to stick. Companies are starting to include storytelling as an essential skill for their leaders. Victorian Department of Treasury & Finance is a leader in this regard.
Storytelling has three characteristics that make it an effective technique for all three aspects of the public sector strategic challenge because stories are memorable, meaningful and emotional
Stories are Memorable
Attend a presentation and as we walk out the door we have already forgotten most of what was said. We only remember the gist and the feeling it leaves us. More often than not the only thing we will remember with clarity are the stories.
Stories are more memorable than facts alone or abstractions such as talking about "business transformation processes" because they create pictures in our minds--we can see it happening--and these pictures conjures up our own experiences helping us to judge the plausibility of what's happening. We get engaged in the story and because multiple neural pathways are activated (because of the detail in the story such as the places, the characters, the events) we remember it.
Researchers from Princeton have even found that when someone is listening to a story their brain lights up (in a MRI scanner) in the same way as the teller's. The two brain are synchronised. When the listener hears only opinions and viewpoints, activity is limited to just the language area of their brain. During a story, areas across the brain light up as the listener and teller relives the experience. For example, if the storyteller talks about kicking a ball, the parts of the brain associated with the mechanics of kicking a ball lights up. It's a whole brain experience. The most remarkable finding of their research was when they noticed there were times when the story listener's brain lit up before the storyteller; the listener was anticipating what came next and when this happened comprehension increased further.2
Stories are Meaningful
"What's the story here?" This is what we say when we are trying to make sense of something. We need to tell ourselves a story to give it order and meaning.
Stories provide the context and connections we need to place the information we are receiving into a bigger picture of the other things that are happening in the organisation and our own experience. When we hear a story things start to make sense.
A couple of years ago, a university library was preparing to move to a new, purpose-built, ultra-modern building. The move required a huge number of things to change, including the library's culture, and we were invited to help it with this aspect. The first thing we did was to collect stories from the library's employees which illustrated the current culture and values. Then we gathered everyone together for a workshop to identify the patterns in those stories.
At one point in the workshop, 10 librarians were looking at a set of anecdotes about their value of 'excellence'. After reviewing their cluster of post-it notes, they concluded that the key issue was that they needed more training. They refused to change this view despite our gentle prompting that there might be something going on at a deeper level. Then we suggested they use a story spine to tell the story of 'training' in the library.
The librarians then set about creating a story that explained what was happening in the organisation around training. The story they produced was about a woman named Sue (not an actual person but a character representative of a type of person in the library) and it went like this: ‘Sue had a bad habit of talking behind people's backs. She was always bitching about people on the one hand, but always said the right things to the right people on the other hand. Then, after Sue was promoted, people realised she couldn't do the job and they started bitching about her. One day, one of the staff, who had left because Sue was mean to him, ran over her in his BMW at some traffic lights. Many people danced and were happy’.
The librarians were shocked at this story. They looked at each other and, almost in unison, said: "We don't have a training problem in our library. We have a bitching problem." And right there and then they committed themselves to tackling bitching, which they ultimately did.
It's stories rather than logical arguments that convey meaning.
Stories convey Emotional and inspire action
“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou
Stories make you feel something. And getting someone to take action is impossible without emotion. Leaders need to tell stories so people feel it, so people are inspire to take action. Sometimes it takes a story to change behaviour and to create the conditions for new stories to emerge.
Nick was standing in front of a wall of stories. Each A4 sheet of paper sported a single anonymous anecdote illustrating either a good or bad management behaviour, collected from Nick's company. One story had captured Nick's attention and made him agitated: "I can't believe this guy. Imagine answering a phone in an interview. My God, he even stepped out of his office to chat with someone who was just passing by."
His complaints caused others in the workshop to wander over to see what was going on. As Nick was spluttering his displeasure, Paul, one of his colleagues, jumped in: "That was my anecdote, Nick, and it was about you." Nick's faced turned red and before he could say anything, another colleague added: "It totally nails you Nick. It's spot on. You do it all the time." By now, everyone in the workshop was watching. It seemed the next few seconds would reveal Nick's true character.
Nick's face was ashen as he looked around the room. He gathered himself and then apologised to his colleagues, adding: "I can't promise you it won't happen again - I wasn't even aware I did this. But I can promise you that I'm going to make every effort to change my behaviour." And to Nick's credit, he did. At the time of the workshop, Nick was the head of sales and marketing at the company; he's now the CEO.
There was a big difference between what Nick thought he was doing and what he was actually doing. It took a story, and the willingness of his trusted colleagues to speak up, to make him aware of his poor behaviour. As a result, Nick's insight was both cognitive and emotional: cognitive in that he could rationally understand what he was doing wrong, and emotional in that he felt intense embarrassment at having discovered that the bad behaviour he had ridiculed only moments before was his own. This combination of insight and emotion created a powerful impetus in Nick to take action.
Government is difficult to manage and lead. There are many stakeholders involved and things are constantly shifting. Engagement, influence and persuasion are essential to impact those who provide legitimacy and support for government initiatives, both inside and outside the organisation, and storytelling techniques are an effective way to achieve this.
Dan and Chip Heath, in their best selling book Made to Stick, summarise their findings this way:
"Stories can almost single-handedly defeat the Curse of Knowledge. In fact, they naturally embody most of the SUCCESs framework. Stories are almost always Concrete. Most of them have Emotional and Unexpected elements. The hardest part of using stories effectively is making sure that they're simple--that they reflect your core message."3
- Moore, M.H. & Khagram, S. 2004, On Creating Public Value: What Business Might Learn from Government about Strategic Management, Harvard.
- Hasson, U., Ghazanfar, A.A., Galantucci, B., Garrod, S. & Keysers, C. 2012, 'Brain-to-brain coupling: a mechanism for creating and sharing a social world', Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 114-21.
- Heath, C. & Heath, D. 2007, Made to stick : why some ideas survive and others die, Random House, New York.
At Christmas, I was in Melbourne with my two kids. All my family live there and I needed to do what I could to ensure there was no disharmony or feelings of favouritism. So I applied Shawn's guiding principle in these matters: 'Families are like fish. After three days they start to go off'. So I stayed for a few days with each of my relatives.
It turns out that there is another way to maintain harmony and indeed, to build resilience in families, especially children. Have a family narrative.
This article in the NY Times claims that "The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative."
Three types of narrative are described:
- The ascending family narrative which goes 'when we came to this country we had nothing. We worked hard and look at us now'
- The descending family narrative which goes 'we used to have it all and then we lost everything'
- The oscillating family narrative which goes 'we've had our ups and downs, but no matter what happened we always stuck together as a family'
Apparently, this last narrative is the healthiest, especially for building the confidence and resilience of kids.
Many thanks to Ken Everett from Think On Your Feet® for the pointer to this article.
Filed in Changing behaviour.
James March, Professor of Political Science at Stanford argues that when we make choices, we tend to rely on one of two basic models for decision making: the consequences model or the identity model.(*1)
In the consequence model, when we have a decision to make we weigh the costs and benefits and make the choice that maximises our satisfaction.
Instead of rational/logical approach of the consequence model, the identity model of decision making says when we have a decision to make we ask ourselves three questions:
- Who am I?
- What kind of situation is this?
- What would someone like me do in this situation?
Let me show you an example of someone using the identity model to influence someone to make a different choice.
This clip is taken from the hit US series 'Glee'.
In this episode the Glee club have the opportunity to have their picture in the school yearbook for the first time. The Principal isn't keen for them to have their picture in there, and most of the Glee club don't want this to happen either, both fearing the picture will be vandalised and defaced. The only people who are really keen for it to happen are the teacher in charge of the Glee club, Will Schuester, and the 'goody two shoes" co-captain of the club, Rachel Berry.
The Principal finally agrees, but says that there must be two members of the Glee club in the photo. The problem is, no one else wants to be in there except Rachel. So Rachel now has the challenge of convincing the other co-captain, Finn Hudson to do it with her.
Did you see how Rachel used the concept of identity (being a leader) to help influence Finn? "Because you're a leader Finn, and that's what leaders do. They stick their necks out for people they care about". And how does he eventually reply? "I am a leader. It's who I am, who I want to be".
Now, I have yet to see it happen so easily, and so quickly in reality, but tapping into the identity of who people are, or who they want to be, can be incredibly powerful when creating change.
If you are interested in knowing more about using identity to create change, have a look at the story about how Paul Butler worked to save the St Lucia Parrot from extinction told in Switch or the 'Don't Miss with Texas' anti-littering campaign cited in Made to Stick. Also have a look at our old favourite Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini.
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?
Filed in Business storytelling.
He looks the part; he knows all the right buzzwords; he can quote chapter-and-verse from all the best-known pundits and practitioners. But is it all just empty 'smart-talk'?
Smart-talk is information without understanding, theory without practice - 'all mouth and no trousers', as the old aphorism puts it. It's all too common amongst would-be 'experts' - and likewise amongst 'rising stars' in management and elsewhere.
Even if unintentional on their part, people who indulge in smart-talk can be genuinely dangerous. They'll seem plausible enough at first, but in reality they'll often know just enough to get everyone into real trouble, but not enough to get out of it again. Not helpful...
Smart-talk is the bane of most business - and probably of most communities too. So what can we do to catch it? What can we do to tell the difference between real experience and mere smart-talk?
The answer: get them to tell a story.
Someone who really does know what they're talking about will be able to reel off one real story after another from their own experience, and describe alternative scenarios, adapted from other contexts, other companies, even other industries. By contrast, the smart-talk pundit will be able to deliver someone else's story, or quote theory at us, but won't be able to give a real story of their own.
To identify a real story, we're looking for the usual criteria:
- a time - "last summer", "back in 2003", "when we were in the early part of the project"
- a place - "Vancouver", "our office", "up in the mountains"
- one or more people - "June Thomas", "her boss", "that guy with the curly hair"
- a sequence of events - "this happened, and then that happened"
- a 'why' or lesson-learned, often in the form of a punch-line - "and that's how we came to open our office in Beijing"
A story is always about people rather than things, and about experience and lessons-learned rather than ideas or theory. For practice to help you identify real stories, try Anecdote's The Story Test: ten real examples of would-be business-stories. (There's also a really useful commentary-post by Shawn Callahan, 'The StoryTest results', on the Anecdote website.)
It'd also be useful to trawl through your Zahmoo story-collection, to pick out appropriate stories as a gentle challenge in hiring and the like. Present the story to the candidate, asking them to reframe the story from their own experience. Ask them to change the details, to try a different context, a different real-world problem to resolve: those who only have smart-talk will struggle, whereas those with real experience will have no trouble at all.
I wanted to concentrate on the 'how-to' part, so this post itself isn't much of a story! But a simple test-exercise for you: how would you reframe this as a story, from your own experience of catching someone indulging in smart-talk? Who are the people in the story? Where, and when? What happened - the sequence of events, the punch-line? And what did you learn from it?
Smart-talk is the bane of business: catch it with a simple story.
This post was authored by Tom Graves and originally posted on the Zahmoo blog.