Hijacked or Precious? 


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I introduced myself at a recent event as a business storyteller, which is what I am. There was a time when no one understood what the word meant. Not so today. The person next to me then introduced himself: ‘I am a storyteller too and tell stories with numbers.’ Everyone just looked confused. We later found out that he was an accountant!

One part of me celebrated. The word storyteller is now so sexy that it’s being hijacked. But another part of me was unconvinced.

Stefan Semester, of the design firm, Sagmeister & Walsh, doesn’t mince his words when he calls this bluff: I think all the storytellers are not storytellers. Recently I read an interview with someone who designs roller coasters and he referred to himself as a ‘storyteller.’ No @%$#head, you are not a storyteller, you’re a roller coaster designer! And that’s fantastic and more power to you, but why would you want to be a storyteller if you design roller coasters?”

Until I read his work, I thought I was being precious about labels.
It turns out we all can and should story tell—it makes what we do engaging, interesting and relevant. But using storytelling as a tool versus being a storyteller are two totally different things.

It’s not (just) that my nose is out of joint (really!). I worry that it reflects a deeper problem. If you describe yourself as a storyteller when you are an accountant, then the very first story you are sharing is spin. Not cool.

I totally get that in a fluid agile work environment, the work we do cannot always be distilled into one or two words. Right till the 1980s the census job question only asked what is your title? Today the census features a 2-part question: What is your title? What do you do? Because titles like ‘Chief Fun Officer’ beg for more information.

So whether you are filling a census form or describing what you do to someone my advice is the same. Celebrate what you do! And find a sexy way to describe it (without hijacking the word storyteller). Unless, of course, you really are a professional business storyteller.

How would you describe what you do?

Please share, I love hearing from you.

A Star and a Suggestion


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One of our highest needs is appreciation. This is true even if you are not normally needy!

My daughter was telling me her violin teacher has created a simple way for the kids to appreciate one other after a performance. They use a system called “star and a suggestion.” A star would be one thing I liked about your violin playing, and a suggestion is one thing to do better/differently. A simple frame and an easy way for kids to learn the art of appreciation.

Business, of course, is a much more hard-nosed place. We, as employees, want our individuality and our contributions at work recognised in some way. Imagine our delight if we are recognised as customers.

A group of customers was invited to test out a new model ATM for TD Bank in Canada. When they tested these ATMs, they found out that they were Automated Thanking Machines and not Automated Teller Machines. The ATMs spat out gifts instead of balances, not just mundane movie tickets but well thought-out gifts. A mother with a sick daughter in Trinidad received a plane ticket. Another parent received a family pack of passes to take her kids to Disneyland. Through #TDThanksYou day, the bank thanked over 30,000 customers—some receiving money in their bank accounts at a branch or via direct deposit. The emotionally heartfelt responses of their customers speak to the thoughtfulness of this idea.

The #TDThanksYou day event continues to this day following its successful launch in 2014.

#TDThanksYou day poses a challenge for all of us in business. It raises the bar. While we might have plenty of suggestions for our customers, how can we give them a star?

Please comment, I love hearing from you.

Shhh this is private…


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Our biggest fear with storytelling is that we might disclose too much. It is after all storytelling and not group therapy! At work, no one wants to be like that friend on Facebook who overshares.

The paradox is that successful storytelling requires vulnerability. This then begs the question—how can we do storytelling and do it well?

When working with clients, I suggest thinking in terms of ‘storytelling wells’. These wells are what you use to draw your stories. They provide you with storytelling ideas. The wells help us strike a balance between vulnerability and oversharing.

Public story well

These are stories that are available in the public domain.
For example, check out how thought leader Carolyn Tate uses the Golden Buddha story (available in the public domain) to create a link to her message. You could use this story too and land it on a message that is relevant to your audience.

Professional story well

These are stories about things that happen at work. Zappos is an online retailer with a core value to ‘deliver WOW through service’. A legendary customer service story is how Zappos shipped a pair of shoes at no charge to a customer whose Zappos shoe order had been delivered to the wrong location. The customer was a best man at a wedding, and the replacement order literally saved the day.

Personal story well

This is powerful stuff in business yet it requires some level of self-disclosure and vulnerability. Here is an example of a personal story I share on my website and LinkedIn profile.

Private story well

These are stories you decide not to share; they are private. You as the storyteller decide what is private for you. Sometimes a client wants to share a story about having undergone a serious illness. The test I recommend my clients use is, what is the purpose of this? And how does this serve the room (help your audience)? If the line between personal and private is blurry, this simple test can help you.

Understanding and using these storytelling wells prevent your stories from floundering on the rocks of inappropriate disclosure.

Please comment, I love hearing from you.

Mission Possible: 3 Fail proof ways to remember names


Copyright Beth Jennings Photography 2016_Yamini Naidu_WEB-6833

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” is one of William Shakespeare’s famous lines from Romeo and Juliet.

But, I’m sure you will agree that, in business, your name matters and you don’t want to be called by the wrong name. Remembering and using people’s names is the most powerful and authentic way to build connections. Yet, sadly, most people claim that they are hopeless with names.

If you are reading this, chances are we have worked together. My clients always comment on how good I am with names (and how brilliant I am with storytelling!). Surprisingly, I get very few comments on my modesty, but remembering names always impresses.

Here are some things that work for me:

Channel Bob and Barrack
So often, whether it is a new exercise program or a tool, our mindset matters. I am going to ask you to adopt a useful belief: honing your name recall is a skill, and we can all get better at it. It’s literally a muscle that you can grow. So channel Bob the Builder (and the slogan used by the 2008 Barack Obama presidential campaign) and respond with “Yes we can!”

Anchor in your senses
When you hear someone’s name, you need to anchor it in your senses.Kinaesthetically in physical contact, a handshake works best. You hear their name so your auditory senses are engaged. Another anchoring method is repeating their name back to them while maintaining constant eye contact, thereby using your aural and visual senses. When you repeat their name back make sure it is not done in a creepy way! And don’t try too hard. Weave their name back in a sentence such as ‘*|FNAME|*, thank you for reading this.’

If you’ve never been very good at names, you probably didn’t use these anchor points. It is important to use at least 3 senses, otherwise it is like trying to pitch a tent with only one peg. While anchoring in your senses is pretty failproof, the downside is that if you get a name wrong, that gets anchored too and is hard (but not impossible) to rewire!

Practice
Finally, it’s all about practice. Start with two names today–your barista and the IT help desk person. And then build on it.

So your mission should you choose/decide to accept it, is to try these strategies. And please comment, I love hearing from you.

P.S. My personal best is 100 names in a room. I know!!

Revenge of the analogue?


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Every year, I do an annual holiday with my oldest childhood friends. A ‘girls only’ holiday, no partners or kids. It’s definitely one of the highlights of my year. Last year, one of my friends brought some of the letters we had written to each other when we were teenagers. We read the letters aloud to each other, all of us often convulsing in fits of laughter. Oh, the angst of being 18, our ability to make mountains out of molehills and the all-important self-aggrandizement.

The smell of the old letter paper, the faded and splotchy ink on the page and the now-obsolete aerograms brought back a flood of memories.

We may never see the rise of the handwritten letter again, but we are starting to see a new dance with the analogue: the resurgence of vinyl records, the soaring sales of moleskin notebooks and even the revival of film, as in film for your camera. Interestingly, this isn’t just fuelled by the nostalgia of middle-aged customers but actually driven by a new breed of younger consumers.

David Sax, in Revenge of the Analogue: Real things and why they matter, explains, ‘surrounded by the digital, we now crave experiences that are more tactile, and human centric.’

This isn’t a call to embrace our inner ‘Luddite,’ for those of us who still have one, that is. It’s actually quite the opposite. It’s a recognition that big business has thrown out the analogue baby with the bathwater. So, when we design high-tech digital strategies, what are some high-touch analogue things we can do for our customers? Every business definitely needs a digital strategy, but, if you were to map an analogue strategy, what would it look like?

Please comment; I would love to hear from you!

What drives us to reach our potential?


Beer and diamonds…how to showcase your ‘uglies’


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Recently I was walking past a popular bar near my house and the ad in the window said:

‘Over rated
Beer too cold
No empty seats’

The tag line: ‘Come in and see why 7% of people don’t like us’.

I love it – taking a negative and crafting it into a positive narrative, using humour and authenticity. An anti-ad ad.

In a hyped-up world, where most products pretend to be perfect, the ugly ducklings stand out. Especially uglies that are comfortable in their skin and craft it into a strength.

What does this have to do with diamonds you ask? In the Argyle diamond mines in Australia, the diamonds mined were all brown. A potential marketing catastrophe. Customers eagerly seek glistening white diamonds, known as Champagne diamonds. Might customers spurn what seemed like an inferior diamond, based on its colour? Urban legend has it that the global advertising company, Saatchi & Saatchi, were paid mega bucks to solve this challenge. They came up with the idea of calling brown diamonds, Cognac. So diamonds range from Champagne to Cognac. Sheer genius.

So what needs to be considered when we showcase our ‘uglies’?

  • It can’t be a ‘faux’ ugly. You know, like the interview candidate who, when asked for their weaknesses, says ‘Oh. I’m a perfectionist’. Right! Next. No, it’s got to be real – not fishing for compliments – that is just annoying and twee.
  • Don’t fake it. Don’t call attention to uglies that exist only in your imagination. A speaker might apologise for their accent when the audience is thinking, what accent?
  • Sometimes it’s OK to admit to an ugly – an undeniable one –acknowledge it (customers love honesty), and then switch to focus on a positive.

So how are you going to turn your uglies around? Please share I love hearing from you.

The immutable law of storytelling success


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I am an economist by training (please don’t stop reading here!).  One of the most famous laws in economics is The law of diminishing returns.  In everyday language the law  tells us that,  after a point in time the more you put into something the less you get back.

The law of diminishing returns has broader applications not just in economics but across life. In a call centre, for instance, service level improvements decline in proportion to each additional successive agent added.  An example that a lot of people can relate to is how good that first piece of cake tastes ..the second piece not that good and the third piece yuck….diminishing returns in operation.

So what does this have to do with storytelling?  Storytelling like most things in life is subject to this law.  Do you remember the famous line popularised by the film Jerry Macguire?  This is when Jerry Macguire (Tom Cruise) flies back home to meet Dorothy (Renée  Zellweger) to tell her that he loves her.  She tells him “You had me at hello“.  Our challenge is to find that same ‘sweet spot’ in our stories where we have our audience and to stop our stories there….sadly it’s unlikely to be at hello.

Perversely I think for storytellers that sweet spot is when you end at the exact right moment.  There is a point in your story where you have your audience – and if your story continues beyond this point you actually start to lose them, as the law of diminishing returns kick in.

That is one of the reasons why over-long stories simply don’t work.  Quite often with  long stories there is a lot of unnecessary detail and the point is often laboured or repeated.  The only way to know is to practice and bounce your story against a trusted colleague and gauge where the best place to end your story is.  End your story at the right point, at the top of the curve and you get the optimum results for your story.  Just like cake with storytelling it is knowing when to stop.

Beyond Binary: How to grab your audience’s attention 


Copyright Beth Jennings Photography 2016_Yamini Naidu_WEB-6833

“We work with people who only want the data; the facts. Do I just stick with facts or tell stories?” This is a frequent statement I hear from leaders all over the world.

Most leaders stick with just the data, often stemming from their subject matter or technical expertise. Unsurprisingly, this results in little or no audience engagement and very little recall. On the other hand, a few leaders use stories only, and this can feel hollow: where is the data to back it up?

When it comes to data versus stories, we are asking if we should appeal to people’s heads or their hearts? Much as we like to believe that people are rational beings and that appealing to their heads with logic should persuade them, we know this to be far from the truth. If logic alone does the trick, life would be so easy: we could tell people the logical thing to do and they would do it!

Sally Hogshead, the author of How To Fascinate, says 100 years ago our attention span was 20 minutes. Today our attention span is nine seconds. You read that right: nine seconds. We have essentially become mean, lean scanning machines –  a survival mechanism that gets us through the challenges of living with daily information tsunamis.

Interestingly, the nine-second stat applies only to data. The minute we engage with emotion and story, a much wider window of attention opens up.

So it’s time to move beyond binary: yes, use data, but also connect, engage and inspire with the right story.

Please comment, I love hearing from you.

Sorry, I have bad news…


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Recently an oncologist friend shared how the hardest part of his job is giving patients bad news. It’s the toughest communication that anyone has to impart or receive.

Leaders are often  the bearers of bad news. Not life and death but job losses, restructures, demotions. So how can we deliver bad news and leave people with their dignity intact and some hope for the future?

Make it private
The best way to deliver bad news is face to face and ideally one on one, not a mass meeting and definitely not in an email. A few years ago Denise Cosgrove, the then CEO of Victorian WorkCover Authority, sent an email after a public holiday describing a lovely spa weekend she had in Daylesford. She talked about how she was loving the role, the organisation and the people. And finally the punch line: ‘We’re proposing some immediate restructuring and changes to roles and unfortunately this will result in some job losses’. The email was leaked to the media by furious employees.

An acid test for leaders is ‘How would you like to receive bad news?’ The answer would probably be ‘Face to face and privately’ and the same would apply for people who work for you.

The Frame
Experts advise that warning the person that bad news is coming lessens the shock that follows and also allows them to process the news. Examples of warning phrases include, ‘Unfortunately I’ve got some bad news to tell you’ or ‘I’m sorry to tell you that…’.  Obviously, this is not the time to present a mixed bag like ‘The holiday you always wanted to take is all yours for the taking’ etc.

Shut up & Listen!
Once the bad news is delivered the next thing for leaders to do is to stop talking. It’s not about you anymore. Anything said after this point, will only sound like ‘Blah, blah blah’ as your audience is in an emotionally turbulent state. Most people react to bad news emotionally with anger, silence, shock, disappointment, disbelief or even tears. In that moment, you as the leader are the employee’s most important source of psychological support. Validate their feelings with phrases like ‘I understand this is very disappointing for you’ and show solidarity.

What next and the power of touch
The next challenge is then where to from here? Discussing options and next steps might be appropriate depending on you, them and your organisation. And finally, most humans seek solace in touch. So a handshake, a hug or a pat on the shoulder are very important. Of course not all three at the same time! Lisa Marshall says  ‘This is hardly the time to give a non-verbal message that “you’re untouchable” to someone’.

Delivering bad news is probably one of the hardest things leaders have to do. But as leaders, we can deliver bad news in a way that is respectful and allows people to retain their dignity. Anything less would not be leadership.

Please comment, I love hearing from you.

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