Business storytelling and The Social Network movie

On the weekend I went to see The Social Network,a film about Mark Zukerberg the founder of Facebook.  While watching the film,  I was struck (yet again) by how powerful stories can be. Especially when compared to a statement of fact or even a metaphor.

In the movie, Zuckerberg sets up a meeting with Sean Parker, the 20-something founder of  Napster. Zuckerberg is being persuaded by Sean Parker to think big.  Parker actually does this in three stages.  First with a  statement, then with a metaphor and finally with a story.

Parker says “What’s cool is not a million dollars, but a billion dollars’.

Parker then advises Zuckerberg to choose his future using a metaphor: When you go fishing you can catch a lot of fish or you can catch a big fish. You ever walk into a guy’s den and see a picture of fourteen trout? No, he’s holding an 800-pound marlin and that’s what you want’.

Later, at a San Francisco night club, Parker influences Zuckerberg with this story of the founder of Victoria’s Secret.

‘A Stanford MBA named Roy Raymond, wants to buy his wife some lingerie but he’s too embarrassed to shop for it at a department store. Comes up with an idea for a high end place that doesn’t make you feel like a pervert. He gets a forty thousand dollar bank loan, borrows another forty thousand from his in-laws, opens a store and calls it Victoria’s Secret. Makes a half million dollars his first year. He starts a catalogue, opens three more stores and after five years he sells the company to Leslie Wexner and The Limited for four million dollars. Happy ending, right? Except four years later the company’s worth five hundred million dollars and Roy Raymond jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge. Poor guy just wanted to buy his wife a pair of thigh highs.’

So did the story work?

Jim Fink in his article Facebook IPO? Insights from the Social Network Movie says the lessons for Zuckerberg were :  THINK BIG , be patient and you’ll maximize the value of the business.   Jim also goes on to add that Zuckerberg took Parker’s advice. When former Yahoo! CEO Terry Semel offered to buy Facebook for a cool $1 billion in 2006, Mark turned him down.  Semel was shocked, stating later in an interview:  I’d never met anyone – forget his age, 22 then or 26 now – I’d never met anyone who would walk away from $1 billion. I couldn’t believe it.  Today Facebook is now worth 26 times what Semel offered to pay.

I am sharing this with you to illustrate how a statement a of  fact or a metaphor inform people but may not necessarily shift behaviour.  As both are based on logic and logic informs but doesn’ t always persuade us to change.  If logic did that then no one would smoke, non one would speed, we would all eat right and exercise everyday.  But with a purposeful authentic story you can influence behaviour…just like Sean Parker did.

Authenticity in business storytelling

I’m a great fan of the Gruen transfer, a show we have here in Australia.  In one of the episodes they talked about marketing spin and  said in marketing spin you take one truth and spin everything around it.  I was immediately struck by how business storytelling is the complete opposite of that.  Because for your storytelling to be successful, everything about it needs to be authentic.

So in this video let’s explore authenticity in organisational storytelling.  One of the first things to consider and this comes to us from Steve Denning, is your stories need to be both factually true as well as authentically true.

To illustrate this, Denning shares this example….’On the Titanic’s maiden voyage 700 people arrived in New York’.  This is factually true  but it leaves out the detail that the ship sank and 1500 people died.

So your story needs to be both factually true and authentically true.

The other thing to consider with authenticity in business, is that you as the storyteller need to believe in your story and its purpose – your intent needs to be authentic.

A few years ago we did some work with a leadership team that was outsourcing some of their work overseas and they were looking for stories to accompany  this.  When no stories emerged we asked them ‘can you honestly put your hand on your heart and say you believe this is the best thing for your company?’…..and they couldn’t.  So unless you believe in the purpose you are not going to have an authentic story.

The other point we want to draw from that example is not everything needs a story.  So use stories only if it is authentic to do so otherwise just go with the data….which is what that leadership team did.  They just went with the data about outsourcing their operations.

The last point to make about authenticity is congruence.  There needs to be a connection, there needs to be a congruence between your words and your actions.  When Cameron Clyne, (current CEO of National Australia Bank) became CEO, one of his early promises was to be open and approachable.  When Cameron Clyne was fairly new he attended one of the NAB’s internal events and took a seat down the back.  A lady who worked in IT approached him and said ‘Excuse me you are sitting in my seat’.   He immediately apologised and vacated her seat.  As soon as Cameron left some of the lady’s colleagues said ‘Do you know who that was?  The new CEO!’.  She said ‘You are kidding, no way why would he sit up in the back?’.    That story became one of the stories that started circulating in the bank and it showed people the congruence between Cameron’s words and his actions.

So just to recap …authenticity in storytelling is everything.  All your stories need to be authentic and when we are talking about authenticity we are asking you to consider these things.

Your stories need to be both factually true and authentically true.

You as a storyteller need to believe in the purpose of your story.

Use stories only if it is authentic to do so, otherwise just go with the data.

And finally for authentic storytelling you need congruence between your words and your actions.

We would love you to make a comment of when you have seen leaders who have been authentic or not with their storytelling.

Struggling with launching into your stories? Easy story segues for business storytelling

We are often asked ‘How do I launch into a story in the middle of a meeting or in a presentation?’.  In this video Yamini provides some practical advice on smoothly launching into your story and what segues to avoid…like the plague.

Business storytelling and ‘White Noise’

Business StorytellingOur first floor office is on the corner of a busy CBD intersection, in the heart of Melbourne. One of the things we love about our office is the sounds of the city, the ding of passing trams, the hum of traffic and the general buzz of a city going about its business.  The one sound that cuts through all this, is the siren of emergency vehicles.

I was interested to learn that emergency sirens are designed using the concept of white noise – to cut through everything and grab our attention.  I was first introduced to the concept of white noise when Sydney had the Olympics in 2000.  Flight paths were extended over new housing estates much to the residents’ chagrin.  The council invited architects into the discussion and the architects placed simple water features in the courtyards of the houses.  The gentle soothing sound of the water became a focal point, desensitizing residents to the aircraft noise overhead.  Innovative use of white noise.

As business communicators in an information overloaded world, our challenge is, how can we create white noise instead of just noise around our messages?  I absolutely think (no surprises here!) that storytelling when done well creates ‘white noise’ focusing attention on your messages.

Tim Reid shared this wonderful example in a recent interview .  The head of  Tooheys was handing over the Melbourne Cup and everyone was bracing themselves for a boring corporate speech (lots of noise).  Instead all he said was ‘At Tooheys we are here to make the world more social’.  Wonderful use of white noise that grabbed everyone’s attention.  Needless to say everyone cheered. And the  story becomes one worth repeating and has entered Melbourne’s urban mythology, possibly forever.  So the next time you are communicating think about whether you are adding to the noise or standing out using ‘white noise’?

Business Storytelling – The Myth of the Natural Born Storyteller

In the work we do with business leaders on organsiational storytelling, we are often asked about ‘natural’ storytellers.  Granted some people are better at it than others, just like some people are better at tennis or singing than others……but everyone can get better at it with preparation and practice.

In this our first video blog, Yamini Naidu explodes the myth of the natural born storyteller. ..and shares their success secrets with you.

Business Storytelling for Leaders – What do you stand for?

Business StorytellingRecently we facilitated a storytelling workshop for Accenture in Melbourne when Ann Burns shared this story. The story gave us an insight into some of  her values.  Sharing a story like this (Annette Simmons story expert calls these ‘Who am I Stories’ ) lets people know what you stand for.

Very powerful in leadership, where people crave to know who you are and what you stand for.   Here is Anne’s story…..

“I grew up in England with two brothers.  One of my brothers was learning to ride a bicycle and every Saturday my father would take him up to a nearby hill and he would pedal down,  while all us kids watched and cheered.  He used to do this with a bike that had training wheels and after many Saturdays of this my father took the training wheels off. 

I was determined to repeat his feat and persuaded my father to let me ride down the hill too, on my bike with no training wheels.  My father very very reluctantly agreed.  I was very excited when we walked to the top of the hill.  I could see my brothers and friends at the bottom of the hill looking on.  I got on to my bike and shot off down the hill and to my shock the bike started hurtling down  the hill faster and faster, almost out of control – I could see the stunned faces of the children waiting below and before the bike hit the ground I hurled myself off onto the grass and rolled down laughing, much to everyone’s shock! 

On that day I learnt two important life lessons.  If someone can do something so can I , and no matter what you are trying in life always have an exit plan.”

Invite your audience in

Business StorytellingWalking past the building site for the new Royal Children’s Hospital.  Love the way they invite us to do what we always want to do when we pass a building site – peep in .  Notice the two peep holes – one at a child’s level?

They are already making their target audience, parents and children feel included in the new project and welcome.  Lessons for us in business and leadership…

No matter what you do we can all find ways to invite our customers or our audience in.  I was intrigued to learn how the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) does that.  When you visit a gallery you possibly spend some time reading the printed text on the gallery wall that tells you more about the art work.  Conventionally this would be put together by the curator or an expert.

The NGV has trialled projects that look at how this can be done differently for a modern audience.  In addition to the curator’s words, the wall texts initially quoted poets and other writers. When this was well received, the NGV extended a project into Victorian schools, asking children to write labels in response to the paintings.  These labels written by children were fixed to the wall alongside the conventional texts.  Imagine the delight of a child reading a wall label  written by another child, just for them.

How do I know my story worked? What does success look like in business storytelling?

As soon as you tell a story, the first thing you want to know is ‘did it work?’.  We crave that immediate feedback and sometimes, someone will tell us right away or maybe later….if we are lucky.

This would have to be the number one question leaders ask when they use a story.  “Did it work? How do I know it worked?’  We all want to know what success looks like with storytelling.

I love the elegance and simplicity of Noel Turnbull’s measure of success with storytelling. ‘Success looks likes two things – when other people start to repeat the stories and when people smile sincerely.   That’s why you tell a story’.

Of course people won’t repeat every story you tell – only the memorable sticky ones get this extended lease of life.  That is in storytelling the gold standard! So it still comes to you in a room with your audience wondering…did it bomb?  In that common scenario building on what Noel says trust your intuition.  Look  around the  room when you are narrating your story.  You can always sense the level of engagement in the room.  One of our leaders described it as ‘It felt like there was a spotlight suddenly shinning on me and and for that minute I had every one’s rapt attention’.

But this is harder said than done – we are often our own harshest critics.  Another option is to ask someone you trust.  Prep them for it and say ‘I am going to be using a couple of stories can you please look around the room and help me gauge the response to see if they worked’.  This person might also pick up the informal chatter after when people talk about your stories and give you the feedback you crave.  They can also help to validate your expereince or provide another perspective or some fresh insights.

Good stories also have a long tail. We have some clients who thought their stories didn’t work and 6 months later someone told them very casually “I still remember the story you told us about customer service ‘.  Or they get a repeat request out of the blue when someone says “John I really think you should share that story on innovation you told us in last year’s forum!”  And poor John had been wondering all that time if his story had worked.

Of course if you were hoping we would give you some hard measures of success and are disappointed please feel free to check out our Ericsson success story, which does just that.

Goldilocks storytelling – getting your messages and metaphors just right

Business StorytellingThere has been lots of media coverage with headlines like this recently ‘New Planet Discovered 2010 Gliese 581G Another Planet Like Earth?

Steven Vogt, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz states “It’s the Goldilocks planet. That’s a well-worn analogy, but in this case it fits. We had planets on both sides of the habitable zone—one too hot and one too cold—and now we have one in the middle that’s just right”…Like earth.

Like most people I can hardly remember the name of the new planet Gliese 581g. In contrast how sticky (memorable) is the term ‘Goldilocks planet’? And as most of us know the story of Goldilocks it makes instant sense and also becomes a talking point and worth repeating. This reflects our challenges in business: How can we have compact messages that are sticky, make instant sense and are worth repeating?

Dan and Chip Heath in their book ‘Made to Stick’ say with compact messages you have to pack a lot of meaning into a little bit of messaging. One way to do that is to use what is already there. You use flags and tap into the existing memory terrain of your audience. That is why the term ‘Goldilocks planet’ works because it is using what we already know. Goldilocks is a schema (pre recorded information in our memories) we already have.

I remember attending a conference where at the end of the day each team had to present a TV news bulletin on what they learnt. That was all the instruction we needed because the facilitator was tapping into existing schema.  We all knew exactly what a TV news bulletin would look like etc.

Use schemas well and they can do a lot of heavy lifting for you.  But please steer clear of anything tired and overused like sporting metaphors…they are YAWN boring and seldom work.

Business storytelling for leaders – Interview with Noel Turnbull

Business StorytellingYamini Naidu interviews Noel Turnbull former journalist, public relations consultant and adjunct professor in communications at Melbourne’s RMIT university.

 Yamini Naidu: What is your definition of business storytelling?

Noel Turnbull: I think it’s narrative and making sense of things. I suppose what a story does in a corporate sense is to construct stories about the culture. I think stories construct a narrative that people can relate to but stories construct people themselves as well – their personalities and their lives are really an on going story and whenever you talk to someone you are constructing part of your personality

YN: Where have you seen business leaders use business storytelling well?

NT: James Strong when he was younger and first at TAA used storytelling very well – he used a story about customer service.  The thing that depresses me is that, and this is partly the fault of the public relations industry, there is not a lot of good examples these days of people telling stories, partly because of the way language is debased in its use.  Don Argus is good at storytelling and John McFarlane at ANZ told stories and his successor, who seems to be totally different in personality, is telling different sorts of stories about Asia and opportunities.  John McFarlane was telling stories about discovering yourself and by discovering yourself you will be better at customer service, while Mike Smith is presenting stories about Australia’s engagement with Asia and creating a different narrative for the bank which conveys the strategy as a story.

YN: What did you mean when you said PR people are responsible?

Don Watson is quite right in what he says about the debasement of language, but there have been a lot of people before him, like George Orwell.  I think what happens is business people, scientists, academics get so hung up the jargon that they set out to ‘obscure reality’.  Whenever a PR person, whether inside or outside a company, sits down to write something on change management or financial results they start digging into that obtuse ugly language, instead of telling the story.  I actually think people, when they see or hear that language, can see through it and that it is bs.  I don’t think you have to write in a terribly stylish way but you have to have spare simplicity and colour things with anecdotes.  As the world gets more complicated we lose our sense of anchoring.  Stories help us not only make sense of the world but also teach things – parables are good examples.  Harold Evans of the Sunday Times taught people to do simple headlines with this story.  He told of a man who was going to set up a fish shop and tells a friend ‘I am going to set up a fish shop and want some advice on the sign I need.  I’ve got this terrific idea of a big sign that says ‘Fresh Fish Sold here’.  The friend said are you sure that is the sign you want because you don’t need the word ‘here’ as it is this shop, you don’t need the word ‘fresh’ as you won’t be selling old fish, you don’t have to say ‘sold’ as it is obviously a shop, so all you need on the sign is ‘Fish’.  When you try to teach someone about writing a compact headline and go through all the stuff they need to know it’s very complicated but when you tell them that simple anecdote, you begin to see how you can communicate something simply.

YN: People get storytelling intellectually, it’s works so why the fear? What is holding business leaders back?

NT: I think a couple of things.  Firstly they are frightened of showing a bit of themselves, as when you start telling stories you are inevitably revealing something of yourself and business leaders are taught to be very controlled.  Also while a lot of business leaders are very smart they lead quite isolated lives, they travel at the front of the plane, work out of big offices rarely get on trains and trams so don’t experience the sorts of things that ordinary people do.  There is a wonderful cartoon from Bruce Petty in the 1960’s that illustrates this.  He drew a group of businessmen sitting around in a luxurious club and one of them is smoking a cigar, this is obviously a 60’s type thing.  One of them turns to the other and said ‘I don’t know how we can waste billons of dollars sending a man to the moon when the entire world is crying out for company tax relief’.   If I say CEO’s are out of touch and they say how do you know.  I tell the anecdote of the cartoon and they get it.

YN: When business leaders use storytelling they want to know what success looks like?  How do I know it worked?

NT: Success looks likes two things – when other people start to repeat the stories and when people smile sincerely.   That’s why you tell a story.  It’s much better to tell a story then tell a joke.  How many business leaders you see begin with a joke that some one writes for them.  It’s become axiomatic that you never begin a speech without a joke.  The success is do people enjoy listening to the stories, do they keep it going by repeating it?    Where I worked many years ago a story was told over and over again where one of the managers at one of the plants was giving a talk to the staff about the bleak outlook and tough times, with advice like work harder and smarter and finished with asking for any questions.  One of the staff members said ‘I am surprised you said that as the CEO was reported in last week’s Financial Review as saying we are headed for a record profit’.  That story stayed in the company as an example of, if you are going to share information, be honest as people have other sources of information.

YN: Some final words of advice for business leaders and what are some pitfalls to avoid?

NT: I think the first thing is to make sure the stories are relevant because if they are not relevant they fall down with a terrible great clang.  You need some trusted advisors and trusted counsellors to try them out on.  The second thing is to try them at home – your kids and partner are not a bad judge of whether it’s authentic and makes sense.  Another thing I think is that people should write their stories down.  I know there is a difference between the oral and the written, but writing it down in the simplest way as possible imprints it on the brain better.  Most people can’t tell if something makes sense unless it’s on a piece of paper.  You need to practise it – it’s a bit like acting.  Clive James, in the latest volume of his memoirs talks about the difficulty many people had being spontaneous on his TV show. He remarked on the exception of Joanne Lumly who has always fantastic. As he says: It takes a great actor to be spontaneous.

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