Is Storytelling the new black?

A new General Manager has joined one of our client’s organisations. And the word has spread that when he meets people in the lift he asks them ‘So what’s your story?’ GULP.  A sure fire way to kill any conversation, most people feel cornered with this one & mutter hum ha and then hastily dash out at the next floor, whether it’s their stop or not.

We are definitely seeing the word story used everywhere, from the company story, to the brand story, to the tag line for a budget airline that says ‘Low prices are just half the story’.

So if storytelling is the new black how do you wear it well?  As the self nominated  ‘story fashion police’ here are our tips.

For GAWD’s sake stop calling everything that moves a story!  Just calling something a story doesn’t make it a story.  We were working with a client who kept talking about their retail story.  When asked to explain further they promptly launched into their retail strategy.  So it wasn’t a story it was their strategy.  It’s still OK to have a strategy (in fact it’s highly recommended) and even better is to call it a strategy.  You can then have a range of stories that help people understand and connect with your strategy.

This brings me to my next piece of advice – always aim for a range of stories – no one story can encompass a whole strategy or a whole brand.  Having just the one story is like having just one black suit and trying to wear it all year around, in summer, in winter, to the beach, skiing, in the garden, on weekends…you get the point.

Similarly you need a range of stories to communicate your strategy or your brand.

Nordstrom the upmarket retailer in America has ‘Outstanding customer service’ as one of its core values.  And they communicate what they mean by this through a range of stories. Like the story of a Nordstrom employee who made a house call to exchange a pair of shoes and another one about Nordstrom splitting two pairs of shoes in order to fit a customer with different sized feet.

And finally never ask for a story / stories.  It’s like asking people to tell you a really funny joke.  It puts people under too much pressure.  Instead ask the right questions to draw out the stories.  So if you are looking for stories around your customer service ask people “Can you think of a time when you or someone you know made a customer happy?”  You need lots of questions, to draw out the stories and some patience.  It will take some time for people to warm up and often the first or second story will spark more stories.

For example every register at Nordstrom stores has pen and paper for customers to share their customer service experiences. Every morning before each store opens, Nordstrom employees gather in the main lobby for the store manager to share some of the best experiences from the previous day and reward the employees in those stories.

Storytelling is definitely the new black and just like black it’s both timeless and classic…or is that just a Melbourne thing?!

Bright ideas – where do they come from?

Business StorytellingMark Henderson was sitting in a coffee shop when he asked the barista what they did with the used coffee grounds. “We just put them in the bin” was the reply. Mark also found out that, the shop alone threw out about 10 kilograms of grounds a day.  He thought there must be a better way and started to research how coffee grounds could be used to produce fertiliser.

Anecdotally I also know a few people who put coffee grounds into their gardens because they have heard it’s good for gardens, but no one thought of taking it further than that.

Mark and his friend Geoff Howell did and  quit their jobs as IT consultants and set up ‘Espressogrow‘, which plans to pay coffee shops for their used grounds, and then turn it into organic fertiliser at a central manufacturing plant .  Wow, what a neat idea. As an entrepreneur I am always interested in where people’s ideas come from – like Mark’s it could be with our next cup of coffee?  The mindset that drives this is usually ‘There must be a better way’.

The desires that drive us to connect

 Recently we had the pleasure of both presenting and attending the Creative Innovation 2011 conference in Melbourne.  The theme was ‘Challenges and opportunities in a super connected world’ and expert after expert presented cutting edge ideas from the present as well as  glimpses of the future…including do you want to live for ever (Raymond Kurzweil)?

But what are conferences if not to be provocative and present us contrary points of view?  Hugh Mackay, leading psychologist and pioneering social researcher did just that, in his session ‘The desires that drive us to connect’.

Hugh Mackay presented the double paradox of a super connected world.  The illusion that technology brings us together, but actually keeps us apart.  He gave the example of face book friends who met up for coffee and had nothing to say to each other as they already knew everything that was happening in each other’s lives!  The other paradox is the more we connect online, the more likely we are to frustrate our deep human desires to connect. So what are our 3 deep human desires?

One of our key desires is to connect with each other. Not through data transfer but through communication that nurtures us, connects us.  We need to see and feel the expression on people’s faces, their posture, the tone of their voice, how they are dressed, and their words and we take all this into account when we are trying to interpret meaning from each other.  Technology that uses just words, is stripping out the connection and communication that happens through the conduit of personal relationships not through cyberspace.  He used the paradoxical fact that we all choose to physically attend the conference, which could have easily been done online, and also was available via face book, twitter etc as illustration of this desire!

As part of this desire we have to understand that the key to effective communication is not brighter, smarter technology but brighter, smarter listening. Yes that old chestnut.  The barriers are not technology based but based in our ability to listen. Mackay also presented research that showed there was a direct correlation between increasing workplace boredom and time spent at the screen… we always suspected that!  My take on this is even though people grumble about the number of meetings they have to attend, attending meetings no matter how tedious or boring might be tapping into this desire of ours to connect with other people face to face.

Our second deep desire is to connect with the natural world.  That is why even in high rises you can spot a struggling pot plant on the 14th floor.  Some of us express this through our pets, our gardens, bush walking etc.  This explains me seeing this as a self indulgent photo opp for my dog!

Our third desire is to connect with ourselves and unless this happens or has happened the other two won’t work.  This brings to mind the old adage ‘Know thyself’, which the esteemed psychologist Carl Rogers described as a life long project.  So what are ways in which we can connect with ourselves? Mackay cited meditation, psychotherapy,and creative self expression, art, music, writing.  To this list I would like to  add laughter, and for me personally both exercise and reading help me connect to myself. So any regular creative activity that both stimulates and stills us.

Hugh Mackay is by no means a Luddite and is not presenting this as a  dichotomous view of the world but cautioning us to do both – while we embrace technology not to forget what our three desires as human beings are.

Mackay’s presentation actually filled me with optimism, as some things never change.   We are all afraid of getting left behind by a relentless technology tsunami.  But now no matter how fast or rapidly technology changes, being able to connect face to face with other people, being able to connect with nature and with our own selves will always be the key.  And fulfilling these desires will enable us to thrive and connect with what matters most…of course while still lugging our iPad from conference to conference.

Reframing the problem? Let’s drink to that

Business StorytellingAs an entrepreneur I am fascinated (unhealthily?) by what sparks ideas in other entrepreneurs.  Most people would be familiar with wotif, an Australian success story.  In 1999, Graeme Wood was a consultant when hotels presented him with their problem of last minute room availability.  He saw this as an opportunity and founded wotif to make these rooms available at discounted prices…and now we have a global business.

I was presented with this same ingenuity when listening to Simon Griffiths  (pictured) an engineer, economist turned entrepreneur.

Simon knew that biggest bug bearer for ‘not for profits’ and ‘charities’ is fund raising.  They constantly have to get us to donate money and we on the other hand suffer from what is described as ‘compassion fatigue’.  We are sick of constantly being asked for money or already have hand picked a few causes we support, but feel guilty or resentful and really altruism should make us feel better about ourselves and the world!

Simon then thought about this problem differently and came up with the concept of the ‘consumer philanthropist’.  Instead of asking people for money, what if we looked at what they already consume and  tap into that?  So he set up Shebeena non-profit bar in Melbourne. It sells exotic beer and wine from the developing world. The profit from each drink sale supports a development project in that drink’s country of origin.  A drink for Kenya?  Go for it.  Today Shebeen supplies its beer to various venues.  But then he hit his next hurdle, not everyone drinks beer and not everyone is happy to drink African beer.  So what other consumer product could he tap into?  He has now come up with his next venture, called ‘Who Gives A Crap’, which produces toilet paper manufactured entirely from recycled materials. 50% of the profits of this toilet paper will be used to build toilets in the developing world.  Ingenious and the name always makes audiences roar with laughter.

Simon’s concept could revolutionise the globe – turning everyday consumers into philanthropists – let’s drink to that.

Presenters, how to make your presentations twitter friendly

Business Storytelling

I recently had the pleasure of attending  TedX Melbourne .  Like all the TED events there was a great array of speakers, with an engaged audience, hungry for information.  I love the format – 18 minutes per speaker and most of the speakers went the presentation equivalent of the ‘full monty’, no PowerPoint or visuals.

For the first time I also felt the entire playing field had changed. Right through the conference lots of participants were tweeting.  The person next to me had his laptop, his iPad and his phone out but also used a good old fashioned pen and paper to take notes…so some things never change.

Like everyone else in the audience I was both listening to the presenters and keeping an eye on twitter to see how the audience was responding, all in real time.  It was interesting and confronting (and I wasn’t even presenting!)  to see how immediate the feedback was, what people were saying almost in response to every point the speaker was making.  So as a presenter how can you make your presentation twitter friendly?

The good news is some of the rules of a good presentation haven’t changed at all, but there are some new things to consider.

One – As always it is all about your preparation, preparation & preparation.  You can never be over prepared and if you are under prepared, the twitter comments will let you know at once!  As part of  your preparation know the rules of engagement.  For example at TED one of the mandates for speakers is ‘Thou Shalt Not Sell from the Stage’.  One speaker who was unaware of this or chose to ignore it received a verbal bashing on twitter.  Twitter audience is quick off the mark and unforgiving in this respect.

Two – Make every word count, no fluff, extraneous padding, jargon or mindless repetition.  Like Mark Twain said ‘The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lighting and the lighting bug’.  Make sure all the bugs are ironed out of your presentation.

Three– Having a very clear structure still matters, so the audience can follow you easily.  But try not to be clichéd or too conventional with structure.  Trust your audience’s intelligence in being able to follow you without an obvious power point hierarchy (yawn, boring).

Four– Be disciplined and have 2 or 3 key messages, only.  We can never stress this enough and to be twitter friendly your message should be in the form of a sound bite that can be easily tweeted.  Remember the twitter limitation of 140 characters.  This is great discipline for presenters as if you can make your key point in 140 characters you have it nailed. When your audience engages with a message it will be tweeted over and over again by different people and then retweeted.  This is GOOD and the presentation equivalent of a standing ovation except the everyone globally on twitter can see it / hear it.

FiveUse Storytelling.  Because how else could you convey complex information quickly and engagingly?  The only time people stopped tweeting completely during TedX Melbourne was when one of the presenters, Liza Boston, started narrating a story – she had everyone’s attention in the room for the 3 minutes.  And one of the first tweets after said ‘Liza Boston’s presentation alone has made the admission price worth it!’.

Six– Don’t be distracted by the lack of eye contact.  Even though everyone is looking at their phones , they are still listening to you, except they are listening differently.  They are listening to you and also listening to what the twitterverse is saying.

Seven – Be yourself, be authentic and use your personality.  People love that and will respond to you like a real person which of course you are.

Eight – After your presentation, take a big deep breath first, and then look at the twitter feed.  This is the best feedback you will ever receive as a presenter and a great learning opportunity.

This is by no means a complete list so please add to it.

Bruce Springsteen and Customer Service?

Business StorytellingEarlier this month we conducted a workshop in Melbourne and this is where Matt Ritchie, National Manager, Sales Strategy & Delivery at MLC Advice Product shared this story:

‘I was recently reading a magazine that featured an interview with Bruce  Springsteen.  Bruce Springsteen has been a musician and performer for over 20 years and has a tremendous reputation as a live act.  The interviewer asked him how he kept up his motivation to deliver night after night.  To which Springsteen replied “It was when I realised that, while for me, every night is a “Bruce Springsteen concert night” there are 1000’s of people in the audience, who have spent their money to see a Bruce Springsteen concert maybe for the first and only time in their lives.   They may only come to one Bruce Springsteen concert in their life and I want to give them the best ever Bruce Springsteen experience. And thats what keeps me going night after night”.  

Reading that reminded me of  us at work every day.  While we might take hundreds of calls, for  a customer who rings us, that might be the only contact they have with MLC, this might be the only “Bruce Springsteen concert” they go to.  Imagine the difference we can make if every time  our customers got the full Bruce Springsteen experience…’

The story struck a chord with everyone in the group and what a powerful and memorable frame for thinking about, and delivering customer service – the  Bruce Springsteen experience.

We are sharing this with you to illustrate that telling a personal story (and as you can see from this one it does not have to be the most revealing personal moment in your life) and linking it back to a business message can be really refreshing and powerful in business.

Why I do what I do? Business storytelling at its compelling best

Business Storytelling‘In July 1985, 5 year old Eve van Grafhorst was banned from attending her local kindergarten in Kincumber, NSW.  Eve was HIV positive and had contracted HIV from a blood transfusion when she was born.  This was the time of the grim reaper ads about AIDS and families in the town of Kincumber would cross the street to avoid Eve and her family.  Completely ostracised Eve and her family migrated to Hastings, New Zealand where I met her while working for the newspaper. 

One day in New Zealand Eve decided to raise money for AIDS awareness by selling hugs for $1.00 at the local mall. Everyone was giving her a hug and helping her raise money except for this one man who was watching from a distance.  I asked him if he planned to give her a hug and he told me ‘I am scared to give her a hug as I might catch something’.  I told Eve and she went over to the man and gently talked to him for nearly an hour at the end of which he gave her a hug and $1.00 and there wasn’t a dry eye in the mall.  When I saw how this little girl could work for an hour to raise $1.00 to make a difference I realised how much I could do to make a difference. 

This was my turning point and I decided to set up my company m.a.d.woman, committed to encouraging, inspiring and enabling people to make a positive difference in the environment, community and to the lives of people who need support.  Eve died peacefully aged 11 in her mother’s arms. She remains one of the most inspiration people in my life.’

Melina Schamroth

We recently had the privilege of hearing this story shared by Social entrepreneur Melina Schamroth, on why she set up her business.  We were also so delighted to learn that on on Friday night m.a.d.woman was named the National Winner of the 2011 Telstra Business Awards – Yellow Pages Social Responsibility category. GO Melina!

What every presenter can learn from TED?

Business StorytellingWhat every presenter can learn from TED?

I love TED Talks and can spend many a pleasant hour (ahem) watching different speakers.  I am also always trying to dissect what makes the talks so exceptional.   One of my favourites is Benjamin Zander and as soon as you watch him, you realise he has a passion and enthusiasm that is immediately infectious.  He obviously knows and loves his subject (classical music), but don’t let the subject put you off.

Benjamin Zander is able to connect with people by using humour and personal stories.  He seems to genuinely believe that his audience loves classical music too, except they might not know that yet!  Which is a brave premise, but it works!

How about if this is not your style and you are presenting on a topic that most people might know very little or even nothing about?  Rajesh Rao’s presentation on the 4,000 year old Indus script is an example.  At each step Rajesh Rao creates a modern context to help his audience understand and engage with him.  He almost immediately refers to the Indus script as the ‘mother of all crosswords’ – and you can sense the audience laughing and relaxing.  Even when he is talking about the structure of language (which is quite complex)  he is able to give us an everyday relatable example, but most importantly he uses self disclosure to tell us why this is his passion and why it’s important.

Recently, I discovered another reason why the speeches are so good. TED’s organisers send upcoming speakers a stone tablet, engraved with the ‘TED Commandments’.

Here are the Ten  TED Commandments that every presenter could benefit from:

1.     Thou Shalt Not Simply Trot Out thy Usual Shtick

2.     Thou Shalt Dream a Great Dream, or Show Forth a Wondrous New Thing, Or Share Something Thou Hast Never Shared Before

3.     Thou Shalt Reveal thy Curiosity and Thy Passion

4.     Thou Shalt Tell a Story

5.     Thou Shalt Freely Comment on the Utterances of Other Speakers for the Sake of Blessed Connection and Exquisite Controversy

6.     Thou Shalt Not Flaunt thine Ego. Be Thou Vulnerable. Speak of thy Failure as well as thy Success.

7.     Thou Shalt Not Sell from the Stage: Neither thy Company, thy Goods, thy Writings, nor thy Disparate need for Funding; Lest Thou be Cast Aside into Outer Darkness.

8.     Thou Shalt Remember all the while: Laughter is Good.

9.     Thou Shalt Not Read thy Speech.

10.  Thou Shalt Not Steal the Time of Them that Follow Thee

Now we know how Ted can claim its by line ’Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world’.

Do you have another Presentation Commandment that you think should be there?  As always please comment and tell us what you think.

Harry Potter’s magic

Business StorytellingI am out of the cupboard under the stairs, as a huge Harry Potter fan!  Whether you are a fan or not, Harry Potter is a ripping yarn and great if sometimes dark storytelling.

What is also interesting is the larger narrative that surrounds the books.  We all know how J.K. Rowling was a struggling single parent and how the book was rejected several times as publishers thought it too long and too slow for children.

Popular myth has it that Bloomsbury ‘s decision to publish Rowling’s book apparently owes much to Alice Newton, the eight-year-old daughter of one of the company’s executives, who was given the first chapter to review by her father and immediately demanded the next.  Although Bloomsbury agreed to publish the book, they also advised Rowling to get a day job, since she had little chance of making money in children’s books!  So glad she didn’t listen to them.

Just this morning when I was listening to the radio, Red Symonds was interviewing  Andy McCray. Andy a keen fan set up his website harrypotterfanzone when he was 11 years old.  Andy has  grown up with the stars of the Harry Potter series, and even had his site recognised by J.K.Rowling and  been invited onto the set several times. Of course he set the site up out of passion not expecting this largess.  Both J.K.Rowling and Andy are testimony to the power of  ‘Do what you love and love what you do’.  And I am personally looking forward to loving the movie tomorrow!

Ci2011 – Creative Innovation Conference Melbourne Nov 2011


Business Storytelling

We are honoured and excited to be part of this year’s Creative Innovation 2011 conference.
Ci2010 was described as the “Best conference EVER!” (MICE magazine), and this year’s event promises to be even more relevant and transformational.

Creative Innovation 2011 is a rare opportunity to learn, think, connect and share ideas with over 35 of the world’s most influential thinkers under one roof to inspire your leadership and achieve business success.

The theme for Ci2011 is: “The challenges and opportunities of a super-connected world”

We are honoured to be on the same speaking program with one of USA’s leading entrepreneurs Raymond Kurzweil, acclaimed philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett (USA), world authority on creative thinking Edward De Bono (UK), technology entrepreneur Tan Le (USA), Stanford and IDEO design thinking expert Brendan Boyle (USA), “The Innovation Architect” Paddy Miller (USA), education guru Stephen Heppell (UK), Australian of the Year Simon McKeon, and many more…

This is a 2 Day Conference plus Deep Conversations, 10 Master Classes, a Gala Dinner and outstanding Australian performers and  artists…not to be missed!

It will be held on 16-18 November 2011 at the Sofitel Melbourne On Collins.

Please acces the website for further information and registration details.

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