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 


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“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.

HA HA! – 3 top tips to using humour in business


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Humour can help you stand out in a crowd and influence positive outcomes in business. As with any skill, humour can be taught and learned. And no – it is not joke telling! To help you on your journey here are my top 3 tips.

It all begins with you
Humour starts with you. You have to manage your state first so other people respond to it. The office grump won’t get anyone to laugh, but a positive, cheerful person will. You have to look like you are enjoying yourself – are you smiling? Are you energetic? This is what audiences will respond to. The airline safety briefings warn that you have to have your oxygen mask on first before helping others. The same rule applies to humour.

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Why so serious? 


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When was the last time you felt giddy with excitement at attending a business meeting or presentation?

a. All the time

b. Sometimes

c. Never

If you chose c) you are in the majority. Somewhere along the road, business has become burdened with a gravitas that borders on funereal. To paraphrase bestselling Irish author Marian Keyes, or rather her wonderful character Maggie Walsh: “That’s why it’s called work; otherwise it would be called deep-tissue massage.” Taking ourselves too seriously is a modern workplace pandemic. So, it’s time for some tough love: we are all contributing to making work… boring.

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Gormless in the city


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A few weeks ago I was standing on a busy, windy street corner in Melbourne: no handbag, arms akimbo and no phone to keep me busy. No, I haven’t taken up busking (god forbid!), nor was I lost. I was simply waiting for a video shoot. As the shoot was being set up, I had nothing to do. So there I was on the street corner, observing people, the traffic and the city landscape. It was surprisingly peaceful and I felt very present.

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What’s love got to do with it?


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Talking about love in business might make us uncomfortable. Isn’t business all about head, not heart? When we talk of love at work, we don’t mean romantic love. It is love for what we do (passion), love for the people we do it with (teammates) and love for the people we do it for (customers).

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Have you put your garbage out?


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A few minutes before I was to go on stage recently, the MC who was introducing me glanced at the printed sheet in front of her, looked up and said: “You look so much younger in the photo here.”

OUCH!

I made a joke in response and then stepped on to the stage. Shaken but not stirred, as Mr Bond would say. Later I sent a text to my mentor about the MC’s quip. My mentor sent the most beautiful text back and concluded with a quote “Your better self showed up”. I joked and texted back: “Sometimes my better self goes on unexplained absences!”

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Start with fire


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When selling fire extinguishers, start with fire, advises an old adage. Yet I often see charismatic leaders who the minute they have to present morph into boring ole’ Clark Kent instead of Superman!

One way to channel Superman mode when presenting is to start strong. Why is this so important? Your audience is tough on bad starts: Sixty six percent of people said that they are unwilling to give someone who made a bad first impression a second chance, according to a recent Roy Morgan survey.  You get one shot at it. So start with fire, not kryptonite. There I blended both metaphors!

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Getting your a**e kicked – the dark side of leadership


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Within the first 18 months of setting up our business, we had an article published in The Age newspaper. It made massive waves, and our phones and inboxes began to overflow with great feedback.

The very next day, however, a vicious attack on the article from another consultant appeared in The Age, while online a ‘storytelling expert’ went ballistic with personal criticism that just kept snowballing. It was traumatic and humiliating. At the moment of our lowest ebb, the phone rang. It was a CEO we had recently worked with. He had never personally rung us before, but did now to say, ‘First of all well done for standing up for what you believe in.’ Then he added, ‘Every time you stick your neck out, there will always be someone who will try to kick it in.’ The CEO was empathetic, reminding us what the stakes are when you enter the arena.

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