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.
In a classic clip from an old I Love Lucy episode, Lucy gets a job in a chocolate factory and she and her friend Ethel are placed on the assembly line.
The draconian supervisor tells them: “Girls, this is your last chance. If one piece of candy gets past you unwrapped, you are fired!” The production line starts slowly and they carefully wrap candy, remarking how easy it is. Then the assembly line starts to speed up, and they can barely keep up.
They start stuffing their mouths with candy and Lucy calls out to her friend in despair: “I think this is a losing game.” They hear the supervisor returning and hide the remaining candy in their mouths, under their hats and even down the front of their dresses. Their mouths are bulging. The supervisor returns. Seeing the empty conveyor belt, in a moment of perfectly-timed comedy, the supervisor shouts to the conveyor belt operator “Speed it up!”
This famous scene has been parodied by many other TV shows. What makes it funny even now is the relevance of this message to our modern lives. So often we keep up the pretence of being on top of stuff, and the pretence can work for some time, but exacts a heavy toll.
Somewhere along the line, for a lot of us in business, work became synonymous with worth and ‘busy’ became the currency to measure this worth.
Author Julia Cameron says there is a difference between purposeful, zestful work and work for work’s sake; not in the hours we put in but in their emotional quality.
Three things we can all do to improve the emotional quality of our work lives is to ask for help, stop being a hero/martyr (only I can do this) and draw a line in the sand (I don’t look at emails on Sunday or take business calls after 6pm).
Just as an alcoholic gets sober by abstaining from alcohol, we need to abstain from the idea that we’re only at our most productive when we’re putting in frantic 12-hour work days. There’s far more merit – and reward – in purposeful, contemplative work.
How do you improve the emotional quality of your work? Please share, as always I love hearing from you.
Last week the internet divided into two vociferous factions – all over the colour of a dress! Not since Monica Lewinsky’s infamous blue dress has a dress generated so much controversy.
About 70% of people declared empathically that the dress was white and gold. They took solace in two things: it felt right and how could so many people be wrong? An equally vocal 30% of people were emphatic the dress was black and blue. Even scientists weighed into the debate, which began trending under #thedress, and received huge mainstream and social media coverage that would be the envy of any PR company.
It looked like the global population was getting entrenched into two camps (actually, there was a third camp: those who were sooo over it). For anyone seeking nirvana under a banyan tree in a no-Wi-Fi zone last week who missed the headlines all over the world, the dress turned out to be black and blue.
But what happened next in “dressgate” was sheer genius. The Salvation Army in South Africa took a picture of the dress and asked on Twitter: ‘Why is it so hard to see black and blue?’ The image depicted a beautiful battered model in the dress.
The charity took a fun, frivolous issue and made a profound, succinct statement about an issue close to its heart: domestic violence. It’s a great example of brave, responsive storytelling that shines new light on a pervasive problem.
As news editor Lauren Tuck noted ‘Domestic violence is a serious issue that deserves the same kind of fevered attention that was paid to #thedress’.
Please comment, I love hearing from you.
Similarly, every day our audience battles an information tsunami. Unfortunately, it multiplies our challenges as communicators:
How do we grab eyeballs (attention)?
How do we hold on to this attention (retention); and
How to translate this into behaviour change? (action)
The magic mantra is attention, retention, action.
Using this magic mantra, Air New Zealand has managed to reinvent the tired category of airline safety videos. Every year they release a new air safety video that is pretty much guaranteed to go viral. They have had director Peter Jackson appearing in a Hobbit-themed version called An Unexpected Briefing and another one with Golden Girl Betty White starring in Safety Old School Style, and (my personal favourite!) US fitness personality Richard Simmons and a leotard-clad cabin crew delivering preflight safety messages. Their most recent video featuring bikini-clad models ‘hit political turbulence’ and ended up being pulled. Despite this the airline’s success in this arena is to be applauded.
What if your budget doesn’t stretch to singing stars and videos with high production values? Even a humble sign can be made over using imagination and humour for attention, retention and action. I recently spotted a sign while travelling overseas that instead of demanding the conventional “Keep off the grass”, simply said “The grass is resting”. Touché. Attention, retention and action – all with a humble sign.
Please comment, I love sharing your insights.
On a recent Saturday run, I was feeling despondent. Here I was far behind the rest of my group, running alone.
As adults we hate being bad at stuff. Especially in PUBLIC. My dark mood continued and at one point I wondered should I stop running, as I am not making much progress at all and it has been a year. My thoughts started to spiral down and I entered the pit of despair. This is where you feel things are hopeless and you want to give up. No one tells you this, but the pit of despair is full of carnival mirrors that distort everything: your messages, your self-perception and even your ability to do stuff anymore.
Just then my trainer Nick ran back to me and I confessed how I was feeling. He simply said “Just think how far you have come. Less than a year ago you were not running and now you can do even 10 kilometres, easy, slow and steady.”
Nick’s words immediately gave me a different perspective. I also realised that there are a couple of strategies you can use to get out of the pit of despair. You could try and climb out of the pit, this can be hard as the walls are slippery or you could ask for help.
But be careful when you ask for help as there are two kinds of people with pit expertise! There are the sympathisers, who simply climb into the pit with you. They say “poor you” and help you wallow some more. This might feel good in the moment but it’s absolutely no use to you. There are then the empathisers, who throw you a rope and sometimes a lifeline to help you out. This is the nice, empathetic version of “Suck it up princess!”. Luckily, Nick threw me a rope that day. I continue to run slow and steady every Saturday and enjoy it even though I am still right at the back of the group.
What about you, what strategies do you use to help yourself or other people climb out of the pit of despair? Please comment, I love hearing from you.
Yamini 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.