Two young gold fish were swimming along and they met an older fish, who said “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” One of the young gold fish looks over at the other and said “What the hell is water?”
This was a story shared by the late, great David Foster Wallace a brilliant American writer. Wallace said the point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.
That is why the new kid on the block, has the bright ideas, or new recruits see so much opportunity for change or innovation. So how do we in our daily environments make the invisible (water) visible?
- Get a mentor or a coach who can see what you can’t see
- Run your business issue past a friend or trusted advisor from a completely different industry. If you are a scientist, ask an artist’s opinion. If you are an economist, work with a poet. Get someone who has a completely different perspective and discipline to you
- Cultivate the mavericks in your organisations, the rebels and the people who always play devil’s advocate – remember they can see the water, where most people can’t. So no matter how irritating they might be, they have a valuable view point to contribute.
What are your strategies for seeing the water? Please comment I love hearing from you.
Just yesterday morning, the alarm went off and I hit the snooze button, I then had a goose bump moment thinking about what my friend Rachel had just said to me the day before. But before that goose bump moment my mind was racing with a 100 excuses on why staying in bed was a better option than going to the gym. Too cold, too dark, too cosy, I just went yesterday, I will go in the evening…
So, often to motivate myself I say just give it 10 minutes and then stop. This works because the hardest thing is often starting, and once you start and have momentum you actually find it hard to stop.
Other times I plan a reward, like catching up with a friend for a coffee, after cracking that complex proposal. But none of those strategies were relevant that morning, when the choice was gym or sleep in.
But coming back to Rachel and the goose bump moment. I remembered how she had just said the previous day “You never regret going to the gym, but you always regret not going”. So the thought of regret propelled me out of bed. And Rachel was right. At the end of boxing class I felt so glad I went. In an ironic twist I got a text from Rachel saying she had slept through her alarm!
What about you? What motivates you to get out off bed? I would love to hear your ideas.
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.
Warren Buffett, often speaks in folksy aphorisms. I guess, in modern terms, we would refer to them as tweets. He famously said about investing, ‘…is simple but not easy.’
Interestingly, this is the most common feedback I get from clients all over the world. Not about investing, but about storytelling. Storytelling is much harder than it looks.
So, to borrow from Mr. Buffett, storytelling is simple but not easy. When you hear a story, part of its success is that it seems simple, even effortless. Simplicity means that the audience ‘gets it.’ You understand the story and the point it is making. Consider this gem from the late, great David Foster Wallace, a brilliant American writer.
Two young goldfish were swimming along and they met an older fish, who said, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” One of the young goldfish looked over at the other and said, “What the hell is water?”
Wallace said that the point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous and important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.
When we look at Wallace’s story, it’s relatable (most of us are familiar with goldfish; some of us might even have goldfish at home). It’s also short. A couple of sentences. And, most importantly, in a business context, it is purposeful. These are essentially the hallmarks of an effective story. These are also the very features that make a story seem simple.
So, what then makes a story difficult to craft? The very thing that makes it simple–making a story relatable, short and purposeful!
For a story to work in business, it has to be relatable. It must be about people, usually a single person (always people, not teams or organisations) to which your audience can relate. Your audience then immediately identifies with the story.
Business people often struggle with keeping their stories short.
My rule of thumb is that a story in business should take you under two minutes, which requires a lot of thinking, crafting and redrafting to nail.
And, perhaps the hardest thing to do well with storytelling is to land your stories on purpose. The power and juice of a good story lies in how you link it to a message (purpose). But, it’s important to do this in a way that is elegant and delightful and not clunky. This is difficult, even for story ninjas.
It may seem easy to come up with stories that are simple, short and purposeful, but they are actually difficult to craft and deliver.
The second most common feedback I get from clients is one of regret. Please don’t let that be your regret.
How do we persuade people to adopt our ideas, listen to what we have to say and even be inspired to act?
If you lived in 16th century Venice, the answer would be easy. You would do it through fear, as suggested by diplomat and political theorist, Niccolờ Machiavelli.
Successful, smart leaders in the 21st century know that hard power (fear, command and control, yell and tell) is not the way to create long-lasting, sustainable influence or change.
In the 1990s, Professor Joseph Nye introduced us to the idea of soft power–creating change through connecting, consulting and collaborating.
Most leaders know that soft power is how we get people on board. Think of soft power as sowing seeds and planting a garden—worth the long-term results but difficult for the impatient.
However, research informs us that over 70% of change efforts in organisations simply fail. So, using just these two tools (hard power and soft power) will make many of our change efforts unsuccessful.
The new currency of change is as old as time yet is the contemporary tool of our time. It is business storytelling. A purposeful, authentic story in business can influence, persuade and motivate people. Here’s an example from a client on what this looks like.
John Kotter, the leading authority on change, declared, ‘Change leaders make their points in ways that are as emotionally engaging and compelling as possible. They rely on vivid stories that are told and retold. You don’t have to spend a million dollars and six months to prepare for a change effort. You do have to make sure that you touch people emotionally…’
Simply stated, hard power informs, soft power invites and story power inspires.
Not for a moment am I suggesting to share one story, and you will instantly influence 100% of the people. No one story can do that, and no one deserves that level of influence; you would never want to have a bad idea in that case. But, over and over again with clients, I have seen that purposeful stories, crafted and shared with authenticity, inspire and create and power and mandate for change.
The currency of change has changed. Are you trading in this new currency?
You can’t throw a stone without hitting a storytelling consultant today. Yet, I remember a lot of blank stares when we co-founded Australia’s first storytelling company 10 years ago. Our first 18 months were spent answering questions from puzzled people, such as ‘How can you storytell in business?’ and ‘Aren’t storytellers natural?’
Yes, we know today you can storytell in business, and you should if you want to connect with and engage your audience. However, storytelling is not a natural gift, but everyone can learn how to get better at it.
It’s wonderful to see how, in just the last decade, business storytelling has become established as essential in both business and leadership. It is widely taught across the globe and part of most leadership development programs. This then begs the question, what’s next for business storytelling?
We are going to experience a tsunami of storytelling across all platforms, digital media and sectors—marketing, advertising and professional services, just to name a few. In addition to data, stories are going to become de rigueur. Nobody is going to buy or be persuaded to change simply based on data.
‘Show me the money’ is going to be reinvented as ‘Tell me the story.’ Google’s own ad on search is a wonderful example of this. Already there is a recognition that storytelling is the fuel that drives compelling engagement face to face and on social media.
In turn, this means our audiences are going to be much more discerning. The authentic, well-told story will wow. Spin passed off as stories will incur well-deserved wrath. Social media will amplify success and failure.
So, where will storytelling be one year from now? Here’s my snapshot view:
- More competition—everyone will be doing it across industries and in roles from leadership to marketing
- Audiences will be more discerning and more vocal
- This is the biggie – There will be a chasm between good, bad and ugly storytelling
So, how are you preparing for this storytelling revolution?
Please share, I love hearing from you.
What’s the secret sauce that makes some stories better than others and some storytellers more successful than others? The answers might surprise you.
Small beats big
In business storytelling, David beats Goliath every time. Quite often, my clients start by putting themselves under pressure, thinking that their stories have to be mega—about scaling Mount Everest or sailing around the world solo, for example. With products or brands we feel we have to share the entire history, instead of focusing on individual customer experiences.
But surprisingly, what works best is small, everyday, relatable stories. In a world in which bigger is better, brash is bought and bold is rewarded, this is a hard truth to face. In storytelling, every time you go small and intimate, you set yourself up for success.
Even in a small, everyday, relatable story, something has to be at stake. Your reputation? Your integrity? Your career?
A story about a barista not making your coffee right, while annoying, simply doesn’t have the stakes to engage your audience. We almost dismiss this as a first-world problem and you as a princess/prince! On the other hand, consider a story that starts with dropping your child off at school (most people can immediately relate to this) and then you discover (during the ride) that he is being bullied. The stakes are suddenly high. When that happens, your audience is immediately engaged. Equally important is that you are sharing something that matters to you as well.
Make it personal
A client recently highlighted how one of his CEOs used to obsessively share stories about Jack Welch and GE. The minute either of these two words was mentioned, everybody would roll their eyes, thinking “here we go again.” Sadly, that CEO (who didn’t last very long in the role) interpreted business storytelling very literally—meaning stories about business.
Business storytelling is about humanising us—allowing us to make an H2H (human to human connection) at work. There is no more powerful yet simple way to do this than through personal stories. You can occasionally use business stories, but successful storytellers know to always go personal.
So, are you ready to use these 3 secrets to become an epic storyteller?
Please share, I love hearing from you.
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.
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.
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.