Business storytelling… knowing when to quit

Yamini Naidu Business storyteller

“After all, tomorrow is another day.” In the end of the blockbuster, Gone with the Wind, this is what southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (played by Vivien Leigh) says after Rhett Butler (played by Clark Gable) walks out on her with the parting shot: ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!”

Her entire response is ‘I’ll go home. And I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all… tomorrow is another day.’

Everyone remembers or knows that famous last line―brimming with potential, an ending that leaves an audience wanting more. Author Margaret Mitchell understood the power of ending at the right point, even though the novel is 1,037 pages long!

Storytelling in a novel is like swimming in the ocean―you have all the time and place in the world. However, business storytelling is like swimming in a bathtub. It has to be tight and short. One way to be concise with your business storytelling is knowing when to end. Ideally, your ending should be only one line or two short lines.

An ending leaves your audience with a message without banging them over the head with it. You imply, suggest or invite, never dictate what your audience should get from your story. In business storytelling, your ending should leave your audience wanting more.

Business storytelling mindset for success

Yamini Naidu Business storyteller

Christopher McDougall was a desperate man. He was about to embark on a gruelling challenge of a lifetime in a 50-mile race through some of the world’s toughest terrain. He had heard about the Tarahumara tribe, or ‘running people,’ a reclusive tribe who lived in the canyons of northern Mexico.

The Tarahumara tribe are renowned for this activity, often running 200 miles in one session without a rest! Despite this superhuman talent, they don’t suffer from running injuries.

Intrigued, McDougall set out to track them down and discover their secrets. Despite their reputation, they were welcoming of him and shared their secrets, which he describes in his book, Born to Run.

McDougall says that the lesson from the Tarahumara was simple: learn to love to run. The Tarahumara people have a mindset and culture based on the belief that running is an essential human skill. It is hard to be a part of the Tarahumara and not enjoy running. It’s seen as a necessity that makes them who they are as a people.

McDougall also reminds us that this running passion is not exclusive to the Tarahumara. As children, most of us run around in play with wild abandon, enjoying the freedom. However, a lot of us disconnect from this as adults.

I was immediately struck by a similar experience my clients have with storytelling. As children, we love stories―listening to them, reading them and even coming up with our own. But, sadly, as professionals in the business world, we tend to disconnect from storytelling as a valid tool. The biggest successes my clients have had with business storytelling is when they have embraced it as a mindset, often challenging one another by saying, ‘What are some of the stories we are going to share?’ And this is across contexts. Could be for a pitch, an important client meeting, a team briefing or even a corridor conversation.

A few years ago, I was featured in BOSS Magazine, along with some of my clients from Nab, Ericsson and Accenture. The then Managing Director of Accenture, Jack Percy, is quoted as saying ‘Storytelling doubled our revenue.’ The key reason was that their organisation embraced a business storytelling mindset.

Bend it like Brené

ted-logoI had a big bump moment with charisma last week that I want to share with you.  I have always been a HUGE fan of Brené Brown, ever since I saw her TED talk in 2010, the very talk that went viral and made her an overnight sensation.

So it was very exciting to get the opportunity to see her live in Melbourne last Friday.  It was exciting but I was also a tad nervous, what if she didn’t live up to my expectation.  I need not have spent a nanosecond worrying about that. Brené was a warm, empathic and funny and had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand from the word go.  But what surprised me was how charismatic she was.  I was reminded of a quote by Rose Herceg ‘Charisma is like pornography, you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it’!

We are all brought up to believe charisma, you have got it or you don’t, but having the privilege of watching Brené in action, here are some things that stood out.

Charisma is being comfortable with who you are.  Every charismatic person owns who they are, warts and all and are completely comfortable in their skin.  They are not mimicking someone else or trying to be something they are not.

Authenticity. What struck me with Brené Brown’s talk was how genuine she was, it does help that she researches authenticity, but it is very powerful to see a speaker modeling their message.  In a world where so much seems manufactured, spun, sanitized, authenticity is immediately charismatic.

Elevate others.  Quite often people who think they are charismatic, or  are determined to be charismatic can make it all about themselves.  It is all about their ego, always speaking the most, and not giving other people an opportunity.  Seeing charisma in action is the exact opposite of that.  A charismatic presenter or leader elevates the people around them, through their connection, and warmth.  All of us felt shiny and new and loved  ( I know!) after we heard Brené.

Humour and humility. Share stories, every charismatic person is a great storyteller, but their stories are not the ‘how great I am’ stories but story that show them in their human frailty and use humour and humility.

Charm not smarm. Charisma and charm are like basil and tomatoes.  But the key is the charm has to be genuine, a genuine smile, spotting the positive thing to say and a warm handshake.

Off Stage. Charisma is not something you turn off and on.  We were in a crowd of people trying to speak with Brené after she stepped off stage and she was being moved along by her conference organisers.  Yet I noticed she made time to shake every hand that was proffered, hugged people and stopped to chat even if it was just for a couple of seconds.  Her off stage and on stage persona were completely congruent.

I know all of us do and are some of these things some of the time.  Our challenge is to ‘Bend it like Brené’, and make it part of who we are.  So the next time you have an opportunity to go in ego and guns blazing or elevate someone else chose the latter and watch your charisma grow.

Breaking the rules

nando_parradoWe are pretty fanatical about stories in business not taking more than 2 minutes to share.  I know, sounds harsh but we have even written another post on how storytelling like everything in life is subject to the law of diminishing returns.  Simply put the law tells us that after a point in time the more you put into something the less you get back.  And I absolutely think the law kicks in at about the 2-minute mark with most stories.

But of course what makes life so interesting is that there are always exceptions to every rule and one must always know when to break or bend a rule.

Just recently a client, Richard Binch from Accenture shared a story of how a long story can work!  Richard  talked about attending a conference where  Nando Parrado was invited to speak.

In October 1972, Nando Parrado was one of 16 survivors when a plane carrying the Uruguayan rugby team crashed in the Andes Mountains.  Parrado lost both his mother and sister in the plane crash.

What follows is not for the faint hearted.  Stranded at over 11,800 ft altitude, the survivors were faced with extreme conditions, little food and no heat source.  Facing the grim prospect of starvation and after hearing on radio that attempts to rescue them had been abandoned, the 16 survived by feeding on dead passengers preserved in the snow.  Parrado says out of respect for him they did not touch the bodies of his mother and sister.

I think the greatest sadness I felt in my life was when I had to eat a dead body,” said Roberto Canessa, one of the other survivors later.  “I would ask myself: is it worth doing this? And it was because it was in order to live and preserve life, which is exactly what I would have liked for myself if it had been my body that lay on the floor,” he said.

Desperate after more than two months in the mountains, Canessa and Parrado set out to seek help. They climbed a 5000 metre mountain, one part of the ascent was diagonally across a sheer wall of snow. They had no picks, no ropes, no climbing equipment and only summer clothing.  In addition to the cold, they had to deal with thin air, blizzards and their physical debilitation.  Nando told the others that from the summit of the mountain they would see the green plains of Chile. When he reached the top there was no green, only white.

After 10 days of trekking, they spotted a livestock herder in the foothills of the Chilean Andes.  They could not reach him because of difficult conditions, but they heard him say one word: “Tomorrow”.  “With that, our suffering ended,” Canessa said.  The herder went into town and returned with a rescue team.

Richard shared that Parrado spoke for an hour and a half and had everyone riveted and Parrado used his story to say ‘Don’t waste your time, lead the life you want to lead’.  Parrado was brought in, to inspire the sales force and within 2 days, about 7 people in the sales team resigned as Parrado’s message struck a chord with them.  Even in Richard’s retelling in Melbourne, so many years later you could see that the audience was visibly moved.

Thanks Richard for reminding us that there are exceptions to every rule and long stories can work.  And as the Dalai Lama said “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”


Sexist, Racist? Me? Couldn’t be!

Last week I walked into my local pharmacy and was greeted by a young Asian man and I immediately started asking him very specific questions and he interrupted Young-smiling-asian-man-745813me and politely said ‘Sorry I’m not the pharmacist, I’m a pharmacy assistant but I’m sure the pharmacist would be able to help you‘.  I was so embarrassed and apologized but he very politely said ‘No worries, it happens all the time, everyone thinks I am the pharmacist‘.

What he didn’t say but was implied was ‘…because I’m male & Asian’.  Sexist, racist, me? Couldn’t be! Classic case of unconscious bias on my part and for a lot of their customers.  Unconscious bias is where we are not even aware of the biases we have.  Everyone has their unconscious biases, and in leadership unconscious bias can seriously impact communication, decisions, judgment, performance and results.

But there is hope. As  journalist Fiona Smith in a recent BRW article states ‘The point is we are all biased, but as intelligent, thinking people it is incumbent on us to question our responses and decisions to ensure we do the right thing’.




If it’s business, make it personal

“It’s not personal, Sonny, it’s strictly business” is a famous line from the 1972 film ‘The Godfather’.

We have all been raised on the myth of ‘it’s business not personal’.  To succeed as business communicators, it’s time to challenge that.  So if you want your messages to stick let’s go against the grain.  But how, how can we make boring business communication personal?

A few years ago we did some work with the chair of a global multinational and his message was ‘spend company money as if it is your own’ i.e. be careful how you spend company money.  This sounds just like another trite company line about cost cutting.  We asked him how he was going with this message and he replied ‘Not very well, but I’m going to keep banging on about this till it hits home’.  We asked him why.  He replied ‘When I was a child, my parents were by no means poor, but neither were we wealthy.  My parents worked very hard for their money and they always told me and my two brothers, you work hard for your money but you get to spend it only once so spend it wisely’.  We discovered he had never shared this with his team and invited him to do so the next time he was presenting this message.  He began with the story and then linked it to the message by saying that is why ‘Spending company money as if it is our own’ resonates with me.  He was surprised at the connection this personalisation created and how the behaviour around spending company money changed.  People realized he was genuine about the message and not just pushing yet another company line.

To make your messages personal think about the personal stories you can share in a purposeful and authentic way to make your communication come alive.

Sadly, most business communication suffers from predictability and sanitization.  But there is hope.  To stand out and be heard above the clutter, consider how you can make it personal…and pack a punch.


Leaders how to find your Communication Mojo NOW!

In an Austin Powers movie, Austin loses his mojo – stolen by Dr Evil and then destroyed!  The Dr Evils of Leadership communication are corporate jargon (executional excellence anyone?), and mojo destroying PowerPoint slides, dense with data.

So how can you as a leader restore your communication mojo, if it’s lost or destroyed? Today’s leadership literature states that people crave connection & authenticity in their leaders.   Where better to show this than in your communication & let your communication mojo shine.

A skill that can help you build connections is storytelling.  This is story shared by a leader that does just that.

“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.”

Ann Burns, Accenture

This kind of storytelling because it is a true personal experience, has a healthy level of self-disclosure & humility helps people connect with you.  It’s refreshing and packed with mojo!

But how do you get authenticity from communication like this?  People can immediately sense authenticity. For any storytelling to work it has be authentic.  People will immediately sense if it is or not.

Imagine this story used in a presentation or woven into a team meeting at an appropriate point of course.  So much more mojo laden than the usual clichés of  “Believe in yourself”, or even worse some turgid jargon fest intended to convey the same message.

The Austin Powers film has a happy ending as Austin finds even though Dr Evil destroyed his mojo, he had his mojo inside him all along!  He simply had to be encouraged to find it.   So there’s hope for all of us as leaders – we have our communication mojo in us already, and just have to have the courage and confidence to set it free.

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?!

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!