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.

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 is Business Storytelling? The Results

Business StorytellingAs you might be aware we define Business Storytelling as ‘storytelling with a business purpose and for business results’. So what results can a purposeful business story deliver?

Take for example a client of ours, Michael Brandt, who is a Regional Branch Manager at a bank.  Michael was responsible for 20 branches and at every branch, he had the same problem. His staff never seemed to meet their weekly targets of referring quality sales leads to the sales department.

He continuously talked to his team, and every time, they told him they knew what their targets were, and the importance of referring leads to the sales department. In fact, their targets were even linked to their annual performance bonus!

His staff told him that it was the one task they hated doing.  For two years, Michael had this problem, and by his own admission, had tried everything. His frustration was tangible and you can imagine how frustrating it must have been for his staff as well.

During one of our workshops, Michael constructed the following story:

When I was a kid, I hated Brussels sprouts. Every time Brussels sprouts was served at dinner, I always left the Brussels sprouts till the end (of course I always hoped I could get away without eating them).   My mother would never let me leave the table until I ate them.

One day, when Brussels sprouts was on the menu (yet again), I decided to eat them straight away so I could sit back and enjoy the rest of my meal. Do you think we could approach our quality sales leads targets like Brussels sprouts? We all know we can’t leave the table without eating them. Do you think we could get them out of the way early in the week and then sit back and enjoy the rest of our week?’

Two weeks later, we saw Michael at a follow up session where he told us he had been to 11 of his 20 Branches, and narrated his Brussels sprouts story. Michael advised us that in all 11 Branches, for the first time in two years, they had achieved their quality sales leads targets. We asked Michael if he had done anything different in those 11 branches (apart from telling the story) to which he replied ‘No, the story was the only thing I did differently’. He then told us that the term ‘Brussels sprouts’ had also become short-hand within the team for their sales leads: ‘How many Brussels sprouts have you eaten?’ ‘I have already eaten 3 today and it’s not even lunch time!’

Being consultants we took full credit of course for Michael’s success!  His story worked because everyone can relate to it, it taps into a universal human experience of being forced to eat your vegetables by your mother.  At a subtler level Michaels’ story carries a layer of empathy in it.  Through the story he is saying it is OK to hate stuff in life but that doesn’t mean you can get out of doing it.

Michael used ‘Brussels sprouts’ for 6 months as every time he did it gave him powerful results. This is an example of how storytelling can work for you, if done purposefully.  Here is another case study across an organisation of the results purposeful storytelling achieved.

What is Storytelling’? What is business storytelling?


Business StorytellingSix years ago when we founded our company specialising in storytelling there was no entry in wikipedia for organisational / business storytelling.  So we seized the mantle and put in this definition ‘Business storytelling is storytelling with a business purpose and for business results’. WHOA! While that entry has long since been added to, amended etc, we still find it’s the most practical definition for business storytelling that resonates with our clients. In this post let’s explore the purpose part of the definition.

Do you remember Alice in Wonderland where Alice asks the Cheshire cat “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” and the Cheshire cat replies “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” And Alice “I don’t much care where ” to which the Cheshire cat replied “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”  Unlike Alice, for you to be successful with your business storytelling you have to have a clear purpose in mind.

You as the storyteller have to always be able to answer the million dollar question ‘Why am I telling this story?’  ‘What is the purpose of this story?’  And unless you as the storyteller are able to answer this in a clear and compelling fashion, guess what your stories won’t work.  It’s as simple and as hard as that.

Here are some examples of purposeful storytelling and in the next post we will look at the results part of this definition.

Only The Real thing will do

Nordstrom’s and a 100% service

Copper head snakes

it’s OK to be out of control sometimes

What do you think?, Please post a comment

Dogs in sinks AKA a new customer service story

I am on the market for a laundry sink.  Recently we spotted a sink we both liked but my husband who has the spatial skill set in the family was uncertain if our dog Ace could fit in it.  No please do not ring the RSPCA yet, but be warned a moment of TMI (Too Much Information) follows.

We wash our dog Ace, in our laundry sink.  After measuring the sink and then returning home to measure our dog we were still unsure.  The next time we were the store we again agonised over the sink.  This time a salesperson overheard us and interjected to say ‘ We want to be sure you will be happy with your sink, so please bring your dog in’.  So early on Monday morning I took a freshly brushed for the occassion Ace to the showroom and trotted with him inside.  The assistant held Ace while I took a photo to email my husband and viola – perfect sink, and perfect fit for our dog, the true end customer.  Another salesperson who was there said as a joke ‘Now I have seen everything!’.

Now I have the perfect sink for my dog and a perfect customer service story to share in business to cup runneth over!

Have you got an ace customer service story? Please comment.

‘Business Storytelling’ The most important thing to remember

A facilitator launched into a workshop with this story:

“Last week I watched my wife preparing a pot roast. As I watched she cut off one end of the roast and set it aside. I Asked her why she did this. She answered, “Because my mother always cut off the end of roast.”  I was still confused so I went to my mother-in-law and asked the same question. She said. “Because my mother always did it that way!” I still thought it was strange and so I went to my wife’s grandmother and asked her about this strange family practice. She just laughed and said, “I always cut off the end of the roast because I didn’t have a pan big enough the hold roast.” Some traditions are like that!  Let’s look at what we do and why we do it that way.”

All the participants connected with the story and the message.  The next day another facilitator arrived and said ‘I want to share this parable with you’ and repeated the same story!  Much to the shock of all the participants.  Needless to say the  credibility of the previous facilitator was shot to pieces…because he had passed off  this parable as his own.

One of the participant’s shared this whole experience with us adding ‘We were so angry and didn’t care any more about the valuable stuff that we had learnt in the workshop any more.  All we could remember was he had lied to us by saying this had happened to him when clearly it was a well known story.  We started to wonder what else he had said was not true.’

If a story is not your own, the simplest yet most important storytelling technique is to always credit your stories.   Credit your stories and stay credible.  This is the most important tip for business storytelling.

Where have you seen authentic or inauthentic storytelling?  Please share your comments with us.

Frank Lowy please ring me! Business Storytelling and Australia’s bid for the World Cup

Business StorytellingEvery four years  like a lot of people, I am gripped by soccer fever, thanks to the World Cup and  turn into a complete soccer tragic!  Given our time zone differences, here in Australia this involves setting our alarm for the earliest hours of the morning to watch the games ‘live’.  But it is absolutely worth it!

Like most people in Australia I am deeply disappointed that Australia won’t be hosting the 2022 World cup.  Life is a tough teacher.  You have the experience first and then you hopefully learn from it.  So what did we learn?  I am of course going to be looking at this through the lens of storytelling.   Caveat: We all know the whole bidding process is complex involves many strategies, and many players, political wrangling etc. So this is in no way a solution but something to consider as part our learning.

Using the storytelling lens and comparing Australia’s bid with Qatar’s three things to consider:

  1. The emotion each pitch was tapping into
  2. The audience
  3. The audience’s objections

Every time  I heard Frank Lowy pitching to host the World Cup he talked about Australia being a ‘safe pair of hands’.   The Australian bid tapped into a negative emotion, fear.  It looks like the FIFA committee (the audience) was not looking for a ‘safe pair of hands’.  Their decision to go with South Africa for the previous World Cup indicates this.  Another plank in our bid was ‘Make a country’s dreams come true’  which could apply to every country bidding for the World Cup.  On the other hand ABC news reporter Emma Alberici said Qatar presented a bid full of emotion, imploring the executive committee to make history by sending the World Cup to the Middle East for the first time.  Compare ‘Safe pair of hands’ with ‘The opportunity to make history’.

But what about the audience?   Any narrative we engage with has to be right for the audience.

On their web site FIFA states ‘For the Game. For the World’.  It is interesting to note the Qatar bid tag line states  ‘For football, for the Middle East, for the world’.  Perfect alignment.  Qatar was telling the committee you have the option to unite the Middle East and the world through football …compare that with making a single country’s dreams come true.

In their bios on the FIFA website one of the questions for the Executive Committee is ‘What does football mean to you?   It is interesting to note the range of answers from  Unity and friendship’, ‘Responsibility, service and joy’, ‘Team spirit and social responisbility’, ‘Unity and teamwork’.  Again the Qatar bid taps into this.

How do you in storytelling overcome the audience’s objections? One of the key hurdles for Australia was the time difference.  The Australian bid website states ‘A time zone for more than 60% of the world’s population. Australia will work closely with FIFA to ensure that the match schedule is designed to maximise total television audience numbers around the world’.

All necessary statement of fact but compare how objections can be handled in a compelling and emotionally engaging way.  In one of Qatar’s bid presentations a child is heard saying ‘So say the Israeli teams and the Arab teams go to the world cup and they play against each other.  Israelis would come to cheer their team and the Arabs would also come, then they would get to know each other’.  An adult voice then adds ‘Indeed what we saw in South Africa was harmony between all people there’.

Giving a speech after the wining host was announced, Qatar 2022 Bid Committee Chairman Sheikh Mohammad bin Hamad Al Thani said “On behalf of millions of people living in the Middle East, thank you,” he went on saying “Thank you for believing in us, thank you for having such bold vision. Thank you also for acknowledging this is the right time for the Middle East. We have a date with history which is summer 2022. We will not let you down. We will make you proud.”

He was letting the panel know this was about  football, but it was also about the Middle East and the world. The legacy they would leave the world with this decision.

Congratulations  Qatar on the historic win.  Frank Lowy please ring us and let’s start working on Australia’s bid for 2030.  The time is now …

Business storytelling and The Social Network movie

On the weekend I went to see The Social Network,a film about Mark Zukerberg the founder of Facebook.  While watching the film,  I was struck (yet again) by how powerful stories can be. Especially when compared to a statement of fact or even a metaphor.

In the movie, Zuckerberg sets up a meeting with Sean Parker, the 20-something founder of  Napster. Zuckerberg is being persuaded by Sean Parker to think big.  Parker actually does this in three stages.  First with a  statement, then with a metaphor and finally with a story.

Parker says “What’s cool is not a million dollars, but a billion dollars’.

Parker then advises Zuckerberg to choose his future using a metaphor: When you go fishing you can catch a lot of fish or you can catch a big fish. You ever walk into a guy’s den and see a picture of fourteen trout? No, he’s holding an 800-pound marlin and that’s what you want’.

Later, at a San Francisco night club, Parker influences Zuckerberg with this story of the founder of Victoria’s Secret.

‘A Stanford MBA named Roy Raymond, wants to buy his wife some lingerie but he’s too embarrassed to shop for it at a department store. Comes up with an idea for a high end place that doesn’t make you feel like a pervert. He gets a forty thousand dollar bank loan, borrows another forty thousand from his in-laws, opens a store and calls it Victoria’s Secret. Makes a half million dollars his first year. He starts a catalogue, opens three more stores and after five years he sells the company to Leslie Wexner and The Limited for four million dollars. Happy ending, right? Except four years later the company’s worth five hundred million dollars and Roy Raymond jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge. Poor guy just wanted to buy his wife a pair of thigh highs.’

So did the story work?

Jim Fink in his article Facebook IPO? Insights from the Social Network Movie says the lessons for Zuckerberg were :  THINK BIG , be patient and you’ll maximize the value of the business.   Jim also goes on to add that Zuckerberg took Parker’s advice. When former Yahoo! CEO Terry Semel offered to buy Facebook for a cool $1 billion in 2006, Mark turned him down.  Semel was shocked, stating later in an interview:  I’d never met anyone – forget his age, 22 then or 26 now – I’d never met anyone who would walk away from $1 billion. I couldn’t believe it.  Today Facebook is now worth 26 times what Semel offered to pay.

I am sharing this with you to illustrate how a statement a of  fact or a metaphor inform people but may not necessarily shift behaviour.  As both are based on logic and logic informs but doesn’ t always persuade us to change.  If logic did that then no one would smoke, non one would speed, we would all eat right and exercise everyday.  But with a purposeful authentic story you can influence behaviour…just like Sean Parker did.

Business storytelling and ‘White Noise’

Business StorytellingOur first floor office is on the corner of a busy CBD intersection, in the heart of Melbourne. One of the things we love about our office is the sounds of the city, the ding of passing trams, the hum of traffic and the general buzz of a city going about its business.  The one sound that cuts through all this, is the siren of emergency vehicles.

I was interested to learn that emergency sirens are designed using the concept of white noise – to cut through everything and grab our attention.  I was first introduced to the concept of white noise when Sydney had the Olympics in 2000.  Flight paths were extended over new housing estates much to the residents’ chagrin.  The council invited architects into the discussion and the architects placed simple water features in the courtyards of the houses.  The gentle soothing sound of the water became a focal point, desensitizing residents to the aircraft noise overhead.  Innovative use of white noise.

As business communicators in an information overloaded world, our challenge is, how can we create white noise instead of just noise around our messages?  I absolutely think (no surprises here!) that storytelling when done well creates ‘white noise’ focusing attention on your messages.

Tim Reid shared this wonderful example in a recent interview .  The head of  Tooheys was handing over the Melbourne Cup and everyone was bracing themselves for a boring corporate speech (lots of noise).  Instead all he said was ‘At Tooheys we are here to make the world more social’.  Wonderful use of white noise that grabbed everyone’s attention.  Needless to say everyone cheered. And the  story becomes one worth repeating and has entered Melbourne’s urban mythology, possibly forever.  So the next time you are communicating think about whether you are adding to the noise or standing out using ‘white noise’?

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