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.

What’s love got to do with it?

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

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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The business of busyness

item0546luIn 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.

Are you skating to where the puck is?

downloadHave you heard of Wayne Gretzky? Your answer will definitely be yes if you are either Canadian, into ice hockey or a general sports nut.

In Canada, Gretzky, a brilliant ice hockey player, is a national hero. Gretzky was so good that when he retired, his number – 99 – was retired from all North American professional hockey teams. He was once asked why he was so successful. He had no immediate answer for the reporter, but he went away and thought about it. Later he summed it up perfectly: “I skate to where the puck is going, not to where it’s been.”

The simplicity of this message belies what it conveys for us in business. It’s not the grand vision or the 90-day plan, but the simplest action I can take right now to achieve my goal. In ice hockey it is skating to where the puck is going; in business it might be making that phone call to a client, or having that difficult conversation with a team member.

This is backed up by current research in the recent best-seller Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader where the author, INSEAD professor Herminia Ibarra, shows that becoming a leader is not an event but a process with kinks and curves.

Ibarra turns the usual ‘think first and then act’ philosophy on its head, arguing that we learn through action. She says action increases your ‘outsight’: the valuable external perspective you gain from direct experiences and experimentation.

Of course through experience, champions such as Gretzky build up formidable outsight, but it all starts with that simple first step. Skating to where the puck is.

Please comment; I love hearing from you.

Real leaders don’t cry(?)

tearsRecently in a workshop a leader was moved to tears while narrating her story.  She apologised and received a very positive response from the group.

Immediately the leaders wanted to talk about how to handle vulnerability.  One leader said sometimes he’s so passionate about what he’s saying that he tears up.  He questioned if this was appropriate.

Recently, Michael Clarke, Australia’s cricket captain, broke down on national TV discussing the tragic passing of teammate Phil Hughes.  Many a blogger commented on how powerful the moment was as a positive influence on young boys. This comment captured the sentiment: “Not so long ago it wouldn’t have done at all for the captain of the Aussie cricket team to cry for a mate, and say how much he loved him, publicly. Glad our boys can see this.”

Our culture deeply conditions us to be brave and hide our feelings, particularly at work.  For women leaders this is compounded by fear of being seen as weak or emotional if we tear up.

Tears at work are awkward.  If you tear up (it can happen), how would you recover? If someone else at work tears up, try offering a hug or a pat on the back, or try some humour to break the tension.

Tears are a sign of vulnerability, not weakness.  Brene Brown the world’s foremost expert on vulnerability, says staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take to experience deep connections.

Real leaders cry – and real leaders also recover with grace.

Please comment, I love hearing from you.

David Bowie is…

I’m a huge David Bowie fan and was excited to learn that an international touring exhibition on David Bowie is coming to Melbourne.  The exhibition is simply titled David Bowie is…

img-bowie-is-heroThe title is alluring as it is an open loop.  You immediately start to add to it.  David Bowie is… a legend, a performer, a superstar.  In a world where most communication is bolted down in a closed loop, why bother with open loop communication?

Open loop grabs attention in an attention-deficient world.  In terms of communication, open loop invites your audience in instead of conventional communication, which tends to be push mode.  Intrigue, wonder, curiosity – not emotions we normally associate with communication – can all be created by open loop.

Open loop can work really well in presentations.  You could use an open loop statement like “There is one way above all others that helps us deliver outstanding customer service. And before I share that-” and talk about something else. Come back and close the loop later.

Stories also lend themselves to open loop.  Conventionally a story has a beginning, middle and an end and we usually do this one after another. With open loop you would start the story, talk about something else, come back to the middle and again leave your audience at a cliff-hanger before coming back and ending your story.

Open loop is massively underutilised with email headings.  Most people scan their email subject headings, so if you want more clicks, try an interesting open loop like Have you ever wondered if…

Open loop is best used sparingly.  If you ever open a loop you must come back and close the loop, otherwise your audience will be left in suspense.  Open loop must also deliver on its promise.  So what follows your open loop must close off and answer the subject or question you raised.

Where have you seen open loop used well?  Please share – I love hearing from you.

Fixing lights or under the spot light?

A confession, yet again I have become addicted to watching ‘The Voice’ on Channel 9!  One of the contestants Jackson Thomas an electrician said he applied to audition because ‘Rather than fixing lights, I want to be under the spotlight’. spotlight
For technical people, our expertise is like fixing lights. Yet when we present we have to translate our expertise into something that works under the spotlight.   Technical expertise is about detail and mechanics.   Presenting is about connecting and creating meaning for your audience.
Storytelling can help you shine under the spotlight.   Just like Megan Cook, Product Manager  from Atlassian did with this story.
A few years ago I was travelling to Penang with my fiancée Kieren so he could meet my grandmother.   We had to take a bus from KL to Penang and the first bus was cancelled.   The second bus showed up late, it was packed, and belching smoke and felt old and rickety.   We did make it to Penang in one piece and my grandmother was so happy to see us.

A year or so later we were travelling to Japan where we had a complex journey involving 4 changes of train and signs in a language we didn’t understand.   I thought it would be very stressful, but it was not at all.   The trains were on time, super clean and fast, and all the complex changeovers were really easy.   My stress level and mood were vastly different with each experience and our products effect our customers in the same way.   Everyday we have that same opportunity, we can build or put band aids on rickety buses or make trains that work and deliver great results for our customers.
Fixing lights is about information, being under the spotlight is about inspiration.   Please comment, I love hearing from you.

Epic or everyday?

Quite often our first exposure to inspiring storytelling is when we see a motivational speaker on stage.  And they usually narrate an epic story that involves scaling Mount Everest or sailing around the world solo. download
But interestingly in leadership I find what works on a daily basis is not epic stories but everyday stories.  Stories about shopping in Bunnings, or going to a restaurant with friends or dropping your kids off to school.  Everyday stories work because your audience can relate to them.  They can see themselves in your stories. 
An epic story has your audience in passive spectator mode, they enjoy the spectacle of your story, but they are not involved in it.  An everyday story on the other hand engages your audience differently. They emotionally invest in your story and relive their own experiences through your story. 
Here are some examples of everyday stories that have delivered potent results.  So unless you are a motivational speaker, the next time you embark on a story think everyday not epic, to unlock the power of storytelling.

Early warning signs, Stories for storytelling

A few weeks ago presenting a key note at a conference we had the pleasure of listening to this story shared by James Lindsay, Senior Manager – Technology.

A few years ago when I was living with my family in Canada, we had friends over one evening for a Thanksgiving dinner.  It was a lovely evening, we had the fire going in the fire place, lots of good food, red wine and   warning signconversations.  After our friends left we cleaned up and went to bed, tired but happy.  At about 2 am I was woken up by the smoke alarm in our house going off.  I sprung out off bed and went around the house carefully checking, the fire place, the basement, the whole house but could find no evidence at all of any fire.  The alarm eventually turned itself off and I went back to bed.  But about 15 minutes later, the alarm went off again.  I couldn’t believe it, and went through the whole process again carefully checking the house from top to bottom and there was no fire to be seen anywhere.  I thought the alarm might be faulty and did not want to be disturbed again, so turned it off completely.  Later that night I was woken by a thick cloud of smoke and barely made it out off the house, with my wife and son.  I even had to rush back in to get my dog.  We were standing outside our house which was engulfed in thick smoke, waiting for the fire engine when a huge flame erupted, exactly from in front of the fire place.  The fire engines did arrive and put out the fire and we found out that builders had been installing faulty fire places in new homes in our area to save money.   I also found out later that my family and I had escaped the Grim Reaper by a few minutes.  In life we often get early warning signs that serve a purpose. If we took notice of these signs and did something, imagine the difference we could make.

Imagine using this story to influence and inspire a client to take action with early warning signs. Sometimes data alone doesn’t cut it, but a story  combined with data will often persuade & inspire.
Thanks James for sharing this.
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