Business storytelling for leaders – Interview with Noel Turnbull

Business StorytellingYamini 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.

Only the real thing can do – Business storytelling for leaders

Business StorytellingRecently we were leading a storytelling workshop at the Department of Justice and Darren Whitelaw, General Manager, Corporate Communication shared this story:

‘Last month I had the opportunity to travel overseas and was looking forward to it as it would be a break from the routine.

When I was overseas, my wife set up our laptop on my daughter’s breakfast table and I talked to my daughter daily via web cam.  My wife told me that once when the lap top was lying shut on the sofa, my daughter picked it up and hugged it and said ‘Daddy’.  That moved me and I realised that sometimes in life you can substitute the real thing but sometimes only the real thing can do.

I am sharing this with you as it reminds us that every day we have that same choice as communicators. We can send out emails or we can go out and talk to our people face to face because sometimes only the real thing can do…’

This is a great story for storytelling and hopefully it will spark one of your own.  For more stories for storytelling check out Bruce Springsteen and Customer Service


So what do you do? The Health Services Commissioner and business storytelling that works

Last week I was driving between appointments  and listening to 774 ABC Melbourne.  Waleed Aly (filling in for Jon Faine) was co hosting conversation hour with Health Services Commissioner Beth Wilson.

Waleed Aly asked the question that was on everyone’s mind after he introduced Beth Wilson ‘Health Services Commissioner – you sound important but I don’t really know what you do?’

Beth Wilson explained her role through a few key sentences (which most people would do) but then she said ‘let me give you an example’ and launched straight into a story that said it all and was memorable.

Till I heard Beth Wilson on radio, I like a lot of people didn’t know Victoria had a health commissioner.  But now after listening to Beth and the story she told I not only understand what her office does, but will also remember it and probably repeat what I heard to a few people.

So the next time someone asks you that question ‘So what do you do?’ can you give them an example, tell them a story that helps them remember and understand what it is you do?

Read through the whole story below or listen to Beth herself through this link.  You can fast forward to about 38:16, on the time line in the podcast to listen to the story.

‘People who come to my office usually want three things – they want to know what went wrong and why and what happened to them doesn’t happen to some one else.  It’s that third aspiration that really gives us an opportunity to improve the quality of our health services by listening to people’s experiences and learning from them.

My job is to try and resolve complaints through my office through a process of mediation or conciliation. Can I give you an example?

We had a lady who was having headaches and her GP had tried a number of cures none of which was particularly successful for her.  The GP was trained in using acupuncture.  I mention he was trained because sometimes registered doctors don’t think they need training for complementary therapies when of course you do.  He took her down the back room, he explained very carefully to her what was going to happen and how long it would take, he put on lovely flute relaxation music.  Now this lady is in the back room wearing a white gown with all these needles dangling in her head and neck and the flute music runs out and she is concerned with picking the children up from school.  So she called out ‘Helllloooo’ and she got no response what so ever.  She waited a bit longer and by now the twilight is starting to descend very seriously outside the window, so she called out really loudly ‘HEELLOOOOO’  and still nothing. 

Very gingerly she got off the bed and tippy toed out into the clinic not sure if she was going to hurt herself or not and the clinic was utterly completely totally deserted.  Doctor’s gone home, no nurses, no receptionist, no cleaning person, she’s locked in and the phone is on the night switch.  Fortunately she was on the ground floor and she flagged down a stoical passer by who was really good.  He got the police, who got the doctor who lived a long way from the clinic.  The lady was supposed to have been discharged at 4:30 that afternoon but in fact she was released at 9:30 pm, so she was not happy.  Her complaint to me was to try and make sure the doctor never forgot another patient.  The doctor was fabulous, totally cooperative, apologetic, not afraid to say sorry.  He put in a bell and a buzzer and a stopwatch, an alarm clock and some flashing lights, some laser beams and there’s no way he will forget another patient and he gave her two free consultations. 

At the end of our processes she said ‘Beth I can see the funny side of this now and I’m really pleased that he is still my doctor because I really like him’.  That’s what we call a win win situation.’

Empathy and humour anyone? Business Storytelling lessons from Junior Master Chef

Business StorytellingDid you see the first episode of Junior Master Chef on Sunday?  All eyes were on Anna Gare – the new judge.  When Anna was introduced to her audience she said ‘I started cooking when I was your age and I could barely see over the counter’. Her audience laughed and immediately connected with her (I know I did).


Anna opened with something personal that demonstrated empathy for her audience.  Empathy, humour, connection all in less than 30 seconds.  Do you think you could achieve all three in the first 30 seconds of your opening when you make your next presentation ..and why would you bother?

Annette Simmons story expert says one of the first stories you need to use are ‘Who am I’ stories i.e. ‘What personal qualities make you a trustworthy person’.. in this context?’

Its wisdom rests on that old adage ‘people need to trust you before they trust your message’.  Anna’s use of self disclosure shows that it doesn’t have to be a long story that trawls all the milestones in her life (which can be boring and certainly wouldn’t have held her audience’s attention or worked on prime time TV).  It can be one sentence that shows us who you are, and tells the audience what they need to know about you…that is relevant to them.

Giant mental post it note here – this is not what I think my audience needs to know about me – which could be everything I did from year dot. Too many presenters make this mistake and do a condensed version of their CV.  Instead think about it from your audience’s perspective.  Determine what your audience needs to know about you to trust you and your messages in their particular context, and work on getting that down to a line or two.

Remember the first 30 – 60 seconds are critical and this is where your audience will be making its mind up about you.  So never ever waste that on house keeping (YIKES) that can come later. Instead work on the right opening sentence that demonstrates WHO you are ..and gets their attention straight up with empathy and humour…just like Anna did.  Go chef (sorry I couldn’t resist!).

Inform or influence?



I was walking my dog yesterday and came across this sign which made me smile and also reminded me so much of what we try and do in business every day.  

So often in business we are stating what we believe is the bleeding obvious and yet we get so little cut through and so little recall.  Most of us can barely remember what we ate for lunch yesterday let alone what was said in a meeting two weeks ago.  What then is the solution?  Research and our own personal experience inform us that ‘emotion is the fast track to the brain’ i.e. how I feel, affects how I think and my performance.

The people who crafted this sign were trying to influence our behaviour with emotion (humour)…and we all hope they succeed!  Often in business we think logic informs people (which it does) but we also expect people to shift behaviour based on logic.   And when this doesn’t happen we get frustrated.    If logic did persuade us to change our behaviour then no one would speed, we would all eat right and exercise every day, no one would smoke etc. 

As business people every day we make choices with our communication – are we trying to just inform or are we trying to influence behaviour?   If it is the latter then what emotion can you tap into to influence your audience?  This isn’t manipulative but shows empathy for your audience as well as an understanding of the issue from their perspective.

Here is a link to some recent work place safety ads that did this really well and tapped into the right emotion with their tag line and message:  ‘The real reason to be safe at work is not at work it is at home’.

Nordstrom and 110% service

Recently we facilitated a storytelling workshop for Accenture in Melbourne when Jon Kaehne shared how he used storytelling to solve a customer problem.

Jon was in a meeting where the CEO and Supply Chain Executive were disputing what the firm’s supply chain service levels should be – 95%? 96%? 97%?  Unable to reach agreement, they turned to Jon for a point of view.  Not wanting to take sides or pluck a figure out of thin air Jon responded with this story.

Business Storytelling“A few years ago I was in Portland, Oregon and my wife Dianne had given me a long shopping list which included a very specific pair of Guess jeans. I was in Nordstrom (a US department store), and loaded down with shopping bags, went to the ladies wear department to look for Dianne’s jeans.  The sales assistant said, ‘We don’t stock Guess jeans but can I interest you in a pair of Diesel or Lee jeans?’ I said it’s for my wife and I had specific instructions for this exact pair of Guess jeans.  The assistant then said, ‘Are you happy to leave your bags here with another staff member and come with me?’.

I agreed and she escorted me out of the store and down the street to the Guess store.  She introduced me by name to the Guess sales assistant who found the jeans I was after and I completed my purchase.  I then returned with the Nordstrom sales assistant to Nordstrom to get my bags that they were holding for me.  What is the relevance of this story? Nordstrom’s customer service level was 110%.  That is the right answer for any firm’s service levels”.

Jon then told us that the client just looked at him and said “I love you guys”!

What is a story?

We did some work for a company once, to convert their case studies into stories.  On sharing this with a friend, she asked ‘Isn’t a case study a story?’.   A case study is definitely not a story and we realised we were looking into an abyss.

People often think they are telling a story when in fact they have just pulled together a statement of facts in sequential order.  This is in a way a form of narrative but in its most basic form and unsurprisingly not very engaging.

Trying to define what a story is, is like trying to nail jelly to a tree.  But we are bravely and boldly going to narrow down the definition to what is important for business.  If you want more information about ‘what is a story’ we highly recommend ‘Story’ by Robert McKee.

For business purposes here are three key features that make a story a story.

1.  A logical sequence (beginning, middle and end)

Aristotle, the famous Greek Philosopher, way back in circa 350AD stated that story should have a beginning, middle and end.  So any story would have a sequence but don’t be seduced by sequence.  Just because something has a beginning, middle and end does not make it a story.  This is where people fall into the trap of thinking a case study is a story because it has a sequence.  Just a sequence is not enough….and unless you are Quentin Tarantino, don’t mess with the ‘beginning, middle and end’ structure.

2.  Is a specific example with specific reference to time / place and context.

Have we said specific enough?  You have to talk about a specific time or place or incident, for your story to be a story.  Generalities lots of ‘I’ statements do not make a story.

3.  Has emotional and sensory data

So, stories can still be statements of fact, set in a context, however this is just the basics.  Having these two things doesn’t mean your story will be effective, let alone compelling.  An effective story also has another critical component, emotional and sensory data.  A good story makes you feel something (the emotion) and a good story makes you see something, it paints a picture. (sensory data).  Interestingly it is quite often the specific incident that generate this.

This last feature is probably the acid test for a good, effective story:  Does it make me feel something and can I visualise it?

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