Seven years ago when I set up a business specializing in Business Storytelling and went home and told my mother, she said like every good Indian mother would “Business Storytelling, is that even a job? Why can’t you be a Doctor or in I.T.? Storytelling you can do on weekends.” Whenever I share this in presentations (with a strong Indian accent of course) it gets a roar of laughter. Because it speaks to a universal truth …both about mothers and about storytelling
Most people don’t get what business storytelling is and how it can help them achieve business success. Simply stated Business storytelling is storytelling with a business purpose and for business results.
One of the first misconceptions is all your stories have to be about business. Absolutely not. In fact we highly recommend that your stories are not from business as that is boring and predictable. If for example your message is around the customer experience you could use a personal story just like our customer Matt Ritchie did.
‘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 realized 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 that’s 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.
So using 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.
The other myth is you need just ‘one story’.
Our clients often come to us asking for help to develop their ‘story’. Their ‘Customer Experience story’ or ‘Insert name of department/organisation story’. This is a major myth. There is no one story that can capture the range and complexity of what you are trying to do. If you try to cram everything into one story, it will probably not end up being a story anymore and it will end up sounding like a mission statement.
You need a suite of stories, catering to different audience segments. The Bruce Springsteen story would for example be one in a suite of stories all around delivering customer service.
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. They never talk about ‘Our Outstanding Customer Service story’ or even worse ‘The Nordstrom Story’, but use a range of stories.
Myth 3 is that we can create stories by committee or by group
A client recently shared with us how senior leaders in their organization were tasked to come up with the organization’s story. Needless to say the attempt was disastrous, resulting in a patchy set of motherhood statements. Not to blame the leaders, this was simply the wrong process for trying to find the stories in their organisation. Storytelling even in a business context is a personal endeavor, a single human activity. Notice how most books are written by just one person? So storytelling by committee will not give you any stories. The best stories emerge when individuals are given the skills and the confidence to bring the personal into work and link it to business message, purposefully. Like Matt did with the Bruce Springsteen story.
When all these 3 myths are busted that is the first step to understanding how to harness the power of storytelling for business results. If you want to bring storytelling into your company to start achieving business results, we have found this works best when you:
- Introduce storytelling attached to a current business issue.
- Formalise the storytelling process and provide leaders training so they can skilfully and confidently apply it.
- Develop formal and informal strategies to capture stories and then find multiple channels to relay stories to other leaders, employees and customers.
And that’s just the start. But none of this can happen unless the storytelling myths in your organisation are busted first.
Published in Modern Business June 2012
This is possible a very 21st century example of over sharing. As my 13 year old would say ‘TMI mum, TMI” (Too much information). But in the interests of scholarship (ahem) I would like to share some insights the program provides on leadership in action.
It’s interesting to see the format of the program where all the celebrity coaches (Seal, Joel Madden, Delta and Keith) have their mentors sitting in chairs behind them. Sometimes when the coaches can’t decide they simply say ‘I need to talk with my mentor”. Just having a trusted person to bounce your thoughts against helps the coaches make a well rounded decision. It’s lonely at the top and when the leadership spotlight shines on you, having someone you can talk to can make the world of difference.
While it’s OK to ask for advice from your mentors you do not always have to take it! Sometimes you might not concur with your mentor and that’s fine to go out on a limb to back yourself. This is hard and agonising to do but that’s why its called leadership not followship. So often when a coach was making a decision contrary to the mentor’s advice they would say ‘ I have to trust my gut on this’.
In one of the battles, for Delta it came down to the wire choosing between two amazing contestants Danni and Sarah. Keith Urban declared it a ‘Diva’s Derby’ and Delta took time out to consult her mentor, but was still undecided after. She then turned the heat on the contestants saying ‘Tell me why you want this so badly?”. Based on their answers she picked Danni. Again leaders don’t have to have all the answers but they have to be able to ask the right questions.
All the coaches in ‘The Voice’ are about coaching others to greatness. As John Buchan says ‘The task of leadership is not to put greatness into people, but to elicit it, for the greatness is there already’.
For previous lessons on the voice click here.
‘It’s all about connecting with your audience, nothing else matters, if you don’t connect you are dead’ says John Polson the founder of the immensely successful Tropfest short film festival. This possibly applies to everything we do in business, presenting, communicating, selling, customer service and leading.
We probably all get connecting intuitively. Like when we say ‘I just connected with him’, but what does that actually mean? Can connecting be broken down into actual repeatable behaviours that you can use every time to connect with your customers, a stakeholder, your audience? Well I’m going to try, but this is by no means a complete list.
The first thing that matters in building a connection is people like you.
Everyone has heard the first 30 seconds count, that first impression matters. This is when what you say or do sets the tone for people to like you, or not, and don’t dismiss that, as people like to do business with people they like.
Recently I had the privilege of hearing Mark Stephenson speak. When he was introduced, the MC did a short version of his bio. He is among other things an expert in both prime number cryptography and computer aided design. The intro went on for a couple of minutes and was packed with all his achievements, and to state it mildly, Mark is a super high achiever. The audience was thinking ‘Wow, don’t think we could connect with him. He’s up there in the stratosphere and I hope I can even understand what he’s going to say’.
Mark stood up to speak and the first thing he said was ‘You probably think I’m an arse now!” There was a brief second of silence before the whole auditorium exploded with laughter. People were thinking ‘We like this guy!’. Now you don’t have to swear but if you can tell people who you really are in the first moment that helps them know you and like you.
What happens in the next 30 seconds? Can you launch into your messages yet? Absolutely not, it’s too early and you are still building that connection.
In the next 30 seconds, connecting is about being relatable and your audience whether it’s a customer or a room full of people they need to feel ‘you get them’.
Did 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 young audience, all under 12, 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, she was relating to them and understood what it felt like being a child cooking.
Connecting is also about seeing your interaction as a value exchange. You might be giving your audience information, or a cool new tool, but they are giving you their time and attention. Your audience needs to feel they are getting something of value from you, something they can take away instead of just being sold to. This explains why there is so much free high value content on the internet. The people who give away free high quality high value content, know by doing that they are setting in motion a high value exchange. You initially engage with them, through the high value content (whether it’s downloading a free e book, or watching a video). It’s almost like a taste test, and if you like what you see you will probably buy what they are selling. They sold to you by connecting with you first through a value exchange.
These are some of the building blocks of connecting with other people. Of course the acid test of connecting is whether they would like to see you again? I know I would love to see Mark Stephenson present again, and again.
“Leadership involves plumbing as well as poetry”. This quote from Stanford University emeritus professor James G. March has always struck a chord with me. I was again reminded of it recently when I was watching Mark Stephenson speak.
I realised at that moment that’s what great presenters and great leaders have in common. With poetry and plumbing, they are able to engage both our minds and our hearts (the poetry). Poetry is also the things that can happen in a presentation that make it memorable.
An ‘OK’ presenter or a novice presenter might just have the plumbing down pat, the facts, figures and the data, and make a ho hum presentation. A great presenter, working on the same material will intuitively realise that the poetry is missing. There is nothing there that engages, excites or connects with the audience. So how can you introduce ‘poetry’ into your next presentation? First of all there is the power of the unexpected. The predictability of a presentation makes it actually mind numbing. We can almost guess what the speaker is going to say before they say it. Presenters can break this pattern by doing something unexpected.
We once attended a presentation on change management when the presenter simply said “I want to start by sharing this with you”. And proceeded to show the Amazing Honda Ad called ‘The Cog’ which ends with the tag line “Isn’t it wonderful when things work?”. He then used this tag line to make the rest of his presentation work. It was unexpected and that made it powerful.
Poetry happens when you connect what you are saying with the people in the room. You present like you are talking to just one person and you speak conversationally. So often when I am listening to a TED talk, I feel the speaker is speaking to just me. Even though I know they are in an auditorium with thousands of people watching and I am watching a recorded version on my computer! The illusion is powerful because they use simple everyday language. Language that you would use if you were talking face to face with just one person. I am immediately reminded of the power of JFK’s vision around space travel when in 1961 he said ‘We will put a man on the moon and bring him safely back to earth by the end of this decade’. You can feel the poetry . Everybody connected with that and understood what he meant and indeed a generation of Americans worked to make it happen. Imagine if JFK had used obfuscating language like “Technology enabled, strategically focused inter galactic travel, best of breed,..”
The poetry gold standard of presentations is when presenters humanise their content and make it come alive by using stories. Not business stories but stories of the everyday, the ordinary, as this is where your audience mirrors itself in your stories. A CEO talking about dropping his kids off to school, or shopping at Bunnings on the weekend is presentation poetry gold.
Every time you take a risk in a presentation, it is an opportunity for your presentation to have poetry in it. Great presenters know this and often take risks. Mark Stephenson says he often walks out of presentations when leaders tell him ‘We can be innovative if we stay within the rules”. The walk out is a risk and shocking, but he knows in a matter of seconds people will follow him out and invite him back in. He’s making a point there that innovation only happens when you are ready to break the rules. Instead of saying this as a trite statement he stages a walk out to add gravitas to the situation and make it an unforgettable experience for people in the room. Risky but pure poetry.
Sometimes poetry happens by chance in presentations, but mostly you have to plan for it…
I have a confession to make. I am loving ‘The Voice’, Channel 9’s new reality TV show. Feels good, got that off my chest. I could pin the blame on my 13-year-old daughter, but have to take full responsibility for this one. I thought I would watch a few minutes and was instantly hooked! Just when you thought that whole category was done and dusted (really Australian idol, Australia’s Got talent, X factor etc.) along comes ‘The Voice’ and changes the whole format, winning new audiences.
If you haven’t watched it already, 4 judges, Seal, Joel Madden, Delta Goodrem and Keith Urban sit in chairs with their back to the stage. It’s a blind audition with singers being judged purely on their voice and if a judge / coach likes what they hear, they hit a red button that turns their chair around. But what makes it compelling viewing is (apart from the quality of the singers) if more than one judge turns around, they have to persuade the contestant to join their team. There is a shift in the power balance and you see both leadership and the art of influence in operation. In one of the first episodes, Seal and Delta Godrem both went head to head to try and secure one of the contestants, Chris Sebastian.
Seal told Chris, ‘If you come on my team, I’m interested in one thing and one thing only, making you great’. Delta in response said ‘I understand your spirit and I understand this country. This is my country. I love Australia. We can make this happen together, and that will be a very easy ride for us”.
To which Seal retorted “That is a very good pitch she’s making, but there’s one thing that doesn’t sit with me, she keeps using the word easy. It’s not going to be easy brother”.
Chris thought about it for a moment and went with Seal and later he explained why saying ‘When she said it will be easy with me – she lost me – the last thing I wanted people to think was I had taken the easy way out’.
There are classic communications lessons we could all draw from this. Seal made his pitch all about the singer. Who can resist the opportunity to have someone coach you to greatness? It’s irrestible and that’s why artists come on to shows like this, to be discovered. Delta promised an easy ride thinking that would appeal. Compare the promise of an easy ride versus the promise of greatness? Which would you pick? Seal also understood where this particular contestant was coming from, he wanted to carve out his own identity and not ride on the coat tails of his famous older brother Guy Sebastian. So Seal immediately picked up on the word easy ride, understanding that this would be the last thing Chris would want. Also when Seal said it won’t be an easy ride, he knew this would not turn Chris off as he was also speaking to a universal truth. Everyone knows it’s hard to make it in the music business.
To persuade as a communicator, it has to be all about your audience, what they want not what you think they want. As Seal and Delta’s responses indicate there is a world of difference between what we might think someone wants versus what they actually want. You have to understand your audience, and walk in their shoes to succeed, to influence and persuade.
I am loving watching and learning from Seal (and the other coaches), and now have a legitimate (cough, cough) academic reason to continue to couch surf and watch The Voice weekly. And you have been warned, its highly addictive.
Only if you were hiding under a rock all of last week could you have missed the Kony 2102 viral video campaign. The campaign swept the Internet, becoming the number one news topic, raising over $15 million dollars in two days and attracting over 70 million views. Even our hairdresser was talking about it!
The Washington Post summarizes its success by noting “the viral video campaign has achieved something very real that essentially nothing else up to this point could — broad exposure and emotional connection that now carries many tens of thousands, if not more, of passionate supporters”.
Wherever you stand on the broad spectrum of public opinion on the campaign from praise to criticism there are some core communication tips every leader can learn from its success – and none of them have to do with the power of social media.
Make me care
The most important communication commandment if you want to influence, and shift behavior is ‘ make me care’. Make me care about your message, emotionally, intellectually, and physically.
The hard-nosed truth is most leadership communication doesn’t make people care. What would make your audience care and please it can’t be the prosaic like it’s important, or it makes sense. It has to be bigger than that. The Kony 2012 campaign makes us care about child soldiers. How I hear you ask. They do it by using stories.
Filmmaker Jason Russell uses three stories to weave his narrative. He draws us in with the story of his gorgeous five-year-old son called Gavin. The story of his African friend Jacob and finally the story of the difference everyone can make. Moving, engaging and above all authentic. Note the strategic choice of stories – he chooses not to tell us the story of Uganda or even Kony himself, but chooses these other lenses – simple, fresh and yet powerful. The story through his son Gavin, engages us as the innocent, the story of his friend Jacob takes us to the harsh brutality of life in Uganda. Again we are moved and shaken but by focusing on just one person – Jacob, we feel connected and not overwhelmed. By then moving on to the story to what people all over the world have done, he moves makes us feel empowered, knowing we can make a difference.
Call to action
The Kony 2012 invites action; otherwise all its power and 30 minutes of our time have been wasted. It was designed to provoke action. This is as simple as using social media to like, share, tweet, or to donate money or purchase an action kit.
This campaign succeeds where many business communications fail. The people behind STOP KONY fully understood what they wanted their listeners to do, feel or think differently after hearing their message. When working with our business leaders we often ask them, “What do you want your staff to do, feel or think differently after the presentation or briefing?”. The vast majority cannot answer this in the detail required and respond with a “I want them to get excited about it, or get behind it”. And then get frustrated when nothing changes.
Get key influencers on board early
Jason Russell the creator of Kony 2012 gets the power of celebrities. He says in his video “Celebrities, athletes and billionaires have a loud voice and what they talk about spreads instantly”. His campaign targeted influencers like Bono, Oprah and Rhianna and was closing in on 39 million YouTube views the day it was launched.
Now in business we are not suggesting you get Bono or Oprah out for your next internal strategy briefing to staff, although it would no doubt get people turning up …but ask yourself “Who are the influencers – the movers and shakers in our world?” Can you get them onboard first so they influence the way your messages are received? If you can get them talking and excited, that will have a ripple effect all through your business. We are not talking about the token ‘change champions’ but people who in an informal sense are key influencers.
So three timeless and proven methods of communication we can all learn from the success of the Stop Kony 2012 campaign:
- Get people to care through stories
- Be clear on what you want people to do, feel or think differently
- Enlist key influencers, early
Do that and you are well on your way to success.
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.
On March 15th the Hub turns One. And on top of that, the Hub has just moved into a brand new expanded space. So the first thing that popped up was ‘PARTY TIME”. It’s a Mad Hatter’s Party that promises to be an awesome night with entertainment, music and DJs! There’s a great poster advertising the party and everyone is buzzing about it.
This made me think about how often do we have fun at work? Doesn’t have to be party fun but could even be small things. I remember in one of my previous workplaces on stinking hot days the boss would do an ice cream run. So perfect! And sometimes we had ice cream just randomly on Fridays. When I worked at an office in Box Hill we used to do a ‘Custard Bun’ run to a nearby Vietnamese bakery. Of course we tried not to do this more than once a week. Oops both my examples are food related, but the purpose was to show it doesn’t have to be a big affair, even small things that perk people up and break the monotony of the work week all help.
Bernie Dekoven a ‘Fun Coach’ says even meetings can be fun with toys, food and games and believes ‘When fun gets deep enough it can heal the world’. Fun is serious business.
Of course fun can be intrinsic to your work – when you love what you do you probably have fun doing it …most days. To paraphrase a Marian Keyes one of my favourite authors work is not meant to be all fun & relaxing, ‘That’s why it’s called work, otherwise it would be called ‘Deep Tissue massage’.
Some thought and effort have to go into making work fun. I remember recently watching ‘Date night’ where Steve Carrel & Tina Fey play a married couple whose domestic life had become boring and routine. To reignite their romance they create a weekly ‘date night’ and both action and comedy ensues. I’m not suggesting a date night for work – more like a date with fun where we think of different things we can do to make work fun…and both action and comedy will ensue.
When have you had fun at work? We Would love for you to share what fun ideas you have had at work.
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?!
Mark Henderson was sitting in a coffee shop when he asked the barista what they did with the used coffee grounds. “We just put them in the bin” was the reply. Mark also found out that, the shop alone threw out about 10 kilograms of grounds a day. He thought there must be a better way and started to research how coffee grounds could be used to produce fertiliser.
Anecdotally I also know a few people who put coffee grounds into their gardens because they have heard it’s good for gardens, but no one thought of taking it further than that.
Mark and his friend Geoff Howell did and quit their jobs as IT consultants and set up ‘Espressogrow‘, which plans to pay coffee shops for their used grounds, and then turn it into organic fertiliser at a central manufacturing plant . Wow, what a neat idea. As an entrepreneur I am always interested in where people’s ideas come from – like Mark’s it could be with our next cup of coffee? The mindset that drives this is usually ‘There must be a better way’.