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.
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‘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.
‘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.’
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 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!
As 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.
Business storytelling is not just about telling business stories. The most effective stories are the ones that you find outside of work and then relate them back to a business issue. In this video Yamini explores how to find those every day ordinary stories in your own backyard that can be successfully used in business for extraordinary results.
We would love to know what you think. Please leave a comment below.
I’m a great fan of the Gruen transfer, a show we have here in Australia. In one of the episodes they talked about marketing spin and said in marketing spin you take one truth and spin everything around it. I was immediately struck by how business storytelling is the complete opposite of that. Because for your storytelling to be successful, everything about it needs to be authentic.
So in this video let’s explore authenticity in organisational storytelling. One of the first things to consider and this comes to us from Steve Denning, is your stories need to be both factually true as well as authentically true.
To illustrate this, Denning shares this example….’On the Titanic’s maiden voyage 700 people arrived in New York’. This is factually true but it leaves out the detail that the ship sank and 1500 people died.
So your story needs to be both factually true and authentically true.
The other thing to consider with authenticity in business, is that you as the storyteller need to believe in your story and its purpose – your intent needs to be authentic.
A few years ago we did some work with a leadership team that was outsourcing some of their work overseas and they were looking for stories to accompany this. When no stories emerged we asked them ‘can you honestly put your hand on your heart and say you believe this is the best thing for your company?’…..and they couldn’t. So unless you believe in the purpose you are not going to have an authentic story.
The other point we want to draw from that example is not everything needs a story. So use stories only if it is authentic to do so otherwise just go with the data….which is what that leadership team did. They just went with the data about outsourcing their operations.
The last point to make about authenticity is congruence. There needs to be a connection, there needs to be a congruence between your words and your actions. When Cameron Clyne, (current CEO of National Australia Bank) became CEO, one of his early promises was to be open and approachable. When Cameron Clyne was fairly new he attended one of the NAB’s internal events and took a seat down the back. A lady who worked in IT approached him and said ‘Excuse me you are sitting in my seat’. He immediately apologised and vacated her seat. As soon as Cameron left some of the lady’s colleagues said ‘Do you know who that was? The new CEO!’. She said ‘You are kidding, no way why would he sit up in the back?’. That story became one of the stories that started circulating in the bank and it showed people the congruence between Cameron’s words and his actions.
So just to recap …authenticity in storytelling is everything. All your stories need to be authentic and when we are talking about authenticity we are asking you to consider these things.
Your stories need to be both factually true and authentically true.
You as a storyteller need to believe in the purpose of your story.
Use stories only if it is authentic to do so, otherwise just go with the data.
And finally for authentic storytelling you need congruence between your words and your actions.
We would love you to make a comment of when you have seen leaders who have been authentic or not with their storytelling.
We are often asked ‘How do I launch into a story in the middle of a meeting or in a presentation?’. In this video Yamini provides some practical advice on smoothly launching into your story and what segues to avoid…like the plague.
In the work we do with business leaders on organsiational storytelling, we are often asked about ‘natural’ storytellers. Granted some people are better at it than others, just like some people are better at tennis or singing than others……but everyone can get better at it with preparation and practice.
In this our first video blog, Yamini Naidu explodes the myth of the natural born storyteller. ..and shares their success secrets with you.
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?