Monthly Archives: May 2016

Putting Stories To Work – extract two

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business narrative and story

It’s story time all the time at Anecdote.

A former client of ours Anecdote helps businesses find the stories behind their businesses. Founder Shawn Callahan has written a book encapsulating his wisdom on the matter: Putting Stories To Work. This is the second of four extracts. (Here’s the first.)

Part 2: To be memorable make your point first

A clever study showed just how important it is to make explicit the topic and the point of an oral story at the outset. New York University’s John Bransford and Marcia Johnson asked the participants in an experiment to listen to and try to remember the following paragraph:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell. After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.

(I’ve shown this paragraph to thousands of workshop participants and needless to say they were universally bamboozled. I imagine you are too.)

The researchers tested several variations of this. One set of participants just got the above description and their comprehension and recall was then measured. Another group was given a little tidbit of information at the outset: ‘This is about washing clothes’.

Their recall was double that of the first group and their comprehension shot up. A third group got the tidbit at the end. In this case, the results were the same as those of the first group, which had not received any information about washing clothes.

Leaders should always be aiming for clarity and recall in their oral communication at work. The Bransford and Johnson study shows that simply by stating your topic at the outset, recall and comprehension will increase significantly among your audience—as opposed to what happens if you don’t clarify the topic or only mention it as you’re finishing.

Stories need this clear signposting because in business it’s often assumed that just listing facts is faster and more effective than sharing a story. The assumption is incorrect, of course: I’ve often heard people rabbit on for ages about something when a simple story would have sufficed. Regardless, your audience needs to be assured that your story will be worth listening to, that it has a useful point.

So your default storytelling approach should be to begin an oral story with its point, or what I call a relevance statement. The easiest way to come up with one is to ask yourself, ‘What’s the main point my story is making?’

For example, if I wanted to tell a story about the importance of nurturing networks of people as a way of keeping a business agile, I’d start by saying something like: ‘One of the best ways to guard against the unpredictability of a crisis is to keep relationships strong and well-connected across the company’. Then I’d launch into the 9/11 story I shared with you in Chapter 4. With practice, this will become a natural conversation pattern for you: point, then story; point, then story.

The relevance statement should pique the curiosity of your audience without giving too much away: if your story has a wonderful twist in its tail, for example, you don’t want to telegraph it. You just need to give listeners an idea of where you are going and why they might want to listen to you. In a sense, you are making a bold statement and the story will be the evidence for it.

Identifying the point of a story will also improve your storytelling no end. Your stories will become tighter because you’ll jettison anything that’s unnecessary in getting your message across. Above all, it ensures you actually have a point to make.

Remember: a business story is only a business story if it has a point. The practice of sharing the relevance statement before you share the story ensures you have a good reason for telling the story. Telling stories with clear business points will only enhance your reputation at work. If you just go on and on without making a point, you risk becoming known as a gasbag.

After delivering your relevance statement, it’s important that you make a smooth transition to the story. Ideally, the story will remain invisible, by which I mean that after laying out your point of view, you shouldn’t suddenly announce: ‘Right, now I’m going to tell a story to back up my opinion’. Similarly, do not dramatically change your tone of voice or your gestures when you start telling the story. Simply continue to engage your audience in a conversation.

Once you’ve told your story, resist the urge to tell your listeners what the story means. A simple restating of the main point is OK, but if you say something like, ‘So what this story really means is…’, you prevent the audience from taking ownership of the story’s meaning. It’s like explaining a joke: it just kills its impact. And as the experiment I described above showed, it doesn’t make a zip of difference to the listeners’ recall or comprehension. Let the audience members turn your story over in their minds and draw meaning from it themselves.

Shawn Callahan is the founder at Anecdote Pty Ltd. This article is adapted from Shawn’s new book Putting Stories to Work: Mastering Business Storytelling. Here’s part three.

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How to make an apology

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How to make an apology

making an great apology

Listen to this man.

Elton John said it best – sorry seems to be the hardest word. Maybe that’s why so many CEOs and leaders fail to deliver an apology that makes the grade when the time comes to admit that they or their organisation have done something wrong.

Here’s how your CEO can make an apology that leads to forgiveness:

Faster, faster: decide whether you need to apologise as soon as possible. If an apology is deemed necessary don’t waste any time delivering it as apology delayed is considered an apology denied.

advice for crisis management

It’s leadership time.

Take us to your leader: an apology must be delivered by the person in charge. Of course this means that leaders and CEOs may have to apologise for behaviour over which they realistically had no control. That’s why they get paid the big bucks. An apology delivered by a genuine leader of an organisation adds authenticity – and authenticity is key.

Face-to-face is best: a written statement only goes so far to convey regret. When possible, have your leader or CEO apologise on camera, on microphone and face-to-face. That said, use every channel you have available

Content: keep your apology simple and direct. Ensure that you specifically say that you apologise, that you are sorry and that you regret. Use those words. Name specific audiences or organisations to which you apologise. Don’t obfuscate or meander – keep it short, sincere and sweet.

Similarly the CEO or leader making the apology should use the word “I” rather than “we” even though using “I” may seem inappropriate when speaking on behalf of a company. However “I” more effectively implies to the listener that the person making the apology genuinely takes responsibility

how to make an apology

No asterisks. No get out clauses.

No conditions apply: we all see attractive offers from retailers offering us a bargain accompanied with an asterisk indicating that conditions apply. Our hearts sink. Similarly your apology must be wholehearted and without condition. Resist the temptation to explain mitigating circumstances as it dilutes your apology.

Don’t do what former UK Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg does in this awkward video that attempted to counter the massive criticism of his policy backflips. He opens up by commenting that many people extend compliments to him as he travels around the country. It’s a lily- livered effort. No wonder it was parodied so well.

how to apologise

Notes are fine. Scripts are not.

Script? Do you need a script when you are fighting with your beloved? Of course not. The words pour out of your mouth because you’re speaking – at least at that moment – from the heart. Similarly the CEO or leader making his apology should be able to make that apology with minimal reference to notes or script. Reading out an apology word-for-word from a piece of paper makes the apologist look weak. That’s the sort of thing people do on advice from their lawyers.

Video? A long time ago a short-lived Governor General Peter Hollingworth issued an apology in a series of pre-recorded video grabs to be distributed to television news services. This was on the advice of a blue-chip public affairs consultant. It was stupid advice. The raw video clips were leaked and made him look calculating and insincere – after all who needs a script and rehearsals if they’re making a sincere apology?

delivering an apology

Many emotions! All of them fake.

Emotions: ideally your CEO’s apology will not look robotic. However don’t let your leader blubber her way through the episode. Cynical audiences will interpret this as the CEO being self-centred, self-pitying and “all about herself”.

Rinse & Repeat: don’t think that an apology is a one-off. Repeat your apology to different audiences via different channels ad nauseam until people are sick of hearing it. By this time your CEO will certainly be sick of saying it. Now read our blog on crisis management.

Witty post-script care of Sandra Wilson, Hepatitis Australia: 

Dear Brett

Your newsletter always contains remarkable common sense and we here at Hepatitis Australia really appreciate receiving them.

I hope you’ll forgive me for telling you that an apologist is not a person who apologises. An apologist is ‘someone who defends someone by argument’. C.S. Lewis, who wrote ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ was an apologist for God.

I think there is a real need to invent a word for someone who apologises as I can’t seem to find one. We shall have to think about this. Something witty such as the word that was invented for a late (usually brilliant) reply to criticism – a ‘retortalate’ and for people who frequent coffee shops – the lateratti. Maybe the word should be ‘sorrierer’ ? Oh definitely not! Perhaps a ‘pardonist’ – no…

Still thinking and with kindest regards

Sandra Wilson, Business Support & Information Officer, Hepatitis Australia

public speaking workshops

Humbled. Corrected. Resilient.

Sandra – I stand corrected.


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Building the Habit of Business Storytelling

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business narrative and story

The story of why it’s good to extract stories.

A former client of ours Anecdote specialises in helping businesses find the stories behind their businesses. Founder Shawn Callahan has written a book encapsulating his wisdom on the matter: Putting Stories To Work. Here we run the first of four extracts:

Building the Habit of Business Storytelling

Some people just seem to be able to tell the right story at the right time. I remember, for example, a British HR director who told me how, in the wake of acquiring a company, he’d handled the tough job of convincing a group of the organisation’s employees in India that they should resign and then sign up to a new employment agreement.

The HR director, who I’ll call Sam, knew this was a huge decision for the employees, that they needed to not only trust him but also be persuaded that the company would do the right thing by them. So he arranged to talk to them personally in the office where they worked in an Indian city.

As he was walking from his hotel to the office, he saw a little boy, no older than five, emerge from a side street lugging a tin pail full of eggs and a shopping bag full of groceries. Seeing that the boy was struggling with his load, Sam offered to help him.

The boy was surprised and wary of the tall Englishman at first, but eventually he agreed to let Sam take the bag of groceries and follow him home. His mother was also surprised when her son appeared accompanied by the Westerner, but when she and her family realised what was going on, there were smiles and thankyous all round. Sam then realised that this would be a good story to tell at the employee meeting to illustrate his character and support his comments that he would look after everyone.

Indeed, the story put the employees at ease, so much so that they all took up the new employment offer—which, as had been promised, turned out to be a better deal than what they’d had.

Sam has the habit of business storytelling: he spots stories when he has new experiences and he frames what he is going to say using stories. As a result, stories occur to him that can be retold for a business purpose. They might stem from something that happened that morning or from a lifetime of experience. Regardless, if he’s in a meeting and making a point, it is second nature for Sam to remember an anecdote to illustrate what he’s talking about. He doesn’t have to try very hard to conjure these stories—they just pop into his head.

Effective communicators tend to have this habit. They share stories without thinking about it when they matter the most: in the cut and thrust of business conversations, in presentations, in meetings. They launch into narratives with words like ‘A couple of weeks ago…’, ‘Back in 2010…’ or ‘When I was with the customer…’. Yet most business leaders aren’t like this. Rather, they have the argument-and-opinion habit. When they speak, their sentences start with ‘I think…’ or ‘There are two things…’ or ‘Here’s what I think…’. If this applies to you, how can you change it?

Having trained many leaders around the world, I can tell you that a single training workshop will not miraculously give you storytelling powers. We are talking about the habit of business storytelling, and for it to develop, persistence is required—up to a year of effort—as well as repetition, especially in the early stages of learning the new skill.

book review the power of habit

A great book indeed.

Charles Duhigg’s excellent review of habit research, The Power of Habit, tells us that creating a new habit is a process of finding a cue, executing a behaviour and savouring a reward. So whenever you catch yourself making a point or sharing an opinion (the cue), seek out a story to tell to reinforce your point (execute) and then savour the response of the audience when it hears your story (reward). Of course, at first you won’t have any good stories to tell. You’ll have to work at finding some. But then the next time you find a cue, you’ll be able to execute the sharing of a story.

The most effective reward for habit formation is a variable one; that is, one whose intensity you can’t predict before you receive it. That’s why poker machines and email are so addictive. This also applies to stories: the reward you get when you tell a story is the impact it has on your listener, and this is always variable. But to get this reward, you need to consciously watch for a reaction.

Alternatively, you can ask your audience about what they are thinking and feeling, or whether the story has inspired them to action. Remember, though, that the impact of a story is not always immediately apparent, so pay attention to what happens in the days after you tell one. In particular, see if your listeners retell the story—this is the ultimate reward for storytelling.

While the storytelling habit takes time to develop, you don’t have to be regimented to be successful. On the contrary, try and have fun with it. Look out for times at work when you can make a point, tell a story to reinforce it, and collect your reward from the faces of the people around you. Eventually this will just come naturally. When it does, you can start thinking about how to make your stories even better. Much like learning to drive, all the parts of the process will seem a little clunky at first, but through repetition they will dissolve into the seamless effort of effective communication.

Shawn Callahan is the founder at Anecdote Pty Ltd. This article is adapted from Shawn’s new book Putting Stories to Work: Mastering Business Storytelling. (Read the second extract.)

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When crisis threatens!

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Critical incident response advice. Also known as damage control.

PR crises happen; and when they do, damage control is required. Even if your organisation pays no attention to communications, invest time and energy considering how you will cope with negative attention.

Negative publicity can quickly undo years of good work. Critical incident response (CIR) planning is as close to reputation insurance as you can get. Some damage control advice:

crisis managment consultants melbourne

What does the future hold? We predict disaster.

See it coming. When I ask clients to imagine a crisis most of the suggestions are bolts from the blue – fires, injuries, takeovers, resignations. Unexpected, unwelcome, unavoidable and undeserved situations.

Unexpected crises do happen but most of the crises with which I have dealt are not at all surprising to those in the know. Expectable crises occur when disgruntled staff, volunteers or clients are ignored; dodgy financial transactions are undisclosed and poor work practices are tolerated. These are slow burning crises awaiting a puff of wind to ignite.

Slow burning crises are confronting to consider as they are not blameless.

I recently asked a group of 30 leaders – most of which head organisations that work with volunteers, children, public funding, dangerous activities – whether they could see the embers of a crisis glowing. None did. Perhaps they were being discreet but I did remark to them that it was highly unlikely that such a collection of organisations did not have something damaging en route to their front door. What’s that saying about stitches in time?

crisis management advice

From the track to the dock.

The origin of your crisis may have nothing to do with you. Crises may be inspired by a media investigation, community group or academic study. For example the greyhound industry – not a favourite of Hootville’s – was shaken to its foundations with the release of undercover reporting by Animals Australia which then worked with ABC-TV’s 4 Corners to create a national furore. Overnight the industry went from being the recipient of millions of taxpayer dollars to a national disgrace.

Animals create passion – if you are exposed to animal welfare issues – you may find yourself in the midst of a crisis. This applies equally to pony clubs and hamburger franchises. No animal cruelty to be concerned about? What else have you got to fear?

Gender and sexuality: in 2016 we have never been more aware of these issues. How well would your organisation stand up to scrutiny of your gender diversity at participant, employee or board level? What would happen if one of your franchises, clubs or schools had to deal with a female customer / participant / student who wishes to change gender?

social media crisis

Late night racist ramblings anybody?

Social media: it is now fair game to hold entire organisations accountable to the social media rants of one staff member about issues that do not pertain to the mission of your organisation. Even if that rant was made in private time.

Related-party transactions: Many boards have directors with business dealings with the organisation that they serve. In many instances that’s entirely justified on many occasions it could cause you pain.

Child protection / physical abuse: the cone of silence has lifted and people rightfully have long memories. Are your policies and practices ready to stand scrutiny.

Faith-based and tax-free: religious nonprofits need to be able to justify their tax -free status. Particularly when they compete for business alongside private enterprises.

IR: paying staff half the mandated rate? Expect twice the crisis.

In short, crises are many and varied and given enough time, inevitable. They may be warranted, they may be not – that hardly matters.

Officially declare a crisis. When you identify a crisis it needs to be declared as such and all your VIPs alerted to the fact that the crisis plan is now in effect. Have a specific crisis plan and stick to it. Many aspects of your plan are covered in this blog post.

Correct the mistake ASAP. If you have made a mistake – admit it. Don’t lie, half apologise, stay silent or grumble. If media or a third party is in error correct it swiftly and without room for misinterpretation. See how to make an apology.

Have a single point of contact for media. Media and other enquiries might be made through any variety of channels. The dastardly media may well approach your staff or volunteers in the most unlikely of situations hoping to get a comment. Tell all staff and stakeholders to refer media inquiries to the anointed media person.

media trainer Brett de Hoedt

You need someone comfortable in the spotlight.

Have a single, trained spokesperson. This may not be the boss. It should be someone across the issues, with real authority who can communicate to the media effectively. Note that in Australia it is less common for organisations to have a designated media spokesperson and it will be counted against you if your spokesperson isn’t your leader.

Address just the key issues with specific, refined messages when speaking to stakeholders or media. This is not the time to address broader criticisms of your organisation.

Use press conferences and door-stop interviews as ways to communicate your message. They give you maximum control. (That’s why they are used by corrupt cricketers and punch-happy footballers.) Press releases and written statements look defensive though it is likely you will use them in a crisis. Despite your natural reluctance to go public in any crisis it’s important to create the impression that you are happy to communicate.

Have a remedy. It is vital for leaders and CEOs to demonstrate specific actions they are taking to make the crisis better.

damage control advice

Pro-tip: don’t cross this man.

Fundamentally unethical franchise 7-Eleven recently attempted to demonstrate their willingness to take action by appointing Prof Alan Fels to an independent committee to redress their systematic and long-term underpayment of workers.

It was the beginning of their remedy to deal with the crisis that was years in the making and entirely their own fault. Prof Fels is one of our most trusted citizens and his appointment showed that 7-Eleven was taking the matter seriously. This of course ended with the termination of his engagement.

A private Australian fundraising consultancy recently contacted Hootville to discuss a crisis that had been brewing for a long time. You guessed it – the underpayment of their employees.

Brett advised the CEO that it was vital to calculate the underpayments that would belatedly be made to underpaid staff. This, I instructed, would show both remorse and responsibility. Without being able to demonstrate a remedy it would be difficult to demonstrate remorse. Strangely the conversation ended shortly after this recommendation.

Make sure you can genuinely claim to have taken specific action before making your public apology. Talk to people, call a meeting, send a cheque, call in the external consultants ASAP and you’re already three steps down the road to putting the crisis behind you.

Throw out the bad apple.  Too often we see organisations defend the indefensible. Churches, unions, ethnic associations and big corporations regularly do this. The public will respect an organisation that is willing to make the hard decisions.

Prioritise your key audiences such as staff, volunteers and donors – as they will follow the story more closely than strangers. Media isn’t the way to reach these people – ideally you’ll be able to talk to people face-to-face or on the phone though it is likely you’ll have to resort to your website or email.

When a crisis hits you need clear healthy communications channels to your key stakeholders. It’s too late to start building up a media list or an email database of your stakeholders. These need to be put in place long before the proverbial hits the fan.

Media management. Media is an accelerant to any crisis. Here is some confusing advice: sometimes you can snuff out a crisis by delay, refusing to share information and keeping the crisis close to your chest. You may even seek legal action to keep things quiet. Sometimes this works, as it did for the Catholic Church for decades. However if your crisis eventually becomes public your delay compounds the sin in the eye of the public. So if you have any intention of going public with your crisis go public earlier rather than later

Don’t think that your past media experience will hold you in good stead. Some organisations can get accustomed to soft, supportive media. C.I.R media is different. You’ll be speaking to different media and different journalists with different expectations and attitudes.

Have a non-perishable story in your bottom drawer. This is a story (obviously positive) that can be told at any time. Use it to deflect attention.

Finally – a crisis is an opportunity. Plenty of individuals and organisations have faced crises and lived to play another day. Bankruptcies, allegations of sexual assault, infidelity, salary cap breaches, mass resignations, exploding appliances, workplace deaths and politically incorrect gaffes have failed to derail the careers and corporate profits of many. How openly and effectively you deal with your crisis will have a huge impact as to how well you rebound.

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July public workshops: you choose

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melbourne media training workshops

Chalk and talk.

Hootville will be running two more public workshops in Melbourne during the week of July 18 to 22. But which ones?

Choose the two you’d prefer by ticking the boxes above the workshops that take your fancy and press Choose at the bottom: [yop_poll id=”1″]

Find more about all our workshops.