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.
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.)