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Putting stories to work: extract 3

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When NOT to tell a story

 

business narrative and story

Tell them a story. Of a lovely lady. Who was bringing up three very lovely girls…

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 third of four extracts. (Here’s the first.)

While there are often times when you should tell a business story at work, there are also times when you should hold off recounting an anecdote. In fact, there are times when the best way forward is to say nothing at all.

Stories are best utilised when the audience is open to learning and there’s an absence of time pressure. So if someone asks you how to get to the nearest train station, it’s best not to respond with ‘A couple of weeks ago…’

Likewise, if your boss wants a question answered quickly with a couple of facts, it’s probably not a good idea to tell them a story about the last time you did a particular job and what you learned in the process.

The truth is that sometimes you can tell too many stories. You need to mix your stories with other forms of communication, such as facts and opinions. In general, it’s best to start with a story and then expand on what it means.

Also keep in mind that adults don’t like to hear the same story twice, especially in business. You have to keep a mental note of which audience has heard which stories. As a leader, you will have your favourite stories—they’re your favourites because you know they work. But if you find yourself sharing the same story with the same audience, it’s time to get a new story.

And while storytelling can have a hugely positive impact on your leadership, it’s important not to fall in love with the sound of our own voice. Sometimes it’s a much better strategy to let your prospect tell you their stories. It can be very helpful to switch to story listening.

Finally, don’t even bother telling a story unless you know what the point of it is. Too many stories are just told to fill a silence. At best, this confuses the audience—at worst, it antagonises them.

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.

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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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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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