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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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Books for marketers: The Small Big

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the big small marketing books

Expand your sphere of influence with this little book.

The Small B!g: Small changes that spark big influence by Steve J. Martin, Noah J. Goldstein and Robert B. Cialdini.

Recommended? Should be mandatory.

We were initially sceptical about The Small B!g. It seemed like just a moneymaker for co-authors Martin, Goldstein and Cialdini.

Not only was the title was annoying (that stupid !) the promise seemed ambitious. Can tiny differences in the way we speak, write, present, pitch or behave really yield such positive results for marketers and persuaders?

However its authors have rare pedigree. Cialdini is the author of Influence and Yes among other best-sellers which justified the pre-flight purchase. By the time of my arrival I was a smarter communicator. (Or it might have just been the high-altitude wine and crackers.)

If you are a marketer, fundraiser, public speaker, copywriter, salesperson of any variety you need to read this. It will make you richer, more successful, more influential. What’s more, it will make you reconsider how you communicate.

There are 52 pithy chapters in this upbeat book each highlighting a small change to business-as-usual that can yield great results. Chapters are short and sweet, referencing scientific experiments proving the hypothesis. Some readers, like us, might find the experiments less than scientific in nature.

Can two groups of 21-year-old sociology students really represent the population more broadly?

review the big small

Co-author Robert Cialdini. Warning: this man is enviably manipulative.

Indeed too much of the advice in The Small B!g is based on twee, artificial, campus-based social experiments. You know the deal – a researcher fed one group chocolate chip cookies and another group salty crackers before giving them all 20 hypothetical dollars to give away to random strangers before drawing a long bow and declaring that feeding people sweet foods makes the more philanthropic than savoury.

We are far from the only grumps to have had enough of ‘experiments’ that are supposed to inform the way we market and live. Many social experiments have recently come under criticism for not being replicable – one of the fundamentals of science but we digress

Many of the findings in The Small B!g are counterintuitive. Why would any marketer chose not to highlight the full range of benefits on offer? According to the authors, science tells us that consumers devalue your offering when confronted with a litany of benefits. They subconsciously “average out” the benefits diminishing the perceived value of their favoured benefits by considering the lack of appeal of the least favoured benefit. Perhaps throwing in those extra steak knives isn’t so alluring after all.

There’s a lot to learn in the books 250 or so pages. Concepts such as the “peak-end effect”, “duration neglect” are worth knowing. There are chapters on creating greater customer loyalty, staff motivation, creative thinking and negotiation.

Every fundraiser should read chapter 40 titled: How can the small act of unit-asking make a big difference to your appeals? It’s one of the chapters that contains real world evidence.

If you face a challenge of getting people to turn up to their appointments (community health services, VET providers et al) turn straight to chapter 8: What small bigs can persuade people to keep their appointments with you?

If you’re tired of chasing people for overdue payments (tell us about it) you can learn from the often-told story of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs cunning copywriting approach which led to the collection of over $1 billion unpaid tax revenue. That’s just chapter 1.

We read an awful lot about leadership these days – most of it amounting to little more than a picture and a quote. This book can give people techniques that will help on a daily basis. It is very practical. Whether it lives up to its promise of small change / big impact remains to be seen.

The Small B!g certainly gave us pause for thought and will influence some of our upcoming copywriting and Facebook advertising.

freakonomics books for marketers

Read it. Think it.

The Small B!g shares a sensibility with another book we’ve reviewed here: Freakonomics. Put simply, the authors believe that people’s behaviour is not set in stone but instead can be influenced by the triggers you pull, buttons you push and incentives you offer.

The Freakonomics series, like this book, will have you excited at the possibilities that thoughtful adjustment to your words, presentations, work habits and interactions can make, whether that be on a personal or global scale.

And don’t forget our review of Talk Like Ted.

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