A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend a storytelling workshop that included a talk from Shawn Callahan, Founder of Anecdote, a company that uses the power of stories to help change organisations. OK, OK… I know what you’re thinking… “What on earth was she doing listening to stories all day rather than working…?” But just hold on a minute… That day reaffirmed what I have realised for some time: telling memorable stories is a sure fire way of getting your voice heard and understood. And let’s face it… Wherever you are in an organisation, and whether you want to communicate internally or externally, getting your voice heard is an essential part of being successful in working life – or any part of life for that matter.
It’s not all about fairy tales…
The problem of course with stories is that the minute you say the word ‘story’ the association is that it’s for kids, it’s something that’s not necessarily true and is told – or read – for our entertainment. However, throughout the workshop and particularly listening to Shawn, it was clear what impact stories can have in organisations. They can spark genuine culture change – if you change them.
Shawn reminded us that people are ‘leader watchers’ and if leaders provide the right stories, this can help an organisation change and thrive. For example, he recounted the story of the new chief executive in one organisation, who couldn’t understand why people were always fighting for meeting space, when there were so many state of the art meeting rooms in the building remaining empty. When he asked about it, colleagues said, “Oh! They’re for senior management in case they need them”. When the chief executive investigated, he discovered that many of the meeting room doors had notices on them stating that they were reserved for senior managers only. He immediately removed the notice and went round the building himself to make sure all the signs were taken down. He communicated with staff to say that ALL employees regardless of whether they were senior managers or not, would book time slots in the rooms they needed for meetings like everyone else. While this was a small operational change, it did something crucial… It built trust in him as the chief executive. That story would be told and retold throughout the organisation and would spark a fundamental culture change. It would encourage a culture of openness, honesty and fairness, rather than mistrust.
Stories for business
Last week at the LGA Conference people have been telling stories to illustrate their presentations throughout the event. In fact, I’m sure most of you will agree a presentation that includes anecdotes and stories is much more memorable than a list of bullet points read out in a monotone voice.
When Richard Taylor, Chief Executive of RSA, mentioned in his key note speech that his favourite politician is the Mayor of Oklahoma, I wondered why. After checking out his story, I understood. The Mayor of Oklahoma realised that change starts from home. In order to encourage others to change, you need to show willing to change yourself. His realisation of the need to lose weight, coupled with his honesty about his journey and his own story have been enough to not only change the fitness of an entire city, but generate millions of pounds (in both senses of the word) in savings.
What’s interesting about this story in particular is that it has a personal resonance and a business resonance. It seems relevant to individuals in terms of losing weight and getting fit. And it is relevant to public service organisations in terms of the lessons that could be applied elsewhere.
Stories, stories everywhere
I have found that since I attended the storytelling workshop, I’ve started to spot more stories everywhere. A friend told me a story a couple of weekends ago that reinforces the value of storytelling – and passing on knowledge – in organisations. (The names have been changed to protect the innocent!)
My friend works for a large organisation as a facilities duty manager. He was told a story once by one of his longest serving colleagues – we’ll call him Bill. Their organisation uses a whole range of equipment and technology, one element of which is some large oxygen storage tanks. I understand it’s important that these tanks are stored at cool temperatures. One night, when Bill was on the night shift, a fire broke out in another area of the building dangerously near to the oxygen tanks. The fire brigade was called, but in the meantime, cutting off the oxygen supply to the tanks was essential to prevent the fire from spreading and potentially causing an explosion. It turned out after some to-ing and fro-ing that the only person in the building that night who knew how to perform this crucial task was Bill. Thank goodness he was on the night shift and was able to turn off the supply to the tanks! If it had been someone else, the building and probably a large area around it would have gone up in smoke.
It’s a dramatic story that reminds of the importance of knowledge sharing in organisations. Let’s hope the above organisation have learnt their lesson about sharing even seemingly simple processes between a number of key staff – especially as I understand that Bill is due to retire soon!
Can you spot a good story when you see one? Shawn Callahan recommended thestorytest.com where you can have a go at spotting a story.
Storytelling sound bites that stick!
Shawn Callahan certainly knows how to tell a memorable story, as a number of them have stuck with me. I guess that’s the trick – making your stories sticky. I thought to finish, it might be helpful to share a few practical tips about storytelling that I picked up, which I hope are of use for others.
A number of colleagues around the table shared acronyms they use when relating stories in a variety of situations.
One colleague spoke of talking to new councillors about their role and used stories around the following acronym to illustrate the characteristics of the role:
Another shared an easy way to create a good story and the key elements that should be included:
Figures (statistics of interest)
Opinion (of someone valued)
Anecdote (that will entertain/interest)
Metaphor (that will make it memorable)
And still another shared their storytelling approach to learning lessons within their organisation:
Re-use (don’t duplicate effort)
And here’s my own…
Stories that always CHIME the right note
Collectable – stories have been passed down through history by word of mouth. The best stories are collectable by anyone and everyone. Stories are either based on something you’ve experienced first-hand, or something you’ve heard from someone else. Either way, they may not just appear at the time you need them, so collect them and store them for a time when you can use them to illustrate a point.
Happening – stories always describe something that happened. However, the best stories also include something unexpected – a happening you weren’t anticipating. This helps to keep the reader/listener’s interest.
Influential – as mentioned above, changing the stories in an organisation can change the culture. The rumour mill can do great damage to the internal workings of an organisation. Telling new stories that create trust in leadership also create engaged employees and that means more productive organisations. (If you’ve not read the evidence for employee engagement, you can find it at www.engageforsuccess.org)
Memorable – the best stories are remembered easily. And what makes us remember stories? Think back… what can you remember from your childhood? The smell of cut grass on the school playing field? Baking in the kitchen with a parent? Maybe more negative things… fear of the dark, being told off by a parent? What do all these things have in common? They are usually evoked by emotion. You’re much more likely to remember a story if you can connect to it on an emotional level – people remember what they feel. Make your stories mean something to your reader/listener.
Ease – knowledge is not just in people’s heads, it’s in the artefacts and memories around them. If you’re looking to glean stories from people, do it in a comfortable environment. If you’re telling stories to people, make them feel comfortable and at ease.