November 5, 2007

Good day, team,

This week’s challenge is about the power of storytelling.

Consider these two scenarios. In the first, a group of people arrive at a business meeting to talk about the company’s results in the last quarter. One of the managers stands up and introduces the subject by clicking through a PowerPoint presentation showing charts and numbers. He talks about the relevance of these numbers in terms of benefits to their customers. When he’s finished, he asks if there are any questions.

In the second scenario, the same group of people assembles for the same reason. But this time, the manager stands up and tells a story about having dinner with one of the company’s best customers, whom he discovered was being wooed by a competitor; the competitor had offered the customer a significant discount for services.

The manager then explained that he told the customer about the new quality initiative his company had instituted specifically for customers like him (at which point he paused and asked the audience to applaud the members of the quality department): the time, effort and care that the quality folks had put into studying the customer’s business and what they had discovered. He talked about the weekend he went into the office and found the entire quality department surrounded by empty pizza boxes and soda cans, talking animatedly about the new initiative; many of them had been up all night, but had forgotten what time it was because they felt they were heading for a breakthrough.

The customer immediately jumped into the conversation. Years ago, he had been part of a team that had done the same thing. He remembered feeling excited about what he was doing and proud to be part of that team. Then he told the manager that he just needed to be able to convince his board of directors that they were still getting the best service for the price. The manager showed him a chart demonstrating, first, how the customer’s sales had improved year after year by using his company’s services, and second, the projected lift in sales that would result from the new quality initiative.

At this point in the presentation, the manager projected this same chart up on the screen and then stopped talking. A member of the audience asked, “What happened with that customer?” The manager replied, “He decided to stay with us and even called me back last week to say that when he described the story as well as the specifics of the quality initiative, his board members were more than satisfied.”

According to Chip Heath, professor of organizational behavior in Stanford University’s graduate school of business, “Good corporate stories are more likely to conjure up tangible visible images than anything in a PowerPoint presentation. Stories are flight simulators for our brains.” /He explains that they portray experiences which members of the audience may not have had yet. /

Good stories convey information, share knowledge, clarify an organization’s mission, underscore values, sell products or points of view, honor traditions and celebrate successes. “An authentic story reveals the true personality of the organization—in effect, its heart and soul,” writes Evelyn Clark, author of “Around the Corporate Campfire.” “To be effective, it must focus on a clear objective, told consistently and sincerely.”

This week, try telling a good story that honestly reflects a point you’re trying to make with your team. Perhaps you talk about something that happened over the weekend that best illustrates the frustration the team may be experiencing around a bottleneck. Maybe you help them understand the importance of customer loyalty by telling them a story about a vendor who made an extraordinary effort to keep your business. Ask if someone on the team has a story to tell about a subject you’ve raised. It’s remarkable to see how inspired people become when they describe how they solved a problem.

Here are some pointers for telling a good story in your business environment:

* Ask yourself, “What’s the purpose of the story?” Is it to inspire your team by conveying information about company culture, or to convey your level of personal service to customers?

* Think of an experience that reflects that aim.

* Write it down. Rehearse it. Give it a title and state the moral of the story.

* Make it personal: Name the hero(s).

* Don’t make it too complicated. The simpler, the better.

* Make it short. In a Powerpoint presentation, three bullets on a slide is much more powerful than a page of text. The same is true in storytelling. A gifted storyteller talks for about two to three minutes.

* Keeping looking for new stories to tell. It makes you a better leader because you have to listen to what others have to say.

Proverbially, a picture is worth a thousand words. The right story can speak to all parts of human beings: their brain, their heart, their soul. Your ability to influence others depends on your ability to engage the whole person, not just their thoughts. So what’s your story?

Have a great week!


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