Anecdotally ...

We are all oral storytellers so lets apply this natural talent at work

April, 2012 | Published by Anecdote - Putting Stories to Work.

Hope this month's Anecdotally finds you well.

We are excited to announce our new deliberate practice program for business storytelling. If you've attended our Storytelling for Business Leaders program you'll have the prerequisites to participant in this 6-month program and receive a new learning module every month that builds your skills and helps you practice storytelling in the workplace. Get in contact if you would like to know more.

We hope you enjoy this month's newsletter. It always sparks lots of conversations at Anecdote. We hope it does the same for you.

In this edition, we have:

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Book Review

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

- by William Zinsser

William Zinsser is an English professor at Columbia University who is also a working writer with seventeen books to his name. In 1976 he wrote one that has sold over a million copies and which has been revised and reprinted six times. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Non-Fiction is worth reading if you write any form of non-fiction: case study, blog, university text book, an assignment, a brochure or an e-mail or any other form of business correspondence.

Not surprisingly, the book is beautifully written and replete with examples that bring the lessons to life. Zinsser stresses the basics: simplicity, clarity, brevity and humanity (warmth). I had never considered reviewing this book in Anecdotally until I reached page 166 and realised that writing has a direct impact on the nature of our institutions and that resistance to the plain language we insist upon in developing strategic stories is more than a mere annoyance.

"Most people work for institutions: businesses, banks,...and other entities. Many of those people are managers whose writing goes out to the public...Whoever they are, they tend to be so afraid of writing that their sentences lack all humanity--and so do their institutions. It's hard to imagine that these are real places where real men and women come to work every morning. But just because people work for an institution, they don't have to write like one. Institutions can be warmed up. Administrators can be turned into human beings. Information can be imparted clearly and without pomposity. You only have to remember that readers identify with people, not with abstractions like "profitability," or with Latinate nouns like "utilization" and "implementation," or with inert constructions in which nobody can be visualised doing something: “pre-feasibility studies are in the paperwork stage."

Zinsser advocates the removal of 'clutter', noting that it is "the disease of American writing [and Australian]. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon... Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important... But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that's already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what - these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank".

The book also points to the role of story, noting that “narrative is the oldest and most compelling method of holding someone's attention; everybody wants to be told the story. Always look for ways to convey your information in narrative form."

In this review of “On Writing Well" I want to share a few of the thoughts that resonated with me and which I believe are directly relevant to those of us writing in a business environment today. While I love Don Watson's various books such as Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Zinsser's book helps us understand why our writing today is often poor and how to improve. Watson's wonderful books point out to us just how prolific our poor writing is, and many extreme (and amusing) examples of it.

On Writing Well is full of useful insights, such as:

  • "There is not much to be said about the period [full stop] except that most writers don't reach it soon enough."
  • "writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it."
  • "…the essence of writing is rewriting….a clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it's because it is hard."

What surprised me most was that I should write with ego - for myself. By doing so, my writing becomes interesting and the reader is more likely to engage with it. "Be yourself and your readers will follow you anywhere. Try to commit an act of writing and your readers will jump overboard to get away. Your product is you". Reflecting on this guidance, I realised that I spend too much effort worrying what the reader will think than about what I am trying to say. That lesson alone made the book worth reading.

Your writing will be the better for reading this book. And if we all follow Zinsser's guidance, then our organisations will be more warm and human as a result.

Reviewed by: Mark Schenk

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Consensus Cards

There is something about a physical object that can really change the mood of a conversation.

A couple of months ago I was working with an executive team helping them articulate their strategy. Their new direction was energising everyone except one exec who was the star performer in the past but felt he might lose out with the new direction. While you could see he was bothered about the conversation we were having he didn't jump in and voice his opinion. I suspect he felt outnumbered.

It was time for my consensus cards. The idea couldn't be simpler. Each person gets three playing cards, one red, one yellow, one green. If you support the idea being discussed you put out your green card. If you think you could support it but just need some questions or concerns addressed you put out your yellow card. If the idea is definitely something you just can not support then you show your red card.

As we were discussing one aspect of the strategy I asked the execs to put their cards on the table to show their level of support. Most put out green cards. Two execs put out yellow. One of the dissenting executives was the one I was worried about. I asked him to explain his concerns, which he did slowly and methodically. A new conversation started and there was movement in the group to accommodate his concerns while at the same time the rest of the group shared why they were so supportive of the new direction. 45 minutes passed and another proposal emerged. I asked everyone to show their cards again and this time it was all green. Everyone was grinning.

There's something about these cards. Perhaps it's their bright colours. They're very nice to touch; I notice how people shuffle them as they talk. Maybe it's the metaphors and humour they trigger: "Hey Graeme, you've just been red carded"; "Stop playing your cards so close to your chest John." What I know for sure is that people like the consensus cards and they help everyone take part in the conversation. They are often a misnomer because we don't always get consensus. Most of the times, however, the cards get you to a point where the group can move on and take the next action.

In terms of process I typically ask for input from the red cards first, then the yellows. By the time the reds and yellows are talking the greens are pitching in explaining their point of view. You then have to keep an ear out for a new proposal to emerge and when it does just ask them to show their cards.

I bought mine online from a company called Consensus Tools. I can't seem to find them now. Perhaps they couldn't get agreement on their strategy and went broke. Never mind, it's easy to make up the cards out of cardboard.

by: Shawn Callahan

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What's happening

Consulting Engagements and Projects:

We have a whole swag of new projects to tell you about.

  • Strategic story for an Australian insurance company
  • Strategic story for Homeground Services, a non-profit who is dedicated to eliminating homelessness in Melbourne (pro-bono)
  • Collecting successful sales stories for a leading global technology company
  • Team leader communication program for an energy generator in NSW
  • Building change and story capability in an energy company in WA
  • Conducting a national client satisfaction survey for a media organisation - with the survey design being heavily influenced by a story-listening activity earlier in the year
  • Building storytelling capability for a large bank in the USA
  • Working with local councils in NSW to build collaborative networks
  • Developing a strategic story for a large national travel group

Upcoming Events that we're running or attending

  • Kevin is finalising his plans to go to the USA in May/June to run our Storytelling for Business Leaders (SBL) Workshop in Boston on 5th June 2012. To find out more click here .

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Learning from engagements

Where do you spend your Strategy resources?

Does this sound familiar?

Your business unit's been developing it's new strategy for a while now. You may have had your strategy team working on it, or they may have even got in some expert help from outside. They have scanned the external environment, understand where your industry or market may be going and developed different operating models and ways of working.

When the strategy creation process is all done and dusted, your business could have easily spent $200k, $300k or even $500k on the process.

Now it's time to communicate this shiny new strategy and begin the process of strategy implementation - turning this strategy into reality. As we are all aware it's not how good your strategy is, it's how well its implemented that makes the difference.

So, what does your business do? They launch it with some kind of event. It may be the CEO roadshow - now showing at a conference centre or hotel ballroom near you - or part of a bigger 1 or 2 day offsite. They may even follow-up this event with a copy of the PowerPoint deck or some other documentation around the strategy.

But even when you take into account the venue hire, and the catering costs and the time out of the office for everyone concerned, you are still looking at a tiny fraction of the cost in communicating and bringing to life the strategy, compared to its creation. That just doesn't feel right.

Organisations seem to be spending a disproportionate amount on strategy creation, compared to what they spend on communicating and getting people to understand that strategy. We believe this needs to be more evenly balanced.

Yes, you need to invest in creating a great strategy. This is vital. But you also need to invest in making sure people understand that strategy, know why the areas of focus were chosen and what it will deliver when it's successful.

If you don't, there's a fairly good chance all the money you spent in developing your shiny new strategy would have been a complete waste.

by: Kevin Bishop

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Blog posts you might have missed

Explaining the world around us with stories

Sticky Note

In 1944 psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel published a paper in The American Journal of Psychology. It was a simple idea. Make a film of geometric shapes moving about and then ask the subjects "... to write down what happened in the picture." *1

Here's a slightly cut down version of the original film (the original was 2.5 minutes long and this one seems to be a mirror image or the original).

Watch the video and write down what happened.

Watch the clip on Youtube here .

Of the 34 undergraduate women who participated in the experiment only one described what they saw in geometric terms. 31 described the objects as people and 2 as birds. 33 people told a story of what happened.

Humans have a natural tendency to ascribe purpose and meaning to what we see even when there is very little to suggest it. As Brian Boyd says, "it is safer to mistake a twig for a snake than vice versa." *2

The same is true in the workplace. If the CEO arrives unannounced on your floor, and she rarely visits your part of the building, you will quickly piece together what you know to tell yourself a story that explains her visit: it's end of the quarter, she is in with one of the comms managers, she is probably getting her speech ready for the analysts' meeting. It's plausible. It puts your mind to rest so you get back to work. Then a colleague scurries over to your desk and says "there has been a major accident at the plant." You quickly reassess what you thought was happening with the CEO's visit and reformulate your story. The new story replaces the old.

Stories help us make sense of what's happening but we do have a tendency to overreact to over-interpret.

Leaders should be always thinking about their actions and what stories will people be telling themselves as a result of their actions.

*1. Heider, F. and M. Simmel (1944). "An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior." The American Journal of Psychology 57(2): 243-259.

*2. Boyd, B. (2009). On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction. Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p. 137.

By Shawn Callahan on the 24/08/2009

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Productivity tips

Getting everyone to fill in their timesheet

Ever wondered how you can get everyone in your office to complete those dreaded time-sheets?

Here's a novel solution from an advertising agency in Brazil. Click here for the clip to open in Youtube.

By Kevin Bishop

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breaking News

Storytelling for Business Leaders

Storytelling for Business Leaders - Deliberate Practice Program

How do you continue to develop your business storytelling skills after attending our one-day Storytelling for Business Leaders (SBL) workshop? Well, we have just released our new Deliberate Practice Program, specifically designed to follow on from the workshop and enable you to enhance your story-work skills. All from the comfort of your own desk.

Even the best one-day workshop is only the start of learning the process. The latest research shows that effective learning occurs when we divide our approach into 70% effort on the job, 20% coaching and mentoring,
and 10% workshop training.

In other words, to really improve your skills, you need to devote attention to more than just the 10% of your learning at the workshop. You need to focus on the remaining 90% of the equation as well.

The Deliberate Practice Program is all about building your ‘narrative intelligence’, the knowledge and ability that allows you to undertake story-work with a full awareness of its three key areas: story listening, story triggering and storytelling.

The Deliberate Practice Program involves getting a hardcover folder explaining the basics of the program, followed by receiving a new module every month, for six months, with ways for you to practice story-work in everyday work situations.

This is only available to participants of our SBL workshops.

For more information on the Deliberate Practice Program, or to find out how you can hold a Storytelling for Business Leaders workshop in your organisation, please contact us.

Storytelling for Business Leaders Workshop - Boston

In is now just under six weeks until Kevin will be running one of our 'Storytelling for Business Leaders' public workshops in Boston, MA.

Held at the truly stunning Harvard Club the workshop will be held on the 5th June, 2012.

To read more about the course and to make use of the 'Early Bird' rates (which finish on the 30th April) please go here .

Really hope you can join Kevin for a great day learning about story work at this amazing venue.

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The stories we tell ourselves

Our mind is full of beliefs, assumptions and values which affect what we do and how we do it. Much of what we assume comes from our experiences, especially if we've told ourselves and others the story of what happened and what it means for us. Our stories help us remember and embed our assumptions. If we want to change our actions we need new stories that create and embed a new belief, assumption or value.”

This is from a blog post Shawn wrote about two years ago about needing to change the stories we tell ourselves if we want to create real change. This whole area of the stories we tell ourselves, and the power they have, is something that has fascinated me for a long time.

It is very much at the forefront of my mind at the moment as, in a little under five weeks, I am off to Harvard to spend three days with clinical psychologist’s Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and authors of the superb book Immunity to Change.

They have spent more than 20 years wondering why it is that some people don't change, while studying those who have successfully made changes to their life. Eventually, they arrived at a theory, the premise of which became the title for their book. Their metaphor, invoking the body's ability to ward off disease, is apt: Our best efforts to change are routinely overwhelmed by forces within us, including the stories we tell ourselves. I can’t wait.

I was reminded, yet again, of the power of the stories we tell ourselves when I read a research paper called “Misery Has More Company Than People Think: Underestimating the Prevalence of Others’ Negative Emotions” written by a team of researchers lead by Alexander Jordon. *1

In this paper the research team, which included the well known author of Mindset, Carol Dewck, suggest that people are systematically biased in their judgments of peers’ inner lives, underestimating the prevalence of negative emotional experiences. In other words, we think people’s lives are better, they have more friends, go out more, and have more fun than us.

In a series of experiments, they show that people consistently underestimate how often other people have negative emotions, while overestimating how often they have positive ones. This concept is nicely summed up by Charles de Montesquieure, quoted in the research; “If we only wanted to be happy it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.”

In one of the experiments, 80 first year college students were asked to estimate how often they thought other students had negative experiences such as; feeling homesick, receiving a low grade, getting dumped or feeling lonely, and also how often they personally had these experiences. Students were also asked to estimate the frequency of positive experiences, such as scoring highly on a test or going to a great party.

The students estimated that only 54% of their classmates had felt lonely, or missed their friends and family back home in the last couple of weeks, though in reality 83% reported feeling that way. And while the students thought that 62% of their peers had recently been to a fabulous party, only 41% had. Overall, students underestimated their peers’ negative feelings by 17%, while overestimating their positive emotions by 6%.

It’s not surprising, given that when things aren’t going well, people try to keep their negative thoughts hidden. That’s why, for instance, people’s Facebook status updates are happy and self-promoting; very few people use it to list their latest failure or when they are feeling down. But although we all know that we hide our own negative feelings from others, we don’t realise just how often our friends and families are doing exactly the same thing.

In a follow-up experiment, the research team explored whether these perception errors had emotional consequences. A group of 104 new students were again asked to estimate how often their classmates had positive or negative emotions, compared with their own situations. These students were then also screened for loneliness and depression, and were asked to self-rate their current levels of happiness and overall life satisfaction. As expected, those who thought other people had the fewest negative experiences were lonelier than other students, dwelled on their problems more, and felt less satisfied.

In the discussion section of the paper the researchers point out:

"In some ways, these results seem straightforward: If negative emotional experiences are more difficult for outsiders to observe than are positive ones, then naturally people would underestimate the prevalence of the former compared to the latter. But even if many negative experiences occur in solitude, away from observers, why wouldn't people recognise their own solitary emotional experiences and assume that other individuals probably have similar experiences? Similarly, if people tend to suppress their negative emotions in public to comply with perceived norms, why wouldn’t they expect such behaviour in others? In general, why wouldn’t people recognise the biases in the information they receive about others’ emotional lives and revise their cognitions accordingly?"

This for me is a classic case of the stories we tell ourselves, and the power they have over us. We know rationally and logically that we act differently in public than we do in private. We know that we suppress how we are feeling in social contexts (i.e. when was the last time you answered honestly when someone asked "how are you?"). Yet we perceive others' apparent well being in public settings and infer from this that they are genuinely content with all aspects of their lives - both private and public. They look happy when they are out, therefore they must be.

How powerful must that story be, when all logic, rationale, and evidence is discarded or ignored in favour of it? Fascinating stuff, and after my time at Harvard I will know far more about ways to surface, and then change these stories. Watch this space.
As a final point, just be aware that you can't see what other people are really going through. As somebody once said; “Never compare your inside with somebody else's outside.”

*1 - Alexander H. Jordan, Benoît Monin, Carol S. Dweck, Benjamin J. Lovett, Oliver P. John, and James J. Gross: (2011): "Misery Has More Company Than People Think: Underestimating the Prevalence of Others' Negative Emotions". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(1) 120–135

by: Kevin Bishop

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