When I was growing up, I spent many weekends camping with my Boy Scout Troop in pursuit of my Eagle Scout badge. One thing I remember about those trips was the campfires and the stories we told. From the scary to the hilarious, those stories created an environment as we entertained each other. No devices, no distractions, just stories.
We may live in a different time, but the power of story remains an important part of memory, of persuasion, and of leadership.
All of us love a good story. We are swept into the latest book or blockbuster film or we are enthralled by a particularly talented storyteller in our office. Those who tell a story well have our attention.
Leaders should strive to be good storytellers, painting a vivid scene and picture of what’s ahead. That’s the art of persuasion and influence. It’s also the skill of most sales leaders, who use narratives to explain a difficult concept. We are creatures who love a good story.
“At the end of the day, people follow those who know where they’re going.” -Jack Trout
You witnessed, first-hand, the power of a sales story when you purchased some art. Would you briefly share that with us?
Sure. Last summer my wife, Lisa, and I were at an art show in Cincinnati. She was on a mission to find a piece for our boys’ bathroom wall at home.
At one point we found ourselves at the booth of an underwater photographer named Chris Gug. Looking through his work, Lisa got attached to a picture that, to me, looked about as out of place as a pig in the ocean. It was a picture of a pig in the ocean! Literally. A cute little baby piglet, up to its nostrils in salt water, snout covered with sand, dog-paddling its way straight into the camera lens.
When I got my chance, I asked the seller (named Gug) what on Earth that pig was doing in the ocean. And that’s when the magic started.
He said, “Yeah, it was the craziest thing. That picture was taken in the Caribbean, just off the beach of an uninhabited Bahamian island named Big Major Cay.” He told us that years ago, a local entrepreneur brought a drove of pigs to the island to raise for bacon.
Then he said, “But, as you can see in the picture, there’s not much more than cactus on the island for them to eat. And pigs don’t much like cactus. So the pigs weren’t doing very well. But at some point, a restaurant owner on a nearby island started bringing his kitchen refuse by boat over to Big Major Cay and dumping it a few dozen yards off shore. The hungry pigs eventually learned to swim to get to the food. Each generation of pigs followed suit, and now all the pigs on the island can swim. As a result, today the island is more commonly known as Pig Island.”
Gug went on to describe how the pigs learned that approaching boats meant food, so they eagerly swim up to anyone arriving by boat. And that’s what allowed him to more easily get the close-up shot of the dog-paddling piglet. He probably didn’t even have to get out of his boat.
I handed him my credit card and said, “We’ll take it!”
Why my change of heart? The moment before he shared his story (to me at least), the photo was just a picture of a pig in the ocean, worth little more than the paper it was printed on. But two minutes later, it was no longer just a picture. It was a story—a story I would be reminded of every time I looked at it. The story turned the picture into a conversation piece—a unique combination of geography lesson, history lesson, and animal psychology lesson all in one.
In the two minutes it took Gug to tell us that story, the value of that picture increased immensely. It’s the kind of story that I now refer to as a “value-adding” story because it literally makes what you’re selling more valuable to the buyer.
“Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.” –John Barth
I could probably give you dozens of reasons, but here are my favorite 5.
Storytelling speaks to the part of the brain where decisions are actually made– Human beings make subconscious, emotional, and sometimes irrational decisions in one place in the brain and then justify those decisions rationally and logically in another place. So if you’re trying to influence buyers’ decisions, using facts and rational arguments alone isn’t enough. You need to influence them emotionally, and stories are your best vehicle to do that.
Stories are more memorable– Lots of studies show that facts are easier to remember if they’re embedded in a story than if they’re just given to you in a list. And you can prove that to yourself right now. All of you reading this know that by this time tomorrow you won’t remember this list of 5 things. But you will remember the story of Pig Island. And next week, next month, or next year, you’ll be able to tell the Pig Island story and get most of the facts right. But you won’t remember any of the 5 things in this list.
Stories can increase the value of the product you’re selling– as you saw in the Pig Island story.
Stories are contagious– When’s the last time you heard someone say, “Wow! You’ll never believe the PowerPoint presentation I just saw!” Never. But they do say that about a great story.
Storytelling gives you a chance to be original– Most buyers have seen every pitch, tactic, and closing line in the book. They’ve heard them from you, your competitors, and the last three people who had your job. Storytelling gives you a chance to go “off script” and say something they won’t hear from anyone else.
Many people may think, “Oh sure, a sales person should be a good story teller.” But you turn that around and say it’s more important to have a buyer tell their story. I love that. Tell us more about that.
I figure if you don’t hear their stories first, how will you know which of your stories to tell?
A colleague of ours, Mike Weinberg, says it this way: “You wouldn’t trust a physician who walked into the examining room, spent an hour telling you how great he was, and then wrote a prescription, would you?” Of course not. Then why would a buyer accept the recommendation of a salesperson who did the same thing?
What makes businesses vulnerable to disruptive change?
There are 2 main messages in my book.
First, that while we think the world is changing rapidly, in fact, we continue to rely on a platform that arose from the invention of 3 general purpose technologies in the 1870’s: the internal combustion engine, the light bulb, and the telephone. Even with the computer and the Internet, we have spent decades boxing in this amazing new technology to fit our paradigm need for a faster, smaller, cheaper phone. So, while we think we are in the midst of rapid change, the western world is in fact obsessed with ensuring we stick with the old world and reward refinements of tired mature ways of doing things. When real change comes, will business leaders be prepared? I don’t think so.
One of the reasons why we won’t respond well when real change comes is that while ideas are abundant, small start-up ventures lack the resources – people, money, physical assets — to launch these ideas. They also lack the credibility, networks, access to customers, suppliers, government officials, etc. This limits their ability to move these ideas forward, no matter how great they may be. At the same time, existing companies are flush with people, money, networks, customers, and, most important, credibility and brand value. But what they lack is an entrepreneurial mindset. To move forward, companies need to resist the rhetoric of finding and sticking to a narrow form of sustainable competitive advantage, and instead adopt a model of strategic entrepreneurship that promotes transformational growth and longevity.
The fundamental impact of disruptive change is that our organizations are not built to manage change very well. Through principles such as sustainable competitive advantage, we tend to use fixed mindsets that build a sort of impenetrable armor around the firm’s processes and procedures, instead of being flexible and adaptable. When disruptive technologies or business models present an alternative, firms resist. Indeed, even customers often resist, as we remain stuck in our paradigms formed as noted above. However, in time, customers adapt because they do not have the level of sunk investment in the old ways that companies often do. Time and again, rigid non-entrepreneurial firms fall by the wayside.
There are many very extreme examples of this phenomenon. Think of Kodak, which is a firm that actually pioneered digital photography, but in the end was unable to adapt to this powerful disruptive technology.
“Progress is a nice word we like to use. But change is its motivator. And change has its enemies.” –Robert Kennedy
How can large organizations embrace a spirit of entrepreneurship?
I emphasize the importance of adopting three points:
Recognize that opportunities are developed at all levels of the organization.
Build a culture that embraces and supports entrepreneurship.
Consciously develop support for entrepreneurial initiatives through effectual processes or bricolage.
The key is leadership, not only in words, but in action. It is imperative that the CEO endorse an entrepreneurial culture by example – championing new ideas. In fact, a failure or two is good because it demonstrates that even the CEO recognizes that not every entrepreneurial idea is destined for success, and it is important to manage your investment and ensure that no one new venture will take down the ship.
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” –Peter Drucker
What are the elements of a good corporate culture?
There are many theories on this question, and I included quite a few in my book. In the end, the key elements are:
Provide open opportunities for opportunity development – these include group time (because we know that mixing people with diverse expertise and background can lead to innovative solutions), plus unstructured open thinking time (such as 3M’s famous “tinkering” time).
Adopt a learning culture – growth mindsets are essential, pursuing what could be as opposed to why this won’t work.
Accept failure, and the importance of learning from failure.
Adopt bricolage (known outcomes, with unknown ways of getting there), or effectuation (building on invention, experiment, and science) as frameworks for pursuing each entrepreneurial initiative (purposefully).
“The only sustainable competitive advantage is an organization’s ability to learn faster than the competition.” –Peter Senge
How do leaders encourage creativity at all levels of the organization?
The first thing I would say is that leaders must recognize that organizations need time to change. This is not an overnight process and will require considerable and repetitive actions and wins to change. And failure is a key component – an organization can move far closer to being creative and adopting entrepreneurial thinking by showing that a person with a great idea that failed in implementation is celebrated as thinking outside the box, rather than penalized for failing.
Researchers have studied the importance of story-telling in organizations, and how a lasting culture can be built around well-known, maybe even legendary, stories that come from the history of the organization. The dimensions of story-telling I describe in my book include equality (versus inequality), security (versus insecurity), and control (versus lack of control). Through story-telling of actual events that happened in the organization’s history, employees are able to gauge whether the organization will endorse or shun creativity at all levels.
“Successful innovators are..not risk-focused; they are opportunity focused.” –Peter Drucker
Carmen Simon, PhD is a cognitive scientist who helps brands craft these memorable messages. Messages crafted based on how the brain works stay with us and influence our thinking long after we experience them. Her firm, Rexi Media, is a presentation design and training company based on her research.
“Familiarity wins over novelty when our conscious mental processing is distracted.” -Carmen Simon
Audiences forget up to 90%. What do most presenters get wrong?
First, let’s debunk a myth around the “90%.” It is not true that people only remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see…and up to 90% of what they say and do. There is no scientific study that provides evidence for such conveniently increasing stats (and what is the difference between “reading” and “seeing” anyway?).
When analyzing messages we share with a business audience, it is practical to consider a theory and formula that has been around for more than eight decades, called the forgetting curve. Simply put, according to the forgetting curve, we forget fast at first and slower later. After about 48 hours, people will forget most of our messages, particularly when they attend to them without the intent to remember, which is typical in business contexts. In academia, students attend to messages with the intent to retain (ideally). But in business, audiences are often in a state of partial attention, multitasking, and likely sleep-deprived. We are lucky if they remember anything at all. The practical advice for any business communicator is to ask, “What is my 10% message?” and consider the “10%” a metaphorical number, not a strict one because in business, it is difficult to attach a precise stat on how much people remember days or weeks later. We just know they retain very little and at random.
Regarding the question about what goes wrong for business presentations where memory is concerned: Most people worry about not remembering the past. In business, what we should be worried about is whether our audiences remember us in the future, because that’s where decisions happen. Let’s say you’re sharing content at a certain point in time, Point A. Your audiences are likely to make decisions about you (hire you, promote you, read your content, like it, etc.) at a future point, Point B. This point can be minutes, weeks, or months later. The key ingredient to business success is people remembering us in the future, at Point B, and making a decision in our favor.
“Everything you have ever achieved in business is a reflection of how much your audiences remember you.” -Carmen Simon
Retrospective memory (remembering the past) is still useful. But it is prospective memory (remembering to act on a future intention) that keeps us in business. This means that at Point B, we must enable people not only to remember but also to create for them a memory that is strong enough to compel action.
A common mistake that business communicators make is not building in audiences’ minds strong associations between the content shared at Point A and actions they must take later, at Point B. Simply having a nice PowerPoint presentation or an ad with a “call to action” at Point A is not sufficient. Take for instance the ad that Colgate released at the Super Bowl this year. The ad reminded us that when we brush our teeth and leave the water running, we waste about 4 gallons of water, and that’s how much some people around the world have access to in one week. The main message was: “every drop counts” – indeed a humanitarian message. The strength of the ad is that the conditions at Point A and Point B are the same, in the sense that we saw the water running when we watched the commercial, and that’s what we see a few hours later, and each day after that in real life, when we brush our teeth. What the ad missed was instilling a stronger association between the message and what we’re supposed to do at Point B. At least a few shots in the video could have zoomed in a bit more on the action of turning the water off. And the main message should have been, “Every drop counts, turn the water off.” Too often, we leave it to the audience to derive the message and, unfortunately, people are too busy and too tired to extract messages and change their behavior. We often decide what to do next out of habit. And changing habits requires cognitive energy, which we may not have at the time when we need it. Think about it: When are you most likely to brush your teeth? Early in the morning and late at night. What’s the likelihood that you’re still tired in both those circumstances? Quite high. The ad relied too much on the emotion of the stat (“some people in the world do not have enough water”) and too little on solidifying the link between the message and the action needed at Point B.
“Memory paves the road from intention to execution.” -Carmen Simon
Memory works on the concept of associations. Our brains take in the world through our senses and process that information in specialized regions (e.g., visual, auditory or motor cortices). These are considered primary sensory areas. However, our brains are capable of more complex mental functions than simply detecting basic sensory details, like color or pitch. We don’t just see a color or a contour or light. We see faces and cars and toasters and shoes. Each primary sensory system has its own association areas; the human brain also has higher order association areas, which are not linked to a particular sense but combine input from them to generate complex actions, like thinking and planning and producing language and deciding what to do next. Our association areas take up most of the cerebral cortex. Scientific studies are now revealing for instance that what differentiates creative people from non-creative people is greater activity in these association areas of the brain.
The key message is that the stronger the associations we enable between various inputs in the brain, the more likely the action. Sometimes people think that a strong, emotional message at Point A is sufficient and it’s not. By the time Point B comes around, the initial emotion can wear off. Think of the many times you may remember the humor from an ad, but have no idea what the ad was for. This is because the advertisers failed to establish a strong association between the content at Point A and the action at Point B.
“Having information about someone else ahead of time is a source of power.” -Carmen Simon
What steps should a presenter take to become intentional about what the audience remembers?
The first step is to be clear about what you want others to remember. This can be one of the easiest or hardest steps, depending on your messaging. Sometimes it can take weeks, months or even years to get to the essence of a message you want others to remember. And sometimes we forget our own messages. Take Abercrombie & Finch, for example. For a while, the message they wanted us to remember was about a highly sexualized, bare physique. Then they changed their mind and asked their models and sales reps to wear shirts. This shift in brand identity was not only costly but it moved away from an older (and original) set of core values, which were “personal freedom and rustic simplicity.” The switch to the concept of athletic and sexual was meant to appeal to young Americans, who were in perfect physical shape and had disposable income. Unfortunately, once this demographic started to face the worst job prospects in American history, the brand stopped thriving. A focus on nature and personal freedom would have been a more enduring message, one that is remembered even in tough economic times.
If we forget what’s important, how do we expect others to remember?
Speaking Tip: Appeal to the senses to activate multiple parts of the brain and memory traces.
As a new manager, Kevin volunteers for the most unusual challenge. Kevin is the manager of an airline catering company. The airline is furious when it discovers that silverware is disappearing at an accelerating rate. Given an aggressive deadline, Kevin needs to find out why the cutlery is disappearing and solve the problem.
The Case of the Missing Cutlery is your personal story of learning leadership. You found yourself managing a team with a major problem, with limited time to fix it, and with limited resources. Why is this story resonating with readers? Have you shared it with some of your colleagues working on “the case”?
There’s so much great literature on leadership, but when I was coming up, it was hard to see how the high-flying exploits of C-level titans applied to me as a newly-minted shift supervisor. People can easily relate to stories on the shop floor as well as colorful characters that we all have shared at one time or another. I have received nothing but warm reactions from my peers including Angela Ahrendts, Burberry’s former Chief Executive (and now with Apple), who endorsed the book.
What is buoyancy? Why and how is it created?
Contrasted with the command and control of yesterday’s hierarchical organizations, buoyancy is the concept that you “float” by connecting with the hearts of your people, galvanizing them on a journey toward an amazing goal. They “float” you because they believe you are worthy and reward your belief in them with their belief in you.
The Importance of Story
Why is storytelling an important skill for a leader?
Storytelling is man’s oldest form of communication. Throughout the ages, we have used this resonant means to impart vitally important values, beliefs and principles. It is powerful because it is human and emotive.
What is the “six o’clock conversation” and how is it important to leadership?
Well it’s funny you should ask: I remember vividly when I got my first leadership role at venerable ad agency McCann Erickson. Mike, my mad-man boss, slapped me on the back and said, “Well, kid, congratulations. You are now dinner conversation. Everything you say, and more importantly how you say it, will be shared at dining tables all across your organization.”
Putting thought into the positivity and the emotive quality of what you say can move mountains, or as poet Maya Angelou would say, “ You may be forgotten for what you said, or forgotten for what you did, but never forgotten for how you make people feel.”
Kevin Allen is best known for his work at the top of advertising behemoths McCann-WorldGroup, the Interpublic Group and Lowe and Partners Worldwide where he worked with brands including Microsoft, Nestle, and Lufthansa. He pitched the famous “Priceless” campaign for MasterCard. He is the Founder & Chairman of employee engagement company Planet Jockey, which specializes in gamified learning and business transformation company re: kap.