Category Archives: Storytelling

Why we remember songs not strategies

Rush_2112In the car this morning I listened to an album I haven’t heard for probably 30-odd years (2112 by Rush).   Now, it was great to listen to some vintage Rush after all this time, but what was really striking was the fact that I found myself remembering the words and singing along ( I couldn’t reach Geddy Lee’s pitch but I gave it a good try).   How could I remember the lines of songs I haven’t heard for three decades?   I then turned on the iPod and found myself singing every single line of Joe Jackson’s Fools in Love.     If you asked me to write down the lyrics now I’d struggle to remember the first two lines, but put me in the context of the song itself and it all comes flooding back.    Why is that?   Why do song lyrics stick?

Here, the context is everything.   The human brain holds about one billion neurons, which combine to make over one trillion connections, and each connection helps to store multiple memories.   Our brains prefer to store data in patterns, so music provides a simple, handy ‘package’ of data – words, sounds, tunes, inflexions, tones, narratives etc – which can be stored in pattern form.    Revive the memory of one part of the pattern (the music) and other parts will be retrieved (the lyrics).   Our early ancestors knew this when they told their stories on the savannah.  The ability to pass down traditions, beliefs and knowledge to future generations was vital to preserve the continuity of the tribe, but the spoken word was unreliable and easily forgotten.   If a tradition was to survive over many generations it would need to be ‘packaged’ for passing from one person to another in a more reliable way – say through a powerful visual image, a story or a song.    So tribes would develop chants involving alliterations, repetitions and rhymes that could be easily remembered and repeated.   This tactic of preserving knowledge and tradition is still employed by aboriginal tribes in Australia and others around the world.

So those of us in the business of getting messages to stick have surely found the answer – put the company strategy to music?   Well, don’t laugh because some companies have done it, but it doesn’t have to be quite as drastic as that.   Music does tell us something about the way we remember and how we can exploit our brain’s fondness for connections.   I’m reminded of a story I was told many years ago on a neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) workshop….

The annual sales conference of a struggling photocopier company was fast approaching.   Sales performance was dire and managers were seriously worried about morale.  A rival company had recently introduced an all-singing all-dancing photocopier that simply blew away all competition.  It was beautiful, sleek and hi-tech … and most sales reps knew the game was up.  They couldn’t possibly compete with this new kid on the block.    What could managers do to avoid next week’s sales conference from turning into a wake?   The day arrived.   The hall was full of depressed, worried and vanquished reps.   They were expecting a kicking.  Or the chop.    The lights went down.  The dry ice came up.   Two men in brown coats wheeled something onto the stage covered in a sheet.    The spotlight shone brightly as the sheet was pulled away to reveal …… the competitor’s photocopier.   There in all its glory, shining brightly, beautiful.    The crowd sat in silence, dumbstruck that here in front of them was the very cause of their depression.  How could the company do such a thing?    Suddenly, at full volume, the hall fills with the first few bars of Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer.    More brown-coated men walk on carrying (you’ve guessed it) sledgehammers.    The first blow is struck as plastic and metal flies off in all directions.   Then another and another.    As the music gets even louder, the sledgehammersledgehammers rain down on their prey.   The pristine photocopier is now a tangled, battered mess.   The crowd are on their feet.  Some jump on their chairs pumping the air.   The atmosphere is febrile.  At the end of the song, the hammerers slowly walk off, leaving the shattered shell of the competition for all to see.    There’s a pause.    The crowd are excited.    Then the boss walks on, kicking a piece of debris in his path and says to the assembled reps “so, how do you feel?”.     He explains that underneath each of their chairs is a cassette tape and that he’d like them to play it in their cars when they’re out on the road.  It only contains one song, on both sides.   Of course, it’s Sledgehammer.    In the following months, the company’s reps beat all previous sales records.  The company survives and ultimately prospers.

So this is an example of anchoring.   Using a song or a mental image to bring back a memory and catalyze action.   Powerful stuff.   Messages are more likely to stick if they can be attached to a pattern, or ‘schema’.    Think of one thing and it triggers a connection and revives another memory.   Our challenge is to be creative in how we set those patterns, package the message and anchor the experience.    Music and business – not obvious bedfellows but maybe we have something to learn here?

Why we need festivals at work

festival2I walked past my local pub this morning after dropping the car off for an MOT.   Outside the pub was a board advertising an “icons & innovations beer festival”.   When I got home, some tickets had arrived for next month’s Hay Literature Festival.   I then booked a hotel for a quick few days at the Cheltenham Science Festival and while I was doing that I had an email about this year’s Just So Festival – a wonderful weekend of creativity for children in August.    We really are becoming a nation of festival goers.   And I haven’t even mentioned the hundreds of music and food festivals you could pick and choose from this summer.   Anyone for the East Anglian Guitar Festival?  Or the Cornwall Asparagus Festival?   Or the Settle Storytelling Festival?

So this got me thinking.  Why don’t we have festivals at work?   Why don’t we have the “Company X Festival of Collaboration” or the “ACME Innovation Festival”?    There’s something about the immersive experience of festivals that make them so popular.   Maybe it’s about hanging around with like-minded people.  I imagine everyone at the Cornwall Asparagus Festival has a particular fondness for, or interest in, asparagus.   Even spring vegetables can provide a common bond.   People go to music festivals not just to see their favourite band but to learn about and explore other groups and styles.    One of the highlights of our year as a family is going to Hay – five or six days of intelligent conversation, mind-expanding education and relaxation.    I learn more at the Hay Festival in one week than I do in the other 51.   And the ideas I get are endless.   When I’m at Hay, or Cheltenham, or Just-So, or a music festival, I’m 100% engaged.    So, again, why don’t we have festivals at work?

A festival is different from a one-off event or conference.  A festival provides an over-arching ‘reason why’ for a number of activities to take place.  It connects different events through a common theme and provides an ‘experience’ for attendees and participants.   A festival creates a buzz, a bond and a sense of collaboration.   Isn’t this exactly what we try to do to engage people in the workplace?   Don’t we want to provide an environment for learning, collaboration, interaction, discussion, engagement and innovation?   A work festival doesn’t have to interfere with business.   It doesn’t have to be ‘Glastonbury in Accounts’.   It could be a week-long series of lunchtime knowledge-sharing events, or a fortnight of after-work talks on relevant topics.   It could be a period of competitions, idea jams or innovation sessions.   It could be a festival of learning, with new subjects unveiled every day.   It could be a ‘CommsFest’ with daily features and presentations.    People like festivals.  They like the atmosphere, the belonging, the social interaction and the excitement.   Festivals are perfect for internal comms – imagine the concept of the settle Storytelling Festival brought in-house.   I’m a big believer in being inspired by ‘other worlds’ to bring difference and freshness to our really rather sanitised corporate environment.   That, to me, is creative communication.    I’m glad I took that walk today.  And the car passed its MOT too.  Yay!

Cultures are the sum of all the stories

uluru3I’ve just returned from two weeks touring round Australia with my eleven year old daughter.   On our travels we visited Uluru, or Ayers Rock, and learnt all about the culture of the Anangu people, the traditional inhabitants of the area.    The Anangu are said to have the world’s oldest living culture, dating back more than 20,000 years, and one of the reasons for its continuity is the strength of its stories.   In this culture, knowledge is not written down but passed on through songs, rituals, stories and art.   We saw cave paintings on Uluru depicting a great battle between a python woman and a poisonous snake man, as well as tales of other colourful characters such as a kingfisher woman and an evil devil dingo!    These sacred stories are stunning in their simplicity and yet profound in their meaning.   They are passed from generation to generation with great conviction and passion, supported by the physical ‘evidence’ of rock folds, shaped boulders and glacial markings.   You can’t help but believe in them.

At the end of the day, that’s what culture is – the sum of all the stories.  In business, an organisational culture is defined by its stories, tales and myths, and cultures can span generations if the stories are strong enough.   It also explains why culture is so hard to change.   You can’t un-tell the stories once they’ve been told.   You can’t un-behave.    All you can do is to create the conditions for more stories to be told and – to an extent – you can be deliberate about changing some drivers of culture, like artefacts, behaviours, processes and environment.     As we communicators know, sometimes we can deliberately craft new stories, or narratives as we often call them.   We can introduce new rituals and create the modern day equivalent of wall art, but the lesson from the Anangu is that is has to have meaning.   That, I think, is where many organisations fail in their attempts at culture change – the change has no meaning to the ‘tribe’ sitting round the campfire.    Too often, we try to change culture by producing values posters and inspirational mouse mats, but these are simply artefacts.  It’s like having the cave painting without the story.   Culture change happens at a very deep, emotional level – below the surface – where the beliefs, mindsets and motivations lie.   And it doesn’t change overnight, or by Christmas.  It takes years of effort, heaps of role modelling and a shed-load of comms to make it happen.    I once heard culture described as “an active living phenomenon through which people jointly create and recreate the worlds in which they live”.    The key word there is ‘jointly’.    Cultures can change, of course, but bringing about that change requires a joint effort way beyond the tangible artefacts of open plan offices and innovation spaces.    It requires new stories, new rituals and new behaviours.    And it requires time.    That’s as true for an ancient civilization like the Anangu as it is for a bank.

Could you pass the 60-second challenge?

60seconds[1]This weekend at Manchester Museum, researchers from the University of Manchester gave one-minute microlectures to the public on the subject of biomedical research.   The ‘Manchester Minute Microlectures’ event challenged the researchers to explain aspects of their work in just 60 seconds, followed by tea, cake and questions.   It was a real eye-opening event (part of a day of family activities at the museum on the subject of the human body) and a great way to gain insight into an area of science most of us wouldn’t normally be exposed to.    The challenge for the speakers of course was to crystallize their message and ‘sell’ their research to an audience of people from eight to eighty years old with no knowledge of the subject whatsoever….. in just one minute.

The microlecture format is growing in popularity in education.  Of course, in comms we have the rather tired but effective ‘elevator pitch’ concept in which we encourage teams and functions to memorise and sell their vision/project in about 40 seconds …. the scenario being that you bump into the CEO in an elevator and he asks you what you’re working on.  You’ve got until the doors open to make your impact.    Microlectures offer greater variety.   They can be in video, podcast, presentation or ‘stand-up’ format, from one minute to (roughly) five or six.   As refreshers or ‘quick dip’ exposures they can be really effective.   For the ‘seller’ or presenter, it forces the selection of not the ‘important’ messages or the ‘really important’ messages, but the ‘most important’ messages.     And it encourages creativity.   If you’ve got one minute to make an impact, wouldn’t you look to do something different?   Microlectures can be fun too, by pitching competing or diverse topics together in a Dragon’s Den environment, or inviting the audience to vote on the talk that made the most impact.

In Manchester at the weekend, some lectures succeeded, other’s didn’t.    The speakers who did well were (surprise, surprise) the ones who told stories.   In their best-seller Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath recall an experiment in which they asked Stanford students to give a one-minute presentation on crime patterns in the United States.   They were all given the same source material but half the group was asked to deliver a one-minute persuasive speech to convince their peers that nonviolent crime is a serious problem in the country.   The other half were told to take the contrary position – that it wasn’t particularly serious.    After each speech, the presenters were rated on their delivery and persuasive ability.    Not surprisingly, the eloquent, polished and charismatic speakers rated highly.   At the end, the experiment appeared to be over and the facilitator moved on to something else.  Then, ten minutes later, he stopped abruptly and asked the students to pull out a piece of paper and write down, for each speaker they heard, every idea or message they remember.    Guess what?  The students could barely remember anything!   They only heard eight one-minute speeches and it was only ten minutes ago, but they could hardly remember a single message from each talk …. EXCEPT for those who told stories.   On average, 63 per cent remembered the stories, while only five per cent remembered the statistics.   They also found that the polished speakers did no better when it came to remembering the messages.   It was the story, not the delivery, that made the difference.

So why not consider the microlecture format when you’re thinking of ways to share knowledge, explain a project, debunk some jargon, impart some learning or build a community.   It’s good for the speaker, good for the audience and great for the organisation.   Just remember the stories.

Why hard copy is more than a nice touch

snow gloveA few weekends ago we visited the Hay Winter Festival in lovely Hay on Wye, a couple of days of literary talks, creative workshops for children and a bit of Christmas shopping.   One of the speakers was a doctor recently back from a year in Antarctica.  He had completed a shift as the resident medic at the British research base on the continent and had written a book* about his experiences.   His presentation about the harsh environment, the extreme conditions and his love for the penguins was fascinating, but what made it so much more engaging were the props.   About half way through his talk, he handed out his snow gloves and boots for us to see, touch and pass round.     The feeling of sliding your hand into one of these huge, thick snow gloves designed to withstand temperatures of -50 degrees made it so much more ‘real’.    We could transport our imagination and get a sense for what it must’ve been like to be there in Antarctica.    It was the same with the penguin egg we could see and touch.   Watching someone talk or present is one thing, but ‘taking part’ is so much more engaging.   The simple act of circulating tangible props for the audience to interact with makes it a much richer experience, especially if it’s a talk that requires a use of one’s imagination (which most stories do).

One of the concerns I have about the trends in internal communications is the almost lemming-like rush to move everything into the virtual world.   Let’s stop all the paper publications and do it all online.  Let’s shove everything onto an intranet or portal.  Why bother getting everyone in the same room when we can meet and collaborate online?   There’s no doubt that technology has been a powerful and very welcome force for good for internal communicators, but I do think we need to maintain a balance here.    The cost-saving argument may be reasonably compelling, and the accessibility benefit is hard to beat, but these should never be the only considerations.

We humans are hard-wired to learn, interact and communicate through touch.   Our skin is our body’s largest organ and when its sensory receptors are stimulated it releases a hormone that reduces stress and makes us feel good.   We can all relate to the healing and calming powers of a pat on the back, a reassuring hug or a peck on the cheek.    It’s the same with objects.  A 2008 study at Yale found that people tend to think more warmly of others if they are holding something warm, like a hot mug of tea.   In some organisations nowadays, ‘hard copy’ is considered a toxic phrase, inducing a sharp intake of breath at the prospect of actually printing something (notice how most organisations still print hard copy publications for their external audience but consider it an unnecessary cost for the internal audience).  But that misses the point.  It might be cheaper to put all comms online, but humans crave physical contact – not just with each other but with tangible objects.    Why do some of us prefer books to Kindle?   Why do some prefer Waterstones to Amazon?   Why do some of us get a thrill from holding a 1.5 million year old hand axe in the British Museum’s ‘show and tell’ section?   Some of us are more kinesthetic than others – some of us are predisposed to prefer learning through touch – but we all need and value the sensation of physical contact.   The next time you’re arranging a briefing or presentation on an important topic, think about reaching all your audience’s senses.   Offer props, like models, flash cards or creative reading materials.    Pass round objects that relate to the topic to stimulate the imagination.   Invite people to interact with the subject matter in a physical way, say by using sticky notes for gathering feedback or introducing a prototype.   Touch invites questions and builds engagement.   You might learn something too.   I now know that the fur on the back of a snow glove is for wiping dripping snot from your nose before it freezes.   I wish the good doctor had told us that before we all rubbed it against our faces!

* Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins by Gavin Francis

The six essential skills of the creative manager

I’ve been working on a series of learning modules and workshops for leaders called The Creative Manager designed to encourage managers to be more creative in the way they lead, engage and get the best out of their people.  It’s not easy being a manager, particularly a middle or line manager, in a large organisation nowadays.   We ask them to communicate corporate messages, facilitate discussion, lead their people through change, maintain motivation, drive up engagement, inspire innovation, role model behaviours, improve wellbeing, solve problems, manage performance and many other things.  It’s a big ask, that’s for sure – and in my opinion one which requires a much more dextrous and creative style of leadership capability.   So I’ve been looking at how we can ensure our managers have the modern communication skills to meet these expectations as well as the techniques to exploit the creativity that exists inside them and their people.  In doing so, I’ve talked to leaders, listened to experts, read books, attended talks, followed the latest thinking and generally used my intuition to finally plump for six core capability areas which I think define the Creative Manager – storytelling, novelty, play, empathy, affinity and purpose.   Of course, these are not ‘new’ skills in themselves and many managers already have a natural tendency in one of more of them, but for me they comprise the six areas in which a manager’s creativity can best be harnessed, exploited and shared.  Let me explain:

Storytelling – This is the art of using stories to release creativity, motivate, inspire and share knowledge.  Of course, storytelling has always been a natural part of the human psyche – from cave drawings to Hollywood – and storytelling in business is not a new concept.   But do most managers really understand the power of a good story and do they have the techniques to both tell and encourage stories as an engagement tool?   Stories make people care.  They help people visualise and simulate, they provide context and they inspire people to act.  A lot of storytelling ‘training’ is patronising.  If you’re human, you can tell stories.  But I do think managers could benefit from a few simple techniques to enable them to communicate the company narrative through creative storytelling.

Novelty – This is the term I use to sum up the skill of bringing freshness and perspective into the workplace in order to drive up engagement, productivity and innovation.   Most organisations are logical, analytical, left-brained environments with their standards, guidelines, set processes and repetitive behaviours.   Unfortunately, these environments can stifle creativity and make office life dull and boring.   People sometimes don’t feel they have the ‘permission’ to raise new ideas or they don’t have the right stimulus to innovate or do things differently.  I think managers need the skills, techniques and imagination to inject some new thinking into the way they connect with their people and inspire them to action.   To me, novelty is about looking at things in a different way, injecting some ‘newness’, being curious and inspiring creativity by drawing out and developing the ideas that can lead to innovations and engagement.   It’s not the manager’s job to come up with all the ideas, but it’s very much the manager’s job to facilitate an environment where ideas can surface, grow and flourish.

Play – There’s enough evidence now to prove that happy people make productive people, and that people who are encouraged to laugh and be playful make more creative and engaged workers.   Most business communication is about serious messages delivered in a serious way, so this skill is all about how to inject some playful behaviour into the workplace.  When we talk about play at work, it’s not about bringing a board game into the office or putting a snooker table behind the filing cabinets.  Play in this context is about creative problem solving, collaboration, laughter, knowledge sharing and experimenting.   Managers shouldn’t be afraid of being playful.   Play is a perfectly valid and effective way of learning about the serious business of work.   One day managers will be appointed on their sense of fun.

Empathy – The best communicators make an emotional connection with their audience, but you don’t have to be Gandhi to make an impact.   What’s more important is the ability to empathise with and understand the people you’re communicating with, so you can tailor your delivery and engagement style to match their needs and preferences.   This skill is about listening, understanding and relating to individuals – behaviours that will make every leader more effective.   Empathy is sadly lacking in many organisations today and there’s compelling evidence that the next generation of managers who have grown up in the digital age are going to be particularly poor at empathic relationship building.   We need to get this bit right.

Affinity – Why is it that some messages stick and other’s fail to connect?  What makes a good message and what makes a great communicator?   This is a skill I am calling Affinity – the art of connecting with an audience so that they listen, understand, trust, value and act upon your words.   This doesn’t come easy to many managers but you don’t need to change who you are to make a connection and build affinity.  I believe managers need a creative toolkit to help them to bring messages alive, to liven up their team meetings, to inspire their people to act and to cut through the noise.   A little bit of imagination can go a long way.

Purpose – Ever since the first human beings looked up at the sky we have pondered our place in the universe and our reason for being.   Today the ‘search for meaning’ is stronger than ever and in business the desire to see purpose in what we do is becoming a critical area for leaders and communicators to respond to.   For managers, the challenge is to not just communicate the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of company strategy, but the ‘why’.   If people care, they will act.   So how do you make people care?   I see the ability to build a sense of purpose as a key leadership competency for the future.

As I said, some managers already excel at these skills and many more have the creative drive to keep their people engaged and motivated in other ways.  But all I’ve tried to do here is to put a simple framework around the answer to the question “how can I be a more creative and engaging manager?”.    I say here are six ways you can start.

A message from above

On Wednesday evening – a hot balmy evening, one of the warmest of the year so far – I was walking with my wife towards my daughter’s school to watch her in a production of Oliver.    We were 100m from the school gates when I felt something brush past my head and land on my shoulder from the overhanging oak tree above.  Thinking it was a falling acorn I went to brush it off my shoulder.  That’s when I realised it wasn’t an acorn.   It was wet, muddy, smelly … and all over my nice white t-shirt.   It was a direct hit from a magpie in the tree above.    What’s more, it was in my hair.  I mean splattered all over the side of my head.   And now, because of my attempts to brush it off, it was all over my hands too.    I was well prepared to see the funny side (as could my wife it seems).  I was also quite impressed with the superb accuracy of the magpie (a bird I’ve never liked but credit where credit’s due on this occasion).    So why am I telling you this, what’s it got to do with anything?  Nothing, it’s just a story.   Storytelling is a deep-seated human behaviour but we tend to lose the ability and willingness to tell stories when we come to work.   Stories create cultures, engagement and interaction.    I think every work meeting should begin not with introductions but with stories, about anything.   Forget telling me your name, what job you do and how long you’ve been doing it.  Tell me a story that gives me an insight into who you are.  Something I’ll remember.