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by Dan Gregory
It’s hard to argue against the power story telling wields as a tool of influence and persuasion.
Indeed, it is one of the oldest and most revered of our communication tools, one that allows us to take mundane facts and pedestrian ideas and render them memorable, personal and pass-on-able.
In fact, virtually every culture, be they national, social or organizational, is merely the collection of behaviors and beliefs codified in our shared stories.
I have a particular interest in storytelling, as it is a skill that has helped me build my business (and in turn fuelled my cash flow) in the work I do with C-Suite Executives, Board Directors, Leadership Teams and Sales and Marketing professionals. In helping them hone the craft of storytelling in their presentations, communications and pitches it has given me immense rewards, both personally and professionally, as well as building their confidence, presence and persuasiveness.
However, as compelling as a story well told might be, what I consider to be even more engaging, more influential and exciting, is a concept I call Story-Doing.
I define this as the capacity to design into our processes, systems and behaviors unique experiences that might be worth telling a story about?
In doing so, we move from the position of storyteller to story protagonist or hero.
So what are the core elements of Story-Doing?
1. Develop a signature move or “no-where-else experience”
We often assume that a good experience, good leadership or good service is worth telling a story about. I’d like to put it to you that good is actually a hygiene factor, the cost of entry or table stakes.
The truth is, we only really notice the outliers in our experience. If we expect good (and today we very much do) then we become blind to it – and rarely share it via our stories.
What we do notice, and take an interest in, is the unanticipated, the inspiring or the surprising. The key here is to engineer the extraordinary into the everyday, or to do the thoughtfulness before the thoughtfulness is required.
This is something I observed in an IKEA store foyer a number of years ago. The skies were teeming with rain outside as I ran from my car to the store’s entry way, and there, on a sandwich board handwritten in chalk were the words, “We’ve noticed it’s raining outside… so we’ve cut the price of our umbrellas in half.”
All of a sudden I liked IKEA a little more and felt more predisposed to part with some of my hard earned folding in their establishment.
I tracked the store manager down and, as a trainer of people myself, asked them what kind of training they were offering to ensure that this kind of proactive thoughtfulness showed up in their team’s behavior.
They shared with me, “We don’t train them to be thoughtful, that’s already done. The sign is always in a storeroom, we just train them to wheel it out when it’s raining.”
This made me appreciate the sign even more.
2. Ensure it is relevant & and make it personal
I mentioned earlier that Story-Doing allows you to become the hero of your story, however, the hero of the experience itself should be the person you wish to share the story on your behalf – be it your customer, a member of your team or a constituent in your community.
Too often, in designing our strategies, processes and systems, we filter the world through our own eyes, our world-view and our personal biases and objectives. This is a critical error in building engagement and establishing influence.
The more relevant we can make an experience, in terms of timing, personal salience and accessibility, the more enthusiastic others will tend to be in the sharing of it. Which leads me to my final point:
3. Make your Story-Doing “pass-on-able”
We live in a social media age where every meal or clothing decision is documented, photographed, peer reviewed, commented on, liked, challenged and shared, retweeted or “quoted”.
In fact, Nielsen research has estimated that 91% of our decisions are influenced by friend recommendations. These recommendation, unsurprisingly, often take the form of a story.
To encourage pass-on-ability, consider how your story might be retold verbally, in written form or even visually. The more you’re able to furnish the eventual storyteller with the tools that bring their story to life, the more engaging the story will be in the eyes of others.
So, by all means, learn to tell a story well (you might even consider getting some training from an expert in the field). But while you’re about it, consider also what activity you might add to the most mundane of your day-to-day tasks that are so extraordinary they might be worth telling a story about.
Dan Gregory DanielGregory.com @DanGregoryTII
You may be familiar with the phrase, “an ability to talk truth to power.” This has always been the role of the jester, or fool. The latter moniker was probably adopted as an insurance against misinterpretation and reprimand… “I’m just the fool, you can’t take anything I say seriously.”
The usefulness of both this skill and role have survived the age of kings, queens, emperors and courts and today, they have something to teach those of us who lead in more a contemporary context.
One of the risks Executive Leadership Teams and Boards face is that few of our people want to share bad news with us.
This should come as no surprise: historically, we’ve often been very quick to punish the bearers of bad news, so keeping your head down was rather a wise strategy.
This is obviously problematic – if something is going awry within our organization, we need to know about it before it becomes critical or perhaps even catastrophic.
Recently, the excellent Canadian journalist and social commentator, Malcolm Gladwell, in his podcast Revisionist History, suggested that satire didn’t work. Of course, I’m oversimplifying the depth of his assertion, but I’d also argue that one of the issues with this observation is that the case study cited (recent American elections), was also too narrow both in terms of time and effect.
Essentially, the broader piece explored how American satirists, people like Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah of The Daily Show, Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey and the team at SNL and Comics like Bill Maher of Real Time fame, had failed to stem the rise of the Alt Right and that in fact, supporters of both sides of politics were able to project their own views onto satire and read into it their own interpretation.
Three observations here: Firstly, I’m clearly paraphrasing Gladwell’s podcast to make a point. Secondly, I think it would be a disservice to the US voting public to suggest that the election hinged only on the ineffectiveness or otherwise of satire, and lastly, I think that the greater effect of such satire is still in play and shaping opinions on both side of the divide. Conservatives are no less adept at the use of their own style of ridicule than are liberals.
This observation is born out by history. In fact, what we know from studying human behavior more broadly is that ridicule, in all its forms, can be a rather reliable (if clumsy) behavioral modifier.
The parent who admonishes a young child by suggesting they are “acting like a baby”, the sibling who laughs at another’s fashion choices and the peer pressure to join in an act of cruelty for fear of being perceived as soft, are, albeit undesirable, strong demonstrations of humor’s effectiveness as a weapon.
However, humor need not always be weaponized, in fact, it can be used to quite the opposite effect.
A skillful use of humor can anesthetize an otherwise unpleasant conversation, it can build instant rapport through a recognition of shared experience and our shared humanity and importantly, at lease as far as this post is concerned, it can challenge authority and rigidity in a playful and relatively safe fashion (assuming of course it is done with skill and sensitivity).
So, what are the keys to playing the fool without appearing foolish?
- Play the issue not the individual
I recall a conversation comedian Chris Rock shared with Jerry Seinfeld, Louis CK and Ricky Gervais on the nature of comedy. Rock stated that the rule that the writing team on his show adhered to was to work the issue, the story or the incident, not the person or personality involved. i.e. “That was stupid, not YOU are stupid.”
In other words, he resisted the cheap laugh at the expense of a particular person in favor of striking a point against their position.
In doing likewise, you can remove or decrease the desire for reflexive defensiveness. A choice can be wrong without necessarily making the decision maker wrong.
- Demonstrate the personal risk without increasing it.
Whilst ridicule and satire have their place, they are perhaps best used to create a sense of how a particular action might be perceived or critiqued by the broader community than delivered as a direct critique of those who are making the decision.
In this way, humor can be framed as a reputational risk assessment rather than as a glib criticism designed to score points.
By creating an arm’s length of distance through the use of phrases such as, “That might open us up to…” or, “People might say…” you free yourself to simulate parody without having to own it or its consequences.
- If you’re going to be funny… be funny
If people typically don’t tell you you’re funny, you’re probably not.
This is perhaps the most critical point in this post. Too often, otherwise serious or quite emotionally intelligent people will attempt to “be funny” in a leadership meeting and end up in waaaaaay inappropriate territory. You know who I’m talking about and if you don’t, it’s you!
Reassuringly, it’s entirely OK to not be funny – humor is not everyone’s gift. It is not everyone’s role to speak truth to power, however, all of us can support it and be freed by it when it is spoken.
- If you’re a leader, or you aspire to be, learn to love being heckled
A maxim dating back to the wild west of the United States posits that you can recognize a pioneer by the arrows sticking out of their back. The same, I’m afraid, often holds true for leadership.
Interestingly, the default response of most stand-up comedians when they begin their careers is to shut hecklers down with pre-rehearsed insults and zingy one-liners. However, as a comic develops their confidence and stage presence, there is a playfulness they learn to enjoy with their audiences – a dance they relish, even with those who cross the line.
Of course, they are still very much in control, but they have an ability take what is thrown at them, build on it and in doing so, earn both respect and develop a more bullet proof set.
Too often leaders and boards operate in echo chambers supported by managers who are too afraid to speak truth to power. This leaves them to navigate their organizations guided by half-truths, faulty intelligence and unconscious biases.
Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from the Jester – is to be a leader who gets, and can take, a joke!
Dan Gregory DanielGregory.com @DanGregoryTII
“You can’t handle the truth!” So said Jack Nicholson in A few good men. And he’s right.
The truth is; we are all delicate flowers wrapped in paper-thin skins, indulging unconscious (and occasionally conscious) biases and prejudices. To add insult to injury, half of us are below average intelligence!
So, how did you handle those truths? Or, did you simply laugh them off assuming I was talking about everyone else?
Either way, we might all agree that some of that was hard to hear, or in this case, read.
If we want to lead people, sell product, drive change or increase our influence with our team, our customers and our community, we had better learn how to say it so it can be heard… in fact, what we should really learn, is how to say it so that our message is actively sought out.
This means more than simply saying what others want to hear. Although, one of the most annoying things about click bait is that it works. For instance, I know that, statistically, having the words “How to” in the headline above will increase opens, clicks and shares. Does that mean we are all predictable sheep? Sure. Do I care if it works for me? Well… no!
However, saying it so it might be heard is rather different than choosing to fuel or ride on the back of others’ prejudices or vulnerabilities which, conversely, is a rather cynical manipulation. The latter is often taught, albeit in a more benign fashion, as a sales and persuasion technique known as “mirroring”. Which is not to say that mirroring cannot be a more empathetic and ethical tool of influence, but perhaps only when practiced by someone with more sensitivity and deftness than a large number of those who profess to teach it.
On the contrary, saying something so it might be heard is more concerned with an understanding that communication isn’t about the transmission of information, it’s about moving multiple parties towards a sense of shared meaning. In other words, if you’re talking and you think we’re just not getting it, I’m going to suggest that it’s actually you that’s not getting it.
The point is, having truth on our side, or being right, or having a weight of evidence behind us, is usually insufficient to drive engagement and change.
The problem is, most people would rather be right than rich
(If you don’t like the word “rich”, please feel free to substitute it with “… than win” or “… than be successful” or “… than be listened to”.)
The reason for this is, we love our rightness like a teenager obsessed with their first crush – and the more intelligent we are, the more this will get in the way of our success.
For example, scientists and academics are notoriously egg-headed in the intellect department but mostly sit at the tail end of the bell curve when it comes to their Influence Quotient. “But we’re right Dan, that should matter!” they’ll exclaim, stamping their feet like a precocious toddler.
So let me put this in language the scientific folk are more familiar with: You’ve been carrying out double-blind testing of the “But I’m right” hypothesis for over 100 years and it is still not producing consistent, or even vaguely positive, results. In fact, in 2017, despite all of your evidence, your research data, your peer reviewed white papers and academic accolades and awards, we’re still debating climate change, the efficacy of vaccinations, what the word theory means with regard to evolution and whether contraception and reproductive rights are a good thing or not.
All of these are issues the scientific and academic world put to bed a long time ago… so, perhaps it’s time for a new hypothesis to test.
Scientists and academics, it transpires, are just like the rest of us – we become attached to a hypothesis simply because we want it to be true. (NB. Clearly the above paragraphs were framed precisely to provoke an indignant response from scientists and academics and should not be interpreted as an illustration of the central theme of this post.)
In my opinion, a better, or more useful, hypothesis is that we all need to learn how to sell – even though we’re right, even if we don’t like the implications of that word and especially if we think we shouldn’t have to!
If you want to get people on board, to create support for your cause, lead an organization in change or even to just sell some stuff, we all need to learn how to stop banging on about our rightness and talk to “them” in a way they might care about what we care about.
So, how might we achieve this?
1. Frame your value in their values
Recently, I was listening to Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski discussing what he calls “fish love”. He retold the story of a man who claimed to love fish. The Rabbi questioned him asking, “But you take the fish from its home, kill it, boil it and eat it. Is it not more accurate to say that you love yourself?” I have little doubt that as he said this, a voice inside the Rabbi’s head vocalized the word, “Ziiiiiiiing!!!”
The point he makes is an important one. Our initial response to the world around us is driven by self-interest. In fact, our capacity to view the world through this lens has been critical to our survival as a species.
Rather than fighting this tendency and expecting people to come around to our way of thinking out of deference, we would do better to show them what’s in it for them.
2. Link your message to existing Belief Systems (even if they really do deserve the initials – “BS”)
One of the reasons affirmations are so ineffective (as opposed to mental rehearsal which does, in fact, measurably improve performance) is that when we’re lying to ourselves, even with great passion and enthusiasm, we know we’re lying.
What’s more, our brains are incredibly, and unconsciously, capable of delivering a barrage of evidentiary arguments to support this fact with the brutal demeanor of a prosecuting attorney in a bad mood.
Consider the scene from American Beauty where Annette Benning plays a Real Estate agent who chants, “I will sell this house today” over and over until she deteriorates into tears.
This cognitive dissonance, even though it may be on shaky ground, logically, is incredibly powerful. A more useful strategy, rather than simply talking from a contrary point of view or challenging what we hold to be true, is to link what is new to what is already understood and accepted.
Metaphors and similes are extremely useful in this regard as they create vivid and visual connections to ideas and beliefs that we may no longer even question – thereby increasing the validity and salience of our new message.
3. Use anesthetic when the truth is painful
One of the things researchers in hospitals have discovered is that doctors with a good bedside manner increase the rate and efficacy of a patient’s recovery. This rather elegantly makes the point that it is not just the “what” you say that drives effectiveness, but also the “how”.
This is why humor can be such a powerful way to set people at their ease, establish rapport and broach topics that might otherwise be difficult to hear.
Certainly this is a skill that requires some skill and judgment, but when used judiciously can move those who are otherwise resistant to action.
The broad conclusion we can draw from all of this is that persuasion is not to be found in our rightness, but rather it sits on the other side of the table from ourselves, the sale is in the prospect not the product and that all influence is ultimately a product of empathy.
Of course, even this is not always easy to hear.
Dan Gregory DanielGregory.com @DanGregoryTII
T: +61 (0)2 9651 5384
P: PO Box 226
Broadway NSW 2007
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T: +61 (0)2 9651 5384
P: PO Box 226
Broadway NSW 2007
Subscribe to Gregorian Rants™
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