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The Person Behind “Storytelling ...

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It seems like 90 percent of human beings aspire to:

  • Lose weight
  • Get rich
  • Tell stories

Of course, such aspirations bring the purveyors of snake oil. “Hey mister, step into my tent and see how storytelling can change your life.”

Yet, there’s a small cadre of storytelling advocates who actually know what they’re talking about.

Shawn Callahan is one of them. He’ll be conducting his workshop “Storytelling for Leaders” for the public in San Francisco on April 16.

As a lead-in to the session, I had a chance to poke and probe Shawn on what else? Storytelling.

 


 

LOU:

You picked the perfect name for your company. I consider the anecdote to be the most underutilized storytelling technique in business communications. Tell me a little about how the name came about. Did the final choice come down to either Anecdote or The Callahan Group?

 

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SHAWN:

To understand why I chose Anecdote as our name, it’s useful to know that just before I started the business I worked for IBM doing corporate anthropology projects where we would collect hundreds of anecdotes on companies to better understand their culture. This experience has had a big effect on our approach and how we focus on what I call “small s” storytelling. I was also keen to have a name that was a single word; I remembered Seth Godin suggesting that business names did better if they started with a letter from the top or bottom of the alphabet because they ended on the top of bottom of lists. And in 2004 the name “Anecdote” was available, and so was anecdote.com. The frenzy around storytelling was almost a decade away.

LOU:

I now have this image of you with massive butterfly net trying to capture anecdotes.

Back on topic, you studied geography and archaeology in college, so you obviously didn’t foresee a career in communications in the early going. Still, I’m guessing when you look back on your childhood, the signs must have been there, albeit, in raw form. Does anything come to mind? Did your family sit down over dinner and have real conversations? Or perhaps one particular teacher inspired you in language?

SHAWN:

My father is a terrific storyteller. He was a US Marine and told us stories of having to re-enact the Kennedy assassination as part of the Warren commission, rescuing staff from the US embassy in the Dominican Republic, nearly shooting President Johnson and so many more. Interestingly, he rarely told any stories from his Vietnam experience. But you can imagine as kids we were at the edge of our seats. I think I was learning storytelling by osmosis. I found from an early age, say from high school, that I could give a good presentation and I probably intuitively shared stories. But it wasn’t until my time at IBM and working in the Cynefin Centre for Organisation Complexity — yes, it’s a mouthful — that stories became concrete for me. Interestingly we shunned storytelling back then as too open to manipulation and focused all our efforts on story-listening or collecting stories. This gave me a great grounding on what stories actually look like in companies, and I have to say they rarely look like Hollywood-inspired stories following the hero’s journey structure.

 

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LOU:

That’s a great point. The hero’s journey doesn’t often play in business.

Of course, I have to ask — putting his politics and content to the side — how do you grade out President Trump as an effective storyteller?

SHAWN:

Donald Trump uses a range of story techniques in his speeches. First he makes statements that make you think of stories you might have heard, like when he says, “We also have to be honest about the fact that not everyone who seeks to join our country will be able to successfully assimilate.” His audience thinks of stories from the news or their own experience that illustrate his point.

He then tells small narrative fragments that illustrate the cause and effect between events: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Lastly he will include very short anecdotes in his speeches: “Then there’s the case of 90-year-old Earl Olander, who was brutally beaten and left to bleed to death in his home, 90 years old and defenseless. The perpetrators were illegal immigrants with criminal records a mile long, who did not meet Obama administration standards for removal. And they knew it was going to happen.”

I would say he is an effective storyteller. It would be better if he used his skills, however, to bring people together rather than divide them.

LOU:

Amen. OK, with the requisite Trump question out of the way — do you think business leaders in general perceive storytelling today differently than when you started Anecdote back in 2004? I ask the question because there’s been so much gushing over storytelling the past few years, I almost expect someone to announce it now cures cancer.

SHAWN:

I was chatting to some comms professionals yesterday about their next CEO. A couple of months ago the CEO-to-be was presenting with the current CEO, and the current CEO told a story while the CEO-to-be only shared his opinion. Over the following days the audience only talked and tweeted and yammered about the current CEO’s story and what it meant and how they were inspired to put in practice the lesson drawn from the story. The CEO-to-be’s comments were ignored. So now he wants to learn storytelling. Back in 2004, there were very few examples of leaders sharing stories, so others didn’t get the opportunity to see the impact. But here’s the problem. Many people are using the term “storytelling” and “narrative,” but are not telling stories, and as a result they don’t get the response they are hoping for. The first step in storytelling is being able to accurately spot stories. This is something I have been banging on about for some time now.

LOU:

Your website makes the point that “We resisted storytelling for several years as we were initially worried about the potential for it to be misused.” What do you mean by “misused,” that the bad guys would use stories to win over people?

SHAWN:

The type of misuse we were worried about is when someone makes up a story to influence, but it’s untrue. For example, Great Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, during the first televised prime-ministerial debate in 2010, recollected talking to a 40-year-old black man, who had served 30 years in the Royal Navy. Did he really talk to someone who started in the Navy at 10 years old? Unlikely.

 

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LOU:

Yikes!

SHAWN:

Exactly. As soon as you tell a story that triggers everyone’s natural bullshit detector, your reputation begins to slide. We wanted to avoid this type of reputation erosion.

LOU:

You’ve helped hundreds of executives bring storytelling into their communications. Naturally, everyone enjoys a good train wreck. Can you share one or two examples of executives — don’t have to name names — who utterly failed, maybe because they used the wrong story or stretched the truth to the point that the audience knew it wasn’t true?

SHAWN:

I’ve seen a few beauties. I remember a CEO of a large law firm addressing his entire business and telling them a story featuring Renaissance Italian art and the excitement of finding a hidden gem. I saw the whole audience lose interest almost immediately. It’s so important to tell a story that resonates.

My business partner, Mark Schenk, once told one executive a simple parable about a woman’s cooking habit of cutting off the shank before she cooked the lamb roast. The executive loved the story. It summed up the cultural problems he felt in his organisation. So he emailed the story to the whole company and was roundly ridiculed for the story. This was a story best told orally.

LOU:

It’s clear that you believe the strongest form of storytelling is oral, no pictures and no slides. Just the speaker sharing a story with oratory skills. Spending time with the likes of IBM and Oracle, you can appreciate that execs in the tech industry love their PowerPoint decks. How do you wean execs off of slides? BTW, you might check out our SlideShare deck on persuasive language borrowing from “Game of Thrones.”

 


 

SHAWN: 

I’m not against slides, Lou. Far from it. Rather I’m against mindless decks.

LOU: 

And there are a lot of mindless decks.

SHAWN:

No question. I would like to see slides that reinforce what the speaker says and not act as a script for the speaker. Slides that intrigue and surprise and invite the audience into an insight help create memorable presentations. I remember seeing a slide showing the number of photos taken over time and the speaker had to minimise the graph three times to even see the peak of photos with the introduction of the iPhone. It was a beautiful combination of a remarkable slide and a good story.

Sometimes intrigue is a good way to start. I remember giving a talk to a large audience of government managers in Singapore, and my first slide was filled with time markers: 0.16, 0.52, 1.35, 2.04, etc. I asked people to guess what they meant, but I had no takers. I then revealed by telling a story that these were the times their Prime Minister had told a story in a recent speech. My tacit message was simple: if their PM was doing it, perhaps they should be too.

Slides have become a substitute for thinking. And in many cases, the slides that organisations use don’t encourage storytelling. We need to put less on the slide and encourage the speakers to find good stories to tell to accompany their slides.

LOU:

There’s a great story about John Mars, chairman of the huge food company Mars Inc., changing a lightbulb during a colleague’s speech. The little things can absolutely make a difference. But any thoughts on how an executive can determine when a little thing bears repeating and when a little thing is just that, a little thing?

SHAWN:

A little thing bears repeating if it makes a point. If you don’t have a point, you don’t have a business story. And unless you are just shooting the breeze with your colleagues, you should resist sharing it.

LOU:

You’ll be conducting a storytelling session in San Francisco on April 16. Do you find that executives in Silicon Valley are resistant to sharing their human side?

SHAWN:

Some of our biggest clients are tech companies. I think they are beginning to realise that they are spending too much time describing the features and functions of their products and not engaging with the business issues and emotions that are essential in any sale. I’ve worked for IBM, Oracle and Sybase back in the ’80s and ’90s, and even back then there was a clarion call to engage with the business lines. Paradoxically storytelling creates a language that business people understand. They want to know what’s happening, why it’s happening and what might happen next. All answered nicely with business stories.

LOU:

Any final thoughts?

SHAWN:

Good business storytelling is a habit. To build that habit you need to catch yourself sharing a strong opinion and then try and share an example (a story) that illustrates your point. At first you won’t have the stories, but as your repertoire builds, these examples will come automatically. And as your story habit grows, people will remember your points and even retell your stories. Now that’s influence.

We have just launched our podcast, Anecdotally Speaking, which is all about helping you build your story repertoire.

 


 

For those interested in a pragmatic approach to storytelling in business, consider attending “Storytelling for Leaders” in San Francisco on April 16.

 

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If you plug the word “FRIEND” into the discount code, you’ll get 10 percent off the ticket price.


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