Early in 2018 I had the pleasure of speaking to an audience courtesy of TazWorks, an amazing solution provider for the talent and HR industry. The goal of this keynote was to challenge the conference attendees to push against the boundaries they’ve built that may be keeping them from what they should be doing.
A short interview taken during AdWeek 2018 in NYC where I attempt to explain the role and challenges of corporate storytelling in an age of data and technology.
This weekend I was introduced to this video. I would like you to take the few minutes and view it before reading further.
For anyone unfamiliar with storytelling…this is how it’s done.
We each listen daily to an overwhelming amount of information and data. Research suggests the average person hears from 20,000-30,000 unique words each day. How many of those would be considered noise instead of valuable signals?
There is a commonly shared saying, “I’m only responsible for what I say, not for what you understand.” WRONG.
And I believe the “It’s not what you say that matters, it’s what they hear” doesn’t quite hit it either.
I think it would be more fitting to say, “It’s not what you say that matters, it’s what they understand.” And by the way, if they don’t understand, it’s on you. Will they always understand? No. But if you don’t set a goal of bringing them to an understanding, then you’re setting your sights too low.
To achieve understanding, it’s not necessary to use an abundance of words. As is the case of the Jeep video. Seventeen words serving as bookends to sixty-one video segments you invested 120 seconds of your life to watch.
Here’s the question – Did you understand what they were saying?
I’ll wager the responses to that question would be wide spread, but I’m equally confident each answer would be emotionally charged. As of this writing, in the 4 days the video has been posted on YouTube, it has received over 47 million views.
I know Jeep is promoting their brand, but like their positioning in the video, they are a supporting actor in a larger story. This wasn’t the story of Jeep, this was the story of America.
Enough with my words. Watch the video again and invest a few extra minutes to consider what larger story you could tell in which your story would be the supporting actor. If you can’t name one, make time to find one. You were made for a purpose bigger than yourself.
I’m going to age myself a bit, but I’ve been a lifelong fan of Bob Newhart. The youngest of us will know him as Professor Proton on the TV sitcom Big Bang. While others remember the TV show Newhart or the earlier show The Bob Newhart show. Side note: The finale of the Newhart show is still regarded as one of the best. The writers collapsed the entire 8-season show as just a dream in his original show.
But those of us who have lived long enough will remember Newhart for his stand-up comedy. He specialized in one-sided conversations of which phone calls were a big part of his routine. Being a student of communication and messaging, I’ve come to understand why I was impressed and remember so much of his material. He invited me to fill in the blanks. He let me imagine the other side of the conversation.
As humans, we love solving problems. Our brains are wired to observe, listen and evaluate in an effort to understand. At our home, we like to put together puzzles. We’ll layout a 1000-piece puzzle on the dining table and over a few days, various family members are drawn in and volunteer their time to the effort. But there is one special moment – the Lilly moment. When the last piece is handed to our 4-year old granddaughter and she has the honor of putting in that last piece. And she loves it. Even though she was not involved in any of the previous work, that act of finishing the picture makes her feel like she did the work.
Audiences are like that. All too often, as speakers, we tell our audiences everything. We unpack and unload all the relevant information available. We don’t miss a single point. As a result, our audiences sit in educate me mode.
Consider this. Next opportunity to have to share a message or idea, think of a way you can lead the audience to putting in that last piece. How can you share your idea in a way that they solve the untold portion? If you do, I guarantee they will not only appreciate your message, but they will also be more likely to remember and be impacted by what you say.
Here’s a couple of Bob Newhart bits that I strongly suggest for my Marketing and Sales friends.
In September, I’ll once again have the opportunity to share several days with some of my most creative and brilliant friends at STORY 2018. Having been at numerous previous STORY gatherings, I know I can’t begin to imagine the ideas, insights and new relationships I’ll have upon leaving this year’s conference.
But there is one emotion I know I’ll have—one regret and it’s this, “Our lives, business, country, whatever, would be so much better if more people could have experienced what I just experienced.”
It’s almost a creative remorse. Why can’t more people be like the group I just left? Why must we settle on the mundane status quo so many of us live? We don’t.
But just in case you aren’t sure why you should go to STORY 2018, let me share with you the
TOP 10 REASONS WHY YOU
SHOULD NOT GO TO STORY
10 – Your idea of a good conference is boring slides and monotone speakers
I’ve literally been to hundreds of conferences of all sizes. Like many of you, I’ve wasted countless hours trapped in the middle of a row, listening to a speaker drone on about something of no interest to me (and apparently to them), all the while looking for a way to escape. If you like this kind of setting, don’t come. The people who share at STORY are credible and passionate about their craft. They are humble and approachable. They offer unique insights that can’t be found elsewhere. For me, STORY is by far, the best conference I have EVER attended. In fact, it’s less of a conference and more of a purpose filled gathering.
9 – Your story (or your business’ story) needs no improvement
If you or your business have all the attention you need, if your message resonates with your audiences and they are inexplicably drawn to you, then you probably don’t need to come. But I know from being in the business world, there are very few personal and business storytellers that are nailing it every time.
8 – You think sameness is the spice of life
If your office has a framed version of “Whether it’s broke or not, don’t fix it” you’re not likely to enjoy story. I’ve been in business for decades. I would have thought I had it figured out. Each year at STORY, I walk away with not one, but dozens of immediately business applicable ideas and tips I can use. I can look back on my presentations and messaging and see the change STORY has made year to year.
7 – Smiling makes you freak out
You may not believe it, but humor makes ideas memorable. It’s not that STORY is a comedy club, but some of the most rewarding moments I can recall are surrounded by transparent emotion. Sometimes it was a laugh and other times it was a heartfelt reflection brought on by a passionate story being shared. If you don’t like being around people smiling, laughing, reflecting and just feeling…you’d probably have a better time if you spend these two days in a sensory deprivation tank.
6 – The only color you like is gray
Just look at the website. Look at the images from previous STORY gatherings. Everything about STORY is color and visually exciting. Gray is good, but I think it serves to accent the world of color around us.
5 – You don’t like surprises
Every year I try to imagine what I’m going to learn at STORY. My first year was like any business conference, I went with a well-defined set of objectives and a clear target for what I was going to learn and how I was going to apply it. While knowing where your gaps are is good, I’ve learned it’s best to come with a blank sheet of paper (actually a whole tablet) and be open to what is given. In the evenings and after the conference, I’ve found I could reflect on what I heard and experienced and the applications of that knowledge jumped out at me. I look forward to the surprises.
4 – You don’t want to change
STORY will change you. Enough said.
3 – You don’t care about yourself or others
Everyone at STORY, the participants, staff and speakers can best be described as having a servant heart. Every time I speak with Harris and his team, I am amazed of their humility and clear sense of responsibility to serve others. This message carries through to the entire conference. This is not one of those “compete and be better than everyone else” kind of gatherings. You’ll certainly be lifted up, but in the process, you will be lifting up others.
2 – You’re not human
STORY is about the most human aspects in all of us. It’s about the potential and spark that lives in each of us. It’s about something bigger than us as individuals. It’s about humanity.
1 – You’re dead
Extend your right forefinger and middle finger. Turn your left palm upward. Gently press your right outstretched fingers onto the upper-middle of your wrist. Do you feel any beating? If you don’t, move your fingers around a little bit. Feel anything yet? If not, don’t come to STORY. Seek medical help.
If you don’t identify with these Top 10, then I would encourage you to go to storygatherings.com/story2018 and reserve your place. I look forward to seeing you there.
As for the rest of you who won’t be there, I’ll be lamenting for you as I leave STORY this year.
Yesterday I was on a video conference with one of my favorite people, Jeremy Waite. As we were discussing big ideas and small words, we each started pulling books off our shelves to share with one another. This afternoon, I was pondering. Now that’s a word you don’t hear often. And in doing so, I glanced at my book shelf.
Each of my books hold a particular meaning to me. Some I’ve had for many years. Some are autographed by the author. But each one has helped shaped who I am, how I think, and how I serve others. As I was reading the titles, I saw a story emerge. So I challenged myself to list my top 40 book titles (that I currently own and have read) and then work them into a couple of paragraphs that describe who I am and what I do. Here’s the result (with links to books):
I might best describe myself as a conversational optimist. I believe in the creativity of individuals and the collective genius of teams. During my career of working with executives around the world, I’ve learned that graphic storytelling and visual narratives are the linchpin to selling the dream. Some of my brightest moments and weird ideas that worked have come from a spark ignited during a casual conversation on the back of a napkin. I’ve learned the rules for revolutionaries are different and when one is clearing the mind for creativity, you sometimes have to ignore everybody. When I’ve been willing to unthink what I know and develop a whole new mind about a specific problem or opportunity, I put myself in the element I need for making ideas happen. I’ve been honored to speak around the world to organizations and leaders who are trying to find where good ideas come from and with each engagement I am reminded of the desperate need for our businesses to switch from a culture of education to one of enchantment. My dad told me, “If you know how to do something, you’ll always have a job. You’ll be working for the person who knows why.” As a leader, I believe it’s important to find your why. Believe me, the one thing we cannot afford in this age of cognitive surplus is to drive ourselves and others toward mediocrity. I enjoy helping companies and organizations take a reality check and discover how to drive your competition crazy. I accomplish this by helping individuals and teams rework the way they present their message so they resonate. We work on putting stories to work, achieve presentation zen and repeat the remarkable. I help business professionals do the deep work that generates out of our mind innovative ideas that are made to stick. To sell is human, but our goal should not be to get people to buy, but rather get them to believe. If they believe, they will buy (or follow you), but the converse is not often true. By demonstrating why leaders eat last and how to start with why, I’m able to help creative individuals learn how to orbit the giant hairball of stagnant complacency. Let me know how I can be of service to you.
What does your bookshelf say about you?
In the Pirates of the Caribbean movie “Curse of the Black Pearl” there is a scene where the heroes are aboard the HMS Interceptor and are being chased down by the aggressive Capt. Barbosa aboard the faster Black Pearl.
Faced with how to respond, a plan is made to race the Interceptor to the shoals ahead because their ship can operate in shallower water than the Pearl.
A command decision is made to lighten the ship for both speed and displacement. The order is given, “Anything that we can afford to lose, see that it’s lost.”
The crew begins jettisoning all manner of cargo and anything that doesn’t immediately aid them in their flight.
But Will Turner looks back to the Pearl and sees they are deploying oars that will certainly result in the Pearl overtaking the Interceptor before it reaches the safety of the shoals. As he’s making this observation a sailor nearby is about to push a heavy deck cannon overboard. Will stops him and says,
Realizing their flight is not enough, Will demands, “We have to make a stand. We have to fight. Load the guns.”
The Captain realizing they’ve thrown their cannon balls overboard asks, “With what?”
Will replies, “Anything. Everything. Anything we have left.”
In the end, with a clever tactical maneuver and the firing of silverware, our heroes escape.
It’s a great story. But it’s one that is being played out in many organizations today. And some, I fear, will not be as fortunate as those aboard the Interceptor.
Large, historically dominant corporations are being threatened by faster and more agile upstarts. Like the Interceptor, they’ve survived on being the fastest ship around. But not any longer. Executives in board rooms are looking over their shoulders at the approaching competition and making some the same decisions from our story.
Perhaps they can speed up by lightening their load. So, orders are given, and well-meaning deck hands begin jettisoning projects, policies and people that on the surface appear to be unessential in the current goal of speed.
But like Barbosa, the competition often has untapped skills and tactics that can nullify a plan based on flight and speed alone. There will be an inevitable fight. At some point, these companies will have to make a stand.
For me, the best line in this scene is when Will Turner realizes the current course of action is not enough and a fight is needed. It’s at that point he tells the deck hand not to jettison the cannon because, “We’re gonna need that.”
If your company or organization is being threatened by Barbosa-like aggressive competition, lightening your load for speed is not ill advised. But you need to take care that in the confusion, you don’t lose your cannons. You will eventually have to fight. And you will need weapons.
For instance, you may have projects that aren’t immediately adding to your revenue stream but are positioning themselves to be the differentiator you need in upcoming competitive battles. Maybe you have policies that reflect your culture that are difficult to defend in flight mode, but over time form the very culture and organizational value that makes you unique. And perhaps the person who you consider to be past their prime, might well be the holder of the insights and experience you are going to need to win against younger and more naïve upstarts.
I know corporations, and the executives that lead them, are required to make hard and difficult decisions. And I am of course aware that change is not only inevitable, but also necessary. I abhor stagnant environments and embrace well-designed change. My hope is that reorganizations, changes in policies and direction are not solely focused on the short-term survival of flight, but that those in command are carefully considering what and who they are tossing overboard. They may be the very cannons they are going to need to survive.
The more I learn about the power of Story, the more I am convinced the organizations, the companies, the governments, the leaders, the individuals who are going to make an impact in improving our world, is going to do it through the habit of Storytelling.
In conference rooms, event halls, street corners and board rooms, I’ve heard the constant rhetoric of fact and figures. “I think this is right…” and “Here are the reasons why…” are most often followed by sanguine narrative that when finished, you just want to respond, “Say what?”
Next time someone gives you an opinion or expresses a perspective that you can’t quite get your head around, ask them, “Can you tell me a story about how that would work?” or “Give me an example of that playing itself out in real life. What would that look like?”
“If you can’t say it simply, you don’t know it well enough.” – Albert Einstein
To take an idea and tell it in a simple story may not be easy, but it’s impossible if you don’t have a clue about what you are saying.
And just because someone can give you a valid story, doesn’t make their point valid. But it will give you additional insights you may need to form an opinion or offer an alternative perspective (story).
You can tell a culture by listening to its stories. You can change a culture by changing its stories.
Listen for stories. Create better stories. #StoryMatters
And if you’re interested in stepping up your story game, join me at Story2017 in Nashville.
You are a creative. Notice I didn’t say “If” you are a creative. We are born creative beings. For some, our environment and education has suppressed our creative awareness. For others, we’ve been blessed to be around other creatives and been placed in situations where we had to exercise our imagination to survive. My website’s name is testimony to my concern and resulting passion to revive the creative spirit in myself and others. Like a hospital patient, our world, business and families need an infusion, a steady drip of creativity. But to help that process along, I’ve found a booster shot.
I have the most amazing opportunity this fall. I am honored to be presenting at Story 2017. When you go to their website, you will be amazed at beauty and awe of what they properly describe as an uncommon creative community.
On Sept. 21-22 in Nashville, they will be holding their annual conference. I attended last year. And while people say things like this as an exaggerated superlative, those two days changed my life. As a Chief Storyteller for IBM, I have the privilege of attending and speaking at a large number of conferences. Without a doubt, Story 2016 was the most impactful conference I have ever attended. Some conferences have great topics and speakers. Others have great venues. Some are a showplace for the atmosphere of sets, music and themes. While some are just a unique gathering of characters that you don’t want to miss. Story has all of this.
It’s not even close to the real experience, but you can get a taste from this highlight video of Story 2016.
The Story 2017 theme is Carnival of Curiosity. Go to their website. Be curious. Look around and see what you can discover. And don’t let the low-ticket price fool you. Most of the corporate events I attend have prices 4 and 5 times that of Story. But those are playing to the senior executive at large organizations with a deep budget. I deeply appreciate Story’s love for the art and craft which drives them to make sure even the individual storyteller has the opportunity to attend. By the way, if you’re an aforementioned corporate exec with deep pockets, consider purchasing a box of seats and offering them to your creative customers. They will love you for it.
If you have any questions, contact Story or ask me. I may not know the answer, but I can probably find someone who does. And if you decide to attend, let me know. I’d love to meet you there.
BTW…I don’t know how long this will last, but if you go to storygatherings.com/about/ you can discover a coupon code for a $100 discount on the Story 2017 ticket price.