Giving strategy a soul with stories

November 7, 2015

One of the best sessions at this year’s APMSA conference two weeks ago was delivered by Anecdote‘s Mark Schenk. In his session “Giving Strategy a Soul: Putting Stories to Work in Business”, Mark certainly practiced what he preached as he put his stories to work.

We often admire some people’s natural ability for storytelling, how they hold your attention and keep you engaged. Mark’s keynote gave insight into how to execute effective storytelling especially for business.

There were three important lessons from this session:

1.Why organisations fail to communicate strategy effectively

During the session, Mark drummed out a song on the lectern and he asked us to guess what that song was. There was no humming or clues, just tapping to a rhythm of sorts. He did this to demonstrate the ‘curse of knowledge’. When you are drumming to a tune in your head, it is clear to you what it is but to anyone else its just tapping.

Humans struggle with the curse of knowledge, i.e once you know something it’s impossible to imagine not knowing it. If you set the strategy and you have been entrenched in it, you can assume that everyone you talk to gets it too. This is how strategy within an organisation can be communicated, much like tapping along to an inaudible song.

Stories can help people hear the song, it can teach them the lyrics and even help them tap along. Stories help people understand not just ‘the what’ but more importantly ‘the why’.

2.The importance of storytelling 

In Mark’s words, “emotion is incredibly underrated in business, and yet it’s amazingly powerful.” We are governed by emotions in every decision we make, even when we believe we aren’t.

Originally presented by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, then made famous by Chip & Dan Heath, is a metaphor for a mental model about an elephant and the rider. This metaphor proposes that people have an emotional side (the elephant) and a rational side (its rider). It is easy to think that the rider controls the elephant, but the opposite is more likely true. So why do we appeal to the rider when we communicate, rather than enticing the elephant?

Storytelling helps to connect the elephant and the rider. Stories are facts wrapped in context and told with emotion. They have the power to influence and inspire by motivating the elephant and directing the rider.

3.How to tell an effective business story

IMG_4128Business storytelling is not about ‘once upon a time’. It’s purposeful and pragmatic. Anecdote’s approach to this is called the Clarity Story Pattern (pictured left). Mark demonstrated with a video of Steve Jobs introducing iCloud.

The Clarity Story Pattern requires something that happened in the past, followed by an event or turning point which leads to what is happening now or going to happen soon and how that is going to be achieved. This structure is peppered with ‘moments’ for emotional connection, such as humour which resonate with the listener.

IMG_4136A business story also needs time/place, moments in sequence, characters and most importantly a business point. Simple language is also key to its success within stories, creating accessibility, memorability, comprehension and retention. Basically, in Mark’s words it must pass the ‘pub test’ – if you were at the pub how would you explain your point ?

It is important to use stories deliberately, mindfully and purposefully. They aren’t about words, they are about creating pictures in people’s minds. They need to be relatable, authentic and credible.

Mark’s session was highly interactive, it included table drumming and an impromptu Q & A right in the middle of the sessions. There were very clear examples of subject demonstrated through his subject – story-telling and practical frameworks for its application. Read a bit more about business storytelling at the Anecdote blog and follow Mark on Twitter like we do: @mschenkau. We will continue to share insights and key takeaways from the 2015 APSMA Conference.