The Art of Using Story as a Way to Communicate Big, Hairy Ideas
A priest, a penguin, and a newspaper reporter walk into a bar. The penguin orders a shot of Red Eye. The priest starts juggling three flaming chain saws. The newspaper reporter turns to the bartender, smiles and says: "I know there's a story here somewhere."
And yes, there is. There are stories everywhere. As the poet, Muriel Ruykeser once said, "The world is not made of atoms. The world is made of stories."
Almost everyone in business these days -- at least the people responsible for selling big, hairy ideas -- knows that the difference between success and failure often depends on what kind of story is told -- and how well. Content may be King. But it is Story that built the kingdom. Or as Steve Jobs once put it, "The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller."
The question, these days, isn't whether or not storytelling works. It does. It's worked for thousands of years. If you have any doubt, just ask your local neuroscientist. The question is how do you tell a really effective story -- one that not only informs and entertains, but gets results -- the kind of results that opens minds, influences behavior, and is remembered.
And this is precisely where the proverbial plot thickens. Why? Because most people don't think they know how to tell good story. At least, that's the story they keep telling themselves -- that they don't have the chops or experience to tell a good story. Spoiler alert! Not true.
Social scientists tell us that 65% of our conversations boil down to story -- narrative accounts with a beginning, middle, and end. Throw in a likable hero, a setting, some obstacles, a few juicy details, plot twists, and a resolution, and voila, you've got yourself a story!
Simply put, storytelling is "an unconscious competency" -- something human beings naturally do. The thing is -- we don't know how we do it. Like breathing, for example. Or thinking. Or riding a bicycle. But just because we can't explain how we do it, doesn't mean we're not good at it. Kapish?
You already know how to tell a story. You do. You've been telling stories ever since you were a child. In fact, you tell stories many times a day. On the job. Off the job. Hanging out with your friends. Wherever. Story is in your DNA. Indeed, neuroscientists like to say that the human brain is "wired for story." It's how we make sense of our lives. It's our communication default position. We are storytelling animals. And the more we practice, the better we get.
The simplest explanation of what story is? A narrative -- an account of what happened or what might happen. That account, of course, can be utterly boring ("I woke up. I picked up my dry cleaning. I returned home.") Or it can be utterly captivating -- what every movie you've ever seen or novel you've ever read has tried to accomplish. To capture your attention. To deliver a meaningful message. And to influence what you think, feel, and do.
For the moment, think of storytelling as a big, yummy pot of soup. It smells good. It looks good. And it tastes good. But at first glance, you can't tell what the ingredients are -- or the spices. Do you really need to know every single ingredient if you're being served a bowl of soup from a reliable source? Probably not. But if you're making the soup, you most definitely do. So let's sit down with our penguin, priest, and newspaper reporter for a few minutes and see if we can demystify what this whole mumbo gumbo story thing is all about.
First things first. If you want your story to pack a wallop, you've got to know your audience. If they're allergic to eggplant, don't put eggplant in the soup. If they're vegetarian, lose the chicken. And know your end game -- what it is you're attempting to communicate -- what you want your audience to think, feel, or do differently after listening to you. Whatever message you want to leave them with, be able to boil it down to 10 words or less.
Years ago, this would have been known as your "elevator speech". These days, if you can't deliver your message upon entering an elevator, you're screwed. Think about it. When Steve Jobs launched the iPod, he cut to the chase by distilling his message down to just five words: "1,000 songs in your pocket." That's what the iPod was. Technobabble? No. Overwhelming factoids and data? No. One clean soundbyte surrounded by a compelling beginning, middle, and end. When you think about the story you want to tell, be sure you can distill it down to a memorable meme -- what screenwriters do when they pitch their idea to a movie studio.
Just like the iPod has a shape, so does a story -- the beginning, the middle, and the end, as I've said before, but I'm saying again because I want you to remember just how important structure. It's the spine of your intended result.
The beginning is where you set things up -- the place where you hook the attention of your audience, the place where you set the scene and introduce your hero -- hopefully a likable one. Then you introduce the Big Bad Wolf -- the obstacle, the conflict that begets the drama -- which, in your case, if you are trying to sell a product or service -- might be the competition, a government regulation, or the cost of entering a new market. Get the picture? Someone or something exists and that someone or something wants to move forward towards an inspired goal, but his/her/its path is blocked. Time for nail biting and some popcorn. Hooray for adversity! Without it, there is no story. No Star Wars. No Rocky. No Three Little Pigs.
And the broth of the great story soup you are concocting? What might that be? Passion! Your passion. Your passion for the message you're communicating and your passion for the act of storytelling itself. No passion, no power. No passion, no presence. No passion, no purchase order. It's that simple.
Bottom line, story is all about "emotional transportation" -- the journey you take people on from here to there, from known to unknown, from no can do to what's the next step?"
No matter how logical, linear, or analytical your audience might be, unless you can speak to their heart, you will never win their mind. Yes, of course, if you are making a business presentation, you will need to spice up your story with the fruits of your research, but only enough to keep the story moving, only enough to soothe the savage beast of the left brain. Data is the spice. It is not the main ingredient. If your audience isn't feeling what your saying, it doesn't matter how many statistics you throw their way. As Einstein said, "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts."
It's Little Red Riding Hood on her way to Grandma's house we care about, not her shoe size or SAT scores.
Other things to be mindful of as your prepare your presentation? Keep your stories short. Speak in the language of the people, not the technologists. No one wants to hear an epic poem. What you're trying to do by telling a story is create an opening to drive the Mack truck of possibility through and maybe pick up a few hitchhikers along the way. You are building a bridge, not a shopping mall.
Lose the complicated back story. "The world doesn't want to hear about your labor pains, they want to see the baby," said Johnny Sain, an American right-handed pitcher for the Boston Braves, born in 1917, who was the runner up for the National League's Most Valuable Player Award in 1948 after leading the league in wins and compiling a lifetime ERA of 3.49 -- the last pitcher to face Babe Ruth). See what I mean? Your team may have put a lot of effort into the project. Months of work. That's great. That's nice. Show us the baby!
And please don't read from your PowerPoint slides. Not only is that boring, it's rude. Borderline, inhuman. There's no way in the world you can build rapport and "read the room" if you are staring at a screen. If you want your audience to look into the future, you've got to look into their eyes, not one boring slide after another.
Here's something to think about: If you really want to get the attention of your audience, "violate expectations." Like what Bill Gates did when, in the middle of a keynote presentation on malaria, he released a bunch of mosquitoes into the room. Talk about buzz! At the very least, infuse your presentation with some visual buzz -- analogies and metaphors that paint a picture for your listeners -- something they can see, not just hear about.
And when you want to crank things up, ask a compelling question or two. Then pause... and listen to the response. The more you listen, the more your audience will listen. Know that a good story is also a good performance. So, unhinge yourself from the dead zone -- the spot on the floor to which you have nailed both of your feet. Move around the room. Vary the lengths of your sentences and the volume of your voice. Gesture. Make facial expressions. Speak to one specific person at a time, not the generic "audience." But above all, trust yourself. If you don't trust yourself, no one else will.
Of course, you can only trust yourself, if you are prepared. So practice your ass off. Know your talking points. Write out a script. Understand the flow of what you want to say, the key milestones along the way and whatever anecdotes and facts you want to include. Then distill the whole thing down to few main points on note cards. Get the story in your bones. Then throw your note cards away. Or, if you absolutely need to hold onto your note cards, glance at them only occasionally. Otherwise, they will become a rectangular 3x5 PowerPoint show in your hand, yet another slow leak in the bucket of your storytelling brilliance.
Remember, there is no formula for telling a good story. Only guidelines. And there is no one right way to tell a story. There are thousands. Maybe millions. Or billions -- each one according to the style and personality of the teller. Your job is not to tell a story like Steve Jobs or Garrison Keillor or Winston Churchill. Your job is tell a story like YOU! And while it is perfectly fine (and often, useful) to read books on storytelling, study TED videos, and attend cool workshops, in the end, all you need to know is this...
You are sitting around the tribal fire with the elders. They want to hear from you. You've been on a big adventure for days, weeks, or even months. You've got important news to share with them, vital insights to reveal, memorable experiences to convey. The survival of the tribe depends it. You're not trying to get promoted. You're not worried about being cast out of the tribe. The only thing that matters is telling your story in a way that informs, inspires, and enlightens.
End of story.April 23, 2016
12 Ways to Make Bad Decisions
There are three things that astound me about most organizations: The cro-magnon way performance reviews are done; the pitiful way brainstorm sessions are run and; the voo doo way decisions are made.
What follows is an elaboration of the third -- 12 common phenomena that contribute to funky decision making. As you read, think of the teams you work most closely with, which of these behaviors describes them, and what you can do to change the game.
1. Selective Search for Evidence: Gathering facts that support pre-determined conclusions, but disregard other facts that support different conclusions.
2. Premature Termination of Search for Evidence: Accepting the first alternative that looks like it might work.
3. Inertia: Being unwilling to change old thought patterns.
4. Selective Perception: Prematurely screening out information not assumed to be useful.
5. Wishful Thinking: Wanting to see things in a positive light.
6. Recency Effect: Putting undue attention on recent information and experience while minimizing the value of information collected in the past.
7. Repetition Bias: Believing what's been stated the most often and by the greatest number of sources.
8. Anchoring and Adjustment: Being unduly influenced by initial information that shapes your view of subsequent information.
9. Group Think: Conforming to peer pressure or the opinions of the majority.
10. Source Credibility: Rejecting input from sources prematurely judged to not be credible (or not "cool" or "in sync with the way you do business.")
11. Attribution Asymmetry: Attributing success to your team's abilities and talents, but attributing failures to bad luck and external factors.
12. Role Fulfillment: Conforming to the decision making expectations others have of someone in your position.
Recognize any of these in your organization? What might you and your team do differently to turn things around?April 21, 2016
Cavemen with Briefcases in Need of a Wise Person's Story
April 18, 2016
You CAN Tell a Book by its Cover -- Especially If You Have 9 Choices
Ever hear the phrase "You can't judge a book by it's cover?" Of course you have. But what you probably haven't heard is how far back that phrase goes -- all the way back to June, 1867, as seen in the newspaper, Piqua Democrat. "Don't judge a book by its cover, see a man by his cloth, as there is often a good deal of solid worth and superior skill underneath a jacket and yaller pants."
While no one at Idea Champions, as far I as know, has never thought about buying a pair of "yaller pants", we have thought about designing the cover of our CONDUCTING GENIUS workbook in a way that communicates what exists beyond the cover. Which is why we offer nine different cover designs for the people who participate in our brainstorm facilitation training. Take a peek below and see if YOU can get a feeling for what our 1-3 day course is all about.
The Curious Origins of the Stop Sign
I've been doing some fascinating research lately on the origins of common objects in our lives -- things we see daily, but often take for granted. Like the Stop Sign, for example.
Most people think the Stop Sign was created to regulate traffic. Not true. According to Dr. Ellison Burke of the Global Institute for Slowing Things Down Before You Hurt Yourself, the origin of the Stop Sign has nothing to do with traffic -- and dates back several thousand years.
Historical references to the Stop Sign have been noted in more than 27 civilizations, most notably Babylonia, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Sumeria, Crete, Rome, and the Han Dynasty.
According to social scientists, each of these civilizations experienced one or more periods of rapid growth now referred to in the literature as "Societal Acceleration Syndrome" -- the way in which daily transactions speed up in proportion to a civilization's escalating Gross National Product.
In other words, speed has become one of the most statistically predicable indicators of a civilization's development and, as I will note later in this article, eventual decline.
My research doesn't end here, however. In each of the above-mentioned civilizations, there have always been a small, but vocal group of citizens who -- concerned about the quickening pace of daily life -- have warned the masses about this dangerous phenomenon.
Indeed, a joint longitudinal study conducted by the Yukon Archeological Institute and the Asian Society for Shorter Haiku, has revealed that this "small, but highly committed group of socially responsible citizens" has made repeated efforts to diffuse their respective society's "escalating addiction to velocity."
In Sumeria, for example, a fringe group of philosophers and poets routinely posted "Styopsian" signs at strategic intersections throughout the country -- not to stop traffic, but to stop unnecessary "mind movement."
Their effort resonated with the citizenry and eventually led to the widespread appearance of what modern day sociologists now refer to as "stop signs" -- in urban centers, villages, cattle crossings, and universities.
One of the most curious facts I've unearthed in my research is this: For the past 2,000 years, Stop Signs, regardless of the country of origin, have always been octagonal.
Apparently, each side of this iconic 8-sided, cross-cultural symbol for stillness, has been imbued with a secret teaching of great import:
1. Slow down
2. Pay attention
3. Look around
5. Look within
6. Breathe deeply
8. Move consciously
And so... the next time you see a Stop Sign, you may want to remember that you, no matter where you think you're going or how quickly you need to get there are, in fact, in the act of receiving one of the most timeless of teachings -- one that preceded Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, texting, and Donald Trump tweeting in the middle of the night.
Next week... the YIELD SIGN.
ED NOTE: It has recently come to my attention that some readers of this blog have questioned my research methods and the veracity of my findings. A quick Google search of "Dr. Ellison Burke" and the "Global Institute for Cross-Cultural Studies," they claim, reveals not a single link. Frankly, I am baffled by their assertions and have assigned five of my brightest research assistants to get to the bottom of the matter. In the meantime, as I put to rest the niggling, naysaying deflections of my detractors, you may want to contemplate the timeless words of modern-day social scientists, Simon and Garfunkel: "Slow down, you're moving too fast, you gotta make the morning last."April 15, 2016
Be Frightened of Old Ideas
April 12, 2016
When Dogs Spark Big Ideas
During the past 25 years I have facilitated more than 1,000 brainstorming sessions for a wide variety of heavy hitting organizations -- everyone from MTV to GE to government think thanks. I've worked with left-brained people, right-brained people, and reptilian-brained people.
As you might imagine, I've developed quite a few techniques to get people out of their heads and into a more robust realm of possibility. But the biggest breakthroughs I've seen have had less to do with my methods than they did with spontaneous occurrences.
Like the time a Porcelain Hotel Dog became the catalyst for a game changing product idea.
Here's the deal:
I was leading a daylong ideation session for a large telecommunications company when it was time for lunch. Everyone left the room, visions of tuna wraps in their head, when I noticed a peculiar looking porcelain dog, next to a plastic fern, in the corner of the room -- the kind of kitschy piece of Americana you'd walk by at a yard sale, mumbling under your breath that this was absolutely the last time you'd ever attend a yard sale.
Somehow, I found myself drawn to the dog and, being in a particularly playful mood, picked it up and placed it on a folding chair in the middle of the room.
Tickled by its absolute uselessness and lack of beauty, I put my hat on it's weird, little head, and went about my business of getting ready for the afternoon session.
Five minutes later, the head of HR walks into the room, takes off his power tie, and places it, with a chuckle, around the dog's neck.
Then an IT guy enters, removes his "Hello My Name Is" badge and sticks it on the dog's chest. A well-dressed marketing woman removes her necklace and wraps it around the dog's waist.
There, in the middle of the room, unleashed, unbarking, but no longer unloved, sits the perfect brainstorm session mascot -- a 3D embodiment of our collective mind at that moment in time.
The rest of the participants return soon enough and gather around the porcelain dog as if it was the Holy Grail. A Blackberry gets taped to his back, a scarf gets wrapped around his neck. Someone puts a bandaid over his mouth.
Something is happening that has absolutely nothing to do with my agenda for the day. A curious kind of creativity portal is opening up right before my eyes.
"OK!" I blurt, as soon as the last person returns from lunch. "What cool, new product ideas come to mind when you look at good ole' Fido here?"
Ideas start flooding the room. Big ideas. Bold ideas. Totally ridiculous ideas.
In just a few minutes, it is clear that a big idea is emerging -- an idea for a niche telecommunications market no one in this room has ever considered before -- animals -- more specifically, dogs who live with blind or disabled people -- the kind of dogs who could easily be trained to push a large red button on a one-button phone any time their Master was unable to -- what soon became known to all of us in that room, as the Paw Phone.
Pet idea conceived, we spend the next ten minutes fleshing it out, adding it to the list of the other big ideas to be presented at the end of the day to an independent focus group.
The funny thing? Of the ten ideas we pitched to the focus group that day, the Paw Phone was the third highest rated. Woof woof.
Good ideas can come from anyone at any time and any place. While it is impossible to predict precisely when and where the good ideas will manifest, it is possible to predict the conditions that will make it more likely for the good ideas to make their appearance.
In the Paw Phone session, one of these conditions was the spirit of playfulness and spontaneity that manifested itself so gloriously during the lunch break.
At that time, I simply followed my hunch that the porcelain dog, was, somehow, part of the creative process. I didn't know how things would unfold. I could only trust my instincts and past experience that, often, seemingly random catalysts are the DNA for breakthrough. That, and the fact, that when we manage to enter the state of not trying we often get the best results.
Carl Jung understood this phenomenon: "The creation of something new," he said, "is not accomplished by the intellect, but by the play instinct arising from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the object it loves."
Play! The creative mind plays with the object it loves! Yes!
And yet, in the corporate world, playfulness is often demonized, marginalized, and ignored -- branded "unprofessional" -- as if it was a symptom of the worst kind of anti-business slacker mentality.
Indeed, if you find yourself laughing on the job, many of the people around you will think you aren't taking your job seriously. No wonder 62% of all Americans characterize themselves as being dissatisfied with work.
The roots of this weirdness can be traced all the way back to the Garden of Eden.
What happened to Adam when he took a bite of the forbidden fruit? He was condemned, for life, to earning his living by "the sweat of his brow". The free lunch was over. Adam's spontaneity doomed him to a life of heavy lifting and we are the ones who have gotten the hernia.
It's time to shed the notion that work always has to be so serious -- that grunting and groaning is the preferred response and that laughter, in the workplace, means you're not working. Baloney. Untrue. Bogus. Cro-magnon. Insane.
This just in: Life is supposed to be fun. And since work is a part of life, it too needs to be fun -- especially when you find yourself in the middle of a brainstorming session, trying to originate the kind of ideas that will make a difference in the world.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT:
On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the highest, how serious is your workplace? The brainstorming sessions you attend?. And if it's 7 or more, what can you do to lighten things up?
BONUS QUESTION: What laughable idea of yours may have more merit in it if you just dig a little deeper into the essence of what that idea is really all about?April 08, 2016
Move the Hole!
I like what Edward deBono once said about the phenomenon of creative people trying to get results, but coming up empty (and I paraphrase). "If you are digging for oil and don't find any, move the hole!"
Pretty simple, eh? Sometimes, it seems as if aspiring innovators get fixated on a particular approach and, no matter what happens (or doesn't), they just keep doing the same old thing over and over again even when experience reveals that their approach is not working.
Of course, it's always possible that other factors are at play:
1. Perhaps the hole you've dug is too shallow and success is only a few shovelfuls away. Digger deeper, then, makes sense. Always possible.
2. Maybe you're digging in the right place, but the tools you're digging with are not the right tools for the job.
3. And, of course, it's always possible that in your effort to discover oil, you don't see the unexpected diamonds and gold coins you stumble upon because everything that is "not oil" is invisible to you.
So, let's make this real for a moment. Think of a project you are working on -- one you have passion for whose results have been slower to materialize than you hoped. Got it? Good. Now answer the following before doing any more digging:
CAN YOU DIG THIS?
1. What are your instincts telling you about how to proceed? Have you dug the hole deep enough? Might it be time for you to move the hole? And if it is the time to move the hole, where might you move it? What are some new approaches to try? Other places to look?
2. If you sense that you haven't dug deep enough -- that you've been a dilettante, slacker, or half-hearted digger for oil -- what can you do to martial your forces and commit to a more rigorous digging effort? And what support, if any, might you need?
3. If, in your digging adventures, you have stumbled upon some unexpected "finds", but dismissed them because you were only focused on oil, how might you extract the value from your accidental discoveries?
By the way, 75% of all product breakthroughs are NOT the result of strategic plans or "intentional effort", but the result of serendipity and "happy accidents" -- what happens when the open-minded innovator "stumbles" on something intriguing, pauses, and makes the right kind of effort to see if this discovery has value and is worth pursuing.April 07, 2016
Upgrade Your Brainstorm Facilitation Skills the Simple Way
Want to upgrade the quality of your company's brainstorm sessions? Looking for a simple way to open the creative floodgates? Here's one way.
Read this if you think brainstorming is bogus.
Covers for our new 142-page facilitator guidebook
A fun read
When There's Only 4 Seconds Left
Sometimes, it seems as if the game is over, that time is running out -- but WAIT! It ain't over til it's over! No way! Kris Jenkins drains a long range jumper at the buzzer and Villanova wins the NCAA National Championship! Bedlam ensues! (PS: YOU still have at least four metaphorical seconds left. Go for it! Take the shot! Swish!)20 Reasons Why People Get Their Best Ideas in the Shower
During the past 25 years, I've asked more than 10,000 people where and when they get their best ideas. I get all kinds of answers, but the one that has always fascinated me is "the shower" -- maybe because I also get so many of my good ideas there. And so, at the risk of overstating my case, I hereby offer you 20 reasons WHY the shower is so conducive to idea generation.
1. Showering signals "a new day" or "new beginning."
2. You're usually alone, with time to reflect.
3. Interruptions are rare.
4. The rush of water creates a kind of "white noise" that makes concentration easier.
5. Shower stalls look like little incubation chambers.
6. Water is associated with "contemplation" (i.e. sitting near a river, lake, or ocean.)
7. Showering is a metaphor for "getting rid of the dirt" -- the stuff that covers up what's beneath.
8. Showering is a ritual. Lots of creative people like to have little rituals to get their head in the right place.
9. You can write your ideas on the walls with a water soluble pen.
10. There's not a lot of judgment or analysis going on in a shower.
11. A hot shower opens the pores -- and by extension, maybe the mind.
12. Showering wakes up you. It makes you more alert.
13. Showering is a relaxing and stress free experience. With nothing to stress about, your mind is free to roam new territories.
14. If you shampoo, you're massaging your head. That's gotta be good.
15. It's hard to check your iphone or Blackberry in a shower.
16. Albert Einstein did his best thinking near a shower. ("Why is it I always get my best ideas while shaving?")
17. Water is associated with "flow." Being in the "flow state" is often a precursor to creative thinking.
18. There is no deliverable expected of you.
19. If you shower with a friend, and he/she happens to be in a brainstorming mode, lots of great ideas get sparked.
20. Showering is easy. Not a lot of thinking is required to make it happen, which frees your mind to think about other things.
Many stories from my book were remembered in the shower
Another place to get ideas
An online shower of ideas
What's the Key to Your Success?
Bring your most passionate project to mind -- the ONE THING you are excited about manifesting. Maybe it's just sitting there like a lump. Or maybe you are making progress every day. Whatever it is, take a look at the list below and CHOOSE the one quality you need more of in order to succeed. Once you've decided, consult our online GENIE. He can help. All you need is about 10 minutes. No charge.
10. Getting buy in
15. Letting go
17. Social media
PS: If what you need is not on the list above, it will be on THIS LIST.The Crowdsourced Birth of a New Book Beyond Business Innovation
Greetings! It's me, Mitch Ditkoff, author of this blog, President of Idea Champions, writer, speaker, husband, father, and dust particle. If you've been enjoying this blog, there is a good chance you will enjoy my forthcoming book. Towards that end, I have just launched a GoFundMe campaign and am inviting you to participate. We're talking crowd-sourced funding -- a way for me to buy the time and resources I need to write, produce, publish, and promote the book before hell freezes over. Hope you can be part of it! It takes a village... and a few village idiots!