Storytelling 3: Tips for a compelling narrative

Storytelling at work

In the first two parts of our series we looked at the science behind storytelling, and how to jump in and create your own. And in this post we share a few tips to help you hone and maintain your storytelling habit.

Perhaps the world's (and our own) infatuation with storytelling will fade over time, but stories themselves are no flash in the pan. They speak to our quintessentially human desire to communicate. And at their best, elevate the simple stuff of life to the utterly captivating. So here they are, a few of our top tips.

1. Start with emotion

What emotions are at the heart of the story, how do you want your audience to feel when they hear it? What do you want them to do after they've heard it? Pin them down and keep them at the story's heart.

2. Identify the narrative arc

It sounds obvious. It is obvious. And yet... structure so often goes out the window. So clarify the beginning, middle and end, and make sure your story is going somewhere.

Writing down the three or five key elements on post-it notes and switching them around may help you find the most powerful structure for your story.

3. Keep it personal

The personal is powerful. If you can show why something matters to you, you'll help your audience understand why it matters to them.

If you're like me, you'll hate doing this. You could decide to suck it up, if that works for you, or you could find a personal angle on a story that can bring it to life without leaving you feeling entirely exposed.

4. Keep it short, with options to extend

Develop and practice 60-second, 2- and 3-minute versions of your story. You can fit a surprising amount into a minute, whether or not you adhere to the rules of Just a Minute.

5. Start small, and varied

Create a few stories and try them out as soon as possible, starting with low risk situations. Review, extend, condense and adapt as you find out what works best for you and has the greatest impact on a particular audience.

Do drop us a line if you have any questions, or would like to know more about how you can use storytelling more effectively at work.

Storytelling 2: How to tell your transformation story (and all the other ones)

Edgar Oliver, a brilliant storyteller and The Moth regular, whose astonishing story 'The Apron Strings of Savannah' literally stopped me in my tracks. "Edgar Oliver, poet" by Stacie Joy licenced by CC BY-ND 2.0.

Edgar Oliver, a brilliant storyteller and The Moth regular, whose astonishing story 'The Apron Strings of Savannah' literally stopped me in my tracks. "Edgar Oliver, poet" by Stacie Joy licenced by CC BY-ND 2.0.

'So, what's your story?' I was asked at an event recently. An odd opening gambit (I prefer 'hello') and, I thought, an irritating one. But then, storytelling is everywhere, no longer the preserve of savvy brands and eager politicians.

Sometimes it can seem you as if you don't exist without an explanatory back story. Who you are, what you do, why you do it, your "transformational moment". And I'd be tempted to complain about this ubiquitous obsession* were it not that storytelling is such a powerful tool.

We know from the science that stories have a compelling impact on the human brain. And you probably know from experience that, done well, storytelling can reach hearts and minds much faster than facts alone.** But having established that a) stories are powerful, and b) you need some up your sleeve, how do you go about crafting them?

Generating material for your story

It can be difficult to know what to say or where to start your story. And when you’re under the cosh it can be difficult to remember why you even cared in the first place. So below, we share one of the processes we use to help our clients generate material, practice storytelling, and clarify the impact they want to make.

My top tip is not to be too prescriptive. Don't discard strong material that doesn't fit in a particular story – use it elsewhere. After all, several stories are better than one, and it's useful to have a few ready for different audiences and purposes. Apart from the final step, the process will probably take about 20-30 minutes.

1. What do you care about?

In unpacking this, you might think about: 

  • Your personal values  
  • Why they’re your personal values – what it is that fundamentally connects you to these values and makes them part of you 
  • A time or times you’ve demonstrated your values at work, why you did so, what happened, and the emotions you both felt at the time and feel now looking back  
  • A time or times when other people have shared your values at work, why you think they did so, what happened, and the emotions you felt at the time and feel now looking back 

2. How do your personal values map onto your working life?

They might be expressed in the type of work you do, or in the organisation or clients you work with. And they might not. You might live your values at work in how you engage with the people around you, and in how they engage with you. Or even in what your work enables you to do outside of work. Either way, work out what matters to you. Avoid the stock answer; your own story is usually the most compelling.

3. Think of an experience at work that encapsulates and illustrates one or some of those values.

It might be something that happened on a project. It might be a client's off the cuff remark. It might be something outside work that made you look at it afresh. It could be good, bad, ugly or none of the above. Whatever it is, note how it makes you feel, and hold that emotion at the forefront.

4. Identify your audience

Who are you (perhaps theoretically) telling this particular story to? What do you want them to feel upon hearing it? Unsurprisingly, that clarity of purpose is Very Useful in defining and refining the content...!

5. Begin

Yep, this is the bit where you actually have to create something. So abandon self-criticism. The point is to generate first, and refine second.

Start with the emotion. Describe that experience in terms of how it made you feel at the time, what happened, and how you feel about it now. Keep it short – two minutes should suffice to begin with. Have a few goes, keeping the bits you like and switching or ditching the bits you don't.

6. Phone a friend

Or, better still, talk to them face to face. Tell them your story and ask them for feedback, e.g.

  • What the most important aspect of your story was
  • What they were moved or struck by in the story
  • How it made them feel
  • What that feeling made them want to do
  • What you could stop/start/continue/shift to make your story stronger

7. Launch

Cut to the chase and test your story in the real world. Networking events are great for this, as you get several chances in an environment designed for short attention spans. Either way, make sure you find out what other people are hearing in your story, and then refine, adapt and adjust as required to help it land.

Do drop us a line if have any questions, would like to know more, or would like help with your own or your organisation's storytelling.

 

*I wondered if this obsession might be correctly termed 'mythophilia'. But that turns out to be something else entirely. And possibly NSFW.

** This emphasis is important: underpinning your story with compelling facts can help it fly. And actual, as opposed to alternative, facts are not only valuable but may never have been so vital.

Storytelling 1: The Science of Storytelling

By Nevit Dilmen (talk) and Tekks (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Nevit Dilmen (talk) and Tekks (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Our world is awash with stories.

Not only ones we seek out, but others we're confronted with whether we like it or not. True stories, fictional stories, fictional stories purporting to be true stories… They feature in every aspect of our daily lives, from business to politics to leisure.

And for good reason. Storytelling is an extremely powerful tool. It alters the activity in your brain, influencing not only what you think and feel, but how you act. Which is quite useful if you’ve ever needed to convince someone of something – whether it’s that they should donate to charity or hire you for your dream job.

There’s a fascinating – and growing – body of research into the science behind storytelling. Labs across the world are exploring how stories impact on the human brain – from how we understand them to their role in communication.

Curious? Read on for three examples (referenced below) you might find useful when telling your own stories. And for insightful analysis of what to do with this all storytelling, do check out Sisonke Msimang's excellent Ted talk.

1. Simulation of reality

Hearing or reading a story creates a simulation of reality in your brain. In other words, your brain processes the story as if you were actually experiencing its events first-hand.[i] That ‘real’ experience can provide a useful short-cut to improving understanding and emotional connection between storyteller and audience.

2. Emotion and empathy

Emotionally arousing stories raise the pain thresholds of the audience, and increase their sense of group bonding.[ii] Stories with a strong emotional and dramatic arc are also more likely to inspire empathy in the audience and influence their subsequent actions (such as charitable giving) than stories that are emotionally neutral.[iii] [iv] 

3. Alignment and communication

Storytelling “couples” or aligns your brain with that of your listener. When you tell people a story, their brain activity begins to mirror yours and you interpret the story in the same way. The stronger the similarity in your brain activity, the better the communication between you and your listener(s).[v] [vi] Uri Hasson’s Ted talk, though a few years old now, is useful for a quick overview of some of this research – and why it matters.

This is the first of our three-part series on storytelling. Do drop us a line if you have any questions, or would like to know more about how you can use storytelling more effectively at work.


[i] Oatley, K (2012), The Cognitive Science of Fiction. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science. 3(4), 425-430.

[ii] Dunbar RIM, Teasdale B, Thompson J, Budelmann F, Duncan S, van Emde Boas E, Maguire L. (2016) Emotional arousal when watching drama increases pain threshold and social bonding. Royal Society open science, 3: 160288.

[iii] Barraza, J., Alexander, V., Beavin, L. Terris, E., & Zak, P. (2015). The heart of the story: Peripheral physiology during narrative exposure predicts charitable giving. Biological Psychology. 105, 138-143.

[iv]  Zak, P. J. (2015). Why Inspiring Stories Make Us React: The Neuroscience of Narrative. Cerebrum: The Dana Forum on Brain Science, 2.

[v] Stephens, G. J., Silbert, L. J., & Hasson, U. (2010). Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(32), 14425–14430

[vi] Liu, Y., Piazza E., Simony, E., Shewokis, P., Onaral, B., Hasson, U., Ayaz, H. Measuring speaker–listener neural coupling with functional near infrared spectroscopy. PRE-PRINT. bioRxiv preprint first posted online Oct. 16, 2016; doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/081166.

Why my stories now start with me

Find stray piano. Break into song. Another ordinary day.

Find stray piano. Break into song. Another ordinary day.

Singing is storytelling in its purest form. It’s emotion, stripped back and revealed.

I learnt this early on. People said that I when I sang, I seemed more real than ever. This made me sound like a song-sucking spectre. But I knew what they meant.

In those moments, they saw me. Differently. Fully. That’s partly because I'm a trained singer who's unfazed by the spotlight, and adores applause. But it’s something else, too. There’s a gap between competent and captivating. It's filled by emotional honesty.

When I sing – really sing, I cast out a line and hook my audience at their core. I know that if I keep that line taught, channel their emotions through mine, they'll follow me. Anywhere. I can forget the notes, fluff a line. It doesn't matter: they're compelled to be mine. That's storytelling. You don't find it somewhere other than where you are. You don't find it in someone else's style, or in a checklist, or in handy hints. You find it in yourself.

I made my career from storytelling. When I worked in television finding, selling and telling stories was my day job. And I was good at it. So, what with all the telly and the singing, you’d think I'd mainline storytelling when I launched Chirp. After all, I'm hardly a shrinking violet.

But my storytelling sucked. I flouted the most important rule I’d learned: that storytelling must start with you, with why you care. And I didn’t want to own that. Or anything that might be about me. So I gathered up my facts, and exorcised myself.

While I cut myself out, I brought others in. I asked for advice. And got lots. The result was a muddled offering to which I felt no connection. (My fault, not theirs.) Chirp no longer reflected who I was, what I cared about and what motivated me. Instead, it reflected what other people thought I ought to care about and be motivated by. Chirp became their ambition, not mine. And that left me with no story to tell.

All very embarrassing and shambolic, and not the sort of mess I’m accustomed to making. But the thing is, it's awfully hard to tell your own story. To own what really matters to you, and why, and share that in an unpredictable world. It’s not about confidence, or polish or passion. It’s about breaching that gap between competent and captivating. It's about being real and present. And that's hard.

Telling stories founded in who I am has helped me make more of the right sort of impact, and less of the wrong sort. Emotional honesty isn't easy, particularly when it triggers discomfort in someone else. But it is more compelling than a pristine yet clinical spiel. So, blunders aside, that's what I do now. I think it's vital if you want to bring your unique self to work, and not leave your identity at the door.

That's why I use singing to help people tell stories – about themselves, their brands, their companies, their ideas for change. Singing asks you to be seen and heard just as you are. To witness your own emotions and channel them in others. Singing puts you on the line, makes you vulnerable, makes you human. It is challenging and personal and exposing. And I get that not everyone loves that, and certainly not all the time (exhausting prospect). But it does swiftly connect you to what really matters.

Storytelling, whether spoken or sung, isn’t about pretending, or trying to be someone you're not. (X Factor take note.) It's about using what's already there. It's about being present and real and yourself – just as you are in that moment. From that place of stripped back emotion, you can only tell your own story. When you do, it's powerful stuff.

Why comparison can kill your career (and how to avoid it)

Red leaf, yellow leaf – the same but different

Red leaf, yellow leaf – the same but different

It happens to the best of us. Even the sturdily self-assured. (And the nicest.) You’re going about your business when you suddenly encounter someone like you, but better. They might do your dream job, or live the live you seek. Or simply navigate the world with more ease. Whatever it is, your heart sinks. Welcome to ‘compare and despair’.

A brilliant business coach diagnosed me with ‘compare and despair’ when I was launching Chirp. I’d just Googled an old friend and, having discovered that she was now Very Successful, confessed to feeling a Bit Rubbish.

I’ve met plenty of people who’d rather you didn’t succeed because they perceive success as finite, rather than abundant. As if it’s ‘one in, one out’. But that wasn’t the problem here. I felt incredibly proud of my friend. And I knew the comparison was a) unsound, and b) unhelpful. But it still hit home.

As it happens, I was in good company. Comparison, it seems, is part of the human condition. The American psychologist Leon Festinger first coined the term ‘social comparison theory’ in the ‘50s, but the subject was widely researched before and has been since.

And the thing is, comparison isn’t inevitably bad. It can help you assess where you stand in the world. It can help you see just what's possible. And it can motivate you to get to where you want to be. (Of which, more later.)

But what isn’t helpful is serving your comparison with a large dollop of inadequacy. It’s so easy to conclude that, because someone else seems to be succeeding, you must be failing. Or at least falling behind. But that sort of muddled thinking can make you feel that there’s no point even trying. That you’re destined for mediocrity rather than meteoric rise. And to do so without working out what success means to you in the first place.

So how do you avoid despair when you compare? Here are some of the techniques I share with my clients (and use myself).

1. Name it

There’s something incredibly reassuring about acknowledging ‘compare and despair’. So I encourage my clients not only to recognise, but to label it. This can also be hugely freeing. Rather than ruminating and feeling rubbish, you can process what you’re feeling faster. And then move on.

2. Convert despair to share

Help yourself to whatever your chosen subject is doing. Focus on what's within your control, remember not everything will be, and ask for advice if you can.

This can be useful for big life changes, but comes into its own on a smaller scale. Look for the tools, techniques and behaviours that you think make the other person successful. It might be engaging particular colleagues, or asking for specific feedback, or being clear about expectations. Be curious and think laterally.

If you notice something you think is useful, try it out for yourself. Like anything new, it might take time to inhabit in a way that feels authentic. So be willing to adopt, adapt and discard depending on what proves useful and right for you.

3. Get started

Ever see someone doing something you could have done? And decide that ship has sailed? You might be right, of course. On the other hand, someone else might simply have done the groundwork for you and shown what’s possible. Which is actually quite helpful.

The only way to find out is to begin. Late so often is better than never. So start small, experiment lots, and learn as much as you can from the subjects of your comparison.

Incidentally, for me this means dipping my toe into online provision. Funnily enough, as soon as I gave it some serious thought an opportunity came my way. Serendipity is a marvellous thing. But more to the point, having the idea in mind meant I was not only scanning the horizon for opportunities, but then able to accept them with confidence.

4. It really is about you

Perception is (almost) everything. How you see someone may not align with their perception of themselves. And while you’re busily comparing, the focus of your despair is probably doing the same to someone else (or to you).

‘Compare and despair’ is never really about the other person. They just happened to be there at the right time to connect with your particular worry or desire. So, rather than racing an unwitting competitor, try to measure yourself against what you really want. If seeing what someone else has done gives you the proverbial kick you need to get going, then all good. And if it gives you pause and helps you work out what you really want, then that’s rather fortuitous too.

 

Tips to survive Blue Monday – or Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday...

Waiting for the bus in the rain

Oh dear, it’s Blue Monday again. The day on which our gloom and unhappiness supposedly peaks. And with Brexit, Trump and 2016’s upsetting celebrity cull, this one could be the very bluest yet.

Let’s put aside for one moment the fact that Blue Monday is entirely bogus and was conjured up for a Sky Travel ad campaign in 2005. And that the equation is bunkum. And that even its creator says we should ignore it.*

It’s entirely possible, now we’re post-Christmas, and many months pre-summer holidays, and it’s been raining for (what feels like) an entire week, and your resolutions are starting to crumble, and you’d meet up with friends but everyone’s too tired/skint/teetotal, that you might feel a bit… flat. And that being told it’s the most depressing day of the year might not help.

So what are we do with all of this, not least if tomorrow turns out to be just as glum? If said glumness is of the fairly temporary variety, you might like to try the following. (For anything else, do check out #blueanyday.)  

Body Scan

Some people find a quick body scan can help them to be present in the moment, and figure out with how they actually feel. (As opposed to how a marketing concept tells them they ought to feel.) See below for a few tips if you fancy giving that a go. The point is simply to notice, rather than change, how you are.

1. Notice your breathing. Is it deep, shallow, fast, slow, uneven, steady, etc.?

2. Scan down your body, from the crown of your head to your fingertips and toes. Notice where you feel comfort and tension, and which parts of your body feel relaxed or tired.

3. Scan your emotions. Notice how you feel in this moment and the emotions you’re experiencing.

Go to the pub – no, really!

And if that’s not your thing, then you might like to know that going to the pub with friends appears to improve wellbeing. Though I should add that the Oxford University research does also point out that the potential benefits are similar to other socially bonding activities such as laughter, singing and dancing. So you might have to stick out Dry January after all.

Make up your own bogus equation

Finally, and with that research in mind, I recommend a hearty laugh at the equation behind Blue Monday. It really is gloriously silly. You might even like to come up with a few of your own, just for fun. Here’s one of mine.

H = B x O2 - P / D + 4

(Happiness = books read multiplied by time outdoors minus pigeon encounters divided by daylight + 4. Alternatively, hydrogen equals boron multiplied by oxygen minus phosphorus divided by + 4, where D = I made it up.)

I hope you’re having a happy Monday. And, if not, that this afternoon, or evening or tomorrow brings some cheer. Either way, and at any of time of year, you might like to check out #blueanyday.

 

*But let’s not ignore the mental health experts who say that Blue Monday creates damaging misconceptions about mental illness. And that the glib message that retail cures all can spell disaster for vulnerable people who spend more when they feel unwell.

Voice tips for the social season 5: align intent and delivery

From intention to action. "Newton's Cradle" by Sheila Sund licenced by CY BY 2.0.

From intention to action. "Newton's Cradle" by Sheila Sund licenced by CY BY 2.0.

We're almost at the end of our week of voice tips, with just one more to help you make it through to Christmas. We hope they help you communicate more effectively in and out of work, both now and in the new year.

Tip 5: Align your intention with your delivery

We are most persuasive, convincing and effective when we show that we mean what we say. So don’t just tell – be. Aligning what you say with how you say it can help you deliver a clearer and more compelling message.

In essence, that means matching your tone with your meaning. It will help you imbue your words with the weight they deserve. So don’t undercut difficult messages with a nervous grin; and give grimaces a wide berth when explaining brilliant plans.

It might take a bit of effort sometimes, but you'll reap the rewards in terms of trust and confidence – both from others and within yourself.

Voice tips for the social season 4: speak from your stomach

"Lambchop and More" by Tim Johnson licenced by CC BY 2.0

"Lambchop and More" by Tim Johnson licenced by CC BY 2.0

Each day this week we're offering you a tip to help you survive the festivities with your voice intact – at least while you're at work.

Tip 4: Channel your inner ventriloquist

Okay, not really. Though just think of the possibilities for those tricky meetings...

It's not far off, however. Venter comes from the Latin for 'belly', and loqui from the Latin for 'speak'. So, with that in mind, imagine that you are speaking from your stomach rather than your throat.

The idea of this tip is to help the sound 'drop down' in your body. Making that psychological shift can help you breathe more deeply, project more clearly and audibly and avoid straining your voice.

I suggest giving all these tips a practice run so you can get a feel for them before your next high stakes meeting. When practising this one, you might find that placing your hand on your stomach helps to focus your attention.

Voice tips for the social season 3: vocal clarity

'Slow Motion Water Droplet' by Public Domain Photography licenced under CC BY-SA 2.0

'Slow Motion Water Droplet' by Public Domain Photography licenced under CC BY-SA 2.0

Every day this week we're sharing some of our top tips to help you use your voice effectively, whether at work, rest or (nativity) play.

Tip 3: Vocal clarity

Stick your tongue out. Yep, that's right: stick your tongue out. Not only will it probably make you laugh, but it also releases tension in the tongue root. This, in turn, can help you articulate your words with a clearer and more resonant voice.

This exercise is particularly useful if you find that your voice seems to get smaller or somehow restricted when you’re under pressure. It takes just 30 seconds, and can be a helpful boost both at the start of the day, and during the day if you feel your stress levels rising.

1. Open your mouth

2. Tip of tongue behind bottom teeth

3. Stretch the middle of your tongue up and out of your mouth for 5 seconds

4. Stick your tongue all the way out for 5 seconds

5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 twice, so you have run through the sequence three times in total

Voice tips for the social season 2: breathing

"Breathe" by Shawn Rossi is licenced by CC BY 2.0

"Breathe" by Shawn Rossi is licenced by CC BY 2.0

All this week we're sharing our top tips to keep your voice in fine fettle at work during the season of mad-rush-to-finish-project-before-Christmas-meets-festive-socialising. As we sometimes think of it. Today, we have our second tip – one that seems so obvious it's almost always the first thing to slip.

Tip 2: Breathe

You know, generally. It's good for staying calm. And alive.

More specifically in this context, breathe in just before you speak, and speak as you exhale. I said it sounded obvious. But turn detective for a minute, and you'll notice that people often start speaking on almost no breathe – and quickly run out.

Speaking as you exhale enables you to project your voice much more easily – which, in turn, will help to prevent you straining your voice (a seasonal hazard). And you'll have enough breath to make your point effectively, instead of ditching the end in an inaudible mumble.

Slow controlled breathing also reduces your blood pressure. And that will help you engage with challenge more calmly and effectively, whether at work or the office knees up!

Voice tips for the social season 1: pause per clause

Cocktail Glasses - Leeroy - Montreal Web Agency CC0 1.0 Universal.jpg

‘Tis the season to be jolly. And hoarse. So we’re sharing some of our top tips all this week to help you use your voice effectively whether at work or play. Well, mostly at work, but they should stand you in good stead for the office Christmas party, too.

Tip 1: Pause per clause

If you have something worth saying, give it the space to be heard and absorbed. Rushing reduces your impact. You'll not only be harder to understand, but come across as being not entirely present. Neither of which is very helpful when you're trying to make a point.

Most people speak faster when they're in uncertain, challenging or stressful situations. To counter that, try implementing a pause per clause. It'll both slow you down and give you time to breathe (always a bonus).

You should find that slowing down helps your words to land, and helps you develop greater presence. You'll probably feel calmer and more self-assured, too.

Why singing improves well-being

People singing

I'm sometimes asked why we use singing in our sessions. I'm not surprised – and not only because singing is, ahem, a touch unusual in leadership development. Thing is, however natural it might be, singing comes with baggage. It’s always a loaded concept, whether that's with feelings of joy or outright fear, or something in between.

And actually, in our work, all of that is useful.

That element of fear and exposure can help you notice how you respond to risk and uncertainty. And do so in a way that’s not only immediate, but that is all-encompassing: physically, intellectually and emotionally. In pulling you out of your comfort zone, singing can take you to a place of stretch. And that, we know from recent research, is where most of us learn best and most memorably.

It's even likely that, because it’s a bit risky, singing actually increases your resilience. We're currently collaborating with neurobiologists at Ashridge Business School to find at whether public singing creates templates in your brain that help you tackle other challenges more easily. We'll keep you posted on our findings!

So I embrace that element of fear. And one of the things I find fascinating about singing is how quickly it can take you from that place of fear to one of connection, trust, and well-being. And for lots of people, it can happen within the space of a single song.

There’s a growing body of research into the impact of singing on well-being. We now know, for example, that group singing raises your pain threshold. And that it releases oxytocin into your bloodstream, which helps promote feelings of trust and safety.

Singing also enables fast social bonding. It breaks the ice so you feel closer as the group, even if you don’t yet know anything about each other. The team behind this research also suggest that the social bonding effect of singing may even have been vital in enabling modern humans to sustain larger social networks than their evolutionary ancestors. And that, in turn, may have helped them colonise risky environments worldwide. Those early singers were no slackers.

When you sing with other people your heartbeats sychronise – which may explain why singing together can create a sense of shared perspective. Choral singing can certainly improve mood, enhance quality of life, and lead to greater happiness, reduced stress and better emotional well-being. But, whether you sing alone or with others, the simple act of singing raises your heart rate variability, which in turn improves both your well-being and social cognition.

And we think that singing with someone else improves your social intelligence. with, again, an impact on well-being. We're currently developing research with neuroscientists at University College London to examine brain activity during joint singing, and its impact on interaction and well-being.

As you might have gathered, I find the science fascinating. I find it hugely exciting to understand what happens in our brains and bodies when we sing, and how we can use that to enhance our lives at work or at home.

But, in some ways, we don’t need the science.

Singing is thought to be how we first communicated, even before we had speech. It's found across the world – a truly global phenomenon. It's a fundamental to the human condition. So why not give it a whirl? Even if you find it stressful you'll probably be boosting your resilience! And all you need is yourself.

This piece is an excerpt from our session for Roffey Park Institute's Well-being Forum in November 2017. Do drop us a line if you'd like to find out more about the session or our research.

Why tight schedules can help you confront your fears

A few weeks ago I was asked at the last minute to come in and run a conference session. The booked speaker was ill and they needed someone else. Fast. A couple of hours later I was on stage delivering a just-planned session to 200 people. It's fair to say that none of us – the organisers, the delegates... me – knew quite what to expect.

Why it pays to be precise

"Be precise." That was my dad's favourite phrase when I was growing up. Though infuriating at the time, it's proved to be sound advice. No one ever died from too much clarity, but lots of us have suffered the lack of it. Whether you're leading a team, collaborating with colleagues or negotiating social relationships, clarity makes everything so much easier.

Feeling overwhelmed? Try chunking the craziness

It's funny how some phrases just stick. "Chunk the craziness" appears to have lodged in my brain, and I hope it's there to stay. I'd been listening to Oliver Burkeman is Busy, an excellent series on BBC Radio 4 that's well worth a listen even if you're, ahem, busy. Its impact on me was that I chunked my personal craziness, and felt better for it.

Get to the point – tell me a story

Image by Ali Shaker/VOA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image by Ali Shaker/VOA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It's not a contradiction. We know from experience (and now science) that stories are more effective than facts if you want someone to connect with your message. Storytelling helps engage people in your vision, from one customer to an entire nation. Or at least enough of a nation to swing an election.*

The term 'storytelling' has been bandied about so much it's in danger of not living up to its own myth. (Ah, the irony.) But to me, it's simply a way of harnessing the emotional capital that lies at the heart of what you do, and why it matters.

A compelling story communicates the emotional core of your message. When you hear it, it creates a simulation of reality in your brain. That helps clients and colleagues to act on what they've heard, because they're engaged both intellectually and emotionally. They understand why they should care. And that's a powerful tool.

If you're interested in the neuroscience of storytelling, you might like to read this. And if you're interested in the practice, you might like to come to our Effective Storytelling session on Saturday 22nd October in Central London. No votes, just stories.

*Okay, so Michelle Obama isn't President. But she is a masterful, and vote-winning, storyteller.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why we should lean into risk in Brexit Britain

"Brexit tea" by frankieleon is licenced under CC BY 2.0

"Brexit tea" by frankieleon is licenced under CC BY 2.0

I was going to write a blog about risk. I’d whip through the theory, focus on the practice, and back it up with science.

Then the referendum happened. And now, depending on your view, the country’s either deep in the mire, or free to succeed. The markets have crashed, but might bounce back. Hate crime is up, but might be a blip. We're living in uncertainty, and we don’t even know how long it’ll last.

All of that feels uncomfortable and risky. So to write about risk without acknowledging the uncertainty around us feels a bit absurd. We’re already awash with political analysis, so I won’t add mine. But whether you’re delighted, devastated or unmoved by these events, it’s an interesting moment to take a look at the parallels with organisational and personal change.

Major change throws the status quo in the air. Before it settles, as it inevitably will, we can make some choices. We can pretend it’s not happening. We can choose to step back and see where the pieces fall. And we can choose to take a risk and lean into uncertainty. These are decisions organisations are making now – as they’ve done before and will again. Individuals are doing the same.

Unless you’re very lucky, pretending nothing’s changed will leave you baffled, and your colleagues disengaged. It’s also, counter-intuitively, a lot of effort. Our ability to adapt is part of what defines us as human. So while adapting might be hard, refusing to is exhausting. Sometimes, of course, the wisest move is to hold your horses and wait for a new normal. But you forfeit the chance to shape it, and risk being left behind.

Choosing to shake hands with uncertainty can be complicated and uncomfortable. It can also be profoundly creative. If you can lean into that, there’s scope to experiment with new ideas and products, have different conversations and make unexpected connections. You might fail, you might succeed, you might create something a bit… ‘meh’. But you only find out if you take the risk. And whether or not it’s sparked by external events, embedding a culture of testing, adapting and improving will reap benefits well into the future.  

Thing is, it’s not easy. There’s a gap between intention and doing. And however much you want to, crossing it can seem boring, painful and hard work. And once you do cross it, there’s no guarantee it’ll work. Ugh. Why bother? It’s somehow easier to feel disrespected afterwards than to challenge in the moment. To feed back to your friends instead of your colleagues. To work within stasis than to venture an alternative.

But that 'ugh' is worth the bother. It’s when things shift, and when you learn. Plus you reinforce in yourself and colleagues that, whatever the outcome, you are people with the agency to create change. You’ll be more likely to do it again, helping build a culture of creativity in yourself and others.

So where to begin? Here are three initial suggestions.

1. Acknowledge fears, but don’t draw them out. Give yourself three minutes to project the potential range of outcomes from best to worst. Then begin, ditch or adapt. You’ll only find out what actually happens by taking the risk, so don’t waste time on the fundamentally unsound, or delay the great.

2. Solicit feedback; ask, listen, learn, adapt. And be specific: work out exactly what you want feedback on, and ask questions within a clear remit. This shifts the focus away from egos (easily crushed, despite denials) and towards ideas. Seeking feedback can feel like a massive risk in itself. But the more you do it, the easier and more useful it becomes.

3. Build networks. It’s exhausting taking a risk on your own and it takes ages. Talk to people who disagree: diverse opinion makes for robust ideas. And test the idea as soon as you can, drawing on your network for support. Make sure your network includes people unconnected to your idea, but who can help you reflect on progress and remain resilient. Action learning sets and peer mentors are ideal.

I’m not suggesting all ideas are sensible or risks worth taking. But change is definitely coming. New systems, new products and even new industries may emerge. I hope that as organisations and individuals we’ll be inspired to lean into risk when we encounter it. Start experimenting, adapting, innovating. The status quo has been shaken, and will rebuild. The space in between is yours to shape.

Risk-taking for Change Makers workshop at Spark 2016

My workshop for Spark the Change London is on Thursday 7th July. The session will help delegates exercise their risk-taking 'muscles' to create positive change within their organisations. The hands-on session will use singing and conducting to provide a practical experience of risk, and of leading and being led through change.

Innovation series: Marieluise Maiwald on the challenge of the new

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In the second of our innovation podcasts Kamala speaks to Marieluise Maiwald, who's putting innovation into practice by challenging herself to do something new every week this year. They talk about the appeal of the new, why stepping away from comfort can reap rewards and why constant maximisation can be the enemy of innovation.

Marieluise Maiwald is an internationally experienced leadership development professional and coach with a background in consulting. She currently works as a Project Director for Duke Corporate Education in London and is responsible for designing and delivering learning programmes for executives around the world.

Alongside programme delivery, Marieluise offers coaching and workshops to people wanting to bring real change to their lives. To stay credible and authentic for her clients, Marieluise has decided to delve into a different challenge every week in 2016, from speaking at Speaker’s Corner to swimming in icy waters. She posts her experiences and learning in weekly blogs and videos on Defying Gravity.