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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. Or sign up to download our free Chirp Workbook.

 

 

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. Or sign up to download our free Chirp Workbook.

 

*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.

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.

Find out how to tell your own compelling stories. Sign up to download our free Chirp Workbook.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Learn more about how to embrace risk, innovation and experiments with our free Chirp Guide. Sign up to receive your download.

 

 

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

Leadership-coach-Marieluise-Maiwald.jpg

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.

Innovation series: Nick Parker on creativity and improvisation at work

Writing consultant Nick Parker

In the first of our new podcast series on innovation, Kamala talks to Nick Parker about improvisation and creativity at work. From autobiographical haiku to design thinking, they discuss the freedom in limits and the business case for spontaneity. Oh, and why your creative career probably shouldn't begin with naming your first born.

Nick Parker is a writer who works with brands and businesses. He helps them pin things down, and shake things up. That usually means helping them tell their stories, helping them find their tone of voice, and helping them to use writing to think more clearly and creatively.

He’s a speechwriter for Fortune 10 CEOs, has trained government ministers and radio DJs, and once wrote a paragraph that saved ten million quid. (Or thereabouts.)

Before all that, he was a journalist, magazine editor and author. His collection of short stories, The Exploding Boy, was published to critical acclaim in 2011. (‘Astonishing, proof the short story is still a public good,’ said The Guardian, which was nice of them.) And once upon a time, he was a cartoonist for Viz.

 

Risk series: Roway Gray on risk and resilience

Business coach Rowan Gray

The second of our podcasts about risk features a conversation between our Director, Kamala, and Rowan Gray, a business coach at Relume. Ahead of their workshop in the Spring, Kamala and Rowan explore definitions of risk, and why understanding your response to it can help you lead and work more effectively. They also talk about the balance between risk and resilience, and why you might be better off not cramming exercise/mindfulness/healthy eating into your routine.

Rowan Gray is a business coach at Relume. He works with leaders who are looking for a different perspective. He challenges and supports them to find new ideas and the breakthrough they need. He uses movement - such as cycling, running and walking - to generate insights, enable more creativity and give people an increased feeling of energy. These are qualities needed to adapt and thrive in organisations that are increasingly complex, uncertain and fast-paced. Rowan brings curiosity, energy and a sense of fun to his work. He keeps himself inspired by exploring new places from the saddle of his bicycle.

 

Learn more about how to embrace risk, innovation and experiments with our free Chirp Guide. Sign up to receive your download.

 

 

Spring clean your presenting style

Spring cleaning

It looks like Spring is finally here so, in honour of the season, we're sharing five tips to rejuvenate presentations. A Spring clean, if you will. We hope they help you present with natural charisma and ensure your every word lands.

1. Breathe out

Ignore the advice ringing in your ears to take a deep breath. For most of us that results in either hyperventilation or heavy breathing – neither a good look when you need to impress. Breathing out first should help make your next inhalation deeper and more regular. It will calm you down if you’re nervous, and help you project more effectively either way.

Try it: as you're preparing, just before you start, and as you're changing slides.

 

2. Catch flies

Okay, not literally – but do breathe in and out through an open mouth. (Once referred to by a client as 'catching flies', in case you wondered.) It can be counter-intuitive, but it will make a significant difference. You'll breathe more deeply and with less effort, so you're free to focus on content. It should help to keep your facial and neck muscles relaxed too.

Try it: as you're preparing, just before you start, and a few times during the presentation.

 

3. Pause

Is it easy? No. Does it help? Yes. Will a split-second will feel like an eternity? Well, probably. It won’t be, though, and that brief pause will help you be present in the moment, marshal your thoughts, and ensure your audience is still engaged. It’ll also help them to take in what you’re saying so your messages land.

Try it: just before you start, and then at appropriate moments during the presentation.

 

4. Huh?

The second half of a sentence generally makes the whole meaningful. Not wise, then, to throw it away – whether through nerves or enthusiasm. Yet word swallowing is one of the most common issues we help with. Full, as opposed to shallow, breathing will help; as will simple awareness. It’s amazing how much more effective we are when we speak deliberately.

Try it: five minutes before you start, and then a few times during the presentation.

 

5. Aim for alignment

We are most persuasive, convincing and effective when we show that we mean what we say. So don’t just tell – be. Aligning your delivery with your meaning will 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. Sounds obvious – yet it’s so often forgotten in the heat of the presenting moment!

Try it: before, during and after!

 

Want to learn more? Download our free Chirp Guide to find out how to use your voice more effectively in meetings, pitches and presentations.

 

 

Is risk the secret to success? We could always ask Prince...

'Prince!'  by  Scott Penner  licenced under  CC-BY-SA 2.0

I’ve been running some workshops lately to help colleagues be bolder, experiment, and take a few risks. And they've neatly coincided with the return of Prince. Or 3rdEyeGirl, or TAFKAP, or TAFKASquiggle. Now there’s a man who’s danced with risk/reward ratios in his time. Of which more later.

At each of these workshops the individuals were lively, capable, and pretty confident. They were good at their jobs and high achievers. Yet even the most assured had something outside their comfort zones. Some task or action perpetually consigned to ‘to do’ list purgatory.

It’s not really about productivity, nor whether you do your job well. And, luckily, these unappealing tasks are rarely the same for everyone – be they ringing clients, making new contacts, or pitching fresh ideas.

Most of us get by surprisingly well without having to do the things that make us nervous. We use e-mail instead of the phone. We network within established spheres. We take a deep breath, get on with it, and avoid a repeat for as long as possible.

Yet, as Prince arguably knows, change is often integral to success. Rather than stick to a reliable formula, he has continued to experiment, change, test, and play throughout his long career. Not simply with music, but with his very identity. Not every risk brought rewards – many did; others didn’t. Nonetheless, those bold decisions have been instrumental in his continued success.

Thoughtful experiments won’t always pay off – though experiments that don’t work can prove equally as valuable. Either way, it’s only by giving it a bash that we find out how much better, more exciting, even easier our work could be. By shaking things up, taking the odd punt on a possibility. (Don’t fiddle the LIBOR rates, though. There are limits.)

So, while no one’s looking, why not fish out that neglected ‘to do’ list? Pitch your barmy-yet-brilliant idea to the CEO. Pick up the phone to new clients. And long forgotten ones, too. If nothing else, you’ll at least be able to tick it off that list. I will if you will!

 

Learn more about how to embrace risk, innovation and experiments with our free Chirp Guide. Sign up to receive your download.

 

 

How to avoid dysfunction at work – tips for the (fictional) BBC

My Wednesday evenings have been brightened recently by the arrival of W1A. Set in a fictionalised New Broadcasting House, the BBC comedy stars Hugh Bonneville as the Beeb’s unfortunate Head of Values. It's a gloriously dysfunctional portrayal of the BBC, as enjoyable as it is excruciating.

First, a disclaimer. I used to work at the BBC – alongside many talented, sparky colleagues wholly unlike those in W1A. Yet there are elements of the show that feel deliciously real. And, I admit, I watch with all the delight of being in on the joke.

But these characters aren’t the preserve of the BBC. In fact I’m sure their recognisability greatly contributes to the show’s success. Most of us have met them at some point in our careers, wherever we work. And, sadly, they’re not nearly as entertaining in real life.

Five tips to help your voice work at work

Five tips to make your voice work at work

I was with a client recently who apologised for sounding so hoarse. She explained she’d been in end-to-end meetings the previous day. It was all very productive, she added, until she lost her voice.

The voice is critical to who we are; it forms so much of our identity. And, unless you’re a Trappist Monk, its effective use is key to successful work.

The impact of both words and actions can be transformed with a little attention to how we use our voices. So here are our five top tips to help you use yours to excellent effect.

 

1. Breathe before you speak. It sounds obvious but, particularly in nerve-wracking situations, most of us launch right in – and swiftly run out of breath. If most of your sentence is lost, you can guarantee its impact will be too. So: pause, then, breathe, and then speak!

 

2. Have a go at speaking as if from the stomach rather than the throat. It’ll help you project your voice – and lend authority – without raising it or straining. And that can be a boon in meetings.

(You’ll still need to open your mouth, of course. We’re not advising ventriloquism – however useful you might find that in meetings.)

 

3. Don’t rush! If you have something worth saying, give it the space to be heard and absorbed. In practice that means pausing and taking sufficient breath in longer sentences.

 

4. Think about how you want your words to be received. Delivery is almost as important as content – get those elements in harmony and your words will be infinitely more effective. If you need to persuade, for example, inject your words with energy – don’t undercut yourself by sounding unconvinced. It might take practice, but it’ll help imbue your words with meaning. And you’ll deliver clearer messages with greater impact as a result.

 

5. Be audible. If you’re feeling tired or nervous it can be hugely tempting to swallow your words. And that leaves colleagues baffled at best, and disengaged or irritated at worst. So make sure what you say can actually be heard. It will smooth communications and working relationships!

 

Want to learn more? Download our free Chirp Guide to find out how to use your voice more effectively in meetings, pitches and presentations.

 

 

What Sir Tom Jones knows about leadership

What Sir Tom knows about leadership

I have a confession: I’ve finally succumbed to BBC1’s The Voice. I blame the chairs. They’re huge, they light up, and they swivel on demand.

Though clearly thrilled to be picked via a revolving chair, the real draw for the contestants is superstar coaching. The chance for expert leadership from people who’ve been there, done it. And kept doing it.

Fervent aspiration with world-class authority is a compelling mix. The judges clearly know their stuff. But the big question is whether they can empower their teams to achieve the same. Essentially: will they be inspirational leaders?

Each coach has a different style, but it’s Sir Tom Jones that I’ve been watching closely. He knows his experience is an effective selling point. And barely a moment passes without another “starry collaboration” anecdote. (While we all wonder if there’s anyone he hasn’t sung with…)

Last week Sir Tom demonstrated what he's learned about leadership during all those years at the top. That it’s not enough to tell; you must also show. You must lead by example. By doing just that, he transformed his team’s uncertain, lacklustre delivery into a passionate, meaningful performance. Something had suddenly ‘clicked’, within just a few minutes.

One of my criticisms of the show until now has been that we've rarely seen the coaches up on stage. There’s something incredibly powerful about demonstrating excellence in the moment, rather than relying on previous success. Executed consistently, it creates clarity of purpose, avoids misunderstandings, and inspires observers.

Sir Tom seems to know that. Perhaps it's something he learned from all those musicians who inspired him. Either way, leading by example – modelling attitudes, behaviours and practice – is a powerful tool. And that’s the case whether you’re in front of six people or 6.95 million.

 

Want to learn more about how to be a leader who enables as well as inspires? Sign up to download our free Chirp Guide.