05 Dec

As a grandparent I have to really think about the bedtime stories I tell my young audience. An utterly delightful experience unleashing my creative side yet requiring a lot of thought to appeal to an ever increasingly curious audience. Let me tell you it is quite something having to weave picnics and rocket ships into the narrative! But as I indulge myself  in grandad story time I look back at my corporate life and question whether I was any good at telling stories. A time where the picnics and rockets were technology and the companies I worked for.

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are what we need most in the world.” PHILIP PULMAN

When we think about children's' stories we imagine drama spoken and written through inspirational words and eye-catching visualisation. Stories built around a main character - Cinderella, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Harry Potter and so on where there is peril facing the hero. A phenomenon that is part of the nurturing process for subsequent educational experiences, keeping young minds open to explore new possibilities and ideas as they mature into adulthood.

But I never got trained at work to tell stories

I can’t remember being explicitly trained or coached in how to tell stories. I do though remember being trained to understand technology and the relevance to customers problems. I remember also being trained in how to deliver presentations, speeches and deal with the press (thankfully only once or twice). And I remember presenting to audiences about value propositions and the compelling reasons for them to act (buy what I was saying). And I remember countless training programmes, leadership forums and centres of excellences where selling your point of view was implicit. But I cant remember - ever- thinking about how to tell a story like I have to now as Grandad .

Maybe back in the day storytelling was all about having a fancy nancy website promoting a company’s differentiating value proposition. Then it was all about the quality of collateral - brochures, presentations and white papers and having funky demos to captivate eyes wide opened audiences. And then when the internet blew up into the social stratosphere it became all about manipulation of beep notifications to plant seeds of thought with your message. And for those with deeper pockets it would mean hiring a celebrity or influencer to promote the brand at glitzy events and conferences. And for the bigger tech firms I worked at employ chief storytellers to set the cadence into the consciousness of investors and customers. Phew. And now we have algorithms that will write you a story while you are asleep.Job done. Who needs to be trained to be a story teller. There is even a robot toy that will craft stories for the little ones. Oh no, is this the end of grandad time? 

Let me tell you a story

Once upon a time there was a Vice President of Procurement at a London bank who was fed up with the way her industry procured technology. She would complain to anyone who would listen that the process was slow and uninspiring and had little to do with real human beings who worked for the bank or their customers and everything to do with process, governance and control. So one day she went to work and sent an email to her suppliers. She wrote, “It is 3am in Singapore and our and our colleague has lost service, please describe how you would restore their experience.“ And then she waited for her phone to ring.

“People do not buy goods & services. They buy relations, stories & magic.” SETH GODIN

In those few words the VP had laid out a story. Her email was disruptive. She wanted to invoke intrigue and curiosity in her audience and appeal to their hormones. First there was clearly something happening right now in Singapore, but we didn’t know what. Next there was someone - a colleague - in difficulty but again we didn’t know and lastly,  something else might happen if the situation wasn’t rectified. It might be something super easy to resolve or it might be catastrophic for the individual or the bank as a whole. The VP later explained she could have gone down the default path of corporate procurement and stayed within the lines dictated by regulation and governance, but she first wanted to inject something very human into the conversation with her supply chain. I loved her for this because it made the situation real - like stories we hear as children.

And so the hero technology company fixed her problem and the people in the bank went on to have a happy working life. The end.

Be a story thinker not just a story teller

The VP was a story thinker. She had consciously thought about her colleagues with the drama and then thought about the audience who could help them- the technology supply chain. Rather than default to the procurement 101 of selecting technology she had decided to tell a story through her email with words chosen carefully to excite them into thinking not doing. She wanted to find a partner who would respond in a similar open thinking mindset and build a trusted relationship with. Many people chose to ignore her email she told me later. She put that down to status quo and a tendency to go with what you know - answering formal tender documents and staying within the lines.

Sound familiar? And why not. After all we don’t have time to really unpick someone else’s storytelling prowess when there are pressures coming at us from all angles. Storytelling is someone else’s job is the cry I have often heard from colleagues and probably said myself a few times. Let’s blame marketing and comms. Or pass it over to the creative people to take a look at. Or worse lets use technology to classify people into groups - thanks Google - and then create pre-packaged stories we can drop onto them to provoke a conversation about their problem. We will say 'people with this problem experience these challenges so what they need to do is ...'. A way of framing our problems to set the context to problem resolution. And the stories we tell will talk directly to this framing approach. A tried and tested formulae that entire industries will rely on using all manner of creative and imaginative routes to get their message out there. And when we have all this insight why do we need to train people to tell stories?

The future

Stories tend to be so NOISY nowadays. Either because of mainstream social media exploding them into a deluge of fact (or not) or because they are so complex that we find it hard to keep up with what it means to us as individuals. We tire easily with storytelling fatigue creating more and more blind spots that lose sight of the ‘colleague in Singapore at 3am’ and forgetting the principles of a good story - character, plot, drama, hero, outcome. A way to humanise the drama and to give the audience context and a way to fire up their empathetic side.

"When we process the world we experience it as a story". WILL STORR

I believe when we flip into story thinking mode we give ourselves an opportunity or moment of pause. A chance to ask ourselves who is this story aimed at and how can I create a story that will provoke them. It takes practice and a mindset to fail, fail and fail again. But it is fun and can be incredibly rewarding. And you know, it requires nothing more than our minds to be open just a little more as we consider the next presentation, meeting or sales conference.

We all have it within us to think a story like the VP did that day and create a story that will capture someone else’s curiosity to explore different ideas with us. Just like young children do with their rat-a-tat-tat inquiring, Why? I mean come on grandad, how does a rocket fly when there are no electric charge points on the Moon?

Can you help me

I have written this post to encourage likeminded people to share their experiences of story thinking with me. If this is you I would be intrigued to hear your thoughts on the guiding questions below.· 

When was the last time you consciously sat down and thought about a story you were about to share with someone else?·      How was the experience? Something you find easy or hard? Any tactics you can share?·      What is your 3am in Singapore story?

If you like to chat then I would be delighted to jump on a Zoom call so please do book a slot with me at https://calendly.com/paulrussell and we can compare stories! Maybe this is my next book! And maybe we could collaborate!

This post is built around the theme of my first book - Even If It Was Free. Available now on Amazon https://amzn.eu/d/gPY5C8D. A theme that suggests we are struggling with a trilogy of temptation where through technological innovation we become more confident and seek to go faster to solve our problems. A trilogy that is both friend and foe often cancelling out our diverged mindset to think deeper about our problems and the people effected - and of course, how we frame out stories to get others to stop and think.

* The email will not be published on the website.