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Story Telling: Concrete Language For An Abstract World

One of the ways to make a great story come alive is to ensure there is clarity and concrete detailing to make the story stick

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Your story telling is only as good as the change it creates! Creating awareness and galvanizing your troops to sail across uncharted waters is what separates a good captain from another sea farer. To achieve this, one of the key techniques for the ace CXO story teller is to make his ideas concrete. Different ideas mean different things to different people. By the time, any communication from the CEO's office reaches the shop floor, Chinese whispers result in confusion and fuel uncertainty!

To influence change across a set of stakeholders and to overcome the curse of knowledge, lets dig into how the brain handles different types of messaging.

The constant interplay between the emotional and rational parts of the brain often stymie our best efforts to change ourselves or other people. The best analogy for appealing to both these systems in the brain is explained in the book - "The Happiness hypothesis" written by Jonathan haidt. He explains, the emotional side is the elephant and the rational side is the rider. At first glance, the rider seems to be in control, but the rider's control is precarious as the rider is so small in comparison to the 6-ton elephant. Whenever there is a tussle between the rider and the Elephant over which direction to take, guess who wins? The elephant, of course. We are all too familiar with situations where our elephant overpowers our rider! We have all experienced this if we have slept in, over eaten, procrastinated, drunk dialled etc. Whilst the weakness of the elephant is being skittish, preferring short term wins over long term gains, the rider's strength is about the long term and thinking beyond the moment, beyond short term wins. But the rider also has his weakness and that is ..spinning his wheels , over thinking that could lead to an analysis paralysis. We all know of leaders who continually agonise over decisions and wait for reams of data before taking a decision. Whilst it is important to address both components to achieve lasting change, this article is about using storytelling to make concepts concrete with great amount of visceral detail and clarity. To communicate to the Rider, we must learn to rely on being concrete.

During some of my speaking gigs, I want to make the spirit and experience of change visceral. So, I set the context with this fun but insightful exercise.

I ask the participants to divide themselves into teams of two people each. One of them is A and the other B, and ask them to choose their partners. Then, I direct all the A's to make a tight fist and offer this to their partner B and then I ask all the "B" s to pry open the clenched fist of their partner. This does on for 15 seconds!! At the debrief, I ask the A's how they felt when their clenched fists were being opened forcibly and typical responses would be "I didn't want to give in" "I felt challenged" etc. Then, I ask how many participants heard me say repeatedly that this was a partnership exercise! Following this insight, I ask them if they would do things differently following this insight. They say, albeit a bit sheepishly, that they would simply ask their partner to unclench and in the spirit of partnership, their partner would acquiesce! The second insight is that effective change can never be brought upon by force. I use this exercise to viscerally drive home the idea of partnership and the learning that true change cannot be achieved by force. Whilst everyone might "like" the idea of change, inherently very few people like it when they are forced to change!

Jon Stegner's example is quoted in the book "At the heart of change" written by John Kotter and Dan Cohen. Jon believed his large company could save at least 1 billion dollars if they could overhaul their purchase policy. To make a compelling example of poor purchase habits, Stegner employed an intern to investigate purchase habits for one item ..Gloves! Work gloves, which workers in most of the factories wore. The intern soon reported back saying that the factories were buying and using 424 different kinds of gloves, they were using different glove suppliers and were all negotiating different prices across different factories. The same set of gloves that cost 5 $ at one place was purchased at 17 $ elsewhere. At Stegner's request, the intern collected a specimen of 42 different kinds of gloves and tagged each with the price tag. All the gloves were then collected, brought to the boardroom and displayed on the conference table. Stegner invited all the presidents to come and visit the glove shrine. The gloves exhibit soon became a travelling roadshow going across to all the plants, this concrete display of what was going on just brought home the entire concept in a very real way, a concrete way! Because of this initiative, Stegner secured the mandate to change the purchasing process across the board.

For me, one of the most memorable interviews in Jeremy Paxman's illustrious career as a journalist at BBC and a presenter for News Night was with James Quincy, the Head of Coca Cola Europe. The interview starts innocently enough with Jeremy asking James if there was any good that Coca Cola does physically. James admits to coke having "some amount" of sugar and of coke becoming a part of the diet in UK. So, Jeremy gives James a coke can and asks him how will consumers know the amount of sugar and James points out to the information on the can ie. 35 grams. At this point, Jeremy starts pouring out sugar sachets from a cup and counts 6 sugar sachets as the equivalent of 35 grams. Now, he goes on to take out a bigger container that's usually served at cinema halls (where there are no indications on the coke Glass) and goes on to pour 23 sachets of sugar on the table in front of a blanched James before pouring the super-size cup that has 44 sachets. Game, set and Match -Jeremy! Poor James never had a chance, once the story or narrative was presented in such a concrete manner. While every consumer "knew" about the quantity of sugar, seeing it in that manner made Jeremy's case.

One of the ways to make a great story come alive is to ensure there is clarity and concrete detailing to make the story stick. This is due to the Velcro nature of our memories, the more the number of hooks, the greater the memory and consequently, stickier the idea!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Jay Kumar Hariharan

The author is an Executive Coach, Speaker and Deep Sea Diver. He is a graduate from International Coach Academy, Sydney. He provides coaching interventions to create transformational Leadership practices. For more read about the author visit www.coachjaykumar.com

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