Thursday, 30 September 2010

A business book in Seven Days - Chapter Four

Please let me know your thoughts on Chapter Four!


Chapter Four

Storytelling to Create a Vision

Alice went on ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go?’
That depends a good deal on where you want to get to, said the Cat
‘I don’t much care where’ said Alice
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat

Alice In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

“When there is no Vision, people perish”

Franklin D. Roosevelt

A few years ago I had the opportunity to take a group of CEO’s on a tour of the Eden Project in Cornwall. We weren’t looking for ways to save the world or the next big sustainable thing in business. We were looking for Leadership. And we found it in spades.

When you first meet Tim Smit, the charismatic founder of the Eden Project, you are immediately stuck by his immense energy and charisma. Even if you didn’t know he was once a successful record producer, re-discovered The Lost Gardens of Heligan and then went on to create what many consider to be the eight wonder of the world, you can’t help but be intrigued and impressed by him.

He is a big man. And he talks at a rapid pace, about great big important things, with humour, determination and flair.

As he led the group of Execs on a tour of The Eden Project he explained the seemingly insurmountable problems he, and his team, had to overcome to get it open. And that’s when he began to talk about Storytelling.

He explained that all his life he has employed “the Tinkerbell theory”. I can’t remember his exact words, so forgive the fact I am quoting from his book :

“In Peter Pan, Tinkerbell is a fairy who exists only if people believe in her. I know that if enough people can be made to believe in something it will happen”

With a, sometimes, fractured – and often unpaid team - he created a shared Vision of what Eden could be – it’s potential contribution to the local community, to education and to the planet. They in turn used this shared Vision and the passion it generated to persuade council planners, environmentalists, hard-nosed media types and the people of Cornwall that Eden simply had to be built.

Tim admits, that occasionally he has had to stretch the truth to get through a sticky situation, but in his inimitable style he calls this “the telling of future truths”. It may not be true today but if enough people believe in it, it will be true tomorrow.

The first lesson for my group of CEO’s, that wet day in Cornwall, was:

If you want to build a successful business you need to get people to believe in that which is not yet real.

Tim is not alone in using stories and “future truths” to drive change.

Martin Luther King’s famous speech ‘I have a Dream’ was delivered to 250,000 civil rights campaigners, at the end of the ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’ in August 1963. This speech is often cited as the catalyst for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Dr King started by setting a context:

“Five years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves, who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.”

He went on to bring state the current situation, though repetition and dramatic imagery:

“But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land”

He continued with the, now famous, Vision for American society:

“ I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

This is our hope”

His Vision and call to action crossed generations, class, creed and colour to break down the barriers of segregation and deliver emancipation to the Black people of America.

Now to bring us right up to date in the Digital Age.

Who amongst us has not used Google? From a garage at Stanford, the co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have built a by-word for the Internet Generation. There is even a verb “to google” in the OED.

Much has been written about Google’s fantastic culture, the rigorous hiring methods, and the company’s Values. But when I have been fortunate enough to visit their ‘campus’ both in the USA and Europe, what stuck me the most is their Vision.

Google’s Vision is

“to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”

This is as audacious as it is awe inspiring.

Some of the very best minds in the world go to work everyday, knowing that this is what they are being paid to do. The very audacious nature of the Vision forces them to think more and more creatively for ways to achieve it. This has resulted in break through technology that was unimaginable a few years ago.

Google’s Vision is tri-fold

1) Organise - though Cloud technology

2) Universally accessible – though ubiquitous connectivity we can access our data in the Nevarda desert on a mobile phone

3) Useful – connecting data and information and offering solutions to the user with innovations like Google Maps and Fastflip

But there is a danger that a Vision so large could be daunting and, rather than inspire the Googlers, it could defeat them.

In order to achieve their strategy, they have developed a clear framework:

1) Create a climate of innovation
2) Focus on the User
3) Create Partnerships
4) Be global, but truly local
5) Create value and be competitive

The “future truth” is set out and the path in clear. And with a consciously created climate of innovation, they are proving that, almost, anything is possible.

So I want you to ask yourself the following questions.

1) Why did you get out of bed and go to work today?

2) How did that ‘duvet chuck’ moment feel?

3) What story will you tell when you get home tonight?

And more importantly…

3) What story would you like to tell?

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

A business book in seven days - Chapter Three

Please let me know your thoughts - any builds will be accredited in the book!

Chapter Three – Telling Stories about the Individual. The CEO as Chief Storyteller.

“Screw it, let’s do it”

Richard Branson

One of the fundamental truths of all stories is that there is a main protagonist. Someone has to go through a series of events in an engaging enough manner that the reader or listener wants to find out what happens next.

I am going to ask you to take a leap of faith and think of organisations as stories writ large and see the CEO as the main protagonist. I believe that the role of the CEO has become that of Chief Storyteller – to the organisation, to the customer and to the investors.

He or she is the one who stands up at the annual conference and reviews the year for the employees, he is featured on the news in good times and in bad, and it is their behaviour and choice of words that reveals the core values of the brand and organisation.

To understand how critical CEO behaviour is in consciously or unconsciously telling stories take what happened to Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, who was photographed sailing around The Isle of Wight when millions of gallons of oil were seeping across the Gulf Coast. He found himself demonised in the world press and severely reprimanded by the White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel.

A father taking a day off from a dreadful workload to spend time with his son and re-charge his batteries? Or an overpaid, uncaring and incompetent Chief Executive who showed little care for countless fishermen whose livelihood’s were in danger due to the biggest environmental disaster in decades?

You will have your own personal opinion on this (and it will have been shaped by the stories you tell yourself about big corporations and their Senior Managers); but we all know how the world press took it. And we all know that Tony Hayward is leaving for Japan.

My Mother always says “Actions speak louder than words” and in Tony’s case it shouted from the front pages of the newspapers.

With the growth of the Internet, twenty-four hour news stations, the phenomenal success of reality TV we have become a personality and celebrity obsessed culture. This can have its upside – Lauren Luke was trying to sell make-up on U-Tube from the home she shared with her mum and daughter. It got picked up and ‘went viral’, with thousands and thousands of ‘hits’. The result is a once penniless single mum now has a global cosmetics brand, a weekly column in The Guardian and is the author of her first book. On the other hand, our obsession with celebrity has also given us Jedward.

It is a stretch to claim that CEO’s are the new celebrities, but as we become more and more obsessed about the face behind the mask, they are under increasing scrutiny and need to tell ever increasingly effective stories.

There is increasingly a cult of celebrity developing around the CEO - and if they use it in the right way, it can be dynamite.

Take Steve Jobs. Every year he holds his summit at Apple HQ to launch new products to employees and the world’s press. Everything he says and does is crafted to a tee to tell a story. His dress code is always the same – black polo and jeans. His clothes are simple and uncomplicated and the subtle message he is sending out is “I am picking something comfortable, that won’t distract me, so I can focus on the real task ahead of me”. It’s much easier to be creative if you don’t have to waste energy focusing on the trivial things.

In this book “Inside Steve’s Brain” Leander Kahney says “Jobs has turned his personality traits into a business philosophy”. He tells us that Jobs wants to create “products so good you want to lick them”, that “I’m not afraid to start from the beginning” and that “softwear is the user experience”

What Jobs is doing in stating these beliefs (or telling these stories) is creating a mantra inside Apple that guides the work of everyone from retail staff to App developers.

But beware too much the cult of personality. When Jobs announced that he had pancreatic cancer, the share price took a nosedive. He had made Apple so much about him, that the investor community did not believe it could continue if he chose to step down. Happily for Jobs he is a well man today, but if you ever get a challenge from one of your line managers about “another pointless succession planning meeting’, just remind him or her just tell the cautionary tale of what happened to Apple’s share price when there appeared to be no immediate successor to Jobs. They will beat you in a mad dash to the conference room to start drawing organisational charts.

Another ‘celeb’ in the business world is Sir Richard Branson. Love him or hate him, that man has dominated the business world since the first Virgin record store opened in Oxford Street in 1971.

We have seen this Knight of the Realm dressed up as a bride, get gunked on national TV, fly up (and come down) in attempts to circumnavigate the world by balloon, take on the might of British Airways and Coca Cola and now, for $200,000 he is offering you the chance to go to space with Virgin Galactic.

There are many commentators who have applaud Branson for his knack of getting free publicity and, most of the time, he must be his Marketing Director’s dream; but by putting his own personality at the forefront of everything the Virgin group of companies do, he is telling a very well thought out story.

In his biography “Screw it, Let’s Do It” Branson tells us:

“My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise about them…. from the perspective of wanting to live life to the full, I felt that I had to achieve that”

But the fact that he does this in public and links it so strongly to his brands, Branson is telling a story to staff, customers and investors. He is saying that Virgin will keep on achieving, that Virgin will keep on doing what everyone else says is impossible and it will keep on being mavericks who buck the system and show up the competition. He shows that Virgin is fearless, takes risks and is an exciting brand to connect with.

As we have become more and more focused on personality, the CEO has become the Chief Storyteller. Do this well and it can reap great rewards, but tell the wrong story and the results can be disastrous.

A film called “The Social Network” charting the history of Facebook comes out at the end of October 2010. It is reputed to be rather unflattering about Mark Zuckerberg.
Mr. Zuckerberg has just announced that he is to donate $100,000 to Newark schools. Is he getting his side of the story in first?

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Writing a book in Seven Days - Chapter Two

Chapter Two

Principles of Storytelling

“Analysis might excite the mind, but it hardly offers a route to the heart. And that is where we must go if we are to motivate people not only to take action but to do so with energy and enthusiasm”

Stephen Denning

We have all picked up a book and given up on it halfway through. Or been told a story and had to repress a yawn.

Have you been at a conference and heard a bunch of Senior Manager’s getting excited about the company direction yet all it has done is left you flat and bored?

I have.

So what is it about some stories that keep you engaged and some that turn you right off?

If I am to really understand how some businesses use storytelling so effectively, I have to find the answer to this conundrum first.

So being from an HR background, I started to look at learning theory for inspiration. Yes. Really.

There is the school of thought that goes like this; not all people learn in the same way and to communicate knowledge the teacher has to take different learning styles into account.

Anyone who has picked up a training book from the CIPD will have read about all the different theories on how learners learn. But in truth, try as I might, when I pulled my old course notes out of the filing box, I just didn’t get all that excited by the Sunbury model of democratic education or David Kolb’s experiential learning framework.

Then an email popped into my inbox. From Innocent Drinks. It intrigued me and I went on the website and had a look at their blog. And a wonder it was to behold.

Full of anecdotes, pictures, jokes, videos, recipes and product information, it was amazingly engaging. I especially liked the bit about The Big Knit – where they get their customers to knit hats for their bottles and 50p from each hatted drink sold goes to keep old people warm (101,246 hats knitted so far!).

Have a look for yourself at

But what is it about the stories that they tell that make them so compelling – why did I want to keep pressing hyperlink after hyperlink and have found myself writing about it now?

After many hours of happy surfing I have found some key principles that they employ and that you can apply to any story you tell.

They are passionate about what they are talking about – fruit to them is the most exciting thing in the world.

It has a great tone of voice – there is a real Innocent style – quirky, friendly, and personal

It has a context – whether it’s about “what Alex did this week” or World Peace Day, there is a reason they are telling their story. To call readers to action – to make a difference – to make us more healthy (oh, and to sell smoothies)

It is collaborative – the stories are full of anecdotes from, and about, their staff and customers. There is a chance to join in and have some fun along the way.

So that is how Innocent Drinks make their stories so engaging.

Then I remembered my English Degree at Goldsmiths’ College. I, rather pretentiously, had chosen a Classics Module (I say pretentiously as this was also accompanied by Anglo Saxon English Translation and the poems of Milton – I could have decided to study Modern American Literature).

Were the hours spent pouring over Plato and Homer going to finally prove useful in life? Well, the answer is Yes.

I remembered that the fundamental principles of storytelling are contained in Aristotle’s Poetics.

For those of you who haven’t read it – hands up – here is a quick summary.

Aristotle says that every story must have a beginning, middle and an end. It must have characters and a main protagonist. There must be a unified plot, with spectacle and surprise. And finally there must be a reversal of fortune or a discovery, with a lesson learnt

He says

“ A good plot progresses like a knot that is tied up with increasingly greater complexity until the reversal of fortune, at which point the knot is untied until it reaches an unknotted conclusion”

Now that is a lot of knots!

So next time you are writing a speech or creating a power point presentation, have a think about Aristotle and Innocent.

Are you demonstrating your passion for this subject?

Does your story have a beginning, middle and an end?

Is your story coherent?

Is there a lesson to be learned?

Are you involving your audience?

Is there a call to action?

There you have it. Storytelling from the old and the new Masters.

Apply those principles to a speech or presentation and you will have them begging for more in aisles.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Trying to write in 7 days - Storytelling in Business

I am co-hosting a conference on Innovation and HR at Roffey Park on October 15th ( but time is running away with me. I have a speech to deliver that day, and a workshop to run. And I also wanted to produce a white paper on something I have been meaning to write about for years - Story Telling in Business.

But time is running out - so I have set myself a challenge. To write a short chapter a day (max 1000 words) and publish it here for you to see and comment on. Please support me in this - add any comments or criticism. Let's collaborate to tell the story together!

Here goes....installment one:

Are you sitting comfortably?

How the world’s most innovative companies are using storytelling to drive business success

"What really counts is that I’m Irish and I know how to tell stories”
Jack Welsh


Introduction – my father, the storyteller

Stories about the Individual

Stories to create a Vision

Stories to create a Culture

Storytelling to your Customers

The future of Storytelling


When I was a child I used to get really excited around bedtime. I am aware that this is unusual behaviour as most children try to find every excuse in the book to stay up late with the adults.

It wasn’t that I had a particular penchant for sleep or the best bedroom in North London. What excited me was what happened just before the lights went out.

My father, an immigrant from Ireland, and like many from his homeland, is a master storyteller. Every night, before lights out, he would sit at the end of my bed and tell me a story. He didn’t read me a story. He would make one up on this spot – with either my brother or I as the lead character. It was a tale personal to us.

And as I heard magical tales of Glinda the Wicked Witch of Wales or Detective Michael Patrick O’Keeffe, he taught me lessons about life that have stayed with me forever.

In the fight between the good witches and the bad witches, I learnt the importance of morality. In the one about my brother and I solving great crimes, I learnt that hard work and diligence pays off. And in the one he told me one Christmas, about there being no Santa Clause, taught me that sometimes we have to be disappointed in life to learn lessons that help us to grow.

As I grew up and moved into the world of business both in London and New York I ran conferences, wrote internal communications, crafted CEO speeches, developed new products and pulled together marketing campaigns I realised that I was telling stories – just like the ones my father used to tell me all those years ago.

And as I look around the business world, I see that successful leaders, organisations and brands are all using stories to inspire their people, engage their customers or, sometimes, make a real difference in the world.

This pamphlet is an attempt to share with you some of the great examples of storytelling I have seen and to inspire you to throw away some of your policy manuals and bring them to life – through the power of stories.

From the early cave man drawing on walls, through the Greek Myths and right up to Reality TV, the human condition and its development is bound up with stories.

What a powerful organisation you could have if you harnessed a bit of that.

Busy Bee drinking tea

We are really pleased to have just signed up a new project for Twinings Tea. It's a great piece of work building the Marketing Capability for the Global Marketing Team - working on insights and agency briefing.

The event is in January so we will be busy bees till then!

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Collaborative Innovation

Yesterday we went to London Fashion Week to see the Todd Lynn Show. We have been working through LAB - brand and culture innovation company ( for Ecco Leather over the last year, and it was really exciting to see the project come together on the catwalk