A Story of Brand Storytelling Versus Brand Tools

I have a confession to make. I used to be addicted to brand planning tools. It was a problem: one that got so bad I eventually started pushing such tools on others to support my habit. Let me explain.

Long before I took up the call of strategic storytelling, I was a brand planner in the advertising business, helping clients uncover and define the essence of their brands. During that time, I used a variety of different tools to accomplish this, each dedicated to reducing a brand down to a few words or phrases that would fit snuggly into some cleverly designed diagram. While I always appreciated the precision and economy these branding models required, I couldn’t help but worry that, when shared broadly within an organization, they were falling short with the very employees they were meant to focus and inspire.

This concern became a reality for me during my last year in the advertising business after I had led a client through a Brand Promise Pyramid exercise (my brand planning tool of choice at the time). It was a good outcome for that sort of thing, and our clients were quite pleased with the results; so much so that they set out to present the completed pyramid to everyone in the company through a “pep rally” where motivational music and light machines cued people onto the stage, and everyone walked away with a brightly coloured t-shirt emblazoned with a new internal rallying cry. There might have been a confetti cannon; I can’t remember.

A couple of weeks later I was at a Christmas party and bumped into a friend who worked for the company and had attended the pep rally. Knowing that I had been involved in this work, he complemented me on it. I asked him what he thought about the Brand Promise Pyramid shared with him and his colleagues and if he remembered anything about it; and to his credit (and I guess to ours) he recited a couple of phrases and words.

I then asked him, “So what do those lines mean to you?”

He stared at me bewilderedly. “What do you mean what do they mean?”

“Like what do those words mean to you as an employee? To your job and the way that you approach or think about the work that you do?”

More bewildered staring. “Ummmmmm…..” (sfx: crickets)

And then it hit me. Just because employees know what a brand planning diagram says, doesn’t guarantee they will thoroughly grasp what it means. A couple of pithy phrases or provocative words will never be enough, on their own, to fully articulate what a brand stands for—e.g. the higher purpose that inspires it, the difference it makes in people’s lives, the values it shares, etc. There is always richer meaning behind a brand that runs deeper than the headlines or bullet-pointed words squeezed into some diagram for it. It wasn’t until I defected from the advertising business that I came to realize that the best way to capture and share that richer meaning of a brand is through storytelling, because storytelling has always been the way we make sense of things and exchange meaning with others.

Think of it this way. If you were ever sitting across from a potential employee, client or partner and that person asked you to tell them what your brand is all about, you might start with a collection of words or idea (e.g. “The happiest place on Earth”), but you would never just stop there. You would naturally elaborate (“Let me tell you what I mean by that.”). And then you would likely share an exemplary story of that idea coming to life. And in elaborating and sharing a story, you would bring richer meaning to that idea and make it real, helping that person evolve from “I hear you,” to “Ahhh…OK…now I get it.”

I still respect and admire the focus that is needed in many brand planning diagrams and the exactness that results from them. The problem arises when an organization that has such a diagram thinks that that is all they need to fully engage, align and inspire employees around their brand. The problem also arises when the process of identifying the essence of that brand is more focused on filling in a diagram than it is on uncovering and capturing true meaning.

EPSON scanner image

I love this cartoon, though it strikes a little close to home.

I was an enabler of such processes for many years. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. I facilitated lots of planning sessions in which a bunch of very smart clients would come together with the best of intentions to define what their brand was all about. These sessions would start out wonderfully, filled with great discussion and exchange as we collectively explored evocative ideas about the brand and instinctively started sharing stories about those ideas coming to life.

But inevitably process for process’ sake would take over. As time ticked on we goal-oriented, type-A personalities would become increasingly focused on completing the task at hand and ensuring that, come Hell or high water, we were walking out of the room with a completed diagram. The storytelling animal in me wanted to keep the discussion going because it was so engaging and enriching on a deeply human level. But the facilitator in me would start screaming out how little time we had left (“We’ve got one hour people!”) as I stood poised, marker in hand, ready to write something, anything down on a flip chart.

So yes, we walked out of those rooms with a completed brand planning diagram, but we sadly left behind all the rich ideas, nuances and stories about that brand unearthed along the way. It’s like we had spent the last four to five hours mining for gold, but then in our haste to finish, left all the gold on the tracks.

So if you’re intoxicated by brand planning diagrams as I’d once been and want to use them to define what your brand is all about, then I encourage you to do so. There is certainly a lot of merit to them. But please bring along with you the brilliant stories you mine and extract during the process so you can share those stories with employees and, by example, inspire them to do the same. For it’s those stories and the richer, nuanced meaning in them that will bring your brand diagram to life and make it shine in the hearts and minds of your workforce, creating a lasting glow that will light the way for years to come.

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How to Think Strategically about Leadership Storytelling

Finish lineThere is no denying that storytelling is on people’s minds these days, especially in terms of communication skills leaders need to effectively direct, influence and inspire others. And while this fervent focus on storytelling warms my heart, I worry that it is generating a lot of unfocused storytelling in the workplace, as leaders feel compelled to just tell a story, any story because some article or speaker or manager told them to.

To make the most of storytelling in leadership communications and derive the greatest impact from it, one must first think strategically about what their story needs to achieve. The type of social storytelling that we practice in our daily lives typically involves telling any ol’ story at any ol’ time because you think it will entertain and engage people. Strategic storytelling, however, is about picking the right story at the right time, specifically to convey an idea that will in turn shape the way your audience thinks and feels and motivate them towards a desired action.

When I think strategically about the stories I tell in my leadership communications, I don’t start with the story; I back into it. Said another way, I reverse engineer the story by first thinking strategically about the objectives I need a story to meet. And I do this by identifying the following:

FIRST: Desired Action of My Audience — I first consider my audience (whether its one person, ten, or one hundred) and what actions I want them to take. What do I need them to start doing, stop doing, do more or do less of? For example, we might be facing a major change initiative at work that’s going to require a big shift in how we operate, and I need my team to embrace this change instead of shying away from it.

SECOND: Thoughts and/or Feelings Needed in Order to Take that Action — Then I consider what my audience needs to think and/or feel in order to take the action I need them to take. These might be new thoughts and feelings I need to instill in them, or mental and emotional barriers or obstacles I need to help them get around. Continuing with the example referenced above, in order to embrace this impending change initiative, I might need my team to recognize (think) that while it will involve some short-term discomfort, longer term it’s going to make us all stronger in our capabilities. I might also need to help them get over feeling overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the change and instill greater confidence and faith in their ability to get through it.

THIRD: Key Message to Generate those Thoughts and Feelings — Next I think about what key idea or message I can share to help generate the needed thoughts and feelings to motivate the desired action. Again continuing with the example outlined above, I might want to convey the idea that the way we’re going to get through this big change initiative is by leaning on and encouraging each other as a team and collectively taking things one step at a time.

FOURTH: A Story that Can Foster and Facilitate All of the Above — After I’ve thought through these three objectives, then and only then do I consider if I have a story that can bring to life the message or idea I want to convey, and that can generate the thoughts and feelings I want to generate in order to inspire the action I need my audience to take.

So, in the privacy of my head or in my office (often I will take a couple of minutes to map this out on a whiteboard), I think about it in the order outlined above. But nine times out of ten, when I’m walking into a meeting or presentation I will deliver it in reverse. I will start with the story before diving into the main subject matter of the meeting or presentation. And by starting with a story that I have thought strategically about — a story that has a clear point; a story that is appropriate for the workplace situation we’re in; a story that is relevant to the mental and emotional state of my audience — I start to indirectly shape the way my audience is going to think and feel about the subject matter that is to follow, enabling them to more fully absorb and embrace it.

Given the objectives uncovered for the example above, I might determine that the story of running a marathon for the first time (or climbing Kilimanjaro or hiking the Pacific Trail or any other story about reaching a tough, intimidating goal) would be the perfect one to tell at the start of a team meeting in which we’re going to go through the implementation plan for this major change initiative. When telling this story, I would make certain it’s strategic by indirectly and artfully addressing the objectives I’ve identified, ensuring it’s reflecting the necessary thoughts and feelings and demonstrating the key idea I want to communicate. For example, the plot of my story would acknowledge that I never thought I could run a marathon (or climb Kilimanjaro or hike the Pacific Trail), but through the collaborative encouragement and guidance of others, training to build my strength and abilities, and taking things literally and figuratively one step at a time, I was able to do it.

Starting the meeting with this story would not only engage my audience at a more personal level, but also help them understand how, exactly, we are going to get through this change initiative together and why it’s important we do so. Most importantly, because my story is both strategic and human, appealing to the head and the heart, it will remove the mental and emotional barriers that might get in the way and smoothly pave the way to our collective success. And after that, we’re off to the races.

 

 

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Five Elements of a Strong Story in Leadership Communications

Leadership Through Storytelling Keynote

The five key elements of a strong strategic story, building from the bottom up

Of all the communications tools available to a leader, perhaps none is more powerful than storytelling. From Martin Luther King to Sheryl Sandberg, great leaders have always used stories to connect people to ideas, to each other and to a vision of the future they want to make real.

But every great power has inherent risks and rewards in using it, and storytelling in leadership communications is no different. Tell the wrong story in the wrong situation and you run the risk of your audience staring blankly at you, wondering silently (or worse, out loud) what the point of that story was and how they go about getting a refund on the three minutes you just took from their lives in telling it. But share the right story in the right situation and the rewards can be great, specifically in your ability to connect with your audience at a more meaningful and human level, indirectly yet effectively shaping the way they think and feel, and motivating them towards a desired action.

To reap the greatest rewards from storytelling in the workplace and steer clear of the risks, one must think strategically about the stories they tell, making sure they can first identify what they need a story to achieve so they can then find or develop the right story to achieve it. It also involves building great stories to be told. And while every story is different and unique, all great strategic stories are composed of five essential elements.

Premise – This is the context for your story, connecting the story you are about to tell to the workplace situation in which you’re telling it and/or the mindset of the audience who’s hearing it. Establishing the premise for your story is a way of setting it up, building common understanding with your audience and helping them appreciate why they should listen to it.

An example. Let’s say you’re a manager that has gathered the troops to present a rollout plan for a major new initiative that will require your team to learn a new way of operating. You know that many on your team are anxious about this change. You also know that they’re not really going to listen to your rollout plan unless you can deal with this white elephant of nervous energy sitting in the middle of the room blocking the screen. So you’ve got a great personal story to share with them about embracing change and learning new skills. But rather than just launch into that story, you first establish the premise for it by saying something like…

“As everyone knows, we’re about to implement a big change initiative across the company. We’re here for the next hour to present the rollout plan for this implementation and discuss your roles in it. There’s no denying that changes of this magnitude can be both exciting and unsettling. It can make people nervous, especially if they have to learn new skills. I’m sure you’re feeling it; I’m feeling it too. Change is hard. In fact, as I was getting ready for this meeting, I was reminded of a story about change that I want to quickly share with you.”

And then you tell your story, in this case one about the fulfillment and success that comes from facing change head-on, embracing it and learning new skills. Your audience knows this story is going to be about getting through change because you’ve set up the premise for it, and in doing so you’ve connected your story not only to how they’re feeling, but also to the reason you’re all gathered together — i.e. to present the rollout plans for this change initiative.

Platform – After you’ve established the Premise for your story, you then start to shape it by establishing the time and place for your narrative, helping your audience understand when and where it begins. For example, “Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away” is the platform for one of the most well-known stories of our time (Star Wars). For the story referenced above it might be, “When I was 23 years old and in the second year of my first job, working as Account Executive at Grey Advertising in New York City, we were told a major reorg was coming…”

Person – This is the character or characters who find themselves in the time and place of the story’s Platform. Most stories have a main character whom the story is about, with supporting characters having an impact on that main character and/or journeying along with them. Quite often the main character is you, the storyteller, as you share a personal narrative in which you are central to its Plot, and the Point of the story revolves around what has happened to you. But keep in mind that even when a story is from your own experience, it doesn’t mean you have to be the main character in it. Instead, you might be more of a witness to a story that has unfolded for someone else. If this is the case, make sure you make the story about that Person and not about you, even if it’s told from your experience and perspective.

Plot – Plot is the driving force of any great story, entailing the series of events that have unfolded. Plot gives your story structure and flow, with a clear beginning, middle and, importantly, end. While there are many Plots a story can follow, the most typical involves a group of people (Person) in a current situation (Platform) who have a goal of achieving a new reality but experience obstacles and challenges in trying to reach that goal, and then somehow manage to overcome them. A story’s Plot becomes more engaging when there is tension built up around those challenges and obstacles, and that tension is relieved when the characters succeed by moving past them.

Point – And of course, every great strategic story, especially those shared in a workplace situation, has a Point to it. There is a key message, learning or takeaway that the audience draws from the story you’ve just told: one that flows naturally from the Plot of your story and its impact on the Person(s) in it. Because having a strong Point is central to my story’s success, I typically don’t like to leave its communication to chance and will often conclude my story by driving the Point home — e.g. “The point of this story is…” or “What I learned from that situation was…” or “The reason I shared this story with you is…”

Paying attention to the middle three element outlined above (Platform, Person and Plot) will ensure your story is engaging and captivating and something people will understand and want to listen to until the end. Paying attention to the first (Premise) and fifth (Point) elements will ensure your story is strategic: that it’s relevant to the workplace situation in which you’re telling it and that the audience is rewarded with something meaningful in hearing it.

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The Importance of Belonging to a Larger Story

Marriage Post Text BoxRoughly twelve years ago, on a pristine Summer day that reinforces the reputation of British Columbia being one of the prettiest places on Earth, my partner and I stood in front of 100 friends and family and got married.

When we set a date for our event a year beforehand, same-sex marriage was not yet legal in BC or anywhere else in Canada. Still, we wanted to have a “commitment ceremony” to mark our fifth year together and wanted our friends and family to be there to celebrate this milestone with us. Despite our event being a ceremony in name only, we still went through the typical wedding planning motions: hiring a caterer, printing invitations, and because we didn’t need an “official official” officiating our ceremony, asking my sister-in-law to do the honours.

Then, three months before our big day, the Supreme Court of British Columbia followed the precedent set earlier by Ontario and ordered the province to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. I was in Toronto on business at the time, and my partner Brent phoned me to give me the news. After a couple of seconds of stunned silence, he voiced what we were both feeling. “It kind of makes it all just a bit more real, doesn’t it?” (Gulp) Indeed it did.

Our wedding day was an invigorating, sometimes overwhelming flurry of emotion and activity. For many people, Brent and I included, this was our first gay wedding. I think a lot of our guests showed up expecting something radically different, only to be pleasantly surprised by how “normal” it all was…with the possible exception of the synchronized swimmers performing in the pool during the cocktail hour…you know, to give the event a little flair (Liza Minnelli was unavailable).

I can’t count the number of times people came up to me after our wedding ceremony and asked, “So, does it feel different?” “You know what,” I would reply, “It does.” Though we had lived together for over five years, something shifted for us that day we got married. It’s like all the good stuff about our relationship was suddenly amplified and affirmed. And while the whole experience would’ve still been wonderful without the marriage license, that little piece of paper made it that much more profound, because in addition to our friends and our families there to support us, we also had our community, our society and our government.

More than anything, it was incredibly meaningful to be able to belong to a cherished institution that, growing up, I had always thought would be unattainable. There was a larger story being created consistently around me that I thought I would never be a part of. And while gay and lesbian rights had progressed leaps and bounds during my adult years, this one brass ring was still out of reach. As it remained so, I would defensively cast dispersion on it, scoffing “Who needs it, as long as we have ‘domestic partnership’ rights.” But I did need it, which only became clearer to me when I finally had it, and my life changed forever.

As social, interconnected human beings, I believe we all like to feel like we belong to something that is bigger than ourselves. We yearn to be a part of a larger story that transcends our own and, more specifically, to be able to connect (marry, if you will) our own personal story to it. Last week, when the Supreme Court of the United States made same-sex marriage legal across all 50 states, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited this desire to be part of a larger story in the closing paragraph of his majority opinion:

“No union is more profound than marriage…In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to finds its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

When otherwise disenfranchised groups of people are enabled to be part of a larger story, it enriches and strengthens that story, not diminishes it. This is certainly true for companies looking to cultivate and nurture stronger organizational cultures, and it is true for society as well. And I think the majority of people recognize this, as evidenced by the rapid and profound shift in American public opinion on same-sex marriage as more and more states legalized it: a shift that took place a decade earlier here in Canada.

My wedding was honestly the happiest day of my life. The only thing that would have made it better was if my dad had been there to officiate. My father was an Episcopal (Anglican) minister who, in the years before his death, had pushed hard on the church to allow the blessing of same-sex unions. He wanted so much to be able to play the same official role for me that he had played for my three siblings at their weddings. And I know that, were he alive, he would’ve been up there with us, blessing our union whether his church officially agreed with it or not.

I know that all our guests were deeply moved by our ceremony. I think for them, it really didn’t matter that there were two men up there saying their vows instead of a man and a woman. For they saw what we felt: two people very much in love, dedicated to each other, and committed to this larger civil institution and this larger story to which they now belonged.

It was a great day, even without my father there. Still, I felt his presence, in the soft breeze through the trees, the warm sun on our faces and the quiet smile in the eyes of my new spouse for life.

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How to Personalize Your Professional Story

The great Danish author, Isak Dinesen once said, “To be a person is to have a story.” Indeed, storytelling is one of the most human of activities because our very lives are shaped by the stories we tell, the stories we hear and most certainly by the stories others tell about us. And yet I am still amazed by how many people aren’t able to convincingly tell their own professional story when called upon to do so: a story that reaches beyond the facts and information in their resume and effectively conveys their personal brand.

To illustrate: about four years ago a long-term client asked me to interview a candidate for the Communications Director position they were trying to fill. For the record, I have never been the best interviewer. As the consummate middle child, my primary motivation during any interview always seems to be helping the interviewee feel good about his or herself, walking out of the room feeling more charmed by me than challenged.

My client knows (and I choose to believe, adores) this about me. And so in asking me to interview this candidate he also asked that I not coddle her while doing so. “She has strong experience Bill,” he said, “I just want to get a better sense for what lies beneath that. So no questions like, ‘What’s your favourite TV show?’ or ‘Are you a dog or a cat person?’”

Five minutes into our interview, after my usual opener of pleasantries and small talk, I paused and said, “So, tell me your story.” In response she started to walk me chronologically through the facts outlined in her resume. “No, no, no…I’ve read all of that already,” I said, “Tell me your story.”

[SFX: Crickets]

“Ummm…what do you mean, tell you my story?” she asked.

“You know…your story. Give me a sense about what shapes and defines you; what gets you out of bed each morning; what made you decide to get into communications.”

[SFX: More crickets. I think a tumbleweed rolled across the floor.]

“Oh…I’ve never really thought of that before,” she admitted. And then she tried to answer my question to the best of her ability, but in doing so gravitated quickly back to what she knew, which was the information on her resume. I felt bad that my question had stumped her, but was also surprised that it had.

To effectively present yourself as a professional, you need to reach beyond the facts of your resume to convey what motivates and drives you as a person. Make no mistake, your skills and experience certainly play a role in defining your career, but in an increasingly competitive marketplace, they rarely differentiate you. What can distinguish you, however, are the concepts, philosophies and character that lie beneath your skills and experiences: the essence of who you are and how you both think about and approach the work that you do. What can distinguish you is your story.

To stand out and truly engage others—be they potential clients, employees, bosses, etc.—you need to personalize your professional story. And to accomplish this, I always suggest a two-pronged approach.

ONE: Explore, uncover and define your Personal Brand Story — When we work with companies at an organizational level to help them uncover the strategic story of their brand (or branded initiative), we start with developing their Core Brand Story. This isn’t a narrative per se as much as it’s defining different facets of their brand in a more storied and human way, steering clear of the overly wrought, inhuman mission or vision statements that plague so much brand planning work.

In our Leadership Through Storytelling training we do the same with executives and managers, compelling them to dig beyond the facts and chronology of their careers to uncover what shapes and defines them as professional people. We get them to answer questions such as:

  • What’s the higher purpose driving your efforts: the ultimate impact that your work enables you to achieve?
  • What difference do you want to make in people’s lives? In the world?
  • What are you fighting for or against?
  • What is it that you value most about yourself as a person?
  • What do you find most meaningful and fulfilling about the work that you do?

As an example, I used to think that the higher purpose of my work was storytelling. Only when my executive coach Linda Oglov kept relentlessly pushing me to dig deeper did I figure out that storytelling was really a means to an end, and that that end is really about helping companies and organizational leaders bring more meaning and humanity to their work…and their workforce. This is the higher purpose that drives my work and the rest of the BB&Co team. It was quite an epiphany.

TWO: Develop a library of exemplary stories (narratives) that bring to life the core elements of your Personal Core Story — Looking back on your career and your life, what stories can you identify that epitomize the different threads of your Personal Core Story and make them real for others? For instance, do you have…

  • A story around the original trigger or catalyst that launched your career?
  • A story about a time when it all just “clicked” and you knew this was what you were meant to be doing?
  • A story from your youth that could serve as the perfect predictor or precursor to what you do today?
  • A story around a key turning point or transition in your career and why it had to occur?
  • A story about the best time in your career…and/or the worst?

Never forget that your resume or CV speaks to the facts; your professional story speaks to your character. It provides context to the facts and makes them meaningful, serving as the thread that weaves those facts together into a larger narrative that speaks volumes. So the next time somebody opens a door by asking you to “tell me your story,” be ready to walk through it. And in doing so, don’t just tell the facts, tell a story.

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Three Daily Practices Inspired by My Broken Neck

Window Breeze

In two weeks I will say good-bye to the hard plastic brace that has cradled my neck since breaking it at the end of December. And while I look forward to the cervical freedom that accompanies this milestone (cervical as in “of the neck,” which I have, not “of the cervix,” which I do not), I worry that in losing said brace I will also lose the fresh acuity of mind I have enjoyed since my accident. It’s like I can see the window of wisdom closing before me, so I want to make the most of this while the breeze of enlightenment still blows softly and somewhat self-righteously through it.

I have learned a lot from this ordeal. Those learnings in turn have inspired the creation of some new daily practices and reaffirmation of some old ones, which I want to share with you in the hopes that they might bring some meaning and clarity to your day as they have to mine. On the “Deepak Chopra Kim Kardashian Scale of Enlightenment,” I have always drifted towards the latter end of the spectrum. So please bear with me while I enjoy the view from the Chopra side of things just a little while longer.

PRACTICE ONE: Meditating — Despite all the material that has been written about the many benefits of meditation and the fact that many highly successful people practice it, I had always thought it was a somewhat flaky endeavor and that sitting for any length of time without aggressively thinking or making things happen was, well, just lazy. But a couple of years ago, my partner suggested we start meditating each morning, and I was amazed at the difference it made to my mood, focus and creativity for the rest of the day. Our meditation is nothing too extreme: no incense, chimes or contorted positions, just a soothing voice on an audio track guiding us through 10 minutes of stillness. I had let meditation lapse from my life; now it’s back, and I am the better for it.

PRACTICE TWO: Expressing Grateful Intentions — Giving credit where credit is due, this next practice was inspired by my good friend Leslie, who herself was inspired by Tony Robbins “Hour of Power” (don’t judge her). After we meditate, my partner and I have a routine in which we each express…

  • Three Things We’re Each Grateful For — This can be anything from the profound (e.g. Being able to walk away from my accident, my friendships, an exciting new client) to the superficial (e.g. “House of Cards” Season 3, our new dining room chairs, Ranch dressing).
  • Three Intentions for Our Day — Three things large or small that we each hope to accomplish by the end of the day, work-related, personal or otherwise.
  • Three Intentions for Our Year — Reaffirming some of our individual goals and wishes for the year, many of which become reoccurring guest stars day by day. I know from experience that the simple act of vocalizing your goals and regularly bringing them to the forefront of your consciousness helps tremendously in your ability to reach them.

PRACTICE THREE: Showing Kindness to Others — About three years ago, I found myself in a particular period in my life that my partner now respectfully refers to as “Bill’s Angry Time.” The crowning moment of this phase was when, eating lunch during a day of skiing, I found myself yelling across a crowded restaurant at an 11 year old boy who kept propping open a door that I had repeatedly tried to close. Under the deservedly judgmental glare of just about everyone in that restaurant (“Uh Bill,” my brother-in-law said to me across the table, “I think you just lost the crowd.”), one thought dug its way through my layers of shame: I needed to be nicer.

Since that episode, I have always tried to do something nice for someone every day. It doesn’t have to be much: holding the door open for a stranger, buying a coffee and scone for a homeless guy, letting the woman with only two items cut in front of me in line at the grocery store. I’m not changing the world with these small gestures of kindness, but I am changing, if only for a moment, the way I feel about that world and the connections I have with others who inhabit it…and hopefully I am doing the same for someone else. It’s amazing how good it feels to intentionally do something nice for someone. A former colleague of mine, Sarah Chauncey, writes beautifully about this notion in her article “The Gifts of Giving,” which I encourage you all to read.

My younger brother has been on a retreat in Northern India since the start of the New Year and coincidentally sent me this photo this morning. Deepak Chopra says there are no coincidences in life (Kim Kardashian says, “What’s a coincidence?”), so I felt sharing this image would be a great way to end this post. Namaste.

IMG_0878

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Three Lessons Learned from a Broken Neck

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2014 ended with a bang for me; or more specifically, a break; or more specifically still, six breaks in my neck.

On December 28th, on the first swim of the first day of a much-anticipated vacation in Puerto Vallarta, I got into a fight with a rogue, “Holy crap, that’s big!” wave, and the wave won, picking all 200 pounds of me up like a feather, bending me backwards and slamming me headfirst into the ocean floor. The entire left side of my body from the waist up went immediately numb as I struggled to get my head above water while one thought crept into it: “This is bad.” After a minute of lopsided treading water, I managed to stumble to shore and up to our beach chairs, where my partner, Brent, and a friend had received their first round of drinks.

“I think I just really hurt myself,” I muttered, gently lowering my soggy, sandy self down onto a lounge chair.

“Oh I’m sure it’s nothing,” said Brent. “Here, have a Bloody Mary.”

After sitting for five minutes, I begrudgingly came to the conclusion that I needed to go to the hospital. Brent—respecting both his marital obligations and the fact that it takes a lot to get me off a beach (especially one that serves drinks)—came with me. After X-rays and various scans, it was revealed that I had fractures in five of the seven vertebrae in my neck, most notably the bottom two (C6 and C7), which had clean breaks from one side to the other but somehow by-passed my spinal chord.

When the doctors in Puerto Vallarta started talking surgery to stabilize my spine, our travel insurance company decided it was time to get me back to Vancouver and informed us that they were sending a jet. Admittedly, even in the face of tragedy, flying home on a private plane elicited its own degree of excitement. But visions of Cristal and caviar quickly evaporated when we pulled up to the airport and the paramedics wedged me, Brent and our luggage into a Lear jet that was roughly the equivalent of a Volkswagon Beetle with wings.

Back home on Canadian soil, I spent the next five days at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) in one of the best spinal wards in the country. Every doctor or nurse who saw me would look at my chart, look at me, look back at my chart, look back and me and say, “You are very lucky,” which I was, and I knew it. On January 3rd, I walked out of VGH, my head held high by a lovely neck brace that will be my constant companion and fashion accessory for the next several weeks.

Without a doubt, this whole experience has been the most traumatic health event in my 48 years on Earth. For someone who had never so much as broken a bone, I guess my body decided it was going to go big with its inaugural trauma. But as traumatic and disruptive as the whole experience has been, I have learned three valuable lessons from it, which I want to share in the hope that they might enlighten others.

On Stillness — I am a kinetic person who has been more or less moving non-stop for the past 25 years. So the thought of having to be still, completely still for an indefinite period of time both terrified and challenged me. But when I realized I had no choice in the matter, I was able to quickly and surprisingly embrace the stillness forced upon me. While I had visitors, my iPhone, books and an abundance of trashy magazines to distract me, I spent a lot of time in the hospital just being still: thinking, not thinking, seeing, hearing, feeling and absorbing what was happening around me versus worrying about the future or dwelling on the past.

In embracing stillness versus resisting it, I was able to not only regroup but also restore some clarity and focus that was missing from my life: around what is really important and what is not, around the healthy forces in my life versus unhealthy ones, around spending less time fretting and more time just being. I have tried to carry this stillness with me since leaving the hospital and intentionally infuse it into my life by starting each day with 10 minutes of meditation; by reading and writing first thing each morning versus compulsively checking email; by turning my phone off when I need to focus on something; or by taking a short walk or playing the piano to clear my head. I have been amazed at how much serenity and clarity a little stillness has brought to my life, both personally and professionally, making me more focused, creative and productive.

On Dependence — I’m a control freak and have a hard time relying on others, especially regarding anything that affects me or my surroundings. So it was tough to, in an instant, go from being the guy in charge to being the guy who couldn’t even turn over in bed without three people doing it for him. In the hospital, I needed to rely on nurses for everything; and while that was embarrassing and a bit emasculating at first, I soon surrendered myself to their expertise, their care and their unflinching willingness to provide it. Whether it was getting me water, bringing me happy pills, emptying my urine bottle or coaching me through my first bedpan experience (“Bill, it’s been five days; it’s time.”), the nurses at VGH approached every task with a warm smile, humour and words of encouragement, quickly earning my trust and, with that, helping me let go and let others takeover. Through their remarkable care and the gracious offers of help and acts of support from countless friends and family, I have not only come to have faith that people really want to help, but understanding that I need to be more willing to let them.

On Gratitude — In the age-old “glass half full or half empty” debate, I lean towards the latter. So I was shocked at how quickly after the accident my psyche went to a place of gratitude versus despair. I greeted each hour and each day with the profound realization that I was truly lucky to be alive and able-bodied. And while I knew this accident would mean a lot of things would be missing from my life for a while (e.g. exercise, travel, the Whistler ski season, being able to shave my own face…actually that’s an added bonus), I was amazed at how quickly a profound appreciation for all that I still had would drown out those thoughts. This whole ordeal taught me to approach each day from a place of thankfulness, not disappointment; from a perspective of abundance versus want; from a recognition of all that is going well in my life versus the few things that might not be. And if those old demons start to creep back into my head (as they do), I will stop, sit down and make a list of what I am grateful for, quickly righting my outlook on things.

This view extends out across a wide array of areas, but none more clearly than on all the amazing people I have in my life and how much I cherish and value them: friends, family, colleagues, clients and, most notably, my partner of 18 years. In the days and weeks following my accident, the outpouring of love and support flowing in from all corners of the globe was both humbling and overwhelming, filling my heart and strengthening my soul. And while I am eternally grateful for being able to walk, I am more so for having a wealth of loving and caring arms to walk into. That is a richness that will know no end.

As you head further into 2015 and fully re-immerse yourself in the hubbub of work life, I encourage you all to bring some stillness into your life, to bravely lean on others when you need to and to be thankful for all that you have versus dwelling on what you lack. Happy New Year everyone!

SIDE NOTE: I also encourage you to never travel without travel insurance. I buy a blanket policy every year for a whopping $125. I estimate that, with the hospital care in Puerto Vallarta and the air ambulance home, that insurance saved us around $75,000.

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Being in the Story of the Moment

Glass of ChampagneLast Saturday, when I boarded a flight from Moscow to Singapore (and then from there, on to Sydney), I was pretty excited: not because I was about to spend another 19 hours on a plane, but because I had never flown Singapore Airlines before. But as excited as I was, it was nothing compared to the Russian woman sitting directly across the aisle from me. She was about 70 years old, so I doubt very much this was her first time on a plane, but based on her reaction to everything around her, I’m guessing it was her first time in business class. If that was the case, she certainly picked the right airline to cut those teeth on.

She was literally buzzing with excitement: like seriously, if you leaned in close enough, you could hear her buzzing. She could not stop looking around her, catching eyes with everyone she could, giving us each a look that could only be interpreted as “Can you BELIEVE this?!” Because I was closest to her (and because her grumpy husband sitting on the other side of her was having none of it) she focused a lot of her fervor in my direction, speaking to me in rapid Russian, drunk with the enthusiasm of a five year old at Christmas but oblivious to the fact that I couldn’t understand a word she was saying.

When the flight attendant handed her a warm towel, she sat with it in her hands for about 10 seconds before she looked over to discover what I was doing with mine. When she received her amenity kit, she laid every item within it out on her tray table to fully inspect and marvel at them. When she was handed a pre-departure glass of champagne, she savoured it like it was the last thing she would ever drink on Earth. And when the flight attendant offered to refill her glass, she quickly refused, thinking, I’m sure, that she’d already had too much of a good thing.

Though her excitement and energy died down after a while, I would still catch the occasional squeal of delight when the flight attendants brought her something new to eat or drink. She’d giggle a bit, glance in vain at her unresponsive husband and then look over to me, her new best friend in seat 12A. And then she would smile, broadly, purely and without reservation. And I could not help but smile back and raise my glass in salute (because I had no problem accepting a refill) as a wonderful sense of kinship and camaraderie washed over me.

I’ve talked before about how someone’s enthusiasm and joy can be infectious, and this beautiful Russian woman’s most certainly was, turning a nice flight into a truly special experience. But beyond that, what amazed me about this woman was how totally and completely in the moment she was: more specifically in the story of that moment that was unfolding in front of her. She wasn’t worrying about the potential or improbable story of a future that had yet to pass: of missing a connection, of not sleeping enough to work  effectively the next day, of the plane running out of my first choice of entrée. She was deeply present and, at the same time, deeply appreciative of every moment and memory that present story provided her: a story you know she will tell again and again, reliving it each time as if it were happening for the first.

The Buddhist monk Thích Nhãt Hanh once said, “The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.” This remarkable woman reminded me of the need to more regularly open my eyes and my heart to the present story in front of me instead of worrying about a future story that is not. For it’s the stories of the moment that make life rich; and we, in turn, are enriched by those stories, but only if we fully embrace and savour them as they’re happening.

Here’s hoping that this Holiday Season and the New Year ahead are filled with many such moments and many such stories for all of you.

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Quit Advertising to Employees and Start Storytelling with Them

Employee communications is often an area of responsibility that falls in organizational no-man’s land, wandering overlooked and under-served between the purview of Marketing Communications and Human Resources, who typically have more pressing priorities (e.g. advertising, branding, recruiting, compensation, etc.). In an ideal world, employee communications is a joint effort between these two departments, leveraging the communications expertise of the former and the workforce insight of the latter.

Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 11.20.56 AMBut even when this joint effort exists around employee communications, companies do it a disservice if they approach them in the same way they do with external communications, advertising to their employees instead of conversing with them. Too much of the internal communications we see feel like overwrought ad campaigns, designed to ‘sell’ an idea to employees instead of truly engaging them in it. They seem to be driven by the thought that, “This is what we do in the marketplace and that seems to work, so let’s just do the same thing internally.”

But selling to employees results in employees feeling like they’re being sold, which over time can foster disengagement, distrust and detachment. Rather than advertising to employees, companies should practice more of the authentic and highly human craft of storytelling with them. Outlined below are three guidelines on how best to communicate with employees in a storytelling way.

ONE: Turn down the hype — Some celebration and fanfare can be appropriate for employee communications, but only if it’s reserved for truly special milestones or events. Fanfare will quickly lose its impact if it’s connected to the internal launch of every single initiative, idea or message. It’s like the organizational equivalent of the boy who cried, “This is a really big deal…no seriously…I mean it this time…really big!”

Instead of trying to sell and persuade employees through decibels and intensity, internal communications should look to engage and enlighten them through the softer, more human fashion of storytelling. Companies should recognize that, with internal communications, they’re talking to family, so those communications need to be more genuine and collegial than sales-y and gimmicky. Good internal communications should be conversational, respecting the more intimate and honest nature of the relationship employees want to have with the company they work for. They should feel more like friends sharing stories versus one trying to sell a used car to the other.

TWO: Give voice to the people on the front line, not just those in the corner offices — Far too often, the role of internal communicator is relegated solely to company executives. While there is always a time and place for employees to hear from the ‘captains’ who chart the course and steer the proverbial ship, they also want to hear from their fellow oarsmen. No matter how well scripted (see below) or delivered communications coming down from the top may be, they will always be tinged with the power gap that exists between the executives communicating and the employees they’re communicating to. It’s like the organizational equivalent of the emphatic leader saying, “This is a really big deal because I’m telling you it’s a really big deal.” In contrast, when fellow employees present an idea or message (even when done in combination with executives), cynicism and skepticism more readily fall aside. Employees listen more intently because, well, “that’s someone like me talking.”

We recently worked on a brand video for TELUS that used a rich variety of employees to bring their remarkable brand to life through their personal stories and off-the-cuff testimony versus having a senior leader present that brand. Though TELUS had used this sort of approach before, it was still somewhat atypical for them. But they understood how important it is for TELUS employees to hear from fellow employees, not just TELUS executives; and they also knew how well storytelling can work in humanizing their brand and giving voice to important ideas. And work it has. Since completing the video and sharing it internally, the response has been, in our clients’ words, “phenomenal.”

THREE: Have the faith to be unscripted, especially with videos — Video is used a lot in internal communications because it fires on so many levels. However, too many of those videos are little more than a senior executive reading a teleprompter in front of a camera. No matter how well-written that content is and how well the senior executive delivers it, there will always be something inauthentic about those videos, feeling more like a prepared statement being read at a press conference than a genuine exchange of meaning between human beings.

The concern usually driving this approach is around messaging (i.e.  “We’ll script it so it will say exactly what we need it to say.”). But genuine storytelling is more organic and fluid, having key messages and ideas unfold for listeners versus regurgitating them. It can go off script without going off purpose. When we work with clients on their internal communications videos, we make sure we understand what key messages and information we want those videos to convey and then have a conversation with people in front of the camera to draw those messages out. The result is something infinitely more genuine and human while still being on message, as evidenced with a video we recently completed for Relais & Châteaux North America.

In the world of one-to-many communications that we once lived in, a more scripted, tightly-messaged, executives-only style of employee communications was perhaps more appropriate. But in the more networked, many-to-many world of communications that is our current and future reality, that approach no longer works. Companies need to focus more on engaging with employees through communications versus talking to them, using storytelling to pull people into ideas instead of more straightforward messages to push those ideas upon them. This approach requires more faith, trust and relinquishment of control, but it results in internal communications infused with greater humanity, which in turn generates greater understanding, conviction and a profound sense of belonging among employees. And so it grows.

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A Grandmotherly Story on the Power of Storytelling

My grandmother Leesie at her 80th birthday...and me after a bottle of Sun-in had accidentally fallen into my hair.

My grandmother at her 80th birthday, and me after a bottle of Sun-In had accidentally fallen into my hair.

“Why” was one of my favourite words growing up. I would like to say this was indicative of my highly inquisitive and curious nature (e.g. “Father, why is the sky blue?”), but truth be told, the word “why” crossed my lips more than any other in response to my mother trying to get me to do something I didn’t want to do. “Billy, make your bed,” my mother would tell me. “Why?” I would ask. “Billy, finish your vegetables,” she would command. “Why?” “Billy, be nice to your sister.” “Why?”

These discussions were typically short-lived, because my mother would eventually lay down the trump card of all maternal communications: “Because I said so.” And as clever as I like to think that I was in my youth, I could never come up with a proper retort to this.

Enter my grandmother, Leesie. During one of her visits, she witnessed one of these exchanges with my mother, this time around the seemingly endless battle over my table manners. “Billy, get your elbows off the table,” she said. “Why?” I replied. And just as my mother was drawing breath to respond, Leesie jumped in. “Because Billy, if you don’t get your elbows off the table, you’ll never dine at The Plaza, then you’ll end up like your poor cousin Simon…and, well, we all know what happened to him.”

Though I had certainly heard of The Plaza Hotel, I had never heard of poor cousin Simon, so I was instantly intrigued. “Uhhh…what happened to Simon?”

And then Leesie proceeded to regale me and my brothers in the tale of cousin Simon who, despite the constant efforts of his dear mother, refused to get his elbows off the table, put his napkin in his lap, hold a fork properly, not eat so fast or chew with his mouth closed. “Simon’s mother tried everything to get him to change his uncouth ways, but to no avail,” Leesie explained with a sigh. “His stubbornness wore that poor woman down, and after years of trying, she simply gave up.”

“Years later, and Simon is a young man in New York City, fresh out of college, ready to put his mark on the world. Through a family connection, Simon was able to secure an interview with a prominent banker, who suggested they meet for lunch at the legendary Plaza Hotel. Everything seemed to be going swimmingly, until lunch arrived and Simon started eating, or more accurately shoveling food into his face with his fork held wrong, both his elbows and his napkin on the table, food spraying out of his open mouth as he talked with it full.”

“Well, the collective gasp in the dining room was audible,” said Leesie, “as one and all stared in disbelief and disgust at Simon’s table. The room fell completely silent except for the lonely clip of the Maître ‘d’s heels as he scurried over to Simon’s table and said in a hushed voice just loud enough for everyone to hear, ‘Sir, please leave The Plaza Hotel at once and never come back here again.’ Simon was going to argue with the man, but he could tell it would be no use. And while the banker and others watched, Simon shuffled dejected and humiliated out of The Plaza Hotel, never to return again.”

“Needless to say,” Leesie continued, “Simon didn’t get that banking job, nor did he get any job in New York for the reputation of his awful table manners spread throughout the city. And so, unable to find work, Simon slipped into poverty, where he remained until his untimely death at the age of 25.”

“So you see Billy,” said my grandmother, “good table manners may seem silly to you now, but you will be glad you have them later in life. For good table manners are the sign of a good man, and a good man gets hired, gets married and always gets to dine at The Plaza.” And then she grasped hold of my hands, looked me in the eyes and said, “That, my dear boy, is why you need to listen to your mother and get your elbows off the table.” And so I did that very night, and my elbows have stayed off the table ever since.

My grandmother Leesie was truly a master storyteller, and as children we were not only entertained by those stories, but also enlightened and inspired by them. Leesie was brilliant at telling stories that made a point that in turn made a change in the way we saw a situation, felt about it and acted as a result. She understood how much more powerful it was to motivate people towards a desired action versus commanding them toward it, and she used stories to create that motivation within us.

My mother was always very clear with what she wanted us to do (still is, God love her). Leesie was very skilled at using stories to help us understand and appreciate why we would want to do it. She seemed to have a story for any situation, and it wasn’t until we were much older and she was approaching 100 that we learned just how many of those stories were made up. But whether those stories were rooted in fact or fiction didn’t matter; we were all the wiser, richer and infinitely more well-mannered as a result of them.

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