About Conversation Kindling

The purpose of this blog is to share stories, metaphors, quotes, songs, humor, etc. in hopes they'll be used to spark authentic and rewarding conversations about working and living fruitfully. There are at least three things you can gain by getting involved in these conversations. First, you'll discover new and important things about yourself through the process of thinking out loud. Second, you'll deepen your relationships with others who participate by swapping thoughts, feelings, and stories with them. Finally, you'll learn that robust dialogue centered on stories and experiences is the best way to build new knowledge and generate innovative answers to the questions that both life and work ask.

I write another blog called My Spare Brain. This is where I am "storing" ideas for use in future books, articles, blog posts, speeches, and workshops. There is little rhyme or reason for what I post there. I do this to encourage visitors to come as treasure hunters looking for new ways of seeing and thinking vs. researchers looking for new or better answers to questions they already know how to ask.

19 March 2010

The Power of Stories

A recent speaker at the Masters Forum said that having a story to tell about our product or service can add value for customers and be a differentiator in the marketplace. He went on to say he was recently influenced to buy a product called Big Tattoo wine because of the back story he found on the label. Here's a slightly expanded version of that story; it appears on the company's website:
Two Brothers Winery, a partnership between brothers Erik and Alex Bartholomaus, released their debut wine, Big Tattoo Red 2001, in autumn of 2002 as a way to raise funds for cancer research and Hospice care in memory of their mother, Liliana S. Bartholomaus.

Alex Bartholomaus, President and C.E.O. of Billington Wines in Springfield, Va., created this unique blend in Chile. Alex then teamed up with his brother Erik, an established world-traveling tattoo artist, to design a fun label that would remind the two of their mother. Erik designed the label and they named their creation Big Tattoo Red.

Fifty cents from every bottle sold was donated to the Hospice of Arlington, Va., and other breast cancer research foundations in the name of Liliana S. Bartholomaus. The two sold 13,835 cases of the 2001 debut vintage and raised $83,010 to donate to Cancer research and support. The 2002 vintage was released in June, and the brothers were able to raise $300,000 in donation money. Erik and Alex have decided to make some of the donations on a state-by-state basis. This has helped them convince many distributors across the country to join in matching donations from Big Tattoo Red sales and giving even more money to local charities.

In an effort to expand this project even more, the brothers are now producing Big Tattoo White, a Riesling blend from Germany and a Syrah from Chile.

It was the Bartholomaus brothers' goal to honor their mother, who lost her battle against cancer in 2000. They wanted to do this in a creative and beneficial way. These fun wines boast a label with a Fleur de Lys, Liliana's favorite symbol, and their labels stand out on any retailer's shelf. The popularity of the wine soared during 2003, popping up on wine shop shelves and restaurant wine lists nation wide.
Because of this touching and powerful story, the brothers have raised $1,305,100 for their cause as of today's date.
At the Masters Forum, we've focused on the power of stories from the beginning. In fact, one of our founding principles says it’s stories - not data or information, no matter how well or cleverly presented - that are the principle driver of learning that sticks in the human brain. Or, as the author Rudyard Kipling said:
"If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten."
Accordingly, we have always selected our speakers not only for their great new ideas and unique ways of seeing, but also for their knack of saying what they have to say in the form of highly compelling, entertaining stories. In addition, we have held several sessions over the years on the subject of storytelling as a leadership and culture-building tool.

One of my favorites featured journalist and storyteller extraordinaire Roger Rosenblatt, whose first words to us were:
"I believe we're here to tell one another stories."
From there on, Roger's talk was simply a string of stories, along with a handful of suggestions on how to live. Anecdotes from his travels as a journalist, to Africa and Asia. Memories of growing up in the Gramercy Park neighborhood in New York. People he has interviewed over the years. Stories he has read. Quotes that stand out in his mind. He encouraged us to think of our lives and our stories. Many of us were straining though to connect the idea of stories with the challenges of doing business.

Writer Mike Finley, who authored the summary of Roger's session for us, was one of those scratching his head:
He's a professional storyteller. But what do stories mean for those of us making a living light years from the New York Times Magazine?

In business it may mean that we must identify what our story is. Chances are it is not something that has been percolated down in corporate communications. It may include, but does not center on, the plucky tale of the company founder and what he learned to do with baling wire and chewing gum.

The story may focus on the struggle to get inside your customers' problems and solve them. Or the individual lives of employees, their dreams and their difficulties. The challenge of being a decent employer, a good neighbor, and still returning a favorable yield to investors. Or the brave face you put up against competition that threatens at times to blow you away. It is the culture of the company, and how it is built upon sweat and care, and what it expects of people. It is the struggle against chaos that packs each day with new tensions. It is coping with the story itself, and the unavoidable arc that takes a company from early growth to slow decay.

The story changes every day, and the best you can do is to be sure that on any given day your story is as true as you can make it. The worst is to live a lie.

  • What is the story of your company's birth and formative years? What was its raison d'etre? What were its guiding principles?
  • How has its story unfolded over the years? What has changed? What is unchanged?
  • Does your company's official mission statement inspire you? If not, what story would you write to replace it?
  • What stories do you tell new colleagues to let them know how it is to work here? Are they the same stories you would tell them if you were forced to toe the company line?
  • Does your company need to create a new story to compete more effectively in today's rapidly changing world? If so, what is the story you think needs to be written?
"Man is eminently a storyteller. His search for a purpose, a cause, an ideal, a mission and the like is largely a search for a plot and a pattern in the development of his life story—a story that is basically without meaning or pattern." - Eric Hoffer
"Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it . . . and change it as times change, truly are powerless because they cannot think new thoughts." - Salman Rushdie
"But do not despise the lore that has come down from distant years; for oft it may chance that old wives keep in memory word of things that once were needful for the wise to know." - J.R.R. Tolkien
"'I would ask you to remember only this one thing,' said Badger. 'The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each others memory. This is how people care for themselves. One day you will be good story-tellers. Never forget these obligations.'" - Barry Lopez, Crow and Weasel

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