How to Curate your Canon of Personal Business Stories
When I look back at the end of my life, I hope the relationships I formed with colleagues are among those I cherish as true and lasting. Sure, nobody ever said they wished they had worked more, but work we must. Even while doing mundane tasks, I believe we can each find meaning and higher purpose. Indeed, the time we spend making a living is not separate from life. It is life. And a big chunk at that. Writing is my job, but when I sat down to write this article, I did so with love and bright hopes that that it will strike a chord with someone. Love? Is that a funny word to use in the context of employment? I don’t think so. I believe my colleagues and customers deserve my genuine love and that my work is deserving of devotion. This is an opportunity I might make a small difference with the time I spend on this planet. I also believe story is a powerful way to accomplish these purposes. As a biographer, I witness the tremendous power of story to bring families and organizations together. I usually write about telling family stories, so this article is a slight departure, providing the reasons why you should begin telling your own business stories with that same heart. It matters.
Of all you do at work, sharing business stories may be the simplest task, with the most lasting impact
This claim is not hyperbole, the compelling nature of story is rooted in human psychology and even biology. Stories engage and inspire us. In short, if you want to teach and lift others, this is one of your best tools. If you want to leave a legacy, start telling better business stories now. You don’t have to be a polished storyteller to make a difference, what does matter is to be on the lookout for powerful stories you can share with heart.
Humans are storytelling animals. The science and biology behind this are covered in the insightful book The Storytelling Animal) which explains how since the dawn of time we have been passing our values to new generations through stories told around the fire. The need to tell stories is hard-wired into our DNA. This is as core to our humanity as our ability to think and as important to our growth as a species as any other trait. Today we all crave stories in movies, on television, from books and in role-playing video games. Children’s play largely consists of acting out stories. When we stare off into space, our minds create fantasies. When we go to sleep, our brains ier
eep making up stories. Today we are not tribes telling tales around the fire, but we still swap tales in the break room (gossip, anyone?) and we share little vignettes in team meetings (read my related story on how to get started). Stories remain the primary way humans convey culture, how we socialize children and newcomers, and the truest method for communicate the organization’s real values, not just the published ones. The collective power of story in organizations is illustrated in the great business books of our day.
Let’s talk about two relevant takeaways from two business classics: Built to Last and Good to Great, by Jim Collins and friends. I re-read these every few years and dusted them off in which I dusted off and re-read in preparation for this article. A common thread in best-of-class Built to Last companies was that they all had strong cultures that Collins describes as bordering on “cult-like.” These organizations have crystal-clear shared core values that employees stick to with religious zeal. One way this culture is introduced and reinforced with each fresh batch of recruits is to tell the organization’s lore. Classic tales get repeated and guide future action.
“He heard dozens of stories about heroic customer service: the Nordie who ironed a new-bought shirt for a customer who needed it for a meeting that afternoon; the Nordie who cheerfully gift wrapped products a customer bought at Macy’s; the Nordie who warmed customers’ cars in winter while the customers finished shoppping, the Nordie who personally knotted a shawl for an elderly customer who needed one of a special length that wouldn’t get caught in the spokes of her wheelchair; the Nordie who made a last-minute delivery of party clothes to a frantic hostess; and even the Nordie who refunded money for a set of tire chains—even though Nordstrom doesn’t sell tire chains.” (Built to Last p. 118 copyright 2002).
In Good to Great, one of the biggest surprises the researchers discovered is that people are NOT your most important asset. (Pause for effect). The RIGHT people are. The companies that made the leap from merely good to become great figured out the traits that made exceptional employees, and they hired that kind of person. Consider also the whole point of a “behavioral interview,” when we ask applicants to “tell us about a time when you…” We then gauge answers against the traits we seek. Does this person’s values align with ours? When tested, will this person do right by our customers? Once hired, we must socialize new employees to our guiding principles. Stories make the institution’s mission tangible. We can put pretty words on a wall, but example speaks. In 1960 Senator John F. Kennedy said at a Q&A session at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, “What we are speaks louder than what we say.” Stories provide authentic examples of what we are, not just what we say.
Business stories at the heart of your why
In one of the most viewed Ted Talks of all time, Simon Sinek who wrote the book, “Start with Why,” explains that customers don’t care what you do, they care why you do it. They don’t connect to your product, they connect to what you believe. Martin Luther King Junior filled the National Mall with people who believed what he believed. King did not deliver the “I have a plan” speech. If you have never seen this Ted Talk, your life will be better for the 18 minutes you spend here. Trust me on this one. Here is the link. Go beyond the sort of rah-rah testimonials designed to sell product. Mind you, that works (“facts tell, stories sell”) and testimonial stories are infinitely better than a presentation I attended recently. The speaker was invited to talk about his company for 20 minutes in front of local business leaders. I cringed when he used maybe 15 minutes of his time showing self-serving corporate videos. Although beautifully produced, they were boring! Both of these videos forgot the cardinal rule: It’s not about you! It’s about the viewer. What does the viewer or listener get in exchange for giving you their undivided attention? Viewers want to be entertained. They want to learn something new, and most of all, they want to feel. They are ready for you to inspire them. They want to hear a story, even business stories. If these two videos had told told a story, I believe the audience would have been with him instead of itching for our phones.
Curate Your Canon of Business Stories
Referring back to the idea that Built to Last companies hold to their values with religious zeal, let’s consider that the Bible is an anthology of epic stories, one right after the other. These stories began as oral history and passed the test of time, teaching important principles to new generations. It is yet another example of how story is the method of choice for teaching our children, our tribes, and our families. Today great leaders use business stories to inspire action in employees. My whole goal with this article is to encourage you to thin about stories you can share right away. Begin curating your own canon of the best stories to illustrate your unique values. Be intentional about it and grow your repertoire over time. Watch for fresh stories you can share with team members, customers and even your boss when the opportunity arises. Stories collected now might someday become organizational lore, a bible of great tales. It will transform your career. I would bet my own future on this claim.
Business Stories From My Own Parents
One more personal story before I wrap up. When my mom and I began writing her life story about the family business she and my dad started in 1969, I had no idea the impact it would have on the family. We simply felt a purpose at the time. But the stories we stitched into a full book (Every Essential Element) now provide a roadmap for future our family and employees. A nephew who does not work in the business told me that he had never heard most of the it and the book made him proud to be an Anderson. I received letters from customers all over the world telling me how my parents inspired them. When we began, I couldn’t know that one day I would have a child who would only know my dad and his values through the stories we tell about him. That book is my best gift to her. Finally, my parents’ values have a profound impact on who I strive to become. Their example gives me courage. When the time came for me to make a terrifying decision to quit my day job and start Evalogue.Life, the faith my parents showed gave me the guts to leap. It has been one of the best decisions of my life and I can’t imagine what I would be missing out on if I had been immobilized by fear.
https://youtu.be/lVJK-DYjQG4 Of all the skills you might hone at work, consider adding the goal of becoming a competent business storyteller. For reasons why, read this related article on the power of telling business stories. This article, however, focuses on five question prompts that will help you identify experiences you can begin sharing with heart, right away.
Every business storyteller’s repertoire should include 5 these themes
1. What is the greatest lesson your mentor taught?
When I began my career as a young snot-nose marketing director at the Ogden-Weber Technical College, the great Brent Wallis was wrapping up his. Brent Wallis had grown the institution from nothing and on my second week of the job, we hosted an accreditation team including the director over the accrediting agency who told us after his visit, “I have never seen a finer technical college anywhere in the country.” That impressed me, and I was eager to learn what made this place special. Brent was a high energy leader who expected excellence from everyone. I have been told in his younger years he might stomp around and kick a desk when people fell short. But my experience with him was full of kindness and encouragement, and he went out of his way to talk to me personally. He made me feel important, even though I was several levels below in the chain of command. Of all his fine qualities, one that shined by example was what a wonderful business storyteller the man was. He often told stories about someone making a difference for students. In one meeting more than ten years ago, he told the following story:
On a blizzardy January morning Brent drove his car up the long wooded lane onto campus. His wipers swooshed thick flakes from the windshield, and his heater struggled to keep up with fog forming on the windows. The roads were not fully plowed yet, and as he maneuvered on the slippery road, he noticed a young mother trudging through the snow with a book-filled backpack plus a diaper bag. She pushed a stroller through the snow while guiding a toddler who she could not carry. Brent slowed the car and rolled down a dripping window. He introduced himself saying, “Can I give you a lift?” He learned she was recently divorced and had enrolled in school to support her children. She took the bus each day, which dropped her off at Washington Boulevard. She then walked a quarter mile to drop her children off at the Children’s School on campus and then attended class all day. As winter skies darkened each evening, she retrieved her kids and trudged back to the bus stop. Brent dropped her off, stomped snow from his shoes in his office and had his secretary dial the Utah Transit Authority to begin the process of getting the main bus stop moved onto the heart of campus. He also had a second stop added on the doorstep of the children’s school. Years after his retirement process, we did a comprehensive strategic planning process and added the words “one student at a time” to our mission statement. As a business storyteller, Brent Wallis been teaching these core values for years. He was intentionally driving home the imperative – do whatever is in your power to help individual students. As the president of the institution, he stopped his car to help one student. Then he left into action, exercising the power he had to improve her situation. This is what we all should do. Earlier in this article I said that telling business stories might be the simplest task you can undertake, while having the most lasting impact. (Read related story on why you should tell business stories). The fact that I am repeating a story Brent Wallis told me more than a decade ago illustrates this point. I remember the details all these years later. His stories had a profound impact in aligning my actions with the institution’s values. Brent Wallis was a mentor to me, and he taught me the imperative to help individual students. He also showed the power of telling business stories.
2. Tell me about a time someone did the right thing.
Brent Wallis wasn’t a guy who would squander time just reliving the good ole’ days. Rather, he was an intentional business storyteller, sharing the institution’s values in order to socialize new employees like me. How could he be sure that we would remain true after he retired? He shared example after example along the lines of someone stopping the car, if you will, to help a student in need.His best shot was passing on his canon of stories. He was right. Let me share another example. The biography I just finished, Remember When is about Norma and Jim Kier who founded Kier Construction and Kier Management. As I interviewed their employees, they told me many examples of the Kier family honesty and generosity. One employee told me he remembers Jim Kier calling a subcontractor to say, “I think your bid is off, I suggest you take a look at it.” The error was in Jim’s favor, and the sub insisted the numbers were good. “Yep, go with it,” the man had told Jim, but Jim believed otherwise. He had a choice to make: accept the bid and reap a profit at this man’s expense or toss it out against the man’s wishes? Jim made the private decision to go with another contractor even though it was not the low bid. A few days later, the sub called in a panic and Jim reassured him that had thrown the bid out. This was an example of Jim and Norma’s philosophy of treating everyone like family and having absolute integrity in everything you do. He would never make a buck while someone else lost their shirt.
3. When did your product or service make the difference?
When I became a vice president at the technical college after Brent Wallis retired, I felt like I was in way over my head. Perhaps the only saving grace I had was that I loved students. In the face of so many tasks and competing priorities, I made one decision that would shape my time at the college. I would focus on one singular them: how each of us can make a difference for individual students who walk through our doors. So in every division meeting, we talked about that theme, again and again. I asked for people to send me real experiences to share with the whole team and with administration. We took opportunities in those meetings to shine a light on employees doing the right thing. Here is one brief example of the sort of everyday moment I mean, an excerpt from a letter sent by a parent to one of our counselors. This mother wrote about her son who had been in an accident and suffered a brain injury. This young man had to watch his friends move on with their lives while he re-learned how to walk, talk and think. I got to meet this delightful student and his family at the honor society induction program. Dear (counselor) –I wanted to extend an invitation to you to attend (our son’s) honor society ceremony. We are so grateful to you for all your efforts to help him through his struggles…We couldn’t be more pleased. His self-esteem has soared with all the successes he’s experienced in this program. We are making a big deal of this, as it really is a big deal, after all we’ve been through. It’s been (many) years, but, I think we finally see light at the end of the tunnel. Just wanted to extend an invitation to you for this event, as you’ve been such a big part of his success. Thanks for all you’ve done for him and hope to see you soon. Now, this little excerpt might not seem like much, but it’s an example of everyday successes. I knew from experience how much heart this counselor put into helping students and it was not hard to share this example he thought was mundane. He was simply doing his job, but I believed otherwise. The point is that we can all be on the lookout for examples, and we can have them ready to share when opportunities come along.
4. Tell me about a time you didn’t know if you would make it.
If I have the chance to interview someone but only had the time to ask one question, this would be my choice. “Tell me about a time you didn’t know if you would make it,” is my all-time favorite interview question because it strikes at the “dark night of the soul” or the “why hast thou forsaken me,” moment in any story. These are the times when it seems that all is lost, the moments that lead to the biggest breakthroughs because you have to dig deep. Often there is a spiritual experience resulting in fundamental transformation. This is the stuff of great stories. Indeed, if I can share one singular piece of advice about what makes a compelling story, it would be to look for stories that have a “dark night of the soul,” moment followed by personal transformation or growth. The story of a mother whose son was in a terrible accident and had to re-learn every task is a perfect example. His story ends with tremendous personal growth. Trust me, future generations will want to hear about these moments in your journey and not just in the context of business stories. As an example, click here for a brief story a man told me after I taught a workshop, about the time he thought he would die. By the way, I learned about this principle of storytelling from the great Blake Snyder in his epic how-to series for screenwriters, “Save the cat, the last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need.” I’m not exaggerating when I say that his books changed my whole perspective on how to tell a good story.
5. How did you start in business?
Jonah Sachs, author of Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell (and Live) the Best Stories Will Rule the Future says one type of story is particularly nutritive to a business, called Genesis stories. These share why a brand or company started and it generally strikes at the heart of an organization’s why. Every great business is a response to a real need, and the genesis story clarifies this, often stemming from an epiphany by the founder. If you’re interested in reading more on this topic, here is a great Fortune article entitled, “How Great Marketers Tell Stories.” If you are interested in telling better business stories, below is a quick recap of my favorite books on the subject. Also, we write client stories for a living and love to coach. So if you’d like some help with yours, reach out to us. We would be delighted to hear from you. Rhonda Lauritzen is the founder and an author at Evalogue.Life – Tell Your Story. Rhonda lives to hear and write about people’s lives, especially the uncanny moments. She and her husband Milan restored an 1890 Victorian in Ogden, Utah and work together in it, weaving family and business together. She especially enjoys unplugging in nature. Check out her latest book Remember When, the inspiring Norma and Jim Kier story.
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