What's Your Story?

Biz Narrative Blog by Ruth Halpern

Observations and anecdotes about business narrative in the corporate world.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Cooking Up a Delicious Message

They say that if you can read, you can cook: Just follow the recipe, and you’re guaranteed success.

But just look at the sad form of this flattened-out chicken (the first time I’ve ever roasted a whole chicken). The recipe said “place in the pan,” so I did—wrong-side up, my chef-husband later told me, and all splayed out, he explained, because I didn’t truss it.

“But I followed the directions,” I complained. The recipe didn’t say “This side up,” nor did it say to truss the bird, nor how, nor where, nor why. I just did as I was told, and ended up with this funny-looking result.

How often the words on the page, or the sentences we speak, are based on assumptions and premises about the audience that are absolutely incorrect. Not everyone went to cooking school in Paris. Not everyone knows what you know about policies, histories, the Way Things Should Be Done.

How do we figure out what our audience doesn’t know, and make sure to address those gaps when we communicate?

• Question yourself—how did I learn how to do this?

• Put yourself in your audience’s place—what will make the process easy, clear, and rewarding for them?

• Test your communication on a sample audience with the same background/knowledge level you anticipate in your real audience.

Before you communicate, make sure you’ve included all the ingredients needed to cook up a satisfying exchange.

And by the way, as funny-looking as this chicken was, it tasted delicious.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Get inside the life of an outsider

One of my goals in delivering diversity training is to help participants develop understanding for the world-views of people from different backgrounds than their own. This is hard work: you have to want to do it, because it takes energy, empathy, openness, and patience.

This year, one way to expand your awareness of diversity is to go to the movies. Rarely have movie-goers had a chance to feel life outside the mainstream as strongly and viscerally as they do in the movie "Precious: Based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire." Precious Jones is a quintuple outsider: African-American, female, a teenage mother, an incest survivor, and obese. She is also a deeply feeling, strong character, who we quickly come to identify with, root for, and love. For her, an "ordinary day" is fraught with threats and dangers--harassment, humiliation, physical and sexual assault--that many of us have never had to contend with, yet we follow her because she pushes forward with persistence, sass, and a powerful imagination. This is why storytellers say that "you can never hate a person once you know her story."

This movie is a gift: an opportunity to inhabit a world that, while it may seem foreign in some respects, is as passion-filled and worthy of respect as any that has been portrayed in more "mainstream" movies.

I emerged from it shaken, and enlightened.

What more could a diversity trainer ask for?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

When the facts defy our beliefs

This week, NPR aired the story of Brian Korbon, a 9 year old boy who, it appears, knew he was going to die shortly before he did. The story was recorded at a Storycorps booth, which is part of a national project to record people's stories about friends and family, nationwide.

In addition to being a powerful, loving tale of a vibrant boy and his parents' loss, I find myself pondering this statement: The father, Gregg Korbon, says, "It wasn't in my belief system that something like that could happen."

There he was, an anesthesiologist, watching his son gather his possessions, write goodbye notes to his friends, and announce that he "wasn't going to see double-digits" (meaning wasn't going to live till he was 10), but the father couldn't HEAR this.

The father's belief system did not allow for the possibility of losing his beloved child, never mind that the son might know that this was going to happen.

This story gives me shivers for so many reasons: The boy's foreknowledge, the mother and father being forced to accept the son's wisdom about his imminent departure, and most of all, the reminder that this story gives all of us: There are realities that all of us are unable to see because they don't fit into our belief systems.

How does this play out on an organizational level? What realities are invisible because they don't fit into our organizational vision of what is possible? Attainable? Real?

How vital it is that we listen, pay attention to the facts, try to see past the filter of our beliefs to what is possible--and real.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Public Speaking--Read Your Audience, Not Your Notes

Last night I had the honor of speaking at the Commonwealth Club of California, a historic institution dedicated to sharing knowledge and information on many subjects. It was a great honor to be there, and I had worked hard to prepare.

My session was on "Galvanize Your Colleagues with the Power of Storytelling," and it was very well-attended. Business people know that they need excellent communication skills in order to succeed, and knowing how to craft and deliver an effective story is a key tool. The crowd was engaged and curious, which was a delight.

My favorite part of any presentation is the Q&A, when I get to learn more about the questions that my ideas have inspired in other people. There were many interesting comments, but one in particular really stood out for me:

One woman asked whether there's a particular personality type (think Myers-Briggs or another personality profiling tool) that is especially adept at telling stories, or one for which it's harder to become a good storyteller?

What a great question! So many of us are fearful of public speaking, and more so if we think, "Oh, I'm not a good enough storyteller to stand up there and talk. It doesn't come naturally to me. I'm too dull/nervous/verbose/fill-in-the-blank."

As a business narrative coach and teacher, I believe that everyone of all personality types has a story to tell, and everyone can learn to tell it effectively. So much of the challenge in crafting a story is knowing what to include and what to leave out. What level of detail is appropriate? When is it OK to digress? How do you keep people engaged enough in the overall suspense of the story that they're willing to follow you into more technical material?

The best way to determine how much to say on each of your story points is audience awareness and responsiveness:

• Learn as much as possible about your audience BEFORE you speak to them.

• While you're talking, DO NOT read your PowerPoint, your script, your detailed notes.

• Do not rotely repeat a memorized program.

• Instead, read the audience. Are they looking at you? Are their faces confused/blank/disinterested? Are heads nodding because people are in enthusiastic agreement, or because they're on the verge of dozing off?

• Be prepared to adapt your story. If you see that you're losing people, move forward towards your conclusion--the happy ending, the call to action, the REASON you're speaking in the first place.

• Don't be afraid to ask questions. Draw your audience in by asking for a show of hands on a relevant topic. Don't answer for them. Allow silence in the room, time for people to think, digest, and respond.

No matter your personality type, when you can read and respond to your audience, and you know your material intimately, you can deliver a powerful, memorable business story. And sometimes, the best way to master your story and deliver it well is to work with an experienced story coach. Call me next time you have an important presentation to give, and you'll see what a difference it can make.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Want to Improve Workplace Performance? Play a Little!

I had the privilege recently of leading an ice-breaker session for a board retreat of high-level legal managers. We spent half an hour playing together as a warm-up for their annual retreat. When I say "playing," I mean it in the best sense of the word: Experimenting, taking risks, making mistakes, and laughing our heads off.

We make such a grave mistake, suffer such an immeasurable loss, when we ignore the value of play in the business world.

My techniques for leading people into this world are drawn from improvisational theater, storytelling, and group process. And I know what people think when I suggest that we play catch with an invisible ball--they think it's ridiculous, unprofessional, a complete waste of time.

How can I tell?

Well, of course I can read it on their faces and in their body language. But I also hear the condemnation in my own head, a sinister whisper telling me that having this much fun can't possibly be considered "legitimate" work.

Here's the great news, though. Play is the very most vital, legitimate approach to coming up with new ideas, building healthy, resilient teams, and staying engaged and creative when the going gets tough. Many kinds of research have shown it--one of my favorite books on the subject is The Levity Effect by Adrian Gostick and Scott Christopher. Short summary: Studies have shown that laughter pays off. That the most profitable, efficient, and effective business teams are those that laugh together, play together, experiment and explore together.

So why haven't more businesses rushed to embrace this great news? I think there are a few factors:

  • First, in order to laugh, we have to have a certain amount of emotional abundance--the freedom, the time, the expansiveness to let loose and laugh. When times are rough, and people are focused on scarcity and loss, laughter feels like an extravagance that no one can afford. But in fact, we can't afford NOT to laugh. Laughter lightens the mood and replenishes us so we can get back down to business with renewed energy and enthusiasm.
  • Second, I think there's an element of The Emperor's New Clothes in the business world--no one wants to admit that they can't quite see the seriousness and portent in every business procedure and detail, for fear that they'll appear frivolous, incompetent, or addle-pated. So we all put on our stiff suits and our stiff upper lips and act as though everything we do is deadly serious.
  • Third, I think that more traditional businesses, with more traditional, top-down management styles, are reluctant to try anything that doesn't have concrete, measurable results. If it's not rational, linear, and quantifiable, it can't be real.
But we cling to these beliefs to our great detriment.

Playfulness Gets Results

After half an hour of circle games, imagining ourselves in strange worlds, free-associating, and sharing stories about our most passionate non-work interests, the group was energized, galvanized, and ready to begin some of the most creative work of all: developing a vision of the future, and agreeing on a strategic plan to make that vision a reality.

Could they have prepared themselves just as well using a 40-slide PowerPoint and a few flip charts? I doubt it. After all, the meeting took place after lunch. Everyone knows what happens to a human being with a full stomach when the lights dim for a presentation.

If you'd like to learn more about bringing playfulness into your workplace, contact Halpern & Associates at 510-338-0241 or by writing info@rhalpernassociates.com.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Strengthen Your Tolerance Muscles and Support Diversity in Your Workplace

After years of studying the skills of professionalism and self-mastery, I firmly believe that the hardest skill for us humans to develop is tolerance. What better, or more bitter, example, than the recent assassination of physician George Tiller, a brave and compassionate man who was killed for practicing his beliefs? Two people differed on a profound moral issue; for one, this difference was so intolerable that he convinced himself that murder was preferable to mutual acceptance.

We can all imagine what would become of civil society if every time people disagreed, they shot each other. Intolerance inside your organization can also be deeply destructive. When people don’t know how to differ or disagree constructively, their intolerance can destroy creativity, stymie innovation, shatter teams—destroy all the key elements of an enterprise’s success.

But the habit of intolerance is deeply implanted, perhaps even biological. We perceive those who are different from us as threatening, repulsive, wrong-headed—even dangerous. Don’t believe me? Just listen to the little voice in your head next time you find yourself in a crowd. Who are the people who you shy away from, mistrust, condemn? For me, the interior litany of intolerance is instantaneous—and embarrassing. I like to imagine that I’m nonjudgmental, and I’d never deliberately hurt anyone over a disagreement, yet I hear my inner voice criticizing bad driving, bad communication style, bad parenting, and bad fashion crimes. Over and over, it’s those who seem most different from me who I disapprove of most fiercely.

Cultivating tolerance is hard work—in fact, it may go against our natures. Studies show that people are most comfortable living, working, and studying with people most like themselves. That’s how liberal communities like Berkeley spring up—like-minded people like to live together. But “liberal,” it turns out, does not always mean “tolerant.” In fact, Berkeley liberals are just as eager as everyone else to encourage (or coerce) others to be more like them. This is, after all, the town where strangers will criticize what’s in your grocery cart, berate you for the car you drive, and even try to mandate where your coffee comes from.

How can we exercise our tolerance muscles effectively? In my workshops on “Mastering Difficult Conversations” and “Fostering Diversity,” I lead exercises designed to increase your comfort with difference. Find a partner and stage a discussion where someone deliberately opposes one of your most strongly held beliefs—on capital punishment, the right to vote, or the appropriateness of spanking as a child rearing aid. Listen to your inner voice as your partner deliberately supports the opposite position on whatever topic you’ve selected.

Workshop participants report unspoken reactions such as,

“What an idiot!”

“Who in his right mind believes that?”

“Oh, I can’t listen to this!”

“I could never respect someone who believes X.”

Not only do we practice not saying these conversation-stoppers out loud; in these workshops, we listen to those inner voices, and we wait them out. In place of intolerance, we learn to substitute curiosity. Asking questions is a great way to get past the reflex rejection of difference, to actually learn about another person’s point of view.

And I don’t mean fake questions like, “What in the world are you talking about?”

I mean real, open-ended questions, like, “How did you come to that belief?” and “What experiences have led you to that conclusion?”

Try it out sometime. Next time you’re in a conversation with someone you strongly disagree with, instead of explaining to him how wrong he is, or changing the subject because he's “hopeless,” try asking a question. Treat it as an exercise—but see how many things shift for you when you set aside intolerance to learn more about another human being.

Why should we spend time building our tolerance and curiosity?

It could save your life. And it will definitely strengthen all of your relationships, with family, with colleagues, even with those you disagree with most fiercely. Inside our organizations, when we learn to tolerate difference, ask questions out of genuine curiosity, and recognize our common humanity, we add another thread to the web of relationships that supports our success.

Want to strengthen your tolerance muscles and support diversity in your workplace? To schedule a custom-tailored workshop on “Mastering Difficult Conversations” or “Fostering Diversity,” please call 510-338-0241 or contact info@rhalpernassociates.com.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Delegating Makes You a Mentor

Wondering how to get started as a mentor? Delegate a project to someone today!

I was training a group of attorneys recently who said that they simply don’t have time to mentor young associates—it takes more time to delegate a task than to do it themselves. This is a tough complaint to argue with, because in the short term it’s true: it often seems easier to do a task than to break it down, teach someone else how it should be done, and coach them through the process.

The long term view, however, is that we can’t afford NOT to do it. If we don’t pass on our expertise and know-how, our organizations will be unable to survive us—we’ll have no skilled, well-trained successors. To put it another way, it’s our duty to our employer to mentor and train younger members of the organization. When we postpone or avoid this task, and try to do everything ourselves, we’re dooming the organization.

So, given the importance of mentoring our successors, how do we get past the “I don’t have time” barrier?

Last week, when I was presenting a program at the Northern California Human Resource Association’s HR West Conference, I attended a wonderful training session that provided a good answer to this question. Jo Miller, CEO of Women’s Leadership Coaching, Inc., presented a program on “Becoming a Person of Influence.” Jo presents the components of influence very clearly, and one thing resonated with me more than anything else: you can increase your “resources influence” by delegating projects to other people.

Naturally, you don’t delegate in an, “I can’t be bothered with this” way.

Instead, you might pull someone out of the crowd, saying “You’re the right person for this job. You may never have done anything like this before, but I’ve been watching you, and I’ve seen that you have capabilities that go beyond your job description.”

What Jo explained is that you can expand your influence by assigning tasks to people within your organization who might be stretched—and increase their competence, confidence, and reputation—by taking on a task you don’t want to do. You gain in several ways simultaneously:
  • You gain influence, by demonstrating that you’re a person who can build a team and get things done.
  • You gain time, by delegating a project to someone else.
  • You gain a loyal ally, someone who believes in you because you believe in them.
  • You establish yourself as a mentor while learning how to delegate skillfully.
When it’s spelled out like this, why wait? Delegate!

Learn more about Ruth Halpern's training and coaching services at www.rhalpernassociates.com, or call 510-338-0241 for a consultation today.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Enjoying the mud puddles

Last Sunday, after what felt like 40 days of rain, I took my 3.5 year old daughter out for a rain walk. We put on our raincoats, our rain boots, and our rain hats, and set out on the Seaview Trail in Redwood Park.

The bay tree and redwood forest was so dense and green it almost hurt your eyes. The ferns and moss were damp and dripping, though no rain was actually falling. And I thought, "Great, we'll walk a mile or so to a beautiful look-out point, see the clouds pouring over the Golden Gate Bridge, have a snack, and walk back." A goal, a destination, a reward, and home--what a fine plan.

Three minutes down the trail, we came upon a mud puddle. A substantial mud puddle, deep and squishy, with enough mulch to leave footprints and make a sucking sound when you tried to pull your boot up. And my daughter declared that this was "home." She didn't want to walk any further. She didn't want to see the view. She wanted to stomp and smush around in the puddle and play that we lived there--mud pillows, mud blankets, mud pies for breakfast. So that's what we did.

No view, no completion, no achievement--just playing with what we found on the path.

As avidly as I set my adult goals and destinations, in times like these, especially, it helps to be reminded that stopping and stomping in the mud puddles is the real purpose of the journey we're on. What seems like an annoying detour, inconvenient and messy and sticky, can, with the right pretending, be the place where we make ourselves at home.