Stories that stick: from Takayama to London by way of Paris

It’s Sunday night and I’m on my way back from a day in Paris. My wife who is an interior designer has been at the annual Maison & Objet event at the Parc Des Expositions north of the city and was so enthralled she was late for our rendezvous; it’s pouring and visibility is lousy on the A26 as we rush towards the tunnel to make our 20.20 EuroShuttle.

Its a strange backdrop to a conversation about what sticks and why.  I asked Ana to share with me some of the most memorable conversation and objects she saw (at Sparknow we practice what we preach even in our personal lives).  After some deliberation and expressions of delight that many innovative ideas had come from fellow Portuguese design companies, including how to grow an indoor plant wall, and an astonishing set of letter furniture used in corporate settings

she settled on an encounter with a gentleman by the name of Yoshio Kan from a village in Japan called Takayama.  Ana’s reasoning was as follows:

Of all the people I met and displays I saw, Yoshio stood out because he told me a story about the products his town makes and how they came to be at the event. It was a communal effort to get their displays to Paris in time. Built in wood in Takayama it shows how the village uses recycled materials such as broken crockery to make new objects; how they have responded to changing cultural tastes by using Kimono fabrics to manufacture bags and; how they use lacquered wood as a substitute for glasswear.  The display reflects the village and its culture and Yoshio was its storyteller.

That the story was the thing that stuck from a day of glitzy presentations and amazing art, furniture and textiles reveals the power of face to face conversations and of story in underpinning brand, in this case that of a village. Ana felt a sense of co-ownership and is more likely to use them as a supplier as a result.

Which leads me nicely onto an event run by Shawn Callahan of Anecdote, Sydney that’s being held in London on February 16th. Entitled Storytelling for business leaders it builds on some of the techniques I describe in the Yoshio story and having attended previous events Shawn has run I can wholeheartedly recommend his style and guarantee attendees will find it money well spent.

Oh and in case you are wondering we made the shuttle with 2 minutes to spare.


“The best motivational message I’ve ever seen…”

So says Lucy Kellaway in an article today on FT.Com Management which draws on a “…standing on a burning platform..” memo, sent to all Nokia staff by CEO Stephen Elop, to make this point:

Fear of death is motivating; so is the truth. Most employees are fed on a never-ending diet of flannel, so when they are dished up a helping of stark truth, the effect can be invigorating.

When I first read the leaked memo at the end of last week what struck me was the CEO’s use of a story at a critical time in the organisation’s evolution or potential demise; it was as stark as that.  Through the imagery of a burning oil platform it presented staff with a  choice: jump into the freezing waters and potentially drown or remain onboard the platform as it is today and perish.

Seemingly part of a well orchestrated internal communications programme the memo was followed a few days later by an announcement of a strategic development tie up with Microsoft in response to Apple’s competitive edge in the smartphone and apps arena.

Lucy’s take (and I am paraphrasing) is that the use of fear is a powerful tool to cause a shift in approach.

It’s a technique we’ve used before to try and bring to life topics that normally switch off most senior managers when raised. I’m referring here to records management.

A couple of years back we used a picture (of the inside of a road tunnel) and asked the company’s management to look at the picture and estimate how much the remedial work about to be undertaken was going to cost.

The figure they gave reflected the fact that they had to strip down the tunnel walls to find out what was behind them; the records and plans were no longer to hand.  Quite apart from the increased cost of the project there was a significant loss of productivity caused by the unecessariy lengthy tunnel closure.

The picture and the supporting story were catalysts for a change in approach and the adoption of a new records management policy contributed to improved effeciency.

It remains to be seen whether the ‘burning platform’ memo will have a more dramatic effect at Nokia; its safe to assume the image is planted firmly in the minds of most employees and stakeholders.  I wonder if the next chapter in this unfolding story will be the release of a story based in the future?