Annette Simmons on the Power and Impact of Personal Stories: An interview by Bob Morris

Annette Simmons is a vibrant keynote speaker, consultant and author of four books: Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins: How to Use Your Own Stories to Communicate with Power and Impact, Second Edition (2015); The Story Factor, 2nd Revised Edition, named as one of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time; Territorial Games: Understanding and Ending Turf Wars at Work (2006); and A Safe Place for Dangerous Truth (1998).

Annette started with a business degree from Louisiana State University in 1983, spent ten years in Australia in international business, attained a M.Ed. from NC State in 1994, and started Group Process Consulting in 1996. She is surprisingly honest, ferrets out hidden opportunities, joyfully takes risks, and tells a great story.

In her own words….

Blindly encountering the differences in between America and Australia, then Japan, Philippines, Europe, Hong Kong, I bumped, crashed, and eventually learned to surf the waves of cultural differences. I learned that meaning is arbitrary – what is important to one culture may or may not be important to another.

So far, I’ve written four books that have been translated into eleven languages. I can’t believe I have over thirty years of study and experience. But I do, and it’s a bountiful harvest when I can help others by designing and delivering tools and training that improve the flow of stories. I love what I do.

There are so many stories that need to be told. Sometimes I feel like my job is simply to cure story blindness. Lucky for us, it is much, much easier to cure than color blindness!

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Morris: Before discussing the second edition of Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins, a few general questions. First, with rare exception, the greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were also great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Simmons: Great leaders live “storied” lives. Telling a story is not only about describing a setting, plot, characters and events. I think how you live your life is the most important story you can tell as a leader. People who fight for a cause, seek meaning or follow a great passion naturally have more stories to tell. When I teach storytelling I start everyone off with a “who I am” and “why I am here” story first. It’s hard, but it is a sign of leadership to have clear values and to be willing to reflect on how well you measure up to your own standards. Take Winston Churchill. He anguished over who he was and spent a lot of time in self-examination. When I teach story, I also urge participants to engage in self-examination and report “what earns you the right to influence.” If you want a great story, put your heart into demonstrating with a story: “This is who I am.” And “This is why I am here.” I think knowing this is a pre-requisite for becoming a leader.

It’s not about being perfect. Most great leaders had/have big imperfections but the imperfections give their character depth rather than define them. Churchill famously was depressed, moody and drank too much. The line blurs between learning storytelling and learning leadership. Storytelling works on you, the more you work on it.

Morris: In your opinion, what have been the most significant developments – since 2000 when your book, The Story Factor, was published – with regard to the business world’s understanding and appreciation of storytelling, insofar as to how it can improve both formal and informal communication? Please explain.

Simmons: Emotional intelligence principles, systems thinking and new thinking routines like Agile and Scrum are results of the same phenomena – our societies struggle to re-introduce human factors back in to decision and strategic conversations. We tried to get humans to act like machines and we failed. I credit design thinking for popularizing a way to include human factors (like how people feel) into product designs. I think it had to make financial sense before business processes would follow their example.

Loyalty to old linear methods of understanding is giving way to bigger picture thinking that incorporates innovation and intuition. At a grassroots level there has been a hunger for stories – most popular podcasts tell stories. We crave a sense of identity/values to give us an anchor in the storm of change and complexity. In both cases stories just worked better to feed people’s needs. Even research methodology has developed in the direction of using stories to reveal what metrics cant “see.”

I remember when groups almost always sought to “solve” problems by being more precise, technically clear and focused. Today people depend on metaphors and story – as imprecise, fuzzy, and subjective as they are – because they imply strategic intent that can adapt to a future that is ambiguous, utterly imprecise and impossible to predict.

Morris: That said, I am amazed, frankly, that so few executives among those now actively involved with social media are effective storytellers. Do you agree? If so, how do you explain that?

Simmons: In the democratization of information we are in a phase of majority rules where people seem to trust that the best advice is the most popular advice. But we know better than that. Socrates compared a baker who cooked sweets that pleased people but did not heal them with a doctor who needed to dispense medicine that healed but did not taste good. Obviously a yummy cupcake is going to be more popular than medicine. Executives that practice storytelling without the internal work of self-examination tell fake stories, boring stories, or disingenuous stories. Then they conclude storytelling is fluff.

Clear, straightforward advice is more popular and more tweetable, but some aspects of storytelling are simply not straightforward. In my own experience teaching storytelling I’ve learned there are predictable points of discomfort while improving your storytelling.

Some of the advice reminds me of the scene in the 1990 film Pretty Woman when Richard Gere’s character asks, “What’s your name?” and Julia Roberts character says, “What do you want it to be?”

For instance if you rush tell a story about your business without asking yourself some hard questions it is a shallow story. There may be no intent to lie, but these stories are more about who you want to be, than who you are. If you want to tell a story that feels personal to customers you need to take that story personally yourself.

Morris: As you point out in the Introduction, the co-authors of Practical Wisdom (2011) – Barry Schwartz and Ken Sharpe – “explore the inadequacy of our attempts to use algorithms to replicate wisdom.” What are your own thoughts about that? Please explain.

Simmons: I like algorithms; it is cool to use algorithms on big data to find patterns and use those patterns to serve needs. But just because there is an algorithm that makes finding a date more efficient, it doesn’t mean we understand why or how people fall in love.

I see storytelling as an art whereas algorithms are paint-by-number generalizations. A paint-by-number algorithm can reliably pick out similar pictures but it can’t produce a new picture.

I appreciate “narrative software” that successfully applies algorithms to reduce big data into “stories” that make the data more useful. These kinds of “stories” can tell you John is an unmarried male under 40 with college debt who recently googled “Porsche” and that John is likely to buy a sports car in the next two years but it can’t stimulate empathy with John or a desire for a sports car.

Morris: Who have had the greatest influence on the development of your ideas about the art of story telling?

Simmons: Storytelling taps into everything I’ve learned about psychology, group dynamics, cultural values, personality styles, and other disciplines from many mentors who have helped me along the way. It is a study of the human condition. But my story specific teachers have all been traditional tellers. Most notable Doug Lipman, author, coach and professional storyteller. He was my primary mentor from the beginning. I came to storytelling at the same time I was teaching leadership in pretty intense self-awareness workshops so I initially wanted to use stories that prompted self examination or took people on a little field trip of alternative behavior choices. Doug introduced me to storytelling ethics, folktales, and an inverted process (no criticism) that uses positive feedback to develop stories. It makes for a much richer experience that still provides unique insights. For instance storytelling ethics don’t just keep you in line but the rigor of not cutting corners produces better, more interesting stories. Storytellers have several tricks for shifting from small talk to meaningful story sharing.

Morris: When and why did you decide to create a Second Edition of Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins?

Simmons: My editor asked me to do it. I had no idea if I could bring any shape to what I was seeing as an explosion of new applications and new definitions of storytelling. I knew I would learn a lot by making the attempt.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Simmons: Well, I was convinced the new crop of storytellers were so far ahead of me I would never catch up. I was very ill for most of 2011-13 and my first survey of storytelling circa 2014 left me feeling like social media had redefined storytelling in ways I would never understand. Simultaneously neuropsychology and behavioral economics research have produced so many bits of advice on how to increase engagement to the point is seemed like science could step in to erase a lot of the fuzzy issues with clear guidelines like loss aversion, social proof, and visual stimulation. But my brain could never construct a story “to code.” On top of that, I felt intimidated by the complexity of analytics that tested and promised to streamline stories with details cherry picked to get the desired response.

Aggregating all that information made me temporarily forget that real life is messy and real life creates much better stories than we will ever construct from research findings. If it was that easy, anyone could write a best selling novel. So the first epiphany was that a lot of the storytelling advice was all hat and no cattle.

My head-snapping realization was that in business, people don’t have a formal process for trusting intuition or even for explaining an intuitive hunch. The desire to be “right” or do it the right way makes it way more complicated than it needs to be. It makes as much sense as engineering a bridge to get across a creek you could just as easily jump over. I don’t care how sophisticated your story finding model becomes, you ultimately you will end up using “guess and test” to find a story that “works.”

Storytelling is not just a delivery mechanism for operant conditioning.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the Second Edition in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Simmons: Well, part one is significantly easier to understand. I still make the case that stories illuminate subjective interpretations of information that complement what objective information tells us. I give examples that show how applying criteria that improves objective reasoning (like quality measures that reduce deviation) will destroy the kind of subjective information (creativity is deviation) that makes stories interesting.

Morris: I think some of the most valuable material you have shared in any of your books is in the final chapter of the Second Edition, “Borrowing Genius.” Please explain the meaning and significance of its title.

Simmons: I can now point to a general consensus that human factors introduce a need for variable processes and wholistic methods. User Experience Designers and other innovative applications from Law, Marketing, Entertainment and Nonprofits have rigorously put storytelling advice to the test and nobody found a “secret formula.” Their genius (and deep pockets) failed to find a way to use storytelling as a delivery mechanism for operant conditioning. Storytelling embeds the need to be a human in order to attract other humans.

Morris: In your opinion, is any one of the “story thinking” skills more important than any of the others? Please explain.

Simmons: I really like the idea of “dropping your standards” or de-valuing perfection in favor of emotional impact. When you stop searching for the perfect story, you hear many more stories that are as likely to teach you something about your customers, as they are to teach your customers about you. It also proves you have to be present to win. It is much easier to inspire emotion when you, yourself express that emotion. I think it reduces the distance between designers, sellers, and customers.

Morris: I agree with you that emotional thinking and objective thinking are mutually exclusive. Indeed, I think they are interdependent. Do you agree with me about that? Please explain.

Simmons: Being human means having a body that exists in time and space. Some times and spaces are more desirable than others. Cognitive evaluations using objective criteria may “prove” I am in a “good” time and space, but if I am unhappy, no amount of objective proof that I should be happy can help. We are talking about two different systems that interact – but cannot substitute for each other.

Oliver Sacks’ recent book Moving On proposes that every human’s neurological system evolves via it’s own particular evolution so we become more and more unique neurologically as we age. Subjective experiences of attitudes, cultural beliefs and even stories may cluster around particular interpretations but each individual still has a unique perspective on what a story means to them.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in the Second Edition, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Simmons: That’s the beauty of storytelling: if you invest in finding and telling stories you will learn whatever you need to learn because it puts you in touch with the people who are important to you, listening to what is important to them and sharing what is important to you. Whatever blocks you from achieving your goals will show up for you to address. Those stories that inspire the most people lead the way to most desired outcomes. By all means, keep track of the numbers, but don’t lose sight of the stories as a consequence.

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Annette cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Her website link

Her Amazon page link

Her Twitter link

Annette’s Storytelling 101 blog link

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