How stories improve employee engagement

Welcome to the relaunch of Wordstruck! This is where you can find stories that can help you change how you engage at work. Stories that inspire, persuade and make a difference.

It’s well known that employee engagement is down. I mean really down. A recent Gallup poll put 76% — that’s  8.74M Australian workers — who are not engaged in their job. One solution: use stories in your workplace to communicate what you’re telling your team.

In August I ran a workshop for an IT group in a resource company. Beforehand I was told that the participants were more likely to be introverted and would find telling stories a challenge. Actually, the group couldn’t wait to get started. It reminded me that it’s easy for all of us to have assumptions and to always question those before you meet someone.

During the workshop I asked people to think about a Connection story.This is what you use when you’re first meeting someone or to introduce a presentation. It’s a way to establish rapport and trust quickly. It’s much more effective than just saying who you are and what you do. In the workplace, you make sure that it has a business or relevance point. This keeps it focused and relevant.

One of the participants in the group said that he preferred using numbers and stats rather than using stories. ‘That’s my style and it works for me.’ So, when I asked people to think about a connection story, I was surprised when he raised his hand.

He went on to tell the group how important it is to set goals. ‘I like to play and coach cricket. I was playing against a team a couple of years ago. It was really hot and I could hardly run the length of the pitch. Back then I weighed 150 kilos. I decided I had to change and hired a personal trainer. Together we set goals and eight months later I’d lost 40 kilos and then I went to lose some more. I know that if you are accountable to someone it really works and it’s helped me turn things around.’

The rest of the group went quiet as he talked. At the end, his manager said, ‘I never knew that about you.’ Someone else said, ‘That was brave to tell us that.’

That one story shifted the whole group. It gave other people permission to speak up and it created a deeper sense of connection between everyone in the room.

Now, that’s how you get better engagement.

Actions always speak louder than words

To be a leader who people remember and who triggers stories, is to be a leader who acts.

Chris Beer, former CEO of Luxottica in the Asia Pacific Region, and now CEO at Performance Hub, was well aware of this. In 2012 he became increasingly concerned about the appalling statistics of Indigenous eye health in Australia. Six more Indigenous Australians suffer blindness and are 12 times more likely to have blinding cataracts than non-Indigenous Australians.

‘I kept asking questions. Australia being a lucky country, why do we have third world eye health in remote Indigenous communities? It was unacceptable to me.’

Beer wanted all Australians to have the same eye health care as his children in Sydney. He launched OneSight, Luxottica’s global eye health charity program in Australia with a particular focus on Indigenous eye-health. .

What started as a personal challenge, he admits, became ‘an obsession.’ He wanted to get his hands dirty, to get involved and made sure he sat on the advisory board, gave up his time to travel to remote communities and told his staff. ‘Don’t just listen to what I say but look at what I do.’

Since the program started in 2012, over 500 Luxottica staff across all departments have got involved — and now it binds the organisation. Beer says, ‘It’s become a deep and rich part of the DNA of our organisation.’

When they first started, some of the Indigenous elders were sceptical. Beer went to Mornington Island and remembers one gentleman saying,‘“We love what you want to do but we know that you won’t stick it out. Bosses turn up, there are photo opportunities and 12 months later you disappear.” After year two, it was greatly appreciated that we’d returned.’

For Beer he’s had to learn patience. ‘When I used to run Luxottica in South Africa, one day I was a bit impatient and one of the team, said to me, “Chris, do you know how to eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”’

So what can you do in the last two weeks before pre-Christmas sign off to do something memorable?

To read more about what Luxottica and other companies are doing in Indigenous communities, read the full Acuity article here.

How unconscious bias affects us all

The hottest phrase on people’s lips at the moment is unconscious bias. I’ve been speaking to CEOs in insurance, professional services, in start-ups and in government, and they are all saying that to improve gender diversity we need to address our unconscious biases.

Google kicked off this trend in May 2014 when it published its woeful diversity statistics and pledged to do better. Since then, writes Ellen Huet, in Forbes, the search giant has put its 50,000+ workforce ‘through workshops on how to understand and stop unconscious bias, which is the set of deep-in-the-brain automatic preferences that almost all humans have.’

Facebook has followed along with countless other corporates worldwide. Even though these workshops can help in showing up our prejudices, experts in the field worry that there isn’t enough follow-through to make long-term change.

At Anecdotewe know that when we run Storytelling for Leadersworkshops, one day isn’t enough. That’s why we have a six-month ongoing program to help embed the changes.

We also know stories can shift entrenched views. Unlike an argument which is a push factor, stories are a pull factor. When we argue with someone and give evidence to prove a point, it can actually trigger someone’s confirmation bias. This means they believe their viewpoint even more strongly — making it harder to win them over.

Now, there are literally dozens of different biasesthat we can have which prevents us thinking or perceiving rationally. Even though our brains are powerful machines, all humans make errors in processing information. This means that when we meet someone for the first time — man / woman; black / white; abled / disabled — we can quickly come to a misguided conclusion about that individual. Canadian bioethicist and futurist, George P. Dvorskyspells out the 12 common biases in more detail.

So, what fascinates me, is how we can use stories to effectively overcome our biases. This was illustrated perfectly last month when I went to a Women in Leadership lunch at the American Chamber of Commerce. On the panel, Dana Feldman, Head of Enterprise Sales Solutions at LinkedIn was describing how they are addressing gender diversity in the Sydney office.

I’m paraphrasing here. Feldman described how, at a casual lunchtime group for men and women, they addressed unconscious bias. After the meeting one of the men went to do an interview with a new job applicant for a sales role. It was a female applicant and at the end of the interview the male LinkedIn employee felt that she wasn’t right for the role; on his feedback form, he wrote that ‘she was too aggressive.’

He went to the recruiting officer and dropped off the form. As he got in the lift to go back to his desk, he had one of those Ah-ah moments. He asked himself, would he have had written that if it had been a man? No, he probably wouldn’t. He turned around, went back down the lift and changed what he’d written on the form.

The female applicant went through to the next round of interviews. Not only that, she got the job.

For me, this is a stunning example of how powerful unconscious bias training can be — but also how a story in so few words can illustrate this. And, of course, how it has the potential to change lives.

Over to you. How can we use story to overcome our unconscious bias — and to really affect change?

How to be an effective leader in a team

A fortnight ago I met up with Tony Tow, General Manager of 40K Globe,  an Australian organisation striving to train thousands of young Australians in social entrepreneurship. Tow, 27, knows how important it is to have a strong team around him. He not only manages staff in Australia but also in India and ‘things can get lost in translation.’

I’d initially spoken to Tow in connection with an article for Acuity magazine. I was struck by his enthusiasm and ‘can-do’ attitude. Tow embodies that terrific Gen Y approach to work. That you have to be willing to try new approaches and that work must have meaning. Otherwise, why do it?

Initially Tow followed a traditional chartered accountant’s path working for Deloitte. Then he heard about 40K and the next thing he knew, he was on a plane to India. Three years later, in 2013, he was hired as Globe’s first GM.

40K Globe offers a one-month internship to Australian tertiary students in rural India, providing them with an immersive village-based experience while teaching them social business skills.

He admitted that he was pretty young to be entering management and he’s still trying to find his style. ‘A one-size-fits-all doesn’t work,’ he told me. ‘It’s a one-size-fits one model. It’s figuring out what motivates and excites different team leaders. I think you need to spend time with each staff deeply and intimately.’ It’s also about having regular staff meetings — both with his Sydney team and with his Bengaluru-based team.

I suggested that he try starting his weekly meetings with a little personal anecdote. So often, before a meeting starts (in person or via Skype), everyone is chatting and there’s an ease among the group. Then, when the meeting begins, people fall silent. Instead of a natural flow, the leader is telling — or in some cases — broadcasting. Now, sometimes this is exactly what’s needed.

But other times, what works better is a feedback-loop between leader and team. A little story triggers other team members to respond — perhaps with their own story — and it breaks down barriers. And the quickest way to get there and avoid that awkward silence, is to use a story.

1. Think of the point of the story. What is the relevance statement or business point? Start there and then use the story to show what you mean.
2. Exact details. Be as specific as you can so people will remember what you’ve said.
3. Keep it brief and think of it as an introduction to kick off the discussion.
4. Make it personal (within the context of your workplace).
5. Use word-pictures. These are images that people can visualise.

Since Tow started using this approach, it’s been working well and his team have ‘taken the cue’. So what are his stories? ‘A whole range of things – I’ve spoken about camping trips and other shenanigans/happenings on the weekend.’

Not only can this create more meaningful engagement in a team, it’s also an easy way to practise using narrative in your workplace. In time, it will become second nature. Whether in business or life, we are all looking for connection and stories are the quickest way to get there.

To read more about Tony Tow and the work he’s doing at 40K, read the full Acuity article here.

How to communicate better at work

Have you ever had that experience when you’re talking to someone and their eyes glaze over? Or you’re presenting to your team and you see people shuffle their papers, or worse still, glance down at their watch? It’s not a good feeling but it can happen to all of us.

It’s at that moment that you need to have a couple of short stories or little anecdotes to get your audience back to focusing on you.

At a recent Anecdote workshop, a woman was describing how small actions can make a difference. She was saying that she’d arranged to meet with her manager. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him come over and sit next to her. She said, ‘I really valued that and quite frankly not many GM’s do it.’

Now that tiny snippet says a lot — and in few words. It gives an insight into work culture and suggests a simple way to improve behavioural engagement. 12 months after this employee had shared her experience, other staff were saying the same thing. ‘You know what? When I see my GM, they come round and sit next to me.’ 

The best way to remember this sort of anecdote or mini-story is to start a STORY BANK. Whenever I hear something, either told to me or heard on the radio or television, I make a few notes in my story bank.

Like anything, storytelling takes practise. Even the so-called ‘natural storyteller’ would have practised his or her best ones in front of the mirror.


1. Create your own story bank. Choose your medium. A notebook for those who like pen and paper. An App like  Evernote  for those who want to sync their stories across different devices. I use both.

2. Make notes as soon as you can to get down the gist of the event. When you do, look for the key moments or turning points.

3. If you can, jot down any sensory details. If it is about you, how were you feeling? Anchor the experience in your body.

4. Give it a title. This helps recall.

5. If you know them, make a note of people’s names, the name of the company, any job titles. (In the case above I didn’t have them so for me that’s an example of an anecdote rather than a full blown story.)

6. Work out the ‘Most Important Thing’ — or MIT — of the story. This is the point of the story. Sometimes one story can have several different points and can be adapted to suit the moment.

7. Practise, practise, practise. As a writer I know how important it is to have a ‘writing buddy’ who can encourage me when I’m working on a new book. I also have a ‘story buddy’ who I practise my new stories on. And don’t be worried that they change over time… that’s a good indicator of you becoming more comfortable in telling them. And the versatility of a good story.

So over to you. What story can you use in your work today to make sure your message is heard?

Why leaders must take risks

Taking risks and bucking the trend always takes guts. Especially when you are trying to shift the current economic and commercial paradigm.

But everywhere leaders and companies are shifting the dial. In June I went to the Conscious Capitalism conference in Sydney and heard dozens of ways organisations, large and small, are making a difference.

After working in the corporate world for over a decade, James Meldrum and wife Monica knew they wanted another approach when they founded their Melbourne-based organic food company Whole Kids.

The idea for Whole Kids came because they couldn’t find any healthy, tasty and convenient snacks for their family. In their words. ‘Just about everything was full of junk.’

Taking a big gulp, they spent their life savings on starting their business and put their house-buying plans on hold. In 2005 they manufactured the first run of the Whole Kids products. Now you can buy them in Woolworths.

From the start their purpose was ‘way above just making money.’ It was also about being social responsible, operating as a family and giving ‘people room to bring the best self to work.’

Ever since Meldrum had done an MBA in America, he’d followed companies like Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia. Then three years ago he discovered Conscious Capitalism. ‘That’s when we realised that what we were doing had a name. Conscious Capitalism gave us a language.’

Americans Raj Sisodia and John Mackey, co-CEO of Whole Foods, founded the Conscious Capitalism non-profit movement in 2008.

– Higher purpose or the ‘why’ of a company
– Stakeholder orientation that focuses on optimising value for all parties including the environment
– Conscious leadership
– Conscious culture that builds trust and transparency among all stakeholders.

Whole Kids is also one of a handful of Australian companies to have been B Corp certified; this third-party independent assessment audits a company’s social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.

For Meldrum it’s about trying to make work as fun as possible.

As there are only 10 in the team, career opportunities are limited. Instead Meldrum focuses on how to create professional development opportunities for the staff and offer other meaningful benefits and rewards. On the staff strategy days they spend half the time working through the Conscious Capitalist principles.

‘We look at how can we make people more healthy and more happy. One of the team said she’d really like to run a marathon, she’d never run a race before. We asked how could we help her as a team? We gave her time off to run every week. And then we all joined in. Now the whole team runs.’

So what meaningful risk can you take at work to make a difference?

If you’d like to read more about Conscious Capitalism, read my full article in Acuity.

How to be a leader who inspires

Diane Smith-Gander has had a long and industrious career. Among her many roles today, she is the current chair of ASX-listed Transfield Services, with a market cap of AU $800 million and first elected President of Chief Executive Women (CEW). But when she looks back, it is the time she spent as Westpac’s Zone Chief Manager in country Queensland in 1983, the first time she had a sizeable team and a critical profit and loss role, that she cites as crucial in learning how to be a leader.

At that time Peter Ritchie, former chair of McDonald’s, who was then on the Westpac board, challenged Smith-Gander on what she did when she went into a Westpac branch. ‘Ritchie would go into a McDonald’s store and make and eat something because it demonstrated his trust in the product. I had to workout what the lookalike was,’ she says. ‘It’s how do you do that bit of leadership where you don’t ask anybody to do what you won’t do yourself.’

Unable to go behind the counter because of the privacy issue in banks, Smith-Gander started by being helpful. If someone’s child had scribbled on a few deposit slips and strewn them about, she’d pick them up and put them in the bin.

Then she would always do a transaction ‘because as you put in your pin number, your entire relationship with the bank pops up. You expect the teller guys to maintain confidentiality for everybody and by being prepared to do that transaction, you show you absolutely trust the system.’

While her actions created a new level of trust between her and her staff, and was undoubtedly a talking point in those country branches, the biggest impact was on Smith-Gander herself. It changed how she viewed and communicated with the branch worker bees. ‘I wanted to know more about them and it changed the way I communicated with them. What you discover is that we’ve got a highly skilled work force, and in many cases people are being asked to do a small percentage of what they are capable of, so I found that I could go into branches and ask for their advice and I’d get a stream of quality ideas based on their experience of the customer and working with the bank.’

This small gesture not only made Smith-Gander approach her leadership role differently, it also unlocked some of the power and knowledge held by her staff.

‘That was a big change for me,’ she continues. ‘To recognise that there is expertise and leadership everywhere in the system.’

So, over the next week what gesture can you do in your work that will make a difference to you — and inspire others?

If you’d like to read more about Diane Smith-Gander and her vision on helping more powerful women leaders, read my article in Acuity.

How details bring stories to life

To bring your stories to life, people need to visualise what you are saying. Back in 2006, my first book, Last Seen in Lhasa, was published. I’d never done any radio interviews before and my publicist sent me a scary publicity schedule. When I went to the ABC offices to give my first interview, my stomach was churning.

I remember fidgeting as I sat in the hot booth waiting for the one-hour live-to-air interview to start. On the line came the gravelly voice of Richard Fidler. He asked if I was ready. Then he said, ‘Remember to answer my questions with word-pictures’.

I’d never heard that phrase before but that piece of advice not only helped me get through the interview, it has stayed with me ever since. Instead of talking with facts, I said things like, ‘As I froze in my gumboots, the Chinese army came swarming over the mountain top.’ The hour flew by and I got great feedback from listeners.

This is just one of several techniques you can use to make your stories more compelling — both in the written format and orally. In a business setting, you don’t need too much ‘colour’, but just a few telling details make all the difference.

5 details to include to make people listen to your stories

1. The name of the person you are referring to. Names are important as we connect with individuals not faceless case studies.

2. Emotions. How did you feel at the moment when your colleague praised you for the report you’d done? How did you feel as you walked out of the lift for your first meeting with your boss? Here, we don’t need a blow-by-blow of every emotion you experienced, but the strongest feeling.

3. Concrete facts. When did the conference take place? Where? Facts help anchor a story. They make it real and tangible. Was it snowing or balmy? Was it on the edge of the city or in the heart of the CBD?

4. The senses. Touch, taste, sound, smell, sight — these connect us to the world, to other people, to experiences. When you evoke one of the senses, it allows the person listening or reading your story to experience it themselves. Again, you don’t need too much, just a sprinkle in the story. Focus on one sense.

5. Chronology. If you are describing a complex series of events a couple of key dates help give the story a timeline. This makes it easier for the listener to make sense of how the events unfolded. It is another way of anchoring us to the crucial moments in your story.

If you want to know other ways to punch up your writing, I’ve done an interview with corporate writer and business book mentor, Steven Lewis from Taleist (below). Like me, Steven has a journalist background, and is an expert in using stories to get his message across.

In the interview I talk more about word pictures. So when you’re thinking of describing someone, perhaps, don’t just have, ‘He walked into the room’ instead have ‘he strode in the room.’ This immediately gives a sense of purpose.

I also discuss how important verbs are to make your stories stronger and how it’s okay to write more than one draft.

So, how do you make your stories more compelling?