Whose Narrative Stood Out at the Big Tech’s Antitrust Hearing?

BigTech's Narrative in Antitrust Hearing
Morning Brew by Unsplash

On July 29th, four men who run companies worth $ 4.85 trillion appeared before the US Congress’s members of House judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee. It was part of the hearing on “Online Platforms and Market Power”, and the chief executives are there to defend their powerful businesses from the hammer of government.

Any guesses – who these gentlemen were?

They were Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Tim Cook (Apple), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Sundar Pichai (Alphabet-Google). And they were to argue that their businesses are not powerful! Yes, that is what they did.

Narrative in antitrust hearing

I am not here to argue whether they are powerful or not, I will best leave that to the US Congress and the readers to decide. But I am going to see who among these influential executives did a better job with their defence.

From their written testimony, I am going to analyze their statements from the narrative lens, who articulated their position in an impactful and convincing manner with supporting stories. For this analysis, I have picked the written statements from the website of the US House Committee on the Judiciary and listened to the five hr+ hearing video.

Decoding Jeff Bezos’s (Amazon) Narrative Traits in his Testimony

Jeff Bezos is known for his narrative style as can be observed from his annual letter to shareholders and the famous 6-page narrative structure memo used in meetings in place of PowerPoint presentations.

He puts to good use his narrative memo structure with one deviation – it runs to 8th page and is one of the detailed testimony that I read among the four.

Jeff starts in style with his origin story. He also gets into details, like his mother was 17 years when she got pregnant with Jeff in Albuquerque, New Mexico, how she has to struggle to attend school and the role of his grandfather in getting his daughter educated.

He moves on to share the story of his immigrant father from Cuba, his traits such as grit and determination and packs a punch when he says, “You get different gifts in life, and one of my great gifts is my mom and dad. They have been incredible role models for me and my siblings our entire lives.” There are several such powerful statements across the testimony document.

From the way he explains about his grandfather, one gets a feeling that Jeff is more like his grandfather. He recollects incidents to support his narrative of him as a problem solver. Bezos has this to say about his grandfather, “He taught me that you can take on hard problems. When you have a setback, you get back up and try again. You can invent your way to a better place.”

And then continues to support that statement with some of his inventions as a teenager. Till here it was more about personal story, detailing about the key stakeholders from his growing up years, humble background and repeatedly affirming that he overcame all odds. This is something that aligns well with the judiciary committee’s objective of supporting the less powerful, small-time businesses against these four big giants.

Jeff Bezos takes us back to the day when he decided to quit his full-time job in an investment firm in New York and how his manager tried to convince him to stay with the job as this business idea (online bookstore) was for someone who didn’t have a good job. Jeff says, he decided to start up and leave the job with his heart and not with his head.

A message he conveys to all aspiring entrepreneurs who talk about risk in starting up. Jeff’s punch statement, “When I’m 80 and reflecting back, I want to have minimized the number of regrets that I have in my life. And most of our regrets are acts of omission—the things we did not try, the paths untraveled. Those are the things that haunt us. And I decided that if I didn’t at least give it my best shot, I was going to regret not trying to participate in this thing called the internet that I thought was going to be a big deal.”

This reminded of the Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech, which was famous for its storytelling aspects, “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

Over the next few paragraphs, he talks about the risks associated with running a startup in the internet domain and the early day struggles. Even after they grew, he cites that risk-taking and not afraid of failures has been Amazon’s biggest strength. He introduces the concept of, “Day One” mentality that makes Amazon to maintain the energy and entrepreneurial spirit of Day One.

Jeff Bezos then ties how obsessive customer focus is helping them to maintain the Day One mindset. Another punch, “Not every business takes this customer-first approach, but we do, and it’s our greatest strength.”

He emphasizes building customer trust as a key to Amazon’s success. Jeff details the multiple ways Amazon works to earn customer trust and why it is not very easy, “You earn trust slowly, over time, by doing hard things well— delivering on time; offering everyday low prices; making promises and keeping them; making principled decisions, even when they’re unpopular; and giving customers more time to spend with their families by inventing more convenient ways of shopping, reading, and automating their homes.”

And this is where I kind of fell for him. He cites various independent studies on how Americans trust Amazon next only to the US military and the local police. WOW!

At this point, he ups the ante. He gets into the details of his businesses. How online retail helps create jobs in various neighbourhoods by hiring for different skills – the mechanics and plant managers to the computer scientists and MBAs. It is critical to tell the committee that jobs are created locally to serve American consumers, retail being operation intensive, and 80% of their business, they will keep doing this day in and out.

To further drive home this point, he talks about the Career Choice program, which costs them $700 million to train more than 100,000 Amazon employees in various fields and is not always related to their line of business. Jeff Bezos shares about Patricia Soto who utilized this program and is now employed with a medical foundation. Career choice enabled her to pursue a second career which was once seemed out of reach.

Amazon invested $270 billion in the last decade in the US and in addition to direct employment they also helped create 700,000 indirect jobs in construction, hospitality etc,. These jobs were also created in unlikely cities that led to economic activity. He further points to the 175,000 employees hired during COVID with a mandate to hire the laid off.

His speech is nuanced with data leading some arguments supported with narratives and in other places, narrative leading and supported with data.

If you are aware of the Freytag’s pyramid of storytelling, it has the following elements – exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution.

In my view, so for Jeff Bezos sets up the stage for his climax. In the next few paragraphs, he delves deeper into the retail market as a whole and makes the argument why Amazon is not a dominating force. This the key message he wants to send to the committee. Let us see how he unravels it.

Without beating around the bush, in the opening line itself, he states, “Amazon accounts for less than 1% of the $25 trillion global retail market and less than 4% of retail in the US. Unlike winner-take-all industries, there’s room for many winners in retail.

For example, more than 80 retailers in the US alone earn over $1 billion in annual revenue. He pits himself against Walmart which a the largest retailer (primarily offline)and how they are also ramping up their online business (growth of 74% in first quarter of 2020). He also cites online specific competition like Shopify which enable any offline retailer to set up online store easily. He finishes of this argument with, “The range of retail competitors and related services is constantly changing, and the only real constant in retail is customers’ desire for lower prices, better selection, and convenience.”

The next big salvo he fires is against the argument that Amazon is squeezing small retailers. He cites two stories, and both are women-centric– Sherri Yukel (selling handicraft gifts and now employs 80 people catering to a global customer base)  and Christine Krogue (a stay at home mother of five selling baby clothes and Amazon helping her to double her sales and growing her business).

In the following sections he talks about how fulfilment of Amazon helps create a great customer experience,the players who are challenging Amazon in retail space globally and locally, the minimum wages Amazon provides and why it is important to bring this minimum wage benchmarks to the industry as a whole, the parity in benefits, the diversity in Amazon shareholding (80% shares owned by outsiders), how growth of Amazon helps its investors such as pension funds enabling people to retire better ($1 trillion wealth created for outsiders) etc.

All these points are aimed at the anti-stories that the committee members have as part of their enquiry. The message he sends, the financial success of Amazon has helped the common shareholders enormously.

Before he concludes, he gets into the big picture items. Its important being big, as scale enables to do certain things that is not possible when you are small. This is a powerful punch to cement that argument, “I love garage entrepreneurs—I was one. But, just like the world needs small companies, it also needs large ones. There are things small companies simply can’t do. I don’t care how good an entrepreneur you are, you’re not going to build an all-fiber Boeing 787 in your garage.”

With that statement, he gets onto the big picture like how Amazon is becoming environmentally friendly and commits itself to meet the Paris climate agreement well ahead of time. They are doing this with the adoption of electric delivery vans (supporting Rivian to grow), investing in solar and wind projects, investing in global reforestation projects and the start of climate pledge fund that invests in startups that are building products and services to help companies reduce their carbon impact and operate more sustainably.

And then some social cause projects where Amazon is directly contributing with programs like Amazon Future engineer aimed at underrepresented, underserved communities and minorities to pursue a computer science career, the homeless shelter project in association with non-profit Mary’s place etc.

He signs off by stating that the US is a great nation for companies to start, grow and thrive. Despite all the challenges, people from outside still aspire to be part of this country like his father for the sheer amount of optimism and opportunity this great nation has gifted to the world.

Having read and heard all their written testimonies and their responses to questions, I believe that Jeff Bezos is a natural storyteller and has done a better job in his defence.

Decoding Tim Cook’s Testimony for Narrative Traits

Tim Cook starts with why a company like Apple is possible only in the US, enriching people’s lives is their mission, and they do that by making the best and not the most. So, he straight away knocks off the belief that they are not in the business of selling more. He talks about the Apple promise of building things that makes them proud, and he attributes how Steve Jobs, Apple’s founder, defined their purpose – we only make things that we would recommend to our family and friends.

The case against Apple is unique in comparison to the other three.Apple’s app store is not an equitable place, it promotes its apps vs apps developed by other developers and the charges to use app store are anticompetitive.

Tim talks about the famous Apple user experience and how they are focussed on providing customer satisfaction (iPhone enjoys 99% customer satisfaction rating), and that is their best metric to track progress.

He details more about how Apple is not the dominant player in the smartphone market and this market is very competitive with players like Samsung, LG etc.

Tim Cook then details more about the app store, its features, the business model, how they enable others to develop apps and make money, for a vast majority of apps developers keep 100% of the money and that the charges are also vastly lower than the 50-70% the developers paid before app store came into existence. He goes on to state, app store since its debut has evolved with two primary objectives – one to provide better user experience and the other creating compelling business opportunity for developers.

An economic miracle in the making is what Tim Cook defines Apple’s app store. He does this by getting into the specifics like when the app store was launched it had only 500 apps, while today it has more than 1.7 million apps and only 60 of them belong to Apple (this is the norm variance narrative). And makes a point of how much economic activity is created – the app store ecosystem enabled over half a trillion dollars business worldwide and in US alone $138 billion.

Tim signs off with the massive impact created by Apple’s different products such as the first Mac creating opportunity and possibility by disrupting the personal computing market, iPod creating opportunities for musicians with fair pay for their creative work.

To me, it was a testimony loaded with more of numbers, specifics around app store with less of storytelling.

Did Mark Zuckerberg Adopt a Different Narrative Style?

Zuckerberg starts with the problem Facebook is solving – “People use our apps to share videos, photos, livestreams, posts and private messages; to join communities, set up fundraisers for good causes, and even register to give blood. We also help millions of businesses connect with customers. Facebook gives small businesses and individual entrepreneurs access to sophisticated tools that previously only the largest players had. Now any business can use our services to establish an online presence, reach potential customers and grow.”

With the purpose being set clear, he talks about the competition that Facebook faces and how the US is the bedrock of competition and innovation. Due to the competition, several tech companies have failed. At the end of his testimony, he ties this point to another Facebook move. Watch out.

The values that Facebook believes in (democracy, competition, inclusion and free expression) and the ones on which the American economy is built-in are the same is Zuckerberg’s argument. Since it’s the season of China vs the US, he also cites the values of Chinese companies are very different than that of Facebook and the US-based companies.

In his testimony, he goes one step further. He suggests to the US Congress, “I believe it’s important to maintain the core values of openness and fairness that have made America’s digital economy a force for empowerment and opportunity here and around the world.”

Zuckerberg delves deeper into Facebook’s genesis, the different entities acquired such as WhatsApp, Instagram and the services they provide, the hardware products and the investment that goes into R&D ($ 10 billion every year) to improve their offerings to stay relevant to their users.

Since the committee is tasked to probe the anti-competitive forces of Facebook and other companies, Zuckerberg makes an argument around FB’s contribution to the open-source community. Also goes on to make a point that FB shares the results coming out of their research to the entire ecosystem so that it helps in developing new products.

Then he gets on to the social cause projects such as crisis response tools (Safety check tool used in 1400 crises and in 2018 alone, used across 80+ countries in 300 crises) which helps to share information, raise money etc. He cites one specific example of how non-profit No Kid Hungry has raised over $5 million from more than 200,000 donors to help feed children across the United States. The next is about commitment to invest in Black and minority community suppliers in the US.

Since there have been accusations on Facebook on their aggressive and anticompetitive M&A practices, he goes on to state WhatsApp and Instagram acquisitions has helped the individual entities to leverage Facebook’s technology, infrastructure, funding to develop and launch new features which would have not been possible otherwise. This is in alignment to provide better services that offer more value to people and advertisers.

He tries to crush the argument on the scale being anti-competitive by suggesting a more active role for governments and regulators and updated rules for the internet. He also addresses the concern on data privacy and information security-related aspects – like quoting that there are 35,000 people now in FB working on safety and security, an increase of 3X resources in 3 years.

Among the four companies, Mark Zuckerberg has appeared most no. of times in front of antitrust committees for FB’s controversial actions in the past, hence I believe he goes the extra mile and commits for taking more responsibility to keep people safe on their our platform.

Towards the end, he details, how FB has helped people and businesses since the start of COVID pandemic. There was a jump of 1000%  of cirical communication calls in Italy during early stages of the pandemic, 700 million people doing video calls on WhatsApp and Messenger in April, enabling small businesses to operate online, connecting non-profits to run fundraisers etc.

He is the only CEO who mentions that beyond the talk on antitrust and competition issues, the Congress also has an opportunity to talk about how technology can better serve society as these are the most influential executives in the tech world.

Zuckerberg’s concluding remark, “Several years ago, Facebook moved our headquarters to the campus where Sun Microsystems used to be. We kept their sign out front, on the back of ours, to remind us that things change fast in tech. I’ve long believed that the nature of our industry is that someday a product will replace Facebook. I want us to be the ones that build it, because if we don’t, someone else will.”

Zuckerberg’s testimony is well written to address all the concerns that the committee might have had. But the testimony statement was devoid of narrative elements.

What Narrative Traits did Sundar Pichai (Google) Use in His Testimony?

Sundar Pichai starts by stating his personal value of expanding access to opportunity by using technology and goes on to narrate his story. A story of a boy coming from a technologically disadvantaged place and how the US gave him access to computers. This opportunity enabled him to create many cutting-edge technology products, including Google chrome etc.

From his point, he sees technology should provide access to anyone irrespective of his/her background and the US as a country has done this for him. It closely relates to the subcommittee’s concern for equal opportunities in business. Personal stories are compelling, and he also goes one step further by tying his values to the subcommittee’s objective.

He proceeds further to state how as a company, Google has helped Americans with jobs (out of 120,000 worldwide Google employees – 75,000 are in US alone), investments and how they are creating jobs in different states of US (Google’s offices and data centers are spread across 26 states out of 50 states).

One needs to remember, the end goal of this antitrust committee is to avoid monopolistic powerful businesses that skews opportunities and take away any unfair advantages these big giants have by virtue of their size, money, data and business agreements.

To alleviate this concern, he goes on to share stories of people who have benefited by using Google’s products & services. When people have preconceived notions, it is tough to cut ice with them through facts, slick presentations, or passionate speeches. The best way to counter is by sharing stories with perspective supporting one’s argument. Sundar Pichai leveraged that with the stories of how Fat Witch Bakery of New York, Kettlebell Kings of Austin and Berry Digital of Urbana are using Google Ads, analytics and YouTube to improve their business prospects even during COVID.

Beyond this, he gets more into the data of how much Google is investing in R&D, cites how their investments in technology like AI, self-driving cars and quantum computing are helping other industries such as medicine and battery manufacturers.

He further moves on to citing how Google’s competition is equally powerful, how competition has helped in reducing advertising costs, how they are enabling others to innovate with the freely available Android platform and how it has enabled to launch feature phones at lower prices.

Sundar Pichai started well with the connection story that helped him to connect with the cause of the enquiry, he then moved on to use stories of small businesses who have benefited from Google products but then he veered into data on investments, statements on competition and ended with typical corporate-speak on privacy & security.

I somehow felt that his 2nd half of the statement was typical corporate speak whereas he could have done better by continuing what he did in the 1st half of the statement.

In summary,

These are the most powerful men in the corporate tech world when they speak, the world listens. I think given the nature of the enquiry, had the CEOs been more open about the impact they had created to the community with anecdotes and references to specific cases (which only Jeff Bezos and Sundar Pichai used), it would have added some heft to their defense.  

Since I also listened to the enquiry, I can see that the enquiry committee members have several points loaded against the anti-competitive practices of all these companies.

I also saw the frustration expressed by one of the members on how they broke ATT in 1984 almost for the same reason for which these 4 companies are being called for hearing. But after 35 yrs, ATT has grown through M&As and is now again back to where it was as the dominant telecom operator of the US.

Given this backdrop, it would be interesting to watch out for the outcome of this enquiry and how it pans out.  

The Basics of Business Storytelling: How Narrative Influences Valuation?

Image by TheDigitalWay from Pixabay

This is the second post in the Basics of Business Storytelling, you can read the first post here.

The year was 2015, this company had the crème-de-la-crème board that included notable former US secretaries of state such as George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretaries of Defense James Mattis and William Perry, and ex-US Senators Bill Frist and Sam Nunn. It was touted as the “the Apple of Healthcare.”

The founder was a Stanford drop out with her venture funded by marquee investors. At its high point, valued at $ 9 billion with the founder’s net worth alone at $4.5 billion. It all came crashing by Oct 2015 when the WSJ opened the pandora’s box. The company I am talking about is Theranos, and the founder is Elizabeth Holmes.

The year is 2020, this company is a greenfield telecom startup which had managed to put established telecom operators out of business with its predatory pricing model. The promoter calls it a platform instead of a communication service provider.

With the potential to disrupt entertainment to e-commerce, investors believe this startup is all set to be the next big thing. Over the past five weeks, it has attracted investments from Facebook to PE players such as Silver Lake, General Atlantic, Vista Partners and KKR.

You might have guessed the company now – it is Jio part of the Reliance Group and the man behind it is Mukesh Ambani.

How did Elizabeth Holmes and Mukesh Ambani get their companies valued at a premium and attracted investments from the who’s who? The answer is in their narratives. They were able to tie their narrative to the numbers, i.e. their business story drove their valuation.

New York University’s Prof. Aswath Damodaran, an authority in corporate valuation says, “In a good valuation, the numbers are bound together by a coherent narrative and storytelling is kept grounded with numbers.”

When an entrepreneur is pitching for an investment, the narrative that goes behind the numbers is more important. That is what gave premium valuation and attracted investors to Theranos and Jio.

Founders of all the leading companies Amazon, Tesla or Apple, have a consistent story that aligns with their decisions.

Consistent narratives build trust and provide investor confidence. That is the reason why Amazon is valued at $ 1.23 Trillion at a forward P/E of 98.04in comparison to Walmart’s forward P/E of 25.19. The following is what Jeff Bezos said in his 1997 letter to shareholders.

“We first measure ourselves in terms of the metrics most indicative of our market leadership: customer and revenue growth, the degree to which our customers continue to purchase from us on a repeat basis, and the strength of our brand. We have invested and will continue to invest aggressively to expand and leverage our customer base, brand, and infrastructure as we move to establish an enduring franchise. Because of our emphasis on the long term, we may make decisions and weigh trade-offs differently than some companies.”

For the last 23 years, Amazon still retains this narrative. Jeff Bezos always talks about having a dominant market share in whichever segment they operate in, investing back into the business for long term growth and focussing on customer experience.

Whether you are a retail investor trying to value a company before investing in its shares or you are an investor evaluating a startup for potential investment, you must have an investment thesis behind your decision.

To make the valuation story better, Prof. Damodaran suggests a five-step process. It is about weaving numbers into narratives and having every narrative backed up by numbers.

Five-step process for weaving narratives with numbers
Source: Prof. Aswath Damodaran’s Blog

Step 1 is about the story you say about the business.

What story you tell for the business will drive the valuation. In the above reference, I consider Amazon as a retailer and compare it against Walmart. You might have a different narrative for Amazon, which is fine. Your narrative will influence your valuation.

The founder’s narrative will play a key role, based on how persuasive, consistent, and credible their story is, both public and private investors will believe or not believe in them. It will influence investment decisions.

Step 2 is about how the narrative holds good against history, common sense, and reality.

Theranos story will fail against common sense and reality. There could be disruption in technology or business model which may be against historical cases, but it still needs to pass through common sense and reality filter. Common knowledge rides on principles of economics and mathematics. Prof. Damodaran asks investors to test if the narrative is possible, plausible and probable.

When Holmes said she could do 100+ tests with two droplets of blood all at a very competitive price, she was telling a runaway story. Everyone wants to believe this type of story. Unfortunately, no one questioned the numbers behind it or use common sense to understand how blood-testing works. That is what led to massive wealth erosion for the investors in Theranos.

Step 3 is about tying narratives to different levers that drive business.

You break down the big picture narrative into individual narratives. For example, how competitive advantage in the business story gives better margins, how scale gives pricing power, how the asset-light model results in lower Capex and easy scaling, etc. This step is more about narratives than numbers.

Framework to tie narratives to different levers that drive business

Step 4 is about connecting the different levers to come up with the valuation (the end goal).

This step is more about numbers than about narratives. Those of who familiar with valuation know the DCF (Discounted Cash Flow) model where you discount the future value of cash flow to the present value and arrive at the intrinsic value of the share. Based on the intrinsic value and the current market price, you either take a call to invest or not to invest.

Step 5 is more to fine-tune than the valuation process itself.

By keeping with times, one may want to relook at some of the narratives you had built-in for the business. You can do this by tweaking the narrative to the changing nature of the business and by being open to feedback from different market players.

This is where you say, Amazon is not just retail business but also cloud service provider which has a higher growth rate and you plug those numbers. By doing that, you can also open up a range of valuation starting from how a pure-play retail player is valued to how a company that encompasses streaming services to cloud services to e-book & audiobook readers to pay wallets to the smart assistant is valued. Different segments come with different risk, growth, and profit margins.

Are you a numbers person or a narratives person? The future will belong to those who can craft narratives with numbers.

Want help, happy to assist!

8 Questions for Meaningful Conversations Instead of “So, What do You do?”

Questions for Meaningful Conversations Instead of "So, What do You do?"
Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash

When I started my sales career in my early 20s, I was raw, and little did I know about using conversation starters that help in building a relationship. In company events or industry conferences, it usually went like this. I am Krishna, sales executive with HCL Infosystems, so what do you do? I did evolve from there and have built long-lasting relationships with narrative-based conversation starters.

I am sure, at various points in life, you must have met someone new in conferences, industry events, training programs etc. and to build rapport would have asked this standard question – “So what do you do? “

In the current context of COVID, where most of us are in some sort of lockdown, it is natural to check what the other person is doing during calls. You might as well have asked this question or ended up in the receiving end of the same question.

But do you think the question, SO WHAT DO YOU DO? made a meaningful difference to the other person?

Research suggests that it is not the best question to start a conversation if you intend to build rapport.

Mark Manson, the author of the New York Times bestselling book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, writes, “Sometimes I ask people, How do you choose to suffer? Pleasure is an easy question. And pretty much all of us have similar answers. The more interesting question is the pain. What is the pain that you want to sustain??”

Well, not all are brave enough to ask this question to a person we have just met and build a relationship from thereon. David Burkus writes in an HBR article, “Research findings from the world of network science and psychology suggests that we tend to prefer and seek out relationships where there is more than one context for connecting with the other person. Sociologists refer to these as multiplex ties, connections where there is an overlap of roles or affiliations from a different social context.”

Here are eight questions that can be great conversation starters which can help in finding commonalities that lead to building a lasting relationship. You can learn more about storytelling powered narratives in this piece.

The first four are specific to the current context, while the rest are generic.

What have you learned from the lockdown so far?

This is as open as it can be, it can range from people sharing about what new skills they picked up to things about their relationship in the family to workplace-related dynamics etc. Your response can be about your learnings which helps the other person to know about you.

What are you looking forward to after this lockdown?

This question allows the other person to share something forward-looking (which is positive in the current context) and can have a wide variety of responses. It could be as simple as having that water-cooler conversation which has always been fun to going back to the gym to the long drive. This question can unearth some of the mutual interests.

The one thing that you are not missing because of this lockdown?

Gets people to think hard, but also helps them realize what was considered important during normal times is no longer critical. The options are endless here, be it dining out on Fridays to conducting interviews face to face to driving to work itself! Depending upon the person on the other end, you may get a range of responses that are philosophical to funny retorts.

How has this lockdown changed any of your belief systems?

This question is a twist to the earlier one but has a deeper meaning. More likely, this question will elicit serious responses as it is about belief systems. Age-old beliefs/practices are questioned due to restricted movement – how many of us imagined flight-free world even at the start of 2020? Almost all enterprise sales leaders talk about walking the halls to be closer to the customer, how that is possible in the current scenario?

What is inspiring you right now?

This question is forward-looking and can get you current context-specific responses, but also useful in normal times. It is like what is your new year resolution type question. In general, one can expect more personal reactions to this question, thereby getting to know him/her at a personal level, but work-related responses are also not uncommon.

What is your passion project/side hustle?

We are passionate about our side hustles/passion projects. But not everyone will want to share in a common forum, based on situational context people will respond in detail or keep it short. This question will be able to open up the other person, and one can also get to understand their hidden talents. I have known people who have charted new careers based on response to this question.

What are you doing that is fun?

In a way, this question is a slight twist to the passion project question. Rest assured, this question will steer the conversation away from work-related topics. It could also help spot people who consider work is no different than what they would be doing for fun. Most entrepreneurs fall into this category—a great question to find mutual interests outside of work. Many life and business partnerships have born out of this way.

What book have you recommended the most?

A personal favourite, a different spin to what is generally asked – what book are you reading now? Helps to find what has impressed them so much that they are recommending it to others repetitively, this question also will help in knowing the other person’s interest areas. One more question to find common interest outside of work and nurture a life long relationship.

Did you find your favourite question among these? What surprising insight have you uncovered by asking conversation starter questions?

With all the above questions, the aim is to ask an open-ended question that elicits non-work responses. By doing that, you are creating more opportunities to find mutual interests that are not necessarily work-related. When you connect more with personal interests than work matters, there is a higher chance of converting a stranger into a friend.

The Basics of Business Storytelling – 1 Storytelling Principles from Made to Stick

Sasint by Pixabay

I have been getting requests from the readers of my blog and from my network on how they can practice storytelling at work. The basics of business storytelling series will cover this aspect. This series will cover ideas from what I read, observed and learned from practice. This post is about a book that I read which is helping me in my practice.

Prof. Chip Heath and Dan Heath are the authors of the book, “Made to Stick”. In it, they explain why some ideas stick and others die. For an idea to stick, it must have certain elements which help in connecting people and to carry the message forward. The authors have studied several ideas from the field of advertising, leadership communication, social cause messaging, people & company stories before arriving at this framework.

From their studies, they propose six principles that make an idea stick.

Principle 1: Simplicity

There is a simple reason why proverbs have lasted generations across cultures. The Heaths state that, any idea needs to be stripped to its core to make it memorable and easy to pass it on. The Golden Rule is to have a one-sentence statement so profound that an individual could spend a lifetime learning to follow it.

Google’s mission statement, “Our mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” is powerful but also simple.

And a company that is built on that mission is generating revenues upwards of $ 120 billion.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s speech, “I have a dream” galvanized an entire community and nation towards freedom from slavery. Imagine a speech filled with jargons, complex information, and superfluous language. It wouldn’t have got this reach.

When you have many message or ideas, use the principle of exclusion to reduce all that into one.

Principle 2: Unexpectedness

“For an idea to endure, it must generate interest and curiosity,” says the Heath brothers. But it has to be done in a balanced manner. Master communicators will expose the gaps in the audience mind and then fill those gaps with their idea.

This approach allows you to hold the audience even though they have got gaps in knowledge. It is done by tapping into their existing knowledge, then exposing the gaps by curiosity and raising interest levels, and by filling that gap with your ideas.

George Loewenstein proposed this gap theory. He says that, as we gain information, we are more and more likely to focus on what we do not know. Someone who knows capitals of 50 countries would be proud of their knowledge, but someone who knows the capitals of 170 countries will more likely want to know the capitals of the rest 20+ countries.

Principle 3: Concreteness

Life is not abstract, but more often, the language we speak is abstract, and it gets worse as we move up the ladder. Terms such as liquidity, metacognitive skills, thematic learning are a put-off when it comes to spreading a message and when you want people to act.

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” is a concrete message. Ideas need to be expressed in human action and sensory information, staying clear of business-speak.

John F Kennedy’s famous moon-shot speech of 1961 can also be expressed as, “Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centred innovation and strategically targeted aerospace initiatives”. Or it can be, “Put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade.”

JFK being a visionary leader, chose the latter. The message is simple and concrete. By speaking in concrete terms, one doesn’t allow a chance for anyone to interpret it differently, the above message means the same thing to everyone, be it the NASA scientists or the US Congress representatives or to the people of the US.

Principle 4: Credibility

Why should people believe in your ideas? Should be the question one needs to answer first. Not everyone has the same level of authority in all the subjects. We associate authority to individuals based on their past actions, their experience.

Some people build credibility by showing numbers, but even numbers do not have credibility when shared by a person who does not have authority in that field. For example, while we believe a physician’s take on health disorders, we do not give the same credibility, when he talks about the fiscal deficit of the economy.

Dan and Chip say, “Sticky ideas have to carry their own credentials. We need ways to help people test our ideas for themselves – a “try before you buy” philosophy for the world of ideas.”

One way of doing this is by adding vivid details that are truthful and meaningful to humans, which symbolize and support the core idea. Including statistics that are in the context of the idea also can help build credibility.

The other famous method is the Sinatra test. If an example passes the Sinatra test, then that one example alone is enough to establish credibility. It traces its origins to Frank Sinatra’s classic “New York New York”, about the life in New York and the chorus sings, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” For it to be successful, one needs to find the Sinatra test relative to the idea.

Principle 5: Emotions

Why should people care about your ideas? By making them feel something. Humans are wired to feel for people, and abstractions do not help in this regard.

Research shows that people are more likely to donate to a single needy individual than to an impoverished region. That is the reason why when funding agencies reach out; they say a specific story of an orphaned kid or someone with health problems in need of money for treatment.

Same emotions do not elicit similar responses across a different set of people. Teenagers may react to one set of emotions differently than adults, so the hard part is figuring out the right feeling to harness for a specific campaign and audience.

Principle 6: Stories

And finally, stories get people to act on ideas. Hearing stories preps us to respond more quickly and effectivity to a situation that is the reason, stories are powerful.

Companies are moving from being case study centric to client story-centric; it is not just a change of title. A story walks through the situation that persisted earlier, the pain points prompting the client to look for solutions, and when the solution provider sensing the business challenges, provides a solution that promises a new normal.

Often master storytellers like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk have used this technique to position their products that promise a new normal and relieves the consumers from unpleasant experiences.

To make an idea stick, it should be a Simple, Unexpected Concrete Credentialed Emotional Story!
Now one can observe that it can also be remembered as SUCCESs.

For an idea to last, it should make the audience,

1. Pay attention

2. Understand and remember

3. Believe

4. Care

5. Be able to act

Are you preparing your next leadership communication or brand message? Read more about the strategic narrative. Read the next post in the Basics of Business Storytelling here.  

Need assistance? Happy to help.

How Leaders Can Craft a Strategic Narrative?

Photo by Luan Cabral on Unsplash

I am listening to, “Originals: How non-conformists move the world” by Wharton School professor Adam Grant in Audible. In that book, he analyses some of the leaders who made a significant contribution to the world that we live in today. He had picked up anecdotes from different periods which makes it even more exciting.

He analyses Martin Luther King Jr’s famous, “I have a dream” speech. It is one of the path-breaking moments in American history. It is referenced in several leadership communication sessions for how to communicate a vision that has a clear call to action and galvanizes people.

But, Dr.King didn’t utter the “dream” word for the better part of his speech, and it was his friend Mahalia Jackson who shouted from behind, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”. And the rest, as we know, is history.

This speech is an example of how compelling a strategic narrative can be when it is specific it motivates, engages and connects people to a higher purpose. Great leaders use narratives during crisis communication to deliver key message. In business, it is about communicating a company’s strategy or vision in a way that employees can connect their jobs to the overall vision of their company.

Often, companies spend millions in coming up with a strategy once in a few years, and they spend an insane amount of effort to craft customer communications. But how often, the same importance is given to communicate the strategy to their employees?

A typical organization might do an offsite for senior management, few workshops for their top managers across regions. But beyond that?

And, then some bland internal communications emails would be sent to all employees about what is the new vision, which goes something like this.

To be the most efficient service provider on the earth or World-class customer service or To be the preferred partner to world’s leading blah blah blah

To a frontline employee or a mid-level manager, what does To be the most efficient service provider on the earth mean?

How Good is Your Strategy?

According to management thinkers Chip Heath and Dan Heath, “A strategy is, at its core, a guide to behaviour. It comes to life through its ability to influence thousands of decisions, both big and small, made by employees throughout an organization.”

For employees of SouthWest airlines, it could mean deciding on what to be served to passengers on board – peanuts or a chicken salad. Their next question will be, will serving a chicken salad help us become the low-fare airline in this route? If not, then they are not serving that salad.

A good strategy delivers financial success and drives action that differentiates a company in that specific industry. But a bad strategy can result in less differentiation and drag the company down.

When sitting down to formulate a strategy, every leadership team aspires to come up with a great strategy that could deliver them differentiation in the market and inspire their employees to act. It doesn’t happen always.

Strategies may be powerful in a PowerPoint document or on the walls of the organization or in the leadership speeches. Still, if they do not manifest in action, they are inert and irrelevant.

What differentiates a vision statement from being just on the wall to something that inspires people to act is a compelling narrative. A narrative essentially inspires and moves people to act. It is more than off-the-cuff spontaneous storytelling, but a clear and consistent story in every discussion about vision and strategy be it with the leadership team or an employee town hall.

One of the main reason that strategies don’t stick with a broader audience is the way it is communicated, and the prime culprit for the same is leadership’s curse of knowledge.

Curse of Knowledge

Most of us might have experienced this at some point in time in our career. As people move up the ladder, the curse of knowledge afflicts leaders when they try to communicate a strategy to the rest of the organization. It leads executives to talk about strategy as though they were the audience.

When someone uses high-level and abstract matter, you can say that the curse of knowledge afflicts them. The bigger problem is that they are not even aware that they are speaking abstractly.

One can overcome the curse of knowledge by using stories, as it helps to demystify concrete language.

FedEx has an award called Purple Promise which honours employees for making sure FedEx’s delivery promise that packages will “absolutely and positively” arrive overnight.

When a delivery truck broke down in New York, and the replacement van was running late, the FedEx driver after having delivered few packages on foot realized that he might not deliver the other packages on time. But he managed to convince a driver from a competitor to take him on the last few deliveries.

Now this story can be used by a top sales executive to convey, “this is how FedEx employees take the delivery promise seriously”. A new delivery driver can use this story to guide her behaviour that it is not about working from 9 to 5, but it is about getting the packages delivered come what may. The same story could be used by a procurement person to negotiate better maintenance contracts such as the fastest possible maintenance/replacement vehicles for delivery trucks.

Communicating the Strategic Narrative

A strategic narrative is best represented by contrasting the current situation with the promised land. It is a structure that inspiring leaders have used in their speech to inspire, influence and act. This is what Martin Luther King Jr did in his speech as well as Steve Jobs used that in his iPhone launch in 2007.

It consists of four parts,

  1. In the past…..
  2. Then something happened….
  3. So now….. and
  4. In the future….

It addresses the, “Why.”

So, when a sales leader wants to pitch to VP-customer care on their solution, it could go like this.

With one of our clients, their prepaid telecom customers had to wait for 12 minutes before they could speak to the call centre executives, this resulted in bad customer experience, and customers started dropping off their network. Then the client implemented a customer agent intelligence solution that predicts the call volumes of a day and assigns call centre agents by which the customer’s waiting time is reduced to under 1 minute. Now customers are happy, which is resulting in more referral business.

Stories that speak to an organization’s strategy have two parts. The story itself and the moral of the story. It is nice to have both, but if one must choose between the two, choose the story. Because the moral is implicit in the story, but the story is not implied in the moral. And the story with its concrete language, specific protagonists and the real-world setting is more likely to guide behavior.

By using a clever mix of stories and concrete language, leaders can overcome the curse of knowledge and everyone in the organization stands to benefit from a shared understanding of the strategy.   

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