Mitch Ditkoff, author of Storytelling at Work: How Moments of Truth on the Job Reveal the Real Business of Life, helps organizations and their people use storytelling to connect to the mission behind their work. Storytelling is a great way to connect with stakeholders and build momentum for change. This webinar will help you craft your own stories and consider how and when to tell them in the service of problem solving!
Elisabeth Swan: Welcome to GoLeanSixSigma.com’s featured guest webinar. Today’s webinar is titled Twice Upon a Time: Lean Six Sigma Storytelling. And our guest presenter is Mitch Ditkoff.
About Our Presenter
Mitch is a Co-Founder and President of Idea Champions, an innovation consulting and training company headquartered in Woodstock, New York. He has been Innovation Blogger of the Year two years in a row. He is the author of the award-winning Awake at the Wheel and his newest book, Storytelling at Work, won an Axiom Business Book Awards Bronze Medal in 2016. He is the popular public speaker as the distinction of having asked more than 10,000 people where they get their best ideas.
He is based in both Woodstock, New York and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico which sounds incredibly nice. And my favorite title for Mitch is Innovation Provocateur. Welcome, Mitch.
Mitch Ditkoff: Yes, thank you, Elisabeth. Happy to be here. So, let us begin. I’m really looking forward to the next 45 minutes. And just to let all the listeners know, this is a very simple overview tutorial guidelines on what does it take to be a powerful storyteller in the workplace especially those folks who are Lean Six Sigma practitioners, what you can do differently and better to get results via storytelling.
So since this is about storytelling, I thought I’d start with a story, a backstory about how I even got into this. So here we go.
For 28 years, I’ve been consulting with and teaching and training, facilitating, giving talks about innovation all over the world. And about six years ago, one of my clients, a new client, asked me a very casual question, what I did and how I do it and why I was successful.
So I responded kind of reflects automatically, gave my standard rap on what I do and how I do it. As the words came out, I felt like they were falling kind of flat like even I didn’t get it. And after the conversation, I was puzzled. I asked myself, “What about what I just said?” It was so vague. It was so confusing.
So, I started to ask myself an existential question, what do I really do? Not what I say I do but what do I really do and why is it that I’ve been successful in doing this work?
So I kind of deconstructed all of the processes, the tools, the techniques, my approaches, this, that, and the other thing that I do with companies to look what is the DNA or the sort of periodic table of elements of all the processes and techniques that I teach, what makes them successful.
And what I discovered was something that really blew my mind. And that was, there was something that I do that I never really acknowledged that I do, and that is storytelling that when I tell stories to a group of people whether it’s a thousand people or ten people, what it is that opens the mind, what it is that kick starts engagement, what it is that really gets people leaning forward in their chairs and their eyes opening widely is the stories that I tell, are the stories that I tell.
Somehow at that moment, when a story is spoken, the whole vibe in the room changes. People that are distracted, checking their emails under the table, waiting for lunch, coming in late, whatever the deal, when a story is told, all of a sudden the whole room shifts.
…when a story is told, all of a sudden the whole room shifts.
So I started to ask myself, what is that really? So the FedEx logo on the screen right now is a pretty good metaphor for what the storytelling business is all about. If you look at the FedEx log and some of you have seen this before, some of you have not, there is a hidden symbol in this logo and it’s between the second “e” and the “X”. And if you look, you see an arrow. It’s a white arrow and it’s pointing to the right.
But if you ask most people what’s in this logo, they’ll say colors, they’ll say images, they’ll say the word FedEx. Very few people will talk about the white arrow because the white arrow is in the white space so it’s called the negative space. It has always been there. It was designed by a very savvy graphic designer to embed the subliminal message of forward movement, which is what FedEx does. They take things from point A to point B and so the logo is designed with that in mind to send that message.
Well, when I look at my work life, what I do for a living, what I deliver, I realized there was a white arrow in what I did. And that white arrow was storytelling; something I had taken for granted but didn’t really bring to the surface in a powerful way.
So as I got that, that storytelling was my kind of superpower or a hidden resource at my disposal that I was undervaluing, I started to study and research what it is about stories, why they work, how they work, and how other people can make them work, which is what has led us to this webinar and what has led me to write a book and really dive in full throttle.
I invite everyone listening to this call to just consider for a moment that there is a white arrow in their work, in the Lean Six Sigma world and that white arrow for you very well maybe story and storytelling, the way you can deliver your message via storytelling that you may have today have undervalued.
So I’m going to segue to a second story that is a bit more specific to the Lean Six Sigma world and it’s a story about something that happened in Washington, D.C. some years ago.
The park’s workers, the maintenance workers responsible for cleaning and maintaining the iconic monuments in D.C. noticed one day that the Jefferson Memorial that they were assigned to clean was particularly dirty, more so than the other monuments. So they amped up the spray. They amped up the detergent in their spray to clean it off and continued on their way.
They returned the next day and lo and behold, the monument, the Jefferson Memorial that is, was also dirty and super dirty. And they started to wonder why it was that this particular monument, what’s going on with the Jefferson Memorial.
So one particular park’s worker got really curious and he found out that it wasn’t just soot, it wasn’t just the ambient environmental detritus that was causing the difficulty, it was actually, let me see if I can get the right phrase here, the correct scientific name for this, a bird poop, that’s right. Bird poop.
The Jefferson Memorial was covered with bird poop. And this particular guy got very curious. Why on the Jefferson Memorial? Why not other places? So he began to do a little research and he discovered this. That the birds who were leaving their business behind on the Jefferson Memorial were coming because they were attracted to guess what, the spiders that were all over the Jefferson Memorial.
So he asked himself his second question, the second why, why are there so many spiders on the Jefferson Memorial? Well, he discovered with a little bit more research, the spiders were attracted to these very small insects called midges. And when the spiders came to eat the midges, the birds came to eat the spiders, the birds left their poop behind and thus the extra work required of the park’s workers.
So the same curious gentleman asked himself the question, why are there so many midges, tiny insects all over the Jefferson Memorial? A little bit of research revealed the fact that they were, the midges that is, attracted to the lighting conditions of the Jefferson Memorial. It had become for them a kind of aphrodisiac like moonlighting, the kind of moonlighting that just inspired them to pro-create.
What it was, the ambient end of the day sunset light blended with the artificial light that had been put around the monument had created this very sexy environment for small bugs that attracted them. So they mated. They made more midges. The more midges were made, the more spiders that came, the more spiders that came, the more birds that came, the more birds that came, the more bird poop that happened.
And the heavier detergents that had to be used which led to the erosion of the Jefferson Memorial and some quick thinking by this one particular curious park’s worker that indeed all they had to do to resolve the situation was not put the Jefferson Memorial under Plexiglas or shut it down to the public or shoot the birds or put bird poison out, all they had to do was getting to the root cause, change the lighting.
So what they figured out was if they put the lights on one half hour later than they usually did, it no longer created that romantic setting for the bugs. No bugs, no spiders. No spiders, no birds. No birds, no bird poop.
Now, why I’m telling you this story is for a simple reason. In order to deliver the message and the message in the story can be considered a root cause analysis type of problem, an ask the right question kind of a problem, a check your assumptions kind of a project, a team collaborating and sharing information with each other, there are lots of sort of core issues at the core of this story, but the story itself gives light and gives shape to the message.
I could have said, “Check your assumptions,” or, “Always do a root cause analysis,” or, “Ask why five times,” a didactic kind of professorial response to a need that is better served and remembered by the story being told. That’s why stories are so powerful. They give shape. They give shape to a message that needs to be delivered and can be delivered no other way as powerful as by the telling of a story.
They give shape to a message that needs to be delivered and can be delivered no other way as powerful as by the telling of a story.
In effect, storytelling reduces resistance to change. It makes a problem or a need or an opportunity that’s going to require effort. It gives it an emotional coloration. It gives it a memorable feeling. It makes it real.
Storytelling which goes all the way back to the Stone Age, when our forefathers, when our ancestors gathered around the fire to share the stories of the day about the predators and what the tribe needed to do differently in order to survive. They deliver that information via story, not by a PowerPoint show, not by a professorial didactic pep talk but by telling the story of the day.
So stories reduce resistance to change. It engages the listener. It transmits feeling and emotion. It goes around. It goes beyond the proverbial lions at the gate, the so-called left-brain analytical part of ourselves, and gets people into the feelings of.
In this day and age when we are so overwhelmed by information, 150 or 200 emails a day, all kinds of things coming at you, the story is the way to cut through that clutter and get to the heart of the matter. It transmits not just information but the feeling behind the information.
Neuroscientists have proven this in many ways. One of their experiments in which a storyteller is hooked up to a variety of electrodes and the story listeners are hooked up to a variety of electrodes. And what they discovered is that when the storyteller is telling a particular part of the story, the parts of the storyteller’s brain light up in response to the emotion of the story, call it fear, call it wonder, call it hesitation, whatever that part of the brain is that is affected by that emotion, the same part of the brain lights up in the mind of the listener.
The message being that a transmission of feeling takes place simply by referring to something in the story, telling of an image of the story, the listener has the same experience upon listening as the storyteller did have upon experiencing. So it is an instantaneous transmission.
Plus, it sticks. Stories are remembered. I’m sure people listening to this webinar right now have stories they have been told by a friend or a teacher or a boss or a client that they remember for decades and they tell those stories to other people. So those stories go viral before there was an internet and things were viral on the internet. Well, they went viral word by word, mouth to mouth simply by the telling of a story.
Why Do Lean Six Sigma Practitioners Struggle With Telling Their Stories?
So, given all the positives of story, the question then comes, why do Lean Six Sigma practitioners or some struggle with telling their stories? What are the obstacles? Why it doesn’t happen more than it does?
So let’s take a look at what those particular obstacles might be.
The first one and maybe the most powerful one is the Lean Six Sigma practitioner or anyone for that matter not having a self-image of themselves being a storyteller. They might think or you might think, “Oh, I’m not good at telling stories. I’m not a garrison killer. No one is going to listen.” And that becomes then a self-fulfilling prophecy because the self-image is, “I’m not a storyteller. I’m not a good storyteller.” You don’t make the effort to tell your stories and therefore the stories don’t deliver the goods. So that’s one.
And by the way, just as in the side, I want everyone listening to this that you are a good storyteller. You’re way better than you think. We do it naturally. You’ve been doing it since you were a small child. You do it every day. Sixty-five percent of our conversations sociologists have determined and psychologists are actually made up of stories. We’re natural at it. But we don’t know that we do it. So therefore we have a negative self-image of our self as a storyteller. But you are already good at it.
The second obstacle is that we don’t tune into our audience. We don’t know what their preferences are, what their mindset is. We might tell a story generically but we don’t adapt it to who the listeners are. So that’s the second obstacle.
The third one is we don’t know what outcome we’re going for. We don’t know what the bottom line message is. Do we want our listeners to take more risk? Do we want them to become more persevering? Do we want them to be more collaborative? Do we want them to check their assumptions?
It could have any or all of those outcomes. But without understanding what the message is that we’re delivering, we might tell the story that is, number four, the wrong story. It doesn’t really deliver that outcome. So we tell it, it might be cute or interesting or memorable but it doesn’t really relate to the outcome you’re seeking.
The fifth obstacle is what I call being too preachy, too professorial, too dictatorial, too directive. Stories are meant to be entertaining. They’re meant to be inclusive and engaging. They’re not meant to be you’ve just come down from the sermon on the mountain where you’re there to instruct and tell people things. That’s not a story. That’s an instructional video or a list of things to do.
The sixth thing and very common is no practice. We might think of a story. We might think it’s good. We might know it has value. But we don’t practice it. And because we don’t practice it, when it’s time to deliver it, we stumble and fumble and kind of walk in circles. Every TED speaker, every good TED speaker practices their presentations, their talks many, many times, in the car, while they’re jogging, while they’re walking, on a break. They don’t just stood up there and wing it. They’ve actually practiced.
The seventh part of the – the seventh element I should say of the obstacle is that we don’t understand story structure. What are the elements of a story? What’s the spine of a story? And in a moment, I’m going to give you a very simple tutorial that will alert you to what those five elements are.
And the eighth obstacle or why some Lean Six Sigma practitioners don’t tell their stories or struggle is they tell it in a boring way. They tell it flat line. They tell it kind of monotone. They don’t move when they talk. They don’t include images in the story and so forth.
So yes, there are obstacles. Here are the common ones but they can all be overcome. So let’s get to number seven, the structure of the story.
What Is the STRUCTURE of a Story?
And I think how perfect is this for Lean Six Sigma practitioners because I know in this field, structure is honored. It’s valued. Processes, methods, techniques all have one, two, three, or four parts to them. There is an order of things. There is a spine to it. It’s not just a random lord of applies kind of intervention. Stories in the same way have structure too and that stories known and stories honored then good things happen.
5 Elements of a Good Story
So let’s take a look and see what the five key elements of a story are. Number one is character. Every story has a character, a hero. In Little Red Riding Hood, it’s Little Red Riding Hood. In Cinderella, it’s Cinderella.
In your story, the character is still to be determined. You might choose to the character be you, which is fine. It doesn’t mean you’re an egomaniac or you’re hogging the show, you might be simply telling a story in your own business life, your own work life, or your own private life that has meaning and power to it and you are the character. So that character needs to be described in some way. People need to feel that they know the character, some details, some likability, some sense of who that character is. So, that’s number one.
Number two is the setting. Every story takes place somewhere. Star Wars could be in space. In Godfather, there was a restaurant scene. It could be on a bus, at work, in the office, in an elevator. Every story takes place somewhere in time and space. And by describing the setting, you create an image in the mind of the listener, a moving picture that enables them to imagine, can see it and travel with you, be part of your story so that becomes more real and memorable for them. So make sure you give enough effort to clarifying the setting.
The third element of a story is plot. What happens? A leads to B leads to C. It’s the sequence of events. In every story, there are at least two, three sometimes ten elements. In some movies, there are also sub-plots. You need to just decide when telling a story what the key elements of the plot are and make sure you honor them and include them in your story. Here is what happened. This is what happened next and here’s what happened after.
The fourth element of a story and the one that’s all too frequently ignored or undervalued is the obstacle or the obstacles. In Little Red Riding Hood, there was the big bad wolf. In Cinderella, there were the evil stepsisters. And in every fairytale, there is an obstacle. In every story, in every movie, in every book, that creates – the obstacle creates the tension, the drama. If there’s no obstacle, there is no story. You are just sort of talking about something, which is fine. But don’t call it a story because without an obstacle, you have no story.
So when thinking about Lean Six Sigma stories that you will eventually tell, think about the constraints, what’s in the way, what you want your listeners to pay attention to and they have to contend with and give enough space for that obstacle to be spoken of and clarified.
And the fifth part of a story is the resolution, the happy ending or the not happy ending. What happens? What is the climax, the denouement? It’s like, “And we are at the end of the story.” The final chord in the symphony. Resolution. The key thing.
Character, setting, plot, obstacles, and resolution is the spine of a good story. Leave out any one of them and your story will suffer or it would not even be a story.
Joseph Campbell referred to all of this stuff as the hero’s journey. And he said, “All stories in any culture,” and he said this for many years and validated in researches in many ways, “Every story is the hero’s journey.”
Every story is the hero’s journey.
In other words, you’re somebody, a character, on a quest, on a mission for X, Y, or Z whether it’s the holy grail or to improve a process or to lower expenses, it doesn’t matter, everyone has a journey, every journey has a hero, and every hero has to deal with obstacles. We’re all on that journey. And no matter what domain or realm or rock, we’re eating in, it’s the same basic elements.
The 18th Camel
Now, I want to tell you a brief story that will reinforce and hopefully help you remember the essence of storytelling, and this is called The 18th Camel. Some years ago, in the Middle East, there was a very wise merchant who died suddenly and he left his massive fortune to his three sons. Well, they were ecstatic. They were sad that their dad died, their father died, but they were ecstatic that they were now all potentially very rich.
And so at the funeral, right after the funeral, the father’s Grand Vizier, his chief lieutenant, the man who handled all his finances, he read the will to the three boys. And in the will, the father left behind 17 camels to his three sons. Wow! That’s quite a fortune. They were so excited and they set about after the Grand Vizier left to figure out how to divide up the 17 camels because the eldest son would receive one half, the second son, the middle son, was to receive one third, and the youngest son was to receive one ninth.
But you can’t divide 17 camels in half nor can you divide it into a third or divide it into a ninth. So they started fighting and screaming and yelling at each other and arguing. This went on for days and days and days. It even came to fisticuffs. It got to the point where they realized they couldn’t figure it out.
So they sent word to the local wise man to come and see if he could help them resolve this challenge. And he did. And they listened. The wise man listened to all three boys who made their case about how many camels they should get and what the solution should be. And of course, there was no solution. So the wise man paused. He stroked his beard and he says, “Boys, I’ll be back in about an hour. Just stay here. I’ll come back and we’ll figure it out.”
An hour later, he comes back. He is riding a camel. He gets off the camel and he says, “I love your father so much that I have decided to donate my favorite camel to your family. Now, you have 18 camels. So eldest son, you get half of the camels, that would be nine. Those are yours. Middle son, you get a third, a third of 18 is 6 so you get 6. And youngest son, you get a ninth, that’s two. So 9 plus 6 plus 2 is 17. Oh, we have one camel leftover. Well, I guess I’ll just get on that camel and ride him back home.”
Problem solved. The 18th Camel, the elegant solution, a non-obvious solution. All that message of the possibility of a person or a team or a company coming up with an elegant solution is not immediately obvious in which their team or their company or department is at odds with each other because they can’t figure it out, I tell them The 18th Camel story as a way to introduce the rest of the session that will be designed and facilitated to help them get to that elegant solution with the 18th camel.
Instead of telling them, “Let’s get some elegant solutions, let’s think out of the box,” these kind of tired phrases that we tell each other from time to time, I tell them the 18th camel story and they get a big aha, “Whoa! There is something we haven’t thought of yet. There is something invisible, non-obvious, what would our 18th camel be here at GE or AT&T or MTV or General Mills or wherever?” So that story opens up the conversation and it opens up the mind. OK?
And in that story, there is a character or characters, there is a setting, there is a plot, there are obstacles, and there is resolution.
Storytelling Tips for Lean Six Sigma Practitioners
So, making this as simple and distilled down and useful as possible for everybody on this call, here are 10 handy dandy tips for Lean Six Sigma practitioners. And here we go.
One, realize you already know how to tell a story. If your mental chatter is like, “Oh, I’m not a good storyteller. I don’t know how to do this. No one will ever listen to me,” park that chatter for a moment and know that you already know how to tell a story. You might not know that you know and you might not know exactly how you do what you do but you’re a natural. So trust that.
Second thing, find a story you love to tell because the best storytellers are storytellers that are telling stories they have passion for, that juice them, that excite them, that they just get all excited to tell. And when they tell it, it is not a speech that they’re delivering. It is not a memorized rap that they’re giving. It’s a story that oozes out of them because it’s just so fun for them to tell. So find a story you love to tell.
Number three, make sure you identify the key message of your story, the takeaway, the deliverable, the heart of the matter. What is my story really about? Just like when I began this webinar and I was telling you that I had to really think about, what is my work really about and what do I do that really delivers the goods? And I got the storytelling.
You need to think about what is my story really about? What’s the message here? And when you get that, then the story that will reinforce that message will become more apparent to you.
The fourth that you want to remember is to – how you want your story to make the audience feel? Is it for them to take more risks? Is it for them to pay more attention to details? Is it for them to dream big, build a team, be willing to experiment? Every story can confirm or reinforce those qualities. There are many stories but you want to match the story with a message.
The fifth one which I call visualize your audience, know who you’re talking to. If it’s a bunch of accountants, it’s one thing. If it’s a bunch of computer programmers, it’s another. If it’s a bunch of teenage girls, it’s another thing. So each story needs to be matched to the audience and the telling itself needs to be matched to the audience as well.
Add colorful details and images. The more specific your stories are, the more colorful they are, the more likely the listener is to go with you for the ride and remember the story after you leave.
Seven, remember to include the big bad wolf obstacle, what is the obstacle and include it.
Eight, to practice. And when you practice, consider practicing with a friend or some friends who give feedback. How did that land? How did that go? Is that cool? What can I do differently? What did I forget?
The ninth element is to be animated in the telling of your story. If you’re excited about it, if your voice quality is into it, if you’re pausing at key points, if you’re moving as you talk, if there is interest in the telling of your story, the listener will also be interested.
And of course, the tenth thing which is probably the most important thing is to read my book and to subscribe to my blog, which I’ll have a slide at the end of the show. Jokingly said, but I’ve addressed all these topics in my book. And if you’re interested in getting better at storytelling, you might be interested in my book and blog as well.
Questions? And Elisabeth, if you can ask any? If you have anything to ask, I will respond.
Elisabeth Swan: I’m just going to – Mitch, you are a consummate storyteller and I appreciate that. And I also want to second your point about your book. Your book is great. We reviewed it on our site for those listening, and we’ve got it in our amazingly awesome list of Lean Six Sigma books. So like Mitch, we clearly see the connection between storytelling and doing your Lean Six Sigma projects.
My question for you, have you ever had a story that fundamentally changed an engagement?
Mitch Ditkoff: Absolutely. Totally. In fact, there are some stories, I’ve got my go-to stories that I include at almost every engagements that I deliver especially workshops and trainings because it is the one that opens the so-called Red Sea. If I don’t tell that story, I can feel like something is missing. And while there might be other stories that could be equally as impactful as that story that I tell, I find that that story makes a huge difference. So I include it.
And I’m sure every one of us has a go-to story which is at the root of your work and if you can identify that story, it doesn’t have to take a long time. A joke by the way is a story. And some jokes take 30 seconds or less to tell. A really good story like the classic Zen stories or Sophie stories or stories of any great traditions, spiritual tradition, they can be told in little two minutes or less.
Elisabeth Swan: One of my realizations about stories is with any – with groups small or large, I will often ask everybody to tell a little known fact about themselves. And what I realized over time is those always turn into stories and they help to form a community amongst the group. So even something as simple as that, you can immediately develop a bond amongst the team if you’re going to work together.
Mitch Ditkoff: I think that you just nailed something on the head, Elisabeth. I think storytelling is the most – the simplest, the most effective, and the most engaging way to dissolve boundaries between people and to build teamwork and trust because when someone tells a story especially from their own life, not just a classic teaching story which is sometimes called springboard stories, other people’s stories, but the story about you that might reflect something about your vulnerability, about your imperfection, about a lesson that you learn, something that’s revealing, the listeners go, “Hey, this isn’t just a person with a title or this isn’t just an outside consultant or expert or trainer or boss. This is somebody who is a human being or a teammate. I know you now. I feel like I know you.” And that knowing that other person comes in the telling of a story.
Innovation, process improvement, successful business will not happen unless there is a sense of community, a tribe, a sense of collaboration and teamwork, and storytelling is the fastest and simplest way to do that.
Elisabeth Swan: Yeah. That’s wonderful. Thank you so much, Mitch. That’s an incredibly great connect the dots for me to listen to that.
Mitch Ditkoff: My pleasure.
Elisabeth Swan: Absolutely.
Storytelling at Work
Mitch Ditkoff: Oh look! There’s the cover of my book. Thank you, Elisabeth for the plug earlier. It’s available on Amazon. And obviously, I took a great pride in writing it. If anyone is interested in reading it, it’s there for the reading. And with that Elisabeth, I’m going to kind of toss it back to you for you to tell folks about how they might apply some of this to Six Sigma and how this relates to their work and your work as well and other things that are going on with you in Six Sigma.
Elisabeth Swan: Thanks again, Mitch. So with the posting of this webinar, you’ll also see a link to Mitch’s book. Highly recommended. You’ll also be able to click on links to Yellow Belt Training, still free, Green Belt Training & Certification, Black Belt, Lean Training. So the structure that Mitch talked about, getting that in a training, using your stories to succeed but getting that underlying structure first.
Just-In-Time Café Podcast
We also have the Just-In-Time Café Podcast or the current episode actually. It contains an interview with Ashley Gambhir of San Diego where she uses Lean Six Sigma on education. So a great insight into UC San Diego’s effort because they’re putting a lot of courses out there online, on site for Lean Six Sigma practitioners.
And as with all the other podcast, we’ve got great books to talk to about. We’ve got great apps. And we’ve got lots of stories about Lean Six Sigma in the news and other people’s successes, other stories, right?
Mitch Ditkoff: Beautiful.
Elisabeth Swan: Yeah. And that wraps it up for us today. Thank you so much for joining us, Mitch. And thanks to all of you for listening in.
Mitch Ditkoff: Thank you, Elisabeth. Thank you so much.
Elisabeth Swan: Bye all.
Mitch Ditkoff: Bye-bye.