The human element in communication

I like to wake up to The Today Programme on Radio 4 and my ears pricked up as Evan Davis introduced a piece about an unusual sports journalist – a computer! Programmers in the US have developed software that enables computers to write sports stories – no need to wait for the hack to return from his liquid lunch, just type in the essential details and wait for HAL to come up with the goods. The computer draws on common scenarios to produce a written article – the last-minute goal, the second half fight-back, the player’s previous record or his current stats this season. It churns out quite plausible prose, perfectly readable, and according to the programmers the computer gives the sports fans what they want – the key facts and the best pieces of the action.

But is that really what the readers want? We can get that anywhere – piped to us via i-phone or Blackberry. I think what makes good sports journalism (any journalism) so readable are the behind-the-scenes stories. We want to hear about the spats between players, the sledging on the cricket pitch, the manager throwing pizza at the players at half time. We want to read about the fan who sold all his worldly goods so he could follow his beloved team at the World Cup, only to be turned away at the gate. And how the team manager, upon hearing about this, invited him to sit in the VIP seats.

Sport is about conflict, loyalty, competition, pressure and emotion – all reflections of human strengths and frailties. Good stories need a healthy dose of the ‘human element’ to do their job effectively. It’s the way we connect with, and influence, our audience.

Next Pecha Kucha in Manchester 27th Sept


Pecha Kucha Manchester – Mon 27th Sept 2010

Manchester Metropolitan University, 799 Wilmslow Road, Didsbury, Manchester M20 2RR

Networking session from 5.45pm, show starts 6.45pm (concludes 9.00pm)

Cost: £10 to include light refreshments

Your hosts: Phil Harris and Andrew Thorp

I’m delighted to announce that the worldwide phenomenon Pecha Kucha returns to Manchester on 27th Sept, following a successful re-launch last December. The term is based on the Japanese word for ‘chit-chat’ and has evolved into a social night with a difference. The PK concept was invented by two Tokyo-based architects, Mark Dytham and Astrid Klein as an antidote to the ‘death by Powerpoint’ experience we’ve all had from time to time.

Pecha Kucha Nights are a quarterly social gathering in a city where up to 12 presenters talk about something they feel passionate about, using an innovative 20/20 format – that’s 20 slides only, each rotating every 20 seconds. That makes all the talks exactly 6 minutes and 40 seconds long, a great way to encourage a concise, punchy delivery! Paradoxically, Dytham and Klein found that by restricting presentations in this way they unleashed previously untapped creativity – and the events became enormously popular.

The idea caught on, and the likes of Joanna Lumley, Johnny Vegas and newsreader Jon Snow have given presentations. PK now operates in over 300 cities globally, a truly worldwide phenomenon…and it’s showcased again in Didsbury, Manchester on Monday 27th Sept 2010.

I’m compiling the list of speakers now, but to get a flavour of how it works, take a look at a report from the last PK in July. We have attracted approx. 100 business people at each event so far, as a not-for-profit venture.

Because PK brings together people from so many different businesses, we’ve added an open networking session from 5.45pm. The show itself starts at 6.45pm and concludes about 9.00pm with a break in the middle.

Two Questions…

  1. Would you like to attend?
  2. Would you like to present a talk?

NB: the talks should not be used to pitch a business proposal – they’re more for showcasing human interest stories, personal journeys, weird hobbies or social enterprise projects.

Just drop a comment in here or contact me via LinkedIn.


One life, many choices. Reflecting on regrets

Terrific piece in the Observer last weekend (15/8/2010) – “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying”. It refers to a short article written last year by Bronnie Ware, a woman who spent many years nursing the dying. These were the most prevalent:

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

I wish I had let myself be happier.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

A story that sells

Following on from my last post, here’s a story that really does it for me.

One of my friends works at a major department store here in the North West. I asked her what her most memorable customer experience was. She said,

“There was this doctor and his wife who came into the kitchen department I was running. They’d been before but this time they were determined to nail down what kitchen they wanted and to finally purchase it! We spent ages with them, running through all the options, sizes, styles, colours and layouts. Eventually we agreed on the sale and I started filling in the paperwork, at which point the doctor stopped me and said, ‘There’s a little problem. I don’t think you’ll be able to deliver it.’ I asked him why not and he explained they lived in an inaccessible place where delivery vans really struggle to gain access. We did a site visit and he was right! No way we could get there. That’s when our imaginations kicked in. We did end up delivering the kitchen but on barge! The doctor lived by a canal and by hiring a barge, parking it under a bridge and lowering down the kitchen units one-by-one, we managed to give them the kitchen of their dreams!”

No that’s a story that sells! It’s much better than a factual statement. It speaks to people on an emotional level and let’s THEM decide if your customer service is remarkable.

The role of storytelling in business

Dame Edna Everidge on Parkinson ShowThere’s a saying that goes, “Facts tell, but stories sell.” Stories are a terrific way to persuade and influence others. But some people have a problem with this. For some it’s all a bit too fluffy and not serious enough to be, well…taken seriously!

But consider what sections of an article or presentation grab our attention. You guessed it…the stories. Provided they’re well-chosen, nicely structured and delivered skillfully, stories can have a strong emotional impact on your audience.

Well-chosen means appropriate and relevant to the listener/reader, something they can identify and empathize with. It might relate directly to the audience’s industry or situation, or maybe there’s a metaphorical significance to the story. It’s up to you to be creative and make that link. Remember too that stories about people tend to work well. We like to hear about personalities, conflict, emotions. Even an apparently dry topic can be brought to life through characters.

Nicely structured refers to the narrative framework – the beginning, middle and end. You might introduce the context and key characters, explain what happened to them and finish with a resolution of some kind – again, with a point being made about what it might mean to the audience.

And then there’s the ‘performance’ of the story. Some people try to relate an anecdote but absolutely murder it! As the Irish comedian Frank Carson used to say, “It’s the way I tell ‘em!” If you’re going to tell stories, practise them until you achieve the kind of emotional impact you’re after.

One great benefit of a strong anecdote is the way it allows the audience to make its own mind up. For example, you might CLAIM to put customer care at the top of your agenda but on its own, it’s just an empty statement. It requires the audience to accept your word for it. Much better to relate a fantastic customer service story that PROVES it. Let the strength of the story and the emotional impact it has do the work for you. And with a bit of luck your audience will spread that story and function as an un-paid sales force!