Why have we called the company Curious Cognition? Well, you need to read on to find out….and I’m hoping that the fact I posted a question will hook your interest and keep your attention. It’s a tried and trusted storytelling technique, and it leads into what I want to tell you about – what I’ve been doing and why I decided to leave Travelport. It begins back in January 2017 when I became fascinated by the power of authentic storytelling.
From selling to storytelling
I had just been promoted as part of a restructure into a newly created role of a chief storyteller at Travelport. I quickly set about enhancing my predominantly product management and marketing skill set with all I could find about storytelling. I interviewed a large number of senior stakeholders across the business to understand what everyone thought the current company story was. Unsurprisingly – this is common to many large companies – everyone had a different view of what they believed (we’ll come back to this in a while) the company story was.
Following the interviews, I spent time with Gordon Wilson Travelport’s CEO to capture his thoughts before we worked with the brand team to start to build out a company narrative. This drew on some of my newly discovered skills such as the seven-point story arc, the concept of the audience being the hero and the presenter being the mentor, all of which is designed to increase the empathy and authenticity of the story.
The Power of the Platform
Within a few weeks, we had built out a topline company narrative which became known internally as the “The power of the platform”. This story started to be shared with customers at our events and in one-on-ones during strategic reviews with key customers. After a few weeks of feedback and a few tweaks, it really started to resonate with customers. You know when a story is working because your audience leans into the room – you can physically see them lean forward and become much more intense and interested in what’s being said. When the story is crafted with the things the customer cares about, it starts to matter to them; it’s about them not you. Good delivery also clearly matters and helps the messages land.
Next up I worked on building out a curriculum so that I could train more people across the business on what was rapidly starting to feel like a superpower. I read a number of excellent books – you can find many on my goodreads.com list – and I watched and made detailed notes from the Ted Talks on storytelling. It’s amazing just how much free high-quality content you can find online….
With my newly-created curriculum, I started to work with different teams; up-skilling people on the basics and more advanced topics. All was going well, but I still did not feel that most people had the confidence to use it in their day-to-day engagements with customers. So as part of a sales academy programme, we rolled out training and we began something we called pitch perfect – giving the sales teams a safe environment where they could pitch ideas and get feedback on their upcoming customer meetings. I think it’s fair to say – and I will be interested to see if any of the Travelport team comment – that most people who attended not only understood why it worked, how to ‘do it’ and what they should do to be successful, but they also seemed genuinely energised by the process. Which brings me back to that point about ‘believing’. By turning them into believers in storytelling, it was turning them into believers in Travelport.
Seeing more and more success from the approach, I started to wonder what it was about authentic storytelling that made it work, and I began reading more around the subject. I had previously read Hooked (by Nir Eyal) about how product managers could create addictive products. It talks about triggers, actions and variable rewards – such as all those little dopamine hits we get making the red dots disappear from our phone icons, the badges we get through gamification and much more. I then referenced that book to find others, coming across several books on heuristics, behavioural economics/behavioural sciences and cognitive biases. You can think of heuristics as cognitive shortcuts or rules of thumb that simplify decisions. Because our brains use lots of energy and the body is always looking to conserve energy, they are the shortcuts we use to make decisions. Some lead to cognitive biases affecting rationality and most crucial decision making. It’s heuristics and the associated biases that account for why storytelling works so well.
Today, a few short weeks before the end of 2018, I’m excited to be working on the next chapter of my life, building out my own consultancy focused on supporting product management teams and their executives who want to optimise the performance of their products and portfolios. This falls squarely in my comfort zone of commercial product management, product P&L’s, pragmatic product management and, of course, lean start-up. Plus I’ve remained active in coaching and working closely with a number of the product managers and proposition team members during my time at Travelport. I’m focused right now on consulting engagements and finding one or two non-exec board roles. I’m convinced, however, that it’s going to be possible to create social and economic value from connecting the dots around cognitive biases and helping organisations and product managers build more effective messaging…and I have started to run some experiments, including lean start-up.
So, why Curious Cognition?
There are a few reasons. The first is the fact I have always had a very curious mind – I’m always reading something or listening to an audio book. A couple of years ago, I taught myself some iOS coding and built a few simple apps (following guides such as https://www.raywenderlich.com) as I thought it would be useful when discussing product requirements with developers – the fact it gets dark really early in the UK in the winter also helped! Second, I have always wanted to build my own product and I think I have some interesting ideas that I am working on right now. Nothing to share publicly at this stage but stay tuned to find out more on that front. The final reason is a little more personal; my own curious cognition is driven through the simple fact that I suffer from dyslexia – which is a blessing and a curse. Reading and writing English is a chore and even with spell checkers I still find it to be a real effort sometimes. I will often write things as I would say them, leading to verbose and unclear sentence structure.
On the bright side, modern technologies have good workarounds tools like www.grammarly.com, audio books and voice recognition. Other strengths include the fact that I build relationships with people quickly, have good verbal communication skills and an IQ of 139 the last time it was tested. I would describe myself as a horizontal thinker – I join things up other people don’t see, I am quite creative and I used to be a wiz at organic chemistry, in-fact anything requiring 3D visualisation or spatial awareness. The other thing dyslexia has given me is a strong work ethic and maybe a little overachiever’s syndrome and a fear of failure. When you’re the stupid kid in the class you have to work harder than everyone else and then, one day, you’re not the stupid kid anymore. But by then the damage is done, and the work ethic is set. It’s funny how the last few weeks have made me realise some of these defects in my character are very ingrained.
So, after two years of successful storytelling, I am totally confident that storytelling is a better approach to conventional presenting. There is no shortage of evidence for the benefits and a number of inspiring leaders have been focusing on its virtues for some time. I believe in the power of authentic storytelling; narratives that come to life and stick in the hearts and minds of the recipients. And it’s the cognitive biases that are at the heart of that reason that it works. If you want to influence behaviour, consider creating a good story for your products, for your strategy, for your review, for yourself. Customers who have been won over by a good story are more likely to share it with others. And if you want people to remember you or your company, tell them a good, authentic story with all the details that give them a reason to care and reason to share it.
This is the first of my Curious Cognition blog articles – I would love your feedback. I know it’s a little longer then convention would recommend, but I have never been one to stick with convention.