Q&A with a Story Guru: Mike Wittenstein, Part 1

When I came across Mike Wittenstein’s site Storyminers, I knew I wanted to learn more about how he captures customer-experience stories.

The Q&A with Mike will appear over the next five days.

Bio: Mike, a seasoned marketing/branding/operations/strategy execution veteran with more than 20 years of experience at both large and small firms, is chief experience officer at Storyminers. Focused primarily on service companies, Mike has a long track record at designing and delivering service innovations that help brands become more appealing — and more profitable. Mike has influenced key decisions at Air Canada, Apple, AT&T, Carlson/Wagonlit, CarMax, Delta Air Lines, Diversakore, Goodwill Games, Holiday Inns, IBM, iPay Technologies, Kinko’s, McDonald’s, MCI, SOHO HERO, Southern Company, Turner, US Forest Service, Val-Pak, and Wingate Inns. A former e-visionary at IBM, Mike introduced then revolutionary ideas that are now common. He also founded GALILEO, one of the nation’s first interactive agencies. Mike earned an MBA in international management from Thunderbird and a BA in foreign languages and cultures from the University of Florida. Mike represented the United States in exchange programs to the former Soviet Union and to Brazil and he speaks four languages.

Q&A with Mike Wittenstein (Question 1):

Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?

A: During the grade school years, my parents sent me to Hebrew school to prepare me for my Bar Mitzvah. Year after year, we learned the same Bible stories, albeit with more details and added moral lessons each time around. Once, in junior high school, one of my friends used a Bible story that they had learned at (Christian) Sunday school to make a point. I shared a couple of the differences I noticed from the version of the story I learned and quickly found myself on the other side of a verbal fight. It was at that moment I knew the power of a good story. Not only can storytelling inform. It can stir one’s soul.

It wasn’t until two more decades past, that I learned the importance of story in day-to-day business communications. I co-founded one of the country’s first new-media agencies, Galileo, in the early 90s. My partner and the company’s creative director, Jackie Goldstein, taught me to never let technology interrupt the flow of the client’s story. What she did with evocative and beautiful imagery, I learned to do with words. As we learned to combine our efforts effectively, our level of success increased.

My Plagiarism Story: What Would You Do?

Late last year, I discovered that someone had written and distributed a press release that used some of my work in it without giving me credit, a not-uncommon occurrence when a large body of one’s work appears online. The press release was picked up and published by at least 10 sites.

One hundred percent convinced of the righteousness of my quest, I pursued the issue with the offender and particularly the offender’s employer (because the offender passed me off to a supervisor without ever directly responding to me). I was met with nothing by arrogance and threats.

I debated long and hard about whether to pursue the issue, which stuck in my craw and made my blood boil whenever I thought about it. But given the other party’s arrogance, I concluded that pursuing the offense would only fill me with toxic feelings and not get resolved without legal intervention, and I didn’t feel hiring an attorney was worth it.

So, I decided to drop it. Then I read an interview with SMITH Magazine’s Larry Smith on a site called The Rumpus. Regular readers know I’m a big fan of SMITH and its Six-Word Memoirs and have blogged about them multiple times.

Larry Smith’s situation was similar to mine. McGill University had used the six-word form to describe faculty and students without referencing the fact that SMITH was the inspiration for their six-word project. “… When someone essentially mirrors the exact ‘six-word memoir’ concept, we’d just like a nod — it’s the right thing to do,” Smith said. And that’s all I had asked for — either that the offender request that the sites that published the swiped material remove it or that they credit me for it.

What especially struck me about the situation was that my offender was also an academic. I could not avoid a feeling of disgust for the arrogance of academics who would never put up with this kind of theft of intellectual property from their students but who think nothing of practicing it themselves. It’s a little like Richard Nixon saying in Frost/Nixon that when the president breaks the law, it’s not illegal.

So, here’s the full story: The material in question was a set of unusual job-interview questions that appeared in an article I wrote on that subject a number of years ago. Some of the questions were standard oddball queries that most people have heard, such as “If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would you choose?” Others, however, were questions I had crafted myself for use in mock interviews with my students.

The list of 15 questions credited to the offender appeared with the exact same wording and in the exact same order as in my article. A few other passages and phrases from my article were suspiciously similar.

I contacted the person, a staff member at a very large, well-known East Coast university, not in an accusing way, but more in the spirit of “let’s look at how this happened and see what can be done to fix it.”

I never once heard directly from this person. Instead, I heard from a dean, whose position was that interview questions are in the “public domain.” I can partially accept that position; after all, I would never presume to claim authorship for questions like “Why should I hire you?” or “What are your weaknesses?” But, again, these were unusual questions, some of which I had composed myself. And even if we accept that interview questions are in the public domain, why would this offender use the exact wording of my questions in the exact order? And how difficult would it be to simply indicate that the questions came from my article?

This dean went on to outrageously suggest that perhaps I had stolen the questions from the staff member and to threaten that if I contacted the outlets that ran the press release to ask them to credit the questions to me or remove the article, the school would take legal action against me.

Reading the interview with Larry Smith just reinforced the imperious attitude of academia. They can do no wrong but would never let their students get away with failing to credit a source.

In the Larry Smith case, however, the university did give in and credit SMITH for the six-word memoir concept — after a reporter wrote about it.

My approach here is to ventilate, get it out of my system, and see what my readers think. Obviously, I am sufficiently intimidated by these academic bullies that I am shielding the identity of the university, dean, and offender.

So what would you do? Forget it and move on? Engage an attorney? Pursue the issue on your own?

Why Did This Blog Post (sadly, not one of mine) Generate Book-Deal Offers and Thousands of Views?

Seth Kahan posted to the WorkingStories e-list of the Golden Fleece group wondering why the blog entry he posted on his Fast Company Expert Blog, Leading Change, on Feb. 12 generated a request for a book proposal, an offer of representation by a literary agent who wants to shop a book proposal around, and a ranking in the top 10 of blog posts (in terms of visitors) among February’s Expert Blogs.

Here’s a snippet from the entry, which is titled, “When on Fire, Practice Judo!:”

Philip Anschutz, the American businessman with an estimated net worth of $7.8 billion, started in the oil business drilling his own wells. His first efforts in the 60s were unsuccessful, turning up one dry hole after another. When he finally hit oil, everything looked great… for a day. A crisis followed which he called “the most important single event” in his business career. A well he owned caught fire!

Anschutz heard that Universal Studios was making a movie called Hellfighters about the legendary oil-field fire-fighter, Red Adair (who later put out the oil well fires in Kuwait during the Gulf War, 1991). Anschutz persuaded Universal to pay $100,000 to film Adair putting out his well fire for their movie. The studio cut the check. Adair put the fire out. Anschutz pocketed a profit and saved his business. The footage is in the movie.

Seth says: “Now, I did not do anything special to promote this entry — nothing I didn’t do for my other entries that month. But, clearly this post was different. Why do you think that is? I’d like to know. Can you tell me?”

How would you answer Seth?

It’s World Storytelling Day!

It would be a little difficult to fully celebrate World Storytelling Day on A Storied Career in the spirit intended — given that it is a celebration of the art of oral storytelling. Here’s how the World Storytelling Day site describes the event:

World Storytelling Day is a global celebration of the art of oral storytelling. It is celebrated every year on the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere, the first day of autumn equinox in the southern. On World Storytelling Day, as many people as possible tell and listen to stories in as many languages and at as many places as possible, during the same day and night. Participants tell each other about their events in order to share stories and inspiration, to learn from each other and create international contacts.

This year’s theme is neighbors. Here’s a little more about the day and about preparing a story — from Andree Iffrig.

Though all the following are not fully in the oral storytelling spirit of the day, I thought I’d use this space to list what some of my Twitter “neighbors” have been saying about storytelling in the past few days:

  • Debuting today for World Storytelling Day is Tactical Nomadic Storytelling, an art project by Pattie Belle Hastings that combines live storytelling and props with mobile digital media (visual and audio). The project is described as comprising a “mobile storytelling projection unit and a series of trickster stories that combine video/animation, audio, mobile devices and live performance.”
  • In Second Life, you’ll find Virtual Macbeth participating in the The Virtual Worlds Story Project Presents: The Second Life Story Quest, a project running in as part of the celebrations of World Storytelling Day. From the organizers:

    The Story Quest brings writers from around the globe to participate in a fun-filled and challenging story writing exercise to celebrate World Storytelling Day. With five genres to choose from, writers will travel to a variety of sims, collect clues, and use elements of those sims to craft their stories.

  • Storytelling continued to be a significant topic at South By Southwest (SXSW) festival/conference with much Twitter buzz focused on a Tuesday panel called The Future of Visual Storytelling is Interactive — Or Is It? Panelists included Panelist Victoria Ha, James Milward, Mark Pytlik, Phil Stuart, and Rick Webb. Here’s how the SXSW Web site described the panel:

    Whether online, on mobile phones, DVD or in physical spaces, the way we tell stories is … changing. What is the future of telling visual stories, with the reality of shorter attention spans, clickable culture and evolving technology that enables new ways to display and interact with cinematic content and narrative. This panel explore[d] the opportunities, challenges, technical and usability issues and whether any one actually cares about interactive films.

    At Cover It Live, you can read a transcript of the panel’s discussion.

    One blogger self-described as a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature at Indiana University and a narratologist was disappointed with the panel, concluding that its members “had really little understanding of what narrative was.” A snippet:

    The model that was presented within the first five minutes was shockingly binary: on the one had we had the “passive” story-telling (which implied linear narrative models) on the other end of the spectrum we have “interactive” (which was egregiously labeled as “open-ended”).

  • The Twitterverse also buzzed this week about Best NOTES on FILMMAKING and STORYTELLING on the NET.
  • Huge buzz yesterday about an article on Advertising Age, Data Visualization Is Reinventing Online Storytelling, in which Garrick Smith writes about visualizations that change the way we “create and consume narratives about events, products and services.” I’m having trouble seeing narrative/storytelling in the examples he cites, though I marvel at the amazing things being done to help us visualize data.

Q&A with a Story Guru: Susan Luke, Part 5

See a photo of Susan, a link to her bio, Part 1 of this Q&A, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Q&A with Susan Luke (Question 5):

Q: Does the current economic crisis make it harder or easier to get buy-in to the importance of “understanding the strategic value of the narratives in your organization?”

A: So far, my experience is showing me that anything that helps others to accept change through challenging times, that doesn’t cost a lot of money, is a relatively easy sell. The challenge is to frame it in such a compelling way that people understand the power behind such a simple concept.

Q&A with a Story Guru: Susan Luke, Part 4

See a photo of Susan, a link to her bio, Part 1 of this Q&A, Part 2, and Part 3.

Q&A with Susan Luke (Question 4):

Q:How important is it to you and your work to function within the framework of a particular definition of “story?” (i.e., What is a story?) What definition do you espouse?

A: In my opinion, there can never be just one definition of story. For every individual there are a myriad of stories they can share — each will be as different and unique as the person sharing them.

One of the beauties of story is this difference and the experience behind the stories that makes them live and breathe and have universal appeal.

In my experience, the greatest challenge to those of us who tell stories is to give our listeners enough time to not only enjoy and/or learn from the story, but to savor it, to connect it to their own experience.

If there are strict definitions and/or restrictions, the creative process is stifled and the opportunities to share stories in new and different ways/media will not happen.

Q&A with a Story Guru: Susan Luke, Part 3

See a photo of Susan, a link to her bio, Part 1 of this Q&A, and Part 2.

Q&A with Susan Luke (Question 3):

Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?

A: Why now, indeed? Stories have been used since the beginning of time, in one form or another for one very important reason — they are universal and speak to our humanity. This moment in
our history is significant because, as a planet, we are in a place we never imagined and we yearn for comfort, understanding, reason, and most of all HOPE. Stories give us all of that and more, allowing us to reflect on the past, imagine the future, and accept the changes brought about by the challenges of today.

Much continues to be said about the ability of President Obama to speak and relate to all levels of people. It is my belief that he does that as much through his “orastory” as through his intense focus, extensive research, organizational ability, and presentation skills as anything. In my experience, leaders who are as good at shaping and using stories as they are at collecting and analyzing data, have a much easier time guiding the behaviors and decision making necessary for a healthy, forward-thinking organization. We are our stories, and now is the moment we are recognizing that and sharing who we are with others in our increasingly shrinking world.

Have Any HR Horror Stories?

Creative Business Resources is holding a HR Horror Stories contest. Details, fully outlined here, including submission instructions (deadline is March 27), are highlighted here:

Have a story from work that would give your HR manager a headache? Submit your HR horror story and you could win The Office Ultimate Package Seasons 1-4 DVD set. We are looking for stories rich in nightmarish qualities, un-PC-ness, humor, creativity and originality.

To get you thinking, here are two HR horror stories from our staff:

Example 1:

Employee had been terminated by his/her foreman supervisor but the foreman did not tell corporate. He was submitting hours and cashing in the termed employees paycheck. When the terminated employee went and filed for unemployment benefits his former company said he was still employed, when he was actually not. The company lost $3,000 because of a dishonest employee not paying attention to detail on the field.

Example 2:

An employee used the company car to attend a non-company sponsored get-together, and picked up her co-worker to attend. They got in a car accident and it was the employee’s fault. Employee got in trouble for using the company car and having an unauthorized person in the car. The two employees had slight injuries, the driver sued.

Current Storytelling Buzz in the Twitterverse

Here’s what folks on Twitter have been saying about storytelling in the past few days:

    • Storytelling has apparently been a prominent topic at at the media festival/conference South By Southwest (SXSW). One Twitterer called “narrative” the SXSW “term of the week,” going on to note that the term suggest[s] a refocus on ‘storytelling’ and engaging content/experience.”
    • Also at SXSW, Britain-based Penguin publishers won a Best In Show award from judges for its We Tell Stories website “that blends well-crafted tales with games intended to immerse readers in story worlds.” I blogged about We Tell Stories about a year ago and am pleased to see the project honored.
    • On Sunday night, many SXSW attendees were Twittering about Fray CafĂ©, part of the Fray entity that began as a Web site, evolved into a series of storytelling events like Fray Cafe, and is now a quarterly magazine that sponsors occasional storytelling events.
  • The one non-SXSW item that has attained significant buzz since my last report is the Our First Loves Project, a multimedia storytelling experiment produced by a group of student journalists in an interactive design class at the Medill School of Journalism. More about the project:… it is based on the idea that journalism on the Internet should be about connectivity. Not just hyperlinks or social networking, but connectivity in the sense that it has the unique ability to bring even perfect strangers together and show us what we have in common. New media journalism can be the ultimate equalizer, a proof of a human condition.

    So, to test our idea, we decided to focus on something simple, something to which everyone can relate. We went with love. We all have stories about our first loves. Whether it was a boy at camp, a wife, a favorite old teddy bear or a life-long love of fishing, the experience of falling head-over-heels for the first time is something everyone shares.

    Ultimately we found that these stories weren’t so simple after all. They are rich in humor, passion, regret, joy. It’s not about us, though — we need your help to keep the project going. Add your voice to our collection and share it with the world. Watch it resonate.

Our First Loves reminded me of a project I came across on a similar — though slightly less romantic — theme: My First Time, “the longest running play to open Off-Broadway in years” and featuring “four actors in hysterical and heartbreaking stories about first sexual experiences written by real people.” More:

In 1998, a decade before blogging began, a website was created that allowed people to anonymously share their own true stories about their First Times. The website became an instant phenomenon as over 40,000 stories poured in from around the globe that were silly, sweet, absurd, funny, heterosexual, homosexual, shy, sexy and everything in between.

Q&A with a Story Guru: Susan Luke, Part 2

See a photo of Susan, a link to her bio, and Part 1 of this Q&A.

Q&A with Susan Luke (Question 2):

Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?

A: I have been around stories and storytelling all my life. My father was a minister and used stories in all his sermons, both Biblical and personal. My mother told stories on the radio before I was born and has always used stories in the many speaking opportunities she has had over the years, from teaching to speaking at large national meetings. So, for me it was a natural way to communicate.

Starting my career as a teacher (I’ve taught at all levels, K-college), I used stories to help my students understand various concepts and events. As a CEO of a technical services organization, I needed to make presentations to a variety of boards and executive teams to sell my product. Using success stories helped me to do that beyond my wildest expectations.

As a speaker, trainer, coach, and consultant, stories continue to be part of how I relate to my clients and audiences. In fact, it was through a client request that I began to focus on helping others to use story/storytelling as a leadership/communication tool. I had never consciously done that before. That happened about 6-7 years ago, and it was the most natural evolution of my continually changing career path ever.

I love being involved with people and everyone has stories they share. Identifying, creating, and sharing them are what makes us who we are, as individuals and as communities. Focusing on the concept of story, how to use stories strategically as well as tactically, while helping others do the same is my passion!