Squirrel, Inc. by Stephen Denning: My Book Reading Notes

Business needs more storytelling. It needs more storytellers. This book has taught me the basic elements of a story, and it gave me specific examples of the situations and the kinds of stories a business should tell to inspire change.

The book is written as a parable itself. It’s a story of how squirrels wanted to switch to nut storing, instead of starving every winter. So, with this book you get 2 things in 1: the actual story, and the explanation why the story worked, and how it worked.

You’ll love the book if you’re a business leader, a writer, or an employee struggling to get her message across, to instigate change in her organization, where even the simplest changes are tough.

I’ve had employees completely transform my company in the past. I did not think of it back then, but now that I think about this book, every time someone managed to change my mind, I now realize that they used stories, and that they were great storytellers.

(Side note: consider studying NLP - Neuro-Linguistic Programming - if you want to learn how to tell good stories which transform people. That shit works.)

However, I believe that a story in a business setting is like a sauce in cooking: sauces go with almost any meal, but at some point you have to serve the actual meal, too. The sauce is not nutritious enough to drive hunger away. The same with stories: don’t be that guy who only has other people’s stories to tell: treat your stories as the sauce to the main course. Otherwise, the advice in this book may backfire on you.

What My Book Reading Notes Are About

I’m a compulsive note taker. I can’t read a non-fiction book without taking notes - that’s why it takes me so long to finish a book. Inspired by Derek Sivers’ Book Notes project, I decided to put my compulsion to good use, and publish my notes. This way, I’m reminding myself of the lessons I wanted to capture for myself.

The order of the notes more or less follows the order in the book. My notes are a mix of book content pieces and my own thoughts I jot down while I read the book. Buy the book if you like my notes - you learn the most by reading the original.

Read my other book reading notes.

Book Parameters

Cover: Squirrel, Inc.

  • Title: Squirrel Inc.: A Fable of Leadership Through Storytelling / Book Website / Goodreads profile
  • Author: Stephen Denning
  • I read the book in: 2012

Book Reading Notes

  • a story can communicate a new idea quickly, easily and naturally
  • for each purpose you tell a story in a different way

Leadership and change:

  • you can only be a leader if others believe in you
  • others will only believe in you if you believe your own story. The story has to rise up from the deepest recesses of your being.
  • storytelling connects the leader with the world, with the very people he is seeking to lead

Crafting a story to spark organizational change

  • problem: people who must carry out the change, do not understand new ideas
  • reason to change is not enough
  • a springboard story: make a leap in understanding, visualize
  • if a story is not appropriate, do weave the narrative into whatever form is necessary (the narrative draws the listeners inside the idea, so they understand it)

Step one: be clear about what change you are trying to make

  • first, always define a clear idea of what are you trying to accomplish

Step two: think of an incident, a story, where the change has already happened

  • you need a true story - the truth of the story springs the listener to a new level of understanding
  • the story could be from inside or outside your own organization
  • the initial incident needs to be true: “Listen, I’m not making this up! This really happened!” -> this will snap the audience out of their complacency

Step three: tell the story from the point of view of a single protagonist who is typical of the potential audience

  • less is more: choose only one hero, it’s easier to identify with only one person, than it is with one abstract bunch of people

Step four: specify the time and place where the story has happened

  • where did it happen? when did it happen? giving the date and place of the story makes it more real to the audience
  • how can a story about one person convince everyone?
    • there’s always more than one way to understand something
    • we tell story to relax; it’s energizing, refreshing
    • we dream in stories
    • people might say they are not interested in a story, but they’ll listen if you tell them one

Step five: make sure the story embodies the change idea, or if it doesn’t, extrapolate the change from the story

  • the listeners follow the story with their right side of the brain (the creative, imaginative part) -> they will extrapolate the missing parts of the story, they will use their imagination: “imagine what would have happened if the story continued into the future”; you paint a pretty picture with picture words

Step six: in telling the story, make clear what would have happened without the change idea

  • people will see the point of the story if you tell them the pain of not making the change: you remind the listeners of their own, painful reality. You highlight how different the results were after the change

Step seven: strip the story of unnecessary details that are unrelated to the change idea

  • your goal is to spark a new story in the listener’s mind: you don’t want the listener to think about some unknown hero of the story, you want the listener to think about his own situation: “That’s interesting, we could do that!” The listeners create their own story in their minds. The story becomes their own idea - we all love our own ideas.
  • tell the story with belief and feeling: it’s your performance that gives the story the force
  • tell the story in one minute, if you can: the story’s purpose is to ignite listeners’ own stories

Step eight: give the story an authentically happy ending

  • Hollywood ending: it works
  • negative ending: you are sad, but wiser, you learn something, but end up in the mood of concern and worry, you don’t want to spring in action
  • happy ending: the mood of gentle euphoria -> the perfect state of mind to be thinking about the new future
  • just emphasize the success of the change idea (in the book: storing nuts), not the problems that yet had to be solved

Step nine: link the story to the change idea with phrases such as “Think…” and “What if…” and “Just imagine…”

  • these are the magic words: you invite the listener to imagine

How to perform the story to spark change

In performing the story, the storyteller relives the story and makes it fresh.

  • it’s the way you tell it that makes it special: as if you’re living the story in your mind for the first time
  • the intensity of your belief sparks the listeners to live it also: you gotta believe
  • practice, practice, practice:
    • storytelling is performance art
    • observe what works with the audience

The storyteller should find a story that works on all levels of the organization.

  • if you tell a different story to different people, they might start to question your authenticity
  • it’s the quality of the story that matters
  • the listener - even if he hears the same story many times - should elicit new stories of his own, that’s when the story works

Once you find a story that works, keep using it.

  • how you know you’ve made an impact?
    • people start talking about the story
    • action will start to materialize
    • problems will dissolve
    • spontaneous enthusiasm

It’s the storytelling - not the story itself - that makes the impact; writing the story won’t have the same effect.

The hero of the story maybe isn’t the best person to tell the story.

You become a better storyteller if you practice.

  • don’t expect 100% triumph

If they’re not listening, get their attention - frame the story.

  • typically, they are not listening to you in the beginning, their minds are somewhere else

Talk about their problems.

  • talk about their agenda, in their terms: what is worrying them?
  • “but it’s actually worse than you think. let me tell you how it really is!” -> framing, now they’re listening!

Talk about yourself, make yourself a little vulnerable.

  • reveals your character, your personality, a flesh-and-blood human being: “maybe she’s telling the truth”
  • they must be asking: what happened next? How does it end?
  • if you tell the story right, they will already be thinking: what if we did this in our own context?

People never buy other people’s ideas: it has to be their own idea.

  • this is why change takes so much time: people need to internalize the idea, make it their own. Before that happens, all they hear from the storyteller is rha-rha, something that sounds good, but they’re not willing to commit to the change.

People must become their own storytellers, they need to discover the truth for themselves.

  • this happens very rapidly
  • each listener’s story is different

Seven types of organizational storytelling

TRUST: Revealing who you are and building trust

  • my story defines who I am
  • trust issues: if the employees don’t know what the CEO stands for, trust plummets
  • use traditional narrative: a beginning, the middle, the end - it communicates who you are
  • the beginning sets the context of the story
  • stories of identity help individuals think about who they are, where they come from, where they are headed
    • describe your fundamental views about the world
    • explain how you developed these views
    • puts a human face on the manager
    • they communicate who I am
    • groups possess analogous “who we are” stories - they are about the joint experiences, attitudes and shared beliefs
  • people are universally sensitive to traditional storytelling and classic story lines
  • classic stories are persuasive
    • hero is the storyteller
    • what happened to the hero
    • plot, told with feeling
    • colorful, rich in context, evocation of sights, sounds and smells
  • brands also embody stories of identity - who the company is - ties the logo, the images, the products and services, the places and the people in a coherent whole

COMMUNITY: Get individuals to work together

  • a group: set of individuals who share the same stories and see the same meaning in them
  • when individuals have shared stories, they work much better together
  • accelerate the sharing of the stories and collaboration will take off

Step one: bring the group together physically, face to face.

Step two: establish an open agenda.

  • this means: no planning for the meeting

Step three: start with a moving story

  • a story about a staff member who tackled a difficult issue - let everybody in the group relive the experience

Step four: let everyone tell their own story - create a process of sharing meaningful stories.

  • let the first story lead to another
  • everyone will see the meaning in what everybody is doing, everybody starts to understand how the other person feels
  • energy will be created
  • build the community within the company

Step five: have an action plan ready.

  • capitalize on the energy that is being created during shared storytelling - it must be let out
Building a community

Companies must do things that foster community, because communities spark innovation and creativity and collaboration

Building a community:

  • generate a shared story around common concerns and goals
  • the story must be meaningful to all participants, it has to move them
  • the reaction from the listeners:
    • “I know a story like that and I want to share”
    • “I want to hear more stories like that”
  • one story will spark another and another, and people will glue together: narrative imagination
  • sharing stories enables communities to emerge naturally

Transmitting VALUES

  • while revenues are declining, the risk of someone doing something stupid is growing
  • putting up posters and circulating cards with lists of values ain’t gonna work: values don’t come from cards or posters
  • values reside in stories told and acted upon and in our reaction to those actions
  • when something dramatic happens that demonstrates our values, it becomes a story to be told
  • values are established by actions of the leaders and are transmitted by stories that exemplify them
  • be passionate about telling the truth
  • use the stories about how the leader dealt with adversity
  • leaders need to live the stories as well as tell them; the story becomes part of the leader
  • stories are active and dynamic, that’s why they can transmit values, and posters can’t use parables: believable and generally positive
  • spelling out the values does not help, because people forget it; stories are remembered
  • values are abstractions if spelled out: boring, lifeless, static
  • focus on stories that have meaning for the here and now
  • no rules: they are shorthand versions of values
  • sorting out conflicting, competing values means deciding which story you want to be part of

How I can apply this in B2B copywriting:

  • instead of saying “these are our values: value1, value2, value3, believe us that we’re living them”, it’s better to write a story that transmits the value inbetween the lines -> let the reader make their own conclusion about what our corporate value is (this is a good opportunity to use the Milton model). We don’t even have to spell the value out, even better - we should not spell it out

Taming the GRAPEVINE (dealing with rumors and bad news)

  • you can’t argue with a rumor, you satirize it! Example: “How could a company be taken over by another company that is even worse off than we?”
  • satire: tying two stones won’t make them float. A satire disarms an argument by letting us view its deceptions (but if the bad news is true, a satire cannot do squat)
  • the grapevine (the rumor mill) cannot be stopped nor controlled, but you can harness its energy; work with the flow, not against it
  • use the energy of the network to circulate an alternative version
  • ridicule the bad news, humor is a tool
  • first, commit to tell the truth (stop the mushroom culture: keeping everyone in the dark and feeding them manure)
  • when you can laugh at something, it means that you’ve mastered it. When you’re crying and whining, that means it’s mastered you.
    • This reminds me of President Trump.
  • find humor in whomever launched the bad news, or the storyteller
    • but first, find humor in yourself, because you can get into trouble by making fun of others
    • on the surface, the joke is on you, but it also satirizes others
    • by laughing at yourself, the grapevine might give you a break
    • humor is a higher form of thought than analysis or tragedy
    • being serious does not mean exuding the truth - it’s just the opposite; seriousness is tiring
    • wit is a universal solvent; turn life into a carnival!

Sharing KNOWLEDGE

  • examine everything in trouble and you’ll discover problem with knowledge
  • a knowledge-sharing story does not need a hero
  • the story is about finding the solution to a problem by way of an explanation; it tells of the pursuit of truth, delight of finding things out. It is unentertaining, but eternally useful
  • It’s a story about a problem and how it got resolved and why
  • four elements (this is similar to a case study):
    • problem
    • setting
    • solution
    • explanation (explains why the solution had its effect)
  • describes the setting in enough detail that the solution is linked to the problem by the best available explanation
    • this is important because every issue can have multiple explanations:
      • you gotta make sure you have chosen the best explanation
      • if you make a mistake, admit it and find the other best explanation
  • a key to acquiring real knowledge is the real desire and decision to find out one specific thing
  • define your knowledge-sharing goal
  • allow for serendipity - it can bring unexpected insights
  • knowledge is infinite and curiously elusive and fugitive like a wild animal
  • knowledge discovery is hard, but carries special kind of excitement: the thrill of discovery
  • for a story to transfer our knowledge to others, it has to reflect not just the knowledge we are aware of, but also those practices that have become invisible to us - this is hard
  • we lack the mental toughness to confront bad news, this is why we get satisfied with partial knowledge
  • understanding comes from spotting a problem or an obstacle; a difficulty stimulates us to solve the problem, difficulty catalyzes understanding
  • there’s a sweet spot of learning in the middle between total disaster and complete success
  • focus on the bad news
  • if we’re depressed, it’s because our ignorance has rendered us helpless; you have to understand your difficulties and master them, then we can progress; understanding gives hope
    • to understand difficulties, I have to:
      • find the time to study them
      • study what works
      • weigh all the possible explanations and
      • find the best possible explanation, which will lead into solution
        • explanations:
          • reflect multiple perspectives
          • are focused on a specific knowledge goal (what do we want know about?)
  • methods of teasing out the knowledge-sharing story:
    • confront the knower with new problems
    • use open space meetings (encourages different perspectives)
    • get people to talk about the problems
    • conduct a what-if discussion: “What if we had done this?”

Creating a FUTURE

  • in focusing on the bad past, we miss on opportunities
  • a future story opens up and offers possibilities
  • the future isn’t determined by the past
  • ask: how do we make the things the way we want them to be? what would that be like? Make people imagine.
  • help people picture a better state of affairs and they will follow you there
  • when you have followers, you’re a true leader
  • begin with a vision: “Squirrel Inc. will be a nut-storing company.”
    • does it resonate?
    • does it excite?
    • does it turn depression into desire?
    • it’s simple and short, and it can be communicated quickly
    • don’t say too much, let the listener put flesh on the skeleton of the story by himself!
  • vision + details =a business model - it’s a story:
    • set in the near future
    • explains the business
    • who the customer is and what are his values
    • how the business makes money (how do we deliver the value to the customer at an appropriate cost)
  • a scenario is a future story that might stretch a number of years into the future
  • the problem with future stories: they are unbelievable
  • how do you know the market for a product isn’t there? if you perform polls, all of them are based on the past, the future doesn’t have any hard numbers
  • future story:
    • evocative (takes into account bad news, but is positive)
    • resonates with all people
    • it’s a shared dream, which is partly a new reality
    • listeners must say: “Yes, that’s what we want!”
    • examples:
      • “I have a dream…”
      • “We shall fight on the beaches…”
      • “Before this decade is out, we shall land a man on the Moon…”

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