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Gaining Attention Through The Unexpected

Imagine a scenario in which a manager must terminate the employment of one of her direct reports.  The manager has come into the office after a sleepless night, having tossed and turned because of the hurt that she knows she’ll be inflicting.

To be fair, she made many attempts to turn the associate’s performance around, but the performance remained lackluster.  The best way she has of describing it is that the employee’s heart just isn’t in the job.  She imagines what it would feel like to lose her own job, though, and she has a sick feeling inside.

As the meeting begins, the manager opts for the direct approach.  The employee listens to the news without apparent reaction.  The following silence is so thick that it could be cut with a knife.

And then, the employee smiles and nods his head.

“Thank you.  I really mean it.  Thank you.  You’ve done what I just didn’t have the courage to do.  It’s obvious you’ve seen I haven’t been happy here, and now I have a chance to make that happiness somewhere else.  I really do appreciate it.”

For the rest of the meeting, the manager and the employee talk about what the employee has always wanted to do, but hasn’t taken the step because of the lure of the paycheck.  The conversation is so good that they both head for the cafeteria and brainstorm options over cups of coffee.

This isn’t the scenario that is taught in management training courses.  In those, we teach managers to respect the person, but address the behavior…and add some strategic suggestions for having those conversations that no one wants to have.

And it is for that reason that the story has attention-getting power.  As the audience, we are EXPECTING the anger, the hurt feelings, and possibly even the shouting match.  We are expecting a description of how we can get the terminated employee out of the office without causing more of “a scene.”

What we get, however, is RELIEF.  The reaction is almost the complete opposite of what we are expecting.  The storyteller had our attention in a “There but for the grace of God” kind of way.  We are thinking of what we would do, and we are mentally girding ourselves for the blowup from a “safe” distance.

But, that doesn’t happen.  In fact, what does happen is quite the opposite from what we are expecting.

And, because we can imagine that such a situation could exist, we are intrigued.  We want to listen more to find out what happens next.  In an odd way, we’re even relieved to have something of a “Happily Ever After” ending.

This isn’t a cheat.  It is a powerfully effective tool in corporate storytelling.  When your audience knows the scenarios that are playing out, they are one step ahead of the storyteller.  They continue to listen to the well-told story because they are curious about how others deal with disaster.

When the events turn…and the situation remains believable…the audience focuses attention on what will happen next because they are on unfamiliar ground.  They are intrigued because the options aren’t merely one way or the other.  They have uncovered a grey area containing options they hadn’t considered, and they are interested.

I used this story (with more descriptive details) at a gathering of a group that calls itself, “The Displaced Persons.”  They are all people who have lost their jobs for various reasons.  My intent was to begin a discussion on perceptions…that is, shift the focus away from low feelings of self-worth to recognizing that there are options. 

It worked.  (The comments began with “I was unaware of what that job was doing to me” and…for several…gradually moved into “It was a blessing in disguise” territory.)

Consider the value of unexpected twists in your corporate storytelling presentations.  The details don’t need to be factual, but they must be conceivable for your audience.  When you have that, you will have the attention of your listeners.

Thank you for reading!