Keynote Address: Narrative Matters

Jim Dubinsky, Executive Director of the Association for Business Communication asked if I would present the Keynote Address at the Association’s 2015 meeting in Seattle, WA. I agreed forthwith.

From the Association for Business Communication website:

Join us in welcoming Skip Walter, of the TAI Group, for his keynote address:

Narrative Matters: The Invisible Source of Business

After you reunite with friends and colleagues at the Wednesday evening reception join Skip Walter to experience how narrative matters for individual talent, fluid teams, and purpose driven corporations.  His keynote address begins at 8:00 p.m.

“Reflecting on my time as CEO, I now more fully understand Dan Pink’s assertion that “to sell is human.” I had divided my days equally between selling equity to investors, selling our product to customers, and selling our company to our talent. At the heart of all good selling is a story, but not every story form works. Selling is driven by authentic stories that engage the audience and invite them to join in co-creating the narrative.

Skip’s role as Director of Innovation for the New York-based leadership and performance consulting firm The TAI Group, is to produce research and products where interactive digital technology meets the transformation of corporate performance. With the TAI Group, executives tap their inner resources to create meaningful stories that impact their connection to their colleagues and their customers. Successful leaders realize the importance of collecting, curating, and shaping their stories into powerful narratives, driving their business forward with meaning and purpose.

About Skip Walter and his innovative work with the TAI Group:

Skip and TAI’s vision is to radically improve productivity, using visual analytics and virtual reality so leaders and teams can communicate and collaborate beyond current limitations of space and time.

He’s been preparing for this challenge over the past 45 years as a serial innovator, entrepreneur and mentor capitalist in the USA, United Kingdom, Russia and Canada. After a solid grounding in large software project management for Fortune 100 corporations, he developed ALL-IN-1, Digital Equipment Corporation’s $1 billion a year integrated enterprise office automation system. After this success, he was selected as Vice President of Engineering for Aldus (now Adobe) Corporation.

As founding CEO and CTO of Attenex, Skip pioneered visual analytics of enterprise unstructured content in the legal eDiscovery market. Attenex was sold to FTI Consulting in 2008 for $91 million. As a serial entrepreneur, Skip raised more than $25 million in new venture funding for software companies in the office automation, medical and legal fields.

The Keynote Address

We are explorers of the world.

From the ABC website, we’ve come together this week to “explore our unique approaches to serving our profession of business communication”.

Some of us are discovering Seattle and the Pacific Northwest for the first time.

Many of us are here to discover the people who are exploring the boundaries and depths of business communication.

I am here to collect stories of business communicators and look for patterns that might form a narrative arc of business communication.

Actually, Jim Dubinsky gave me quite explicit instructions for why I am here tonight. “I want you to describe the universe and give three examples and you have ten minutes – after a two hour networking session with alcohol.”

Thanks to Jim  –  We are all explorers of the universe now.

TS Eliot shared in The Four Quartets:

ts eliot four quartets

An explorer has many roles. She is curious. She is always observing.  She is always looking for patterns. Yet the most important role is to come back home and share the stories of exploration to her audiences. The good explorers among us are able to weave those stories into a compelling narrative to inspire others to explore.

An explorer experiences first and makes meaning second. Telling stories and creating narratives are a powerful way of sharing experiences and creating meaning.

Let’s create some experiences and make a little meaning.

We are just playing and experiencing here.  There is no right way. There is no right process.  Just go with the flow.  If you don’t understand the instructions, just make something up.

Exercise 1 – Personal Reflections

Take a moment to reflect on the following questions.

  • Why are you in your current organization?
  • Why are you the right person for your role now?
  • Why are you in the industry you are in?
  • What are you eager to explore at the conference this week?

Exercise 2 – The Networking Exercise

This is a get up and move exercise.  Let’s stand.

This is a pair wise exercise. Quickly, find someone that you don’t know or know the least in the audience and pair up with them.

Now that you’ve found your exercise partner, take 10 seconds to introduce yourself to each other.

I would like all of you to think about a story of why you are passionate about business communication.

One of you will go first – be the speaker.  The other will be the audience first. One of you volunteer to speak first.

The other of you, the audience, will do your best to NOT LISTEN.  Use all of your weapons of MASS DISTRACTION – like your phone or your watch or your purse or backpack or the positioning of your body.


OK speaker 1 go.

Reverse the positions of speaker and listener.

Speaker 2 go.

Thanks for being such wonderful networkers.

For making some meaning, I’m looking for feelings, not the content that was exchanged just now.

Would somebody like to share what it FELT like to be the speaker?

Would somebody like to share what it FELT like to be the listener?

Thanks for your excellent networking participation.

Exercise 3 – Deep Listening

My surprise when encountering TAI’s methods was the emphasis on what it means to be an engaged audience and the role of the audience in any authentic interaction. To be a good audience means to deeply listen.  Part of deep listening is to listen without the motor running.  Listening without trying to figure out what you are going to say next. To see, hear and feel what is present in the speaker without the many layers of interpretation we normally bring to an interaction.

To warm up for the exercise, deeply see and observe your paired partner.  Observe their objects of clothing and adornment – WITHOUT INTERPRETATON. What are they wearing? Colors? Materials? Mentally describe to yourself objects like the shoes that they have on? The color? The Style? The material?  WITHOUT INTERPRETATION.

Just as you oriented yourself to deeply observing, now I want the listener, the audience, to listen with all three information bearing senses – seeing, hearing, feeling – to what the speaker is communicating.  Pay attention to the words and to the qualities of their voice and to how their story is carried in their body.

attentive listening

Speaker 1 go.

OK, take a few seconds for both speaker and listener to take a few deep breaths.

Reverse roles. Speaker 2 go.

I know this is too short a time and there is more to share.  Make an appointment with each other to continue the sharing.

Now graciously thank your partner for sharing their story.

Would somebody like to share what it FELT like to be the listener?

Would somebody like to share what it FELT like to be the speaker?

Would somebody like to share what the comparison of the two listening exercises FELT like?

Would somebody like to share what they noticed about the whole group qualities during the two exercises?  What did the whole room energy feel like?

Story Telling, Making Meaning and Creating Organizational Narratives

Narrative Matters.

Narrative matters in almost every aspect of business.

Narrative is the hidden and generative engine of business.

In keeping with the themes for our conference and tonight’s exercises, I’d like to share a few of the chapters of my journey to exploring and discovering the hidden power of narrative in business.

Tell Me A Story

For 10 years until 9/11, I made weekly one day trips between Seattle and Chicago during the school year to teach at the Institute of Design. One of my favorite pracademic colleagues was Larry Keeley of the Doblin Group and Deloitte Touche.  Pracademic is a shorthand for a practitioner who is also an academic. It is also shorthand for not being able to figure out what you want to do with your life.

tell me a story

Having four hours on a plane each week to reflect on our product development activities and customer interactions at our startup, I would invent all kinds of new software opportunities. I couldn’t wait to get to the Institute of Design and share these cool ideas with Larry.  Each time, Larry would listen to me for about 30 seconds and then he’d interrupt “Skip, Stop! Tell me a story about what a customer needs and how they’d use your new idea.” Just that simple command would get me out of technology centric thinking and into human centered design.

Tell me a story.

Larry knew what took me a while to figure out – you can’t tell a story without bringing in human beings.

How do we find the good Story Tellers?

In June of 2013, Brian, the director of Seattle’s startup incubator Impact Hub, asked if I would meet with one of his startup teams. We agreed to meet at my favorite Seattle restaurant, Wild Ginger – just down the hill, for some pro bono mentoring. We inhaled the smells of Pan Asian dishes being prepared in an open kitchen, and explored the tastes of our chicken satay and Fragrant Duck. Our dishes were accompanied by my favorite delightfully aromatic 2010 Cayuse Syrah.

what is the story

The price for this sensory experience was to listen patiently as the two entrepreneurs described their cool new mobile iphone app. For two hours they droned on “blah blah blah” about their technology and how wonderful they were. Yet, they had no idea who their customer was or how they would monetize their app.

Did I mention that the food was great?

Suddenly one of the entrepreneurs asked “So what are you interested in, Skip?”

I decided to share my Living Legacy idea for making sense of my 30 terabytes of digital media on my desktop hard drives.  I want to leave some kind of interactive legacy for my grandchildren and my graduate students.

He responded “You have to move to New York.  You have to find a set of theater folks who also work with training corporate types.”

I looked at him like he was the stupidest person in the universe.

I blurted out “I hate theater folks, particularly actors. I hate the theater. I can’t stand New York City.”

“But for the sake of argument, why should I do something so insane at this point in my life?”

Ignoring my sarcasm, he replied “Because theater folks know how to craft and tell stories. And that is what you are trying to do.”

“Do you know any theater folks like that?”

“No, but I know they are in New York City.”

Great, just one more know it all bloviater.

I shook my head, stood up, and politely thanked Brian for the evening and walked out of the restaurant. The fine wine was gone.  Time to end my pain.

One year later in June of 2014, a colleague introduced me to the TAI Group in NYC. The initials TAI stand for The Actors Institute. They were interested in scaling their executive coaching business through interactive digital media and were looking for a partner. I agreed to come back and spend a week with the TAI team.

On a very hot summer day I navigated my way by NJ Transit train from my hotel at the Newark Airport to Penn Station. I emerged from the tunnels and throngs of sweaty irritated commuters to the blast of cars honking and street vendors hawking their wares on 7th avenue.  Making my way a couple of blocks to the TAI offices, I got off the elevator on the 14th floor expecting cubicle ville. What to my wondering eyes did appear was an inviting warm place with hardwood floors, all kinds of art work, and Oriental carpets that felt like home, not a sterile office building?

Audrey at the front desk gave me a big smile and said “you must be Skip. We are really looking forward to spending the week with you.”  What a welcome.

I immediately went into my first coaching session with Sam. I thought I was a pretty good communicator. I’d given many keynote addresses over the years. I’d raised a lot of venture capital money. I’ve taught and developed a lot of professional talent. Within 30 minutes, through a couple of exercises with Sam’s coaching and then with two other coaches sitting in as audience, I realized that there was so much to learn.

I’d found the theater folks that were foretold.

Now, I love the theater. I love actors and directors and play writers.

I am getting a graduate education in all facets of the live arts as I explore Broadway, off Broadway, off off Broadway (otherwise known as Brooklyn), regional theater, and musical readings for friends and family from out of work theater professionals in the nooks and crannies of the five Boroughs.

And I even love going to New York. Go figure.

Who knew there was such a wide range of the live arts and different forms of storytelling?

Y’all know that, don’t you?  Where have you been all my life?

Narrative Matters.

What Story does an Audience Hear?

With permission from a venture capitalist and a startup CEO, I recorded the CEO’s first funding pitch. Using an iPhone to stream video to the Amazon Cloud through FeedbackPanel software from BlinkUX, we captured and analyzed the meeting in real-time as part of our mentoring of the first time CEO.

The CEO came armed with his 40+ Powerpoint slides for the one-hour meeting. The CEO launched into his pitch while I took detailed notes on my Livescribe Pen and Notebook. The VC listened attentively for a few minutes and then started asking a stream of questions.

The meeting ended with an offer from the VC for the CEO to come back and visit in a few weeks with an update on his customer traction.

As we walked to the elevator, I asked the CEO how many questions he thought the VC asked him during the session. “If you hadn’t asked me I would have said 1 or 2,” the CEO responded.  “However since you asked me, he probably asked 5 to 7 questions.”

“Would you believe he asked you 76 questions during the 60 minutes,” I shared.  “Further, four times during the session after he asked you a question, you paused and looked away and mentally left the room. The time that you were not engaged was so long that the VC started reading and answering emails on his smart phone.  Where did you mentally go?”

“No way did I break engagement with the VC,” the CEO huffed.

“Let’s go back to the office and look at the video,” I suggested.

While we were in the meeting, my colleague, Scott, was watching the live streaming video through FeedbackPanel marking and annotating the video when the VC asked questions.  He noted when there were breaks in the engagement of the conversation, and identified where there were new insights.

As we entered the CEO’s office, Scott pulled up the video of the session along with a downloaded list of the 76 questions that were asked. He had marked the four times when the CEO paused his engagement with the VC. We replayed each of those breaks in the action so that the CEO could see the VC doing his email while engagement was broken.

BlinkUX Feedback Panel Viewing Panel with automatic transcription

BlinkUX Feedback Panel Viewing Panel with automatic transcription

Now we had the CEO’s attention and he was ready to learn how to move from “pitching” to authentically communicating and collaborating with his audience.  The CEO got to see AND experience his lack of impact on his very important audience.

It is very difficult to both perform AND be aware of your impact on the audience.

Whether with my peers or my graduate students or mentoring senior executives or startup CEOs, taking notes and providing verbal feedback has very little impact on future behaviors. With the advent of mobile and easy to use video capture capabilities, now every meeting or interaction can be turned into an opportunity for mentoring with tools like Feedback Panel and skilled coaches – either in real time or after the fact.

The art form is to point and focus the camera on the audience, not on the speaker.

Communication is the results that we get; not the words that we speak.

Narrative Matters in Business.

How do I Own My Story?

As part of my immersion into learning how to communicate with power and presence, I established a reciprocal learning contract with TAI’s CEO. He agreed to mentor and coach me in the TAI methods and I agreed to mentor and coach him in his new role as CEO.

Midway through my coaching of the CEO, it was time to share with his executive team our work in creating a new company.  The new company translates the face to face executive coaching into interactive digital media. Unfortunately, due to previous commitments I could not be physically or remotely present at the meeting. I asked that the meeting be videoed so I could view it later and provide coaching for the CEO.

Before looking at the video, I asked the CEO how he thought the meeting went. He shared “it went great. I was really proud of the story I put together and how we explained all the content you’ve shared with us over the last three months. It was one of the best meetings that we’ve had.”

A week later I got the video of the three-hour meeting. As the meeting progressed, I was appalled and then I became frustrated, and livid and angry. Several times I had to stop the recording and grab a drink of lemon water to calm myself down. I had no idea how I was going to give asset based feedback and reinforce what was positive about the meeting.

I decided to take a self-reflection approach to providing feedback.  I sent the CEO a homework assignment to watch the video from the perspective of “optimal ignorance” like he would do with one of his corporate CEO clients. I asked him to look at what he did and how his audience responded during the three hours. I asked him to capture what advice he would give to that CEO if he were a client?

We met later on a Skype web conference call. I asked how he thought the meeting went upon reviewing the video?

I got almost the same answer. “It went really well.  There was a little bit of confusion about some of the valuation frameworks that you shared with us, but otherwise it went really well. I got really good feedback from the execs after the meeting.”

Now, I was really confused as several of his executives had contacted me after the meeting wondering what was really happening.

OK, that homework assignment didn’t work so well. There was still considerable delusion by the CEO about his performance and impact on the executive team.

In the pressure of the moment, I asked “whose story did you tell?”

The CEO responded “the story of the new company.”

“What I heard and saw was Skip’s story. You credited everything that has happened over the last several months to Skip. You never took ownership of the story. Yet, all along our journey you’ve told me story after story of why TAI realized it needed to get into interactive digital media in order to scale your business. Your stories attracted me to wanting to partner with you. You’ve tried many different experiments to move your practices into a digital environment. Some worked to an extent, but most did not work. You are the ones that realized that you didn’t have the expertise to go into this new medium. And you went out and found me.”

“What I think I learned from the many TAI workshops and your wonderful mentoring is that I have to own my story. I have to get the content of my story into my body and into my voice so that it becomes authentically mine. Did I miss something?”

brene brown owning our story

The CEO looked down and paused for a few uncomfortable minutes.

He broke the silence with a heartfelt “Thank you.”

He then went on “We previously scheduled a similar session for our whole company for this Friday. Now, we get the opportunity to re-write the story AND OWN it.”

He rewrote the story and went even further by turning the session into an experiential learning environment rather than a sit down lecture.

He owned his story and designed an experience using their well-researched and proven methods for authentic communication and teamwork.

It is exciting to watch TAI’s transformation. Terrific work is coming out of all parts of the company.  Each employee owns the collective narrative and through their experiential workshop each employee has made it their own story.

The two patterns that repeat as I work with a wide range of professional services firms large and small are:

  • little ownership of their own stories, their own authentic stories.
  • And not using their own methods and processes to operate their business.

How do we create Organizational Narratives?

Sitting around a conference table in a hip glass conference room high above Central Park drinking our espressos, we explored the difference between branding strategy and corporate narratives.  We joined with the CEO and Chief Strategy Officer of a large international brand strategy agency. I asked them if they would share the process, artifacts and results of a recent engagement with a large commercial real estate broker. My TAI colleague, Graeme, and I had interviewed both the CEO of the Brand Strategy agency and the client CMO for our research for a white paper on “Is the soft stuff of business really the hard stuff?”

Like the earlier story with the CEO and VC, I gained permission to set up the iphone mobile video streaming app to record our meeting and to allow Graeme and me to take time stamped notes during the session.

The CEO walked us through a slide deck of the brand strategy artifact they presented to their client while describing the process of how they arrived at the recommended strategy.  Graeme and I were amazed at how similar their process was to the process that we use at TAI to help corporate clients understand their corporate narrative and narrative arc.

They described the highlights of the 30 client executive interviews and 40 external customer and influencer interviews. I asked if they’d recorded any of these sessions.  The Chief of Strategy said “No. We just took notes. We find that recording and transcribing the recordings is a waste of time, energy and money.”

I asked if at any time during these interviews there was incredible passion or energy or excitement or displeasure. Were there any forms of strong emotion?

They laughed and said “All the time.”

I then asked how that emotion translated into their brand strategy artifact and text notes they created.

“Not very well” they answered.

“What if by just doing what you are already doing you could video record each interview and then use a wide range of analytics like an automatic transcript generator, automatic facial expression analytics for 16 types of emotion, and narrative theme analytics? The analytics let you quickly search through the videos and your time stamped notes to find the themes and the emotional high points.  Then you can mark those insightful moments and include the actual audio and video snippets in your strategy artifact.”

build a narrative

They laughed and the CEO said “That’s some nice science fiction, Skip.  What are you smoking out there in Washington state?”

I turned my laptop around and showed them the live streaming recording we’d started at the beginning of the meeting with our time stamped notes and the automatically generated transcript.

I searched the transcript for the emotional and energy high points and found that the system had caught ten of them. I clicked on the first one and up came 30 seconds of video of the CEO sharing how excited the client was with the brand strategy they developed.

The CEO and Chief of Strategy both started talking simultaneously and then stopped abruptly. The strategy chief shared “I can think of a 100 ways to use this immediately. The first way is with this client. Since we did the initial 9-month project, we’ve done six follow on projects and interviewed 200 more customers worldwide. But it was too expensive and too hard to look across the themes of the now 240 customers we’ve interviewed. With this tool we can now see the narrative themes and how they’ve changed over the last 18 months as the implementation of the brand strategy is rolled out.”

After several more “Oh my gods” and excited brain storming, we’d learned a lot more about their corporate narrative and brand strategy process.  Not just by what the brand strategy agency had done, and not just by what we’d done with our clients, but how quickly we could envision together our Narrative Arcs and our Clients’ Narrative arcs with powerful real time analytics.

By just doing what we already do!

This interaction mirrors Dan Pink’s description of a successful pitch in his book To Sell is Human.  A successful pitch is a collaboration between the pitcher and the catcher (the audience). The object of the pitch is to get to collaborating with the audience quickly.


Narrative matters.  Narrative is the hidden and generative engine of business.

We are all explorers.

Our role is to be curious, follow our curiosity, make meaning by finding patterns and themes, and MOST IMPORTANTLY share our stories with our audiences – authentically and with impact.

hero journey

A good explorer:

  • Is curious
  • Tells well-formed Human Stories
  • Seeks to understand what the audience experienced from their story
  • Owns their story

A good explorer helps their organization understand their narrative arc by finding common themes and values emergent from the stories generated from our three starting questions in our first exercise tonight:

  • Why my organization?
  • Why me now?
  • Why this industry?

During the remainder of the conference, I suggest you explore the stories that others have for you. Seek out at least four people at the conference or around Seattle that have an important message for your personal development and your personal narrative arc.  Discover the four people at the conference that you have an important story for their personal development.

As T. S. Eliott reminds us:

ts eliot four quartets

Thank you for sharing your power and presence with me this evening.

I look forward to exploring your stories during the next couple of days.

Narrative Matters.

Resources to Learn More about Narrative Matters

The following books were helpful in learning about Narrative Matters.


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Keynote Address: Narrative Matters

  1. KJSinSeattle says:

    Beautiful. Engaging. On point for your audience. Restrained. Inspiring. Your best one ever, Skip.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s