Cupcake Runs & Storytelling: Shared Experiences Create Inclusive Environments

It was Tuesday at 10:03 a.m., my second day on a new job. Chris, a software developer, was explaining the company’s technology to me. In the middle of our conversation, he received an instant message. He quickly got up and told me, “It’s time for a cupcake run!”

Cupcakes? Now?

It turned out that the cupcake bakery across the street sent out a secret word of the day via social media. The first 50 people to whisper the secret word to the cashier got a free cupcake. So, the IT team at our company had made it a daily ritual to get free cupcakes. Over time, I realized that it didn’t matter if you ate the cupcake or not, but that the trip to the bakery made everyone open up and share stories about their families, hobbies, interests, values and beliefs.

For people like me on the business side, these trips were important because it allowed me to bridge the corporate divide and connect with the tech folks in the company. Creating these strong relationships, led to more efficient inclusive teams and better performance.

In our data centric world, we tend to focus on the numbers and often forget to think about our listeners. And usually the numbers are quickly forgotten. But we know from cognitive psychology, that if we embed these numbers within a narrative, the audience is twenty times more likely to remember the facts. Why? Because stories are more memorable and create connections, even if your listener is a complete stranger.

Through our consulting and coaching experiences, we have found that the best starting point of a story is a shared experience between you and your listeners. It could be an actual shared experience, like a cupcake run in my story. Or it can be about experiences that most people can relate too. For example, being pulled over by a cop, witnessing the birth of a child, getting lost in a new city, or celebrating a holiday tradition. Shared experiences create instant affinity and jump start great conversations. It also has the ability to breakdown cultural barriers and form stronger relationships.

One of our clients, an asset management firm, was one of eight selected firms to pitch to a Chinese Sovereign Wealth Fund in Beijing for a $250 million mandate. Our client team was made up of Americans, Chinese and Australians. They were given 30 minutes, including Mandarin translation, to distinguish themselves from the competitors. All eight firms invited to conduct the final pitch had impressive performance track records. They knew that if they only presented their performance stats, data and facts, they wouldn’t have a chance. So, they turned to storytelling. The Fund evaluators were looking for a firm to help them manage money for their aging population. So, these Portfolio Managers told stories about their parents, grandparents, retirement, and what getting old meant to them. These shared experiences created a human connection with the Chinese decision makers and they were able to transcend the cultural divide in what otherwise was a strictly transactional business relationship. As a result, they won the mandate.

So, the next time you have to communicate the facts, remember to start with a shared experience. You may be pleasantly surprised by the results.

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