We’re Moving to the New Customer Innovations Website

We are very happy to announce that Customer Innovations is moving to a new and updated home on the web.

You can find us at:  www.customerinnovations.com

The ideas and insights we’ve been sharing on this blog site have already been relocated to this new location.

Onwards and upwards,

Frank Capek,  CEO, Customer Innovations, Inc.

Effective Experiential Storytelling

What are the stories your customers tell about their experience with you and your business?  What do they think you really stand for?  What are the most memorable aspects of their experience?  What surprises them?  What frustrates them?  How do you make them feel?  The nature and quality of these stories has a profound impact on the success of your business.

We make sense of the world around us through the stories we tell… the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we hear from and tell to others.  If you think about the defining moments in your life, you’ll see that the stories you tell yourself about those moments have a powerful influence on your identity and the way you see the world.  Aside from these personal stories, across human history, we’ve shared meaning and knowledge with each other in the form of stories.  This includes the legends and parables shared within and across generations, as well as, the stories we share about more immediate events.

Stories are our Primary Means of Sharing Knowledge and Transmitting Culture

Humans have evolved as storytelling animals.  The story form is one of the core knowledge structures we use to encode and recall our experiences.   As I covered in a previous post (see:  Making Experiences Memorable), when we recall past experiences we actually reconstruct the experience from a limited amount of information encoded in memory.  Understanding how this happens provides powerful insight into how to design experiences that are both more memorable and more influential.

In business, the nature and quality of your relationships with customers is reflected in the nature and the quality of the stories your customers tell.  Your ability to retain customers is directly related to the nature and quality of the stories they tell themselves about their experience.  Your ability to cost-effectively acquire new customers is increasingly dependent on the nature and the quality of the stories your customers tell to other prospective customers.

The Experience Must Tell Customers the Story You Want Them to Retell

If you don’t effectively tell the story… how can ever expect that your customers will either get the message… or have the material to be able to pass the story effectively on to others.   In a previous post, I drew a parallel between experience and music.  (See:  Great Experiences are Music to My Ears).  The experience that customers have with most organizations is a lot like the Billy Preston song that goes, “I’ve got a song that ain’t got no melody.”  The experience doesn’t communicate anything effectively… it just defaults from the bunch of the things that organization does… and that bunch of things is generally all over the map.  Similarly, most organizations have a story that’s “got no message… and got no script.”

Earlier this week, I led several dozen executives from a wide range of companies through a full-day customer experience immersion event at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA.    Disney is an organization built on powerful storytelling.  There are stories of Walt; stories surrounding some of the worlds’ best loved fictional characters; the stories that unfold in movies, rides, and many of our personal memories of visits to one of the Disney theme parks.

As part of that event, we took a close look at one particularly well-crafted story; the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride.  If you’re one of the more than half a billion people that have had the pleasure of experiencing this ride… take a moment… close your eyes and recall the experience.  What stands out as most memorable?  How do you remember feeling?  Over the course of about 13 minutes, a complete and highly immersive story unfolds.

Although it might seem like a stretch, there’s a lot that most businesses can learn about customer experience by considering how they can make the experience more like “Pirates of the Caribbean.”  For example, if you work for a bank, how can you make the experience customers have opening an account, applying for a loan, developing a financial plan, etc… a “Pirates of the Caribbean” experience?  If you’re a professional or business services provider, how can you make the experience that your clients have as engaging and meaningful as “Pirates of the Caribbean?”  In order to answer that question, we must start with three common characteristics of the most engaging, memorable, and retellable stories:

1. A Simple, Purposeful Message

A simple, purposeful message is at the core of many of the experiences that people find intuitively understandable and compelling.

By “simple” I mean a message that people can understand immediately; because it’s concrete rather than abstract and doesn’t require a lot of additional explanation. In their book, Made to Stick , Chip and Dan Heath do a great job of describing how the “Curse of Knowledge” often gets in the way of communicating in ways that people can easily understand.  The more knowledge you have of the strategy and inner workings of your industry and business, the more difficult it becomes to put yourself in the shoes of customers who don’t have that knowledge.  What seems intuitively obvious, concrete, and simple to you… may be confusing, abstract, and complex for your customers.

The Heaths illustrate the “Curse of Knowledge” using an experiment conducted in 1990 by Elizabeth Newton.  In that experiment, people were assigned to be either “tappers” or “listeners.”  Tappers were asked to select from a list of 25 well-known melodies and to tap out the selection’s rhythm on the table.   The listeners would then have to guess the song the tapper was tapping.  Tappers predicted that the listeners would guess correctly one out of two times (50%).  It turns out that the listeners were only able to guess one out of about forty times (2.5%).   The tappers thought it would be easy to communicate their “message” to the listener because, as they were tapping, they were hearing the song in their head.  However, the listener wasn’t hearing that song; they were just trying to decipher the message from what sounded like Morse code.  I don’t know how many times I’ve seen people try desperately to get their customers to understand when the underlying issue is that the customer just doesn’t have the same background music playing in their heads.

Beyond being simple, the message must also be “purposeful.” It must not only clearly articulate what you stand for BUT ALSO contrast that to what you stand against.   People will find it easier to understand who you are, when it’s clear who you’re not.  Heroes are boring without villains.  Triumphs don’t make sense without understanding the challenges that made those triumphs meaningful.  Stories without tension, uncertainty, or risk aren’t worth listening to.  The conflict built into the message clarifies the things that make the experience differentiated and worth engaging in.

It’s important to choose your enemies wisely.  For example, just about every insurance company out there portrays the enemy in their story to be the uncertain outcomes they protect you against.  As a result, the message from those companies pretty much boils down to the same thing… with only minor variations on how effectively they communicate that same old story.  Compare that to Progressive that has gotten a lot of mileage out of telling a different story; a story with a message that they provide competitive quotes that enable customers to feel they’ve made a more educated decision.  Allstate is also getting traction by telling a story around the message that they recognize and reward people for safe driving.  In both of these cases, the enemies are prevailing industry practices.

One of the best examples of a simple and purposeful message is Salesforce.com’sSuccess, Not Software.”  Salesforce.com’s “software as a service (Saas)” platform allows you to focus on your sales processes rather than having to implement complex and risky CRM software.  We’ve also worked with many companies that provide further examples of strong messages:

  • Jewelry Store Message: “The Perfect Gift Guaranteed.” It’s not about selling you jewelry. It’s about helping you give the perfect gift, in the perfect way that contributes to your relationship with the recipient.
  • Mortgage Bank Message: “A Better Way Home.” It’s not about just giving you a mortgage. It’s about a well designed and flawlessly executed home buying experience.
  • Automotive Financial Products Firm Message: “Driving Dealer Performance.” Rather than just providing financing and pre-paid maintenance (to their automotive dealer customers), we work with you to measurably improve the performance of your finance and insurance operation.

In each of these cases, the message is crisp and clearly articulated.  As you may guess, this is actually quite rare.  Most organizations become enamored with a message that doesn’t really communicate anything specific or concrete.

If we take a step back and look at “Pirates,” beneath the relatively light entertainment value, the story ends up hanging together brilliantly around the message:  “Despite the adventure, there is a price to be paid for a greedy and vile life.”

2. Characters that Make Sense

The most effective stories have characters that are authentic and intuitively understandable.  These characters make the experience more concrete.  This is particularly important if the product or service you provide is complex and abstract.  For example, if you’re in the insurance business, what you sell is abstract; a policy that represents the transfer of risk in exchange for a premium.  This raises the stakes on identifying both the characters in your story, as well as, the role they play.  If you’re in the banking business, who are the characters?

The strongest brand stories have great characters.  The book “Storytelling: Branding in Practice” by Klaus Fog, Christian Budtz, and Baris Yakaboylu describe the typical characters as follows:

  • The Hero. Who is fighting for the goal described in the central premise?
  • The Adversary. Who or what must the hero overcome to achieve that goal?
  • The Supporter(s). Who (or what) assists the hero in their quest?
  • The Benefactor(s). What superior character or force(s) provides aid in the quest?
  • The Beneficiaries. Who benefits in the end?

In many situations, the company and/or its representatives are the heroes; the customers’ situation or the alternatives provided by competitors are the adversary; and customers are the beneficiaries.  This is true in the case of Salesforce.com.  Many great services businesses, like the Four Seasons, really cast their frontline employees as the heroes that overcome the ordinary and predictable in order to provide the guest the most comforting and personalized experience.  In this case, the Four Seasons plays a supporting role rather than a heroic role.  (See:  A World-Class Hospitality Experience:  Four Seasons Aviara).

In  many marginally successful services businesses, like the major US airlines or many call center operations, frontline employees wind up playing the role of victims… caught between the demands of the customer and the constraints and frustrations imposed on them by their company.  In fact, there are many situations I’ve observed where the frontline associates not only play the victim but do untold damage to the brand my making their employer the adversary (e.g., “I’d like to help you but it’s against our policy”).

We’ve also seen many examples of companies that do a great job of telling the story in a way that makes the customer the hero.  One of the best examples is the wonderful grocery retailer, H.E.B., that’s core message is “Come Home a Hero.”    In the case of the jewelry store example above, the core message of “The Perfect Gift Guaranteed” is framed in a way that the male gift giver (70% of their customer base) is the hero… and the gift recipient is the beneficiary… but with a subtle message that, when the gift experience is a WOW, the gift giver becomes the ultimate beneficiary (figure it out).

3. An Engaging Plotline with “Signature Scenes”

There are common, relatively predictable patterns to the way stories are structured.  It doesn’t matter if these are verbal, or told in books and movies.  Think about your favorite movie.  With very few exceptions, the story typically opens with an Initiating Event that gets the audience hooked and encourages them care what will happen next.  That Initiating Event introduces the tension described in the message (described above).  Then, over the course of the story, there are a sequence of memorable, Signature Scenes that gradually increase the tension.  Typically each of those scenes introduces a question about what will happen next.  By doing so, it keeps the audience engaged and increases their investment in finding out how the story will eventually be resolved.  Finally, the story reaches a climax that answers most but not all of the questions that were posed over the course of the story.   The best writers and story tellers purposely don’t answer all the questions at the end.  The presence of unanswered questions is one of the reasons why people still talk about the movie the next day and, very often, the thing that leaves them wanting to see the movie again next week.

Experience Director, Adam St. John Lawrence, in his blog Work-Play-Experience has a very insightful way of putting this.  He says great experiences, like great stories go “BOOM Wow-Wow-Wow BOOM.”

One of the reasons that “Pirates” is so engaging is that it follows a very well-designed plotline and includes highly memorable “Signature Scenes.”  Here is the plotline:

  • BOOM: The Initiating Event: After lazily floating through the bayou for just long enough to feel immersed in the environment, guests encounter Jolly Roger who issues the warning that sets up the  conflict, “Psst! Avast there! It be too late to alter course, mateys… and there be plundering pirates lurking in every cove, waitin’ to board…. there be squalls ahead, and Davey Jones waiting for them what don’t obey…Guests then plummet through two rapids drops that represent a Point of No Return.


  • Wow1: Guests enter the “Grotto of Lost Souls” where they see the skeletons of three unfortunate pirates, two of whom have been run through with swords. As guests progress through this scene, the skeletons progress from realistic to much more surreal states of animation… steering the ship, drinking at the bar, and finally the captain’s remains lying in bed still studying the treasure map with a magnifying glass.

animated-pirate unforatunate-pirate

  • Wow2: The Attack of the Wicked Wench. After leaving the Grotto, guests are thrown into the middle of a battle as the ship, The Wicked Wench, is attacking the walls of the city while cannon balls splash all around.


  • Wow3: Sacking the Town. As the guest round the corner, they find that the pirates have captured the town and are now dunking the mayor in the well asking him about where to find “Jack Sparrow” (Disney added the references to the movie characters in 2006) as the town’s leaders are tied up and led away.


  • Wow4: In the Town… The Wench Auction and the Chase Scenes. In a series of memorable comedic scenes, guests are offered the opportunity to “buy a bride” and entertained as they see the brides and grooms chasing after each other. The characters are animated on turntables that circle the balconies of the buildings. As we progress through this scene, the characters are shown at progressive levels of drunkenness as the town sinks into chaos.


  • BOOM: The Town in Flames and the Escape. Eventually, the town is in engulfed in flames with spectacular effects and burning beams threatening to crash down on the guest’s boat. Meanwhile, the pirates are either too drunk to care or they’re in jail desperately pleading with the dog to let them out. As the guests escape up the waterfall, they are entreated to a final warning from Jack Sparrow (again, added in 2006).

town-on-fire drunk-pirate begging-the-dogs jacks-final-warning

So… how does all this apply to you?  Let’s look at one of the cases I mentioned earlier; the case of a leading specialty jewelry retailer that designed their experience around the message, “The Perfect Gift Guaranteed.”  After agreeing on that message, the customer experience was then designed to deliver that message using a set of Signature Scenes organized into a coherent plotline.  The Initiating Event was a specific greeting that welcomed the guest into the store.  That welcome introduced the message of helping the customer give the perfect gift… not just selling them a piece of jewelry.  This was then followed by a set of supporting, highly differentiated, Signature Experience Elements (or scenes).   These Signature Experience Elements included:  collaborative gift planning (differentiated from traditional selling), preparing the male gift giver to “romance the gift,” ensuring customers know what will happen if the gift doesn’t work out (the “guaranteed” part of the experience), creating a wow on exchanges or returns, and a clienteling process designed to maintain the relationship with the customer for future gift giving occasions.

Similarly, the mortgage company mentioned earlier designed a set of five Signature Experience Elements that happen over the life of the customer relationship, all designed to tell the story, “A Better Way Home.”

Building on the above points, The Disney Institute’s book, “Be Our Guest” summarizes their set of principles for delivering a compelling story, as follows:

  1. Know your audience. Clearly define who are you creating the experience for?  How do they think and what do they desire?
  2. Wear your guest’s shoes.  Design and evaluate the experience from the customer’s perspective by experiencing it as a customer.
  3. Organize the flow of people and ideas.  Think of a setting as a story and tell that story in a sequenced, organized way.  Build the same order and logic into the design of customer movement.
  4. Create a visual magnet.  It’s a visual landmark used to orient and attract people.
  5. Communicate with visual literacy.  Language is not always composed of words. Use common languages of color, shape and form to communicate through a setting.
  6. Avoid overload–create turn-ons.  Do not bombard customers with data.  Let them choose the information they want when they want it.
  7. Tell one story at a time.  Mixing multiple stories in a single setting is confusing.  Create one setting for each big idea.
  8. Avoid contradictions; maintain identity.  Every detail and every setting should support and further your identity and mission.
  9. For every ounce of treatment provide a ton of treat.  Give your customers the highest value by building an interactive setting that gives them the opportunity to exercise all of their senses.
  10. Keep it up. Never get complacent and always maintain your setting.

Over the past 25 years, we’ve worked with organizations that run the range from business-to-consumer to the most complex business-to-business relationships.  In the course of this work, we’ve found that Experiential Storytelling applies equally well everywhere along this range.  In practice, the business-to-consumer companies have the easiest time understanding it… while the business-to-business companies have the most to gain.

Understanding Basic Drives and Experiential Temperament

In many ways, we are the product of the behaviors that worked for a long line of our ancestors.  When faced with a life threatening situation, say happening upon a saber tooth tiger, our ancestors were the ones that ran first and asked questions later.  Their friends that naively felt driven to go take a closer look weren’t so lucky.  Based on situation after situation like this, we are the descendants of the people that were driven to:  form and cooperate with others in reciprocal relationships, intuitively understand other peoples motives in order to be able to anticipate what they’d do; learn more about the way the world works in order to develop effective predictions and plans; and acquire the resources they needed to survive and that enhanced their status within the social hierarchy.

At the deepest level, our experiences today influenced by the same set of basic survival drives that were adaptive for our ancestors in the situations they faced.  While evolution does not pull our experiential strings directly, it has determined the design of how our brains process and act on experiences.   How we react to threats, strive to connect with others, seek to understand the ways of the world, and acquire resources are consistent with the mechanisms that contributed to the survival of those that came before us.

In the book, Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices, Paul Laurence and Nitin Nohria, two Harvard University professors, conclude that we are hardwired with four basic drives that can be used to explain a wide range of individual and collective behavior.  These four basic drives are to:  ACQUIRE (obtain essential resources as well as, intangibles that improve our social status), BOND (develop relationships with individuals and groups that provide security and pleasure), LEARN (acquire experiences and beliefs that help us make the world more predictable), and DEFEND (protect against threats to ourselves, as well as, our resources, relationships, and beliefs).

As different as we all appear to be on the surface, these four basic drives provide a common framework that apply across individuals and across cultures.   The degree to which they are satisfied directly affects our emotions and, by extension, our behavior.   As we will see, individual temperamental differences have an effect on the relative strength of these drives and how they’re expressed.

ACQUIRE:  The drive to obtain essential resources as well as, intangibles that improve our social status.  We are motivated to acquire goods that increase our sense of well-being.  We experience satisfaction when this drive is fulfilled and frustration when it is not. Our drive to ACQUIRE applies to essential resources like food, clothing, shelter, and money.  It also applies to collecting objects, symbols, and experiences that signal or improve our status relative to others.

Beyond our basic survival needs, the drive to ACQUIRE is relative rather than absolute; we tend to compare what we have to what others have.  Observers of the human condition have consistently pointed out that people are happy when they feel better off than other people they know, unhappy when they feel worse off.

In addition, the drive to ACQUIRE is often insatiable beyond any physical need.  We often want more even when there is little or no incremental benefit from having more.

BOND:  The drive to develop relationships with individuals and groups that provide security and pleasure.  There is obvious survival value to forming reciprocal relationships with others, as well as, to be part of a group that provides safety, support, and identity.  Most people experience positive emotions when they are associated with others and negative emotions when they are isolated.

The drive to BOND also leads to emergence of cooperation.  In order to stay positively connected to the group, an individual must naturally keep track of their indebtedness to others and reciprocate in a way that maintains the relationship.  It also becomes very adaptive to sacrifice on personal gain in order to contribute to the greater good of the group.  One of the other implications of the drive to BOND is the emergence of both a dominance hierarchy and attention to social justice.  (See:   Cognitive Ergonomics: How Customers’ React to Violations of Justice).

LEARN:  The drive to acquire knowledge and beliefs that help us navigate successfully in the world.   There is strong survival value in our ability to make sense of the world around us and produce theories that help us: explain what has happened, predict what will happen, and develop reasonable courses of action.   We get frustrated when things seem senseless and we feel satisfied when we can understand about how and why things happen the way they do.  While the drive to acquire is materially driven, the drive to LEARN can be considered intellectual foraging.

DEFEND:  The drive to protect against threats to ourselves, as well as, our resources, relationships, and beliefs.   This drive is rooted in the most basic fight or flight response that is common to most animals.  We all naturally defend ourselves, our possessions, our family and friends against physical harm.  By extension, we also DEFEND our ideas, beliefs, and accomplishments against psychological harm that would undermine our understanding of the world, our self-esteem, or our social status.  When we successfully fulfill our drive to DEFEND, it leads to feelings of confidence and security.  When we are faced with situations that are unpredictable and seemingly out of our control, we react with feelings of fear and resentment.

Laurence and Nohria observe that these drives are independent in that they can neither be ordered hierarchically nor substituted for each other.   This is important since it provides flexibility in our behavioral responses to the situations we face.  This is particularly important since, in many cases, these drives are competing.  We often can’t satisfy each of the four drives in every situation leading to psychological and moral dilemmas.  For example, the drive to LEARN is often in conflict with the drive to DEFEND and the drive to BOND (cooperate) is often at odds with the drive to ACQUIRE.

While these four drives are present in every effectively functioning human being, you know from personal experience that not everyone expresses the drive to BOND or LEARN or ACQUIRE or DEFEND in the same ways.  For example, people vary in the both the magnitude and the direction associated with their drive to LEARN.

Recognizing differences in the strength and expression of each of these drives is a very important part of understanding how different people have experiences… and in knowing what can be done to enable people to have more engaging experiences.  We describe these differences in terms of Experiential Temperament.  The first layer of the Experience Personae Model thus starts with a description of the how individuals differ in the way they express the four drives.

“In one way or another, all our experiences are chemically conditioned, and if we imagine that some of them are purely “spiritual,” purely “intellectual,” or purely “aesthetic;” it is merely because we have never troubled to investigate the internal chemical environment at the moment of the occurrence.”  Aldous Huxley

An individuals’ experience takes place in a biochemical environment in the brain that influences the experiences they will find compelling, engaging, and comfortable.   Different people react to experiences differently based on variations in the neuromodulation processes that influence their activity level and emotional state.

Note:  A neuromodulation process involves neurotransmitters (the chemicals that communicate across synapses in the brain) that are not reabsorbed by the neuron or broken down.  These neuromodulators end up influencing the chemical makeup of an individual’s cerebrospinal fluid (the chemical environment of the brain) and, as a result, influencing (or modulating) the overall activity level of the brain.

An individual’s unique expression of the drives we discussed above has a lot to do with variations in neuromodulation from one individual to another.   In essence, neuromodulators act like the volume and tone controls that influence magnitude and nature of our reactions to experiences.

In our work, we consider four Experiential Temperaments that influence the fundamental ways people engage with different types of experiences:  Novelty Seeking, Harm Avoidance, Social Orientation, and Persistence.  This perspective builds on work originally done by Dr. C. Robert Cloninger, a psychiatrist at Washington University School of Medicine.

Novelty Seeking is the level to which a person is comfortable with,drawn to, and exhilarated by new experiences. While everyone wants some excitement occasionally, people that express high levels of Novelty Seeking seem to live for new experiences and new ways of looking at things. High Novelty Seeking people tend to be curious, exploratory, easily bored, impulsive, quick tempered, extravagant, enthusiastic, and disorderly. On the other hand, low Novelty Seeking people tend to be more indifferent to unfamiliar experiences. They also tend to be more reflective, frugal, orderly, and regimented.

Novelty Seeking describes an individuals’ expression of the common underlying drive to LEARN.  Novelty Seeking behavior contributes to an individual’s practical and theoretical understanding of the way the world works.

In the brain, Novelty Seeking behavior is motivated and regulated by dopamine.  High Novelty Seeking people appear to have low base levels of dopamine and, as a result, experience an increased sensitivity to dopamine releases.  This gives Novelty Seekers an enhanced euphoric rush from novel stimulation that is either physical or intellectual.

Harm Avoidance is the level to which customers strive to escape from unfamiliar, uncertain, potentially dangerous, or unpleasant experiences. People that are high in Harm Avoidance tend to be cautious, apprehensive, and pessimistic in experiences that don’t worry others. They also tend to be insecure in social situations and often need reassurance and encouragement with new experiences. They tend to be critical of themselves if things don’t go smoothly. On the other hand, people that are low in Harm Avoidance are generally confident despite the unknown aspects of an experience, even those experiences that would worry other people. Overall, low Harm Avoidance individuals tend to be relaxed, courageous, carefree, and optimistic.

Harm Avoidance is an important way that different individuals express the drive to DEFEND.  While everyone has the drive to protect themselves, high Harm Avoidant individuals take this to an extreme by avoiding behavior that would lead to punishment, danger, or embarrassment.

Harm Avoidance appears to be regulated by serotonin.  Harm Avoidant individuals are more prone to the frequent release of serotonin when presented with uncertain or potentially threatening situations.  This frequent release of serotonin leads to a decrease in serotonin sensitivity and a resulting increase in cortisol which is associated with the feeling of stress.

Social Orientation is the level to which people seek to bond with and gain approval from others. Individuals with high Social Orientation are warm, dedicated, and dependent. They tend to seek communication and social contact and are sensitive to social cues which facilitate their understanding of and reciprocity with others. People that are low on Social Orientation tend to be self-absorbed, practical, cold, and more socially insensitive. They often don’t mind being alone and, in general, don’t feel a strong need to gain approval from others

Social Orientation is an expression of the underlying drive to BOND.  High Social Orientation individuals have an amplified need to BOND and tend to be effective in forming and maintaining strong reciprocal relationships.

Social Orientation appears to be related to levels of oxytocin (strong bonding with mates and family) and vasopressin, the only known hormones released by the posterior pituitary gland that act at a distance.  Studies have reported that higher levels of oxytocin enhance an individual’s ability to read others’ emotions based on eye cues.  In addition, a 2005 study in reported in Nature magazine found that people sprayed with oxytocin were more trusting in cooperation situations.  Subjects whose oxytocin levels were mildly increased could infer significantly better what a target person was thinking about, based only on eye cues.  The effect was more pronounced for emotions harder to read through eye cues.

Persistence is the level to which a person feels the drive towards behavioral inhibition (put it off) versus behavioral activation (just do it!). High Persistence individuals are eager to initiative experiences, tend to see roadblocks as personal challenges, and intensify their efforts in response to anticipated rewards. Low Persistence individuals require the deliberate removal of barriers to action and more powerful encouragement to engage in experiences.

Persistence can be considered an amplifier or modulator of the drive to ACQUIRE resources, experiences, relationships, etc…   Persistence appears to be connected with the complex interaction of neurotransmitters including dopamine (motivation based on reward-prediction), and serotonin.

So what does this all mean?  The ability to understand and rigorously describe the Experiential Temperament of a person has a profound impact on designing products, services, interactions, etc… that fit with and influence the way people think.   Designing high Novelty Seeking experiences for low Novelty Seeking customers is not ideal.  Not taking into account the high Harm Avoidant temperament of some customers can lead to experiences that make people feel uncomfortable.

For example, we are currently helping a leading healthcare organization design an integrated patient-physician experience that is sensitive to the fact that people have fundamentally different mental models for their health and the consumption of health-related services.  Some customers will be high novelty seeking “naturalists;” some customers will be low persistence “avoiders;” others will be more high harm avoidant “active consumers,” etc…   The experience that works for each of the personae involves different ways of communicating, prescribing courses of treatment, reinforcing behaviors like wellness programs, etc…

Another client is a leading retail chain expressed a desire to “Disneyize” their experience.  What they hadn’t taken into account in developing that vision is that the current customer experience could be described as:  low novelty seeking; moderately high harm avoidant; and high social orientation.  Some of the ideas this company had for improving the experience were brilliant.  However, many of those “improvements” would have led to an unintended shift in the temperament of the overall experience; one that would have created tension for existing customers.

The most effective experiences either match the temperament of the target ideal individual or avoid stressing people by providing a “temperament neutral experience.”

Creating the Conditions for Outstanding Experience in Your Life

My colleagues and I have been lucky enough to have the chance to help a wide range of companies improve their customers’ experiences.  As we’ve done this work, we’ve always started with the customer.  Who are the customers?  What are their priorities and underlying needs?  What are they trying to accomplish?  What is the natural path they follow to accomplish those things?  What influences the emotional and rational reactions they have to situations they encounter along the way?

As a result of this customer-centric perspective, we’ve ended up thinking long and hard about a couple of basic questions such as:  Just what is an experience?  What is it that makes an experience outstanding?  In what ways can people create more outstanding experiences in their lives?  While virtually all of our work has been with companies, in the end, it’s all about people and the experiences they have in their lives.

Earlier this week, I led a workshop titled “Creating the Conditions for Outstanding Experience in Your Life” at The Lodge at Pebble Beach.  Many of the participants asked for a summary of the material we discussed and I received several requests from people that wanted to attend the session but couldn’t.  So, this post will cover the highlights of the session.

What is an Experience?

Before we can have a meaningful discussion of outstanding experiences, it’s worth spending a few minutes considering “what is an experience?”  The answer I propose is that an experience is the way a person makes sense of the world.  An experience is the way a person’s mind perceives, interprets, and evaluates what they do and the things that happen to them.

Early in our design work with companies, we developed a model that describes the major components that influence an individual’s experience.  We call this model the Cognitive Experience Cycle.  Like most models, it is a useful over-simplification.

Cognitive Experience Cycle

The components of the Cognitive Experience Cycle are:

  • Motives. What do you want?  Each of us has some motives we know about; that we can put our finger on; that we can describe to others.  We also have a set of deeper, more basic motives that may be tough to put into words but that have a profound impact on our experiences.  Many of these deeper motives eventually trace back to the biological imperative to ensure the survival of our genes.  Over many generations, we’ve evolved a wide range of motives or drives that have “survival value.”  Aside from basic needs for food, water, etc… we are motivated to: attract a suitable mate, affiliate and cooperate with others in small groups, assert our position in a dominance hierarchy within those groups, penalize cheaters, acquire knowledge that improves our predictions about the world, etc… These motives create an overall backdrop for the way we experience the world.
  • Goals. Within the context of these motives, we each have goals we want to achieve.  Some of these goals are concrete, specific, and well-defined.  However, you probably have other goals that are no more than fuzzily-defined wished-for outcomes.  While rational economic theory has always assumed that people have well defined preferences, experimental evidence shows that people tend to construct their preferences in the moment.  They don’t know what they want until they see it.  Most of us also have espoused goals that we’re not doing much to realize.  Often these espoused goals are not fully consistent with either our underlying motives or our beliefs about ourselves and what’s possible for us.  I’ll have more to say about this later.
  • Expectations. We are all “programmed” to continuously predict what will happen next; form plans; and predict the results of those plans.  Our ability to predict what will happen next is a skill with a lot of survival value.  We’re the descendents of the people who, when they heard a distinctive rustle in the bushes, predicted whether it was a predator or a source of food, and acted accordingly.  These predictions in a wide range of situations are strongly influenced by our beliefs about the way the world works and what to expect from its other inhabitants.  This includes things like: What course of action will be required to achieve our goals?  What can we expect from other people?  What are the likely barriers and risks?
  • Actions. What actions are we prepared to and capable of taking given our beliefs about what’s required.  Some of these actions will be automatic or even habitual; the kind of things we do without deliberately planning or even thinking about them.  Some of these actions will be based on the kind of creative problem solving we do in the more novel situations we encounter.
  • Interactions. How does the world around us respond to our actions?  This includes the things and the people we interact with.  While these interactions are the only concrete part of the experience cycle, this reality is relatively minor part of our overall experience.
  • Perceptions. While it seems like we interact with the world directly, this is an illusion.  There are actually many layers of subconscious filtering and preprocessing that takes place before the light that touches our eyes or sound that touches our ears makes it through to the working memory associated with our train of thought.  At any point in time, we are bombarded with literally billions of bits of environmental information.  Our brains are the ultimate labor saving device; optimized to filter out and deal with virtually all of that information subconsciously.  This allows us to pay selective attention to the small number of things that appear to be most important or most interesting.  We apply some amount of “gist processing” to information that is dealt with subconsciously.  In other words, we get the gist of what happened without attending to the details.
  • Interpretations. Interpretation has a lot to do with interaction of the current experience with our memories of past experiences.  As we perceive aspects of our current experience, our brains are continuously elaborating on the current experience by recalling categories, beliefs, and autobiographical memories of prior experiences that seem relevant. This happens because, as stated earlier, our brains are “programmed” to continuously predict what’s going to happen. If our predictions roughly correspond to the way our current experience is unfolding, we don’t need to pay attention to them.  This doesn’t always work so well.  Sometimes we stop paying attention to the current experience and just assume that it’s the same old thing we’ve seen or heard before.  As a result, our interpretations of the current experience can have more to do with our beliefs and memories than with what is actually happening.  Our interpretations might be just the story we’re telling ourselves.  You can see how this might get us into trouble in conversations with our spouse, family, friends, or close co-workers.
  • Evaluations. What meaning do we attach to our experiences?  How would we describe the experience we had?  How does it confirm or change our beliefs?  In general, the mind is conservative.  It’s easier to preserve what it knows than it is to challenge or change our beliefs.  As a result, we tend to pay attention to evidence that confirms our beliefs and minimize or throw away evidence that is inconsistent with them.  We only change our beliefs when we can no longer reasonably justify them.  These evaluations that occur in the last part of the Cognitive Experience Cycle then reinforce our motives, goals, and expectations that begin the cycle all over again.

What Makes an Experience Outstanding?

I suggest we probably each have our own answers to this question.  Your answer will have a lot to do with the specific things you’re interested in.  However, across the many conversations I’ve had about this question, several common themes have emerged:

  • Identity. Outstanding experiences allow a person to reinforce and express a positive self-image
  • Challenge. Outstanding experiences allow a person to work at the edge of their capabilities.
  • Learning. Outstanding experiences generate learning; a person comes out of these experiences smarter, more capable, and more confident than they were when they started.
  • Engaging. Outstanding experiences tend to be absorbing and, in many cases, a person may lose track of time.

In the book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi outlined his theory that people are most happy when they are in a state of flow– a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation.  The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing.  This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great freedom, enjoyment, fulfillment, and skill-and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.

At a deeper level, experimental evidence also demonstrates that satisfaction is driven as much, if not more, by the process of attaining a goal than the ultimate realization of that goal.  Several prominent neuroscientists have theorized and have begun to demonstrate that the interaction of the neurotransmitter dopamine with a small area of the brain called the striatum is responsible for the reward prediction process that motivates our behavior and leads to our feelings of satisfaction (see:  Your Brain Is (Almost) Perfect: How We Make Decisions by Read Montague and Satisfaction:  The Science of Finding True Fulfillment by Greg Burns).

How Do We Generate More Outstanding Experiences?

Let me start by saying that I will share only a partial answer to this question; one that builds on the Cognitive Experience Cycle we just discussed.  From this perspective, I believe there are three interrelated and mutually reinforcing levers for the generating more outstanding experiences in our lives.  These three levers are: 1) Taking Purposeful Action, 2) Mastering Beliefs, and 3) Being Fully Present and Open.

3 Levers on Cognitive Experience Cycle

1. Taking Purposeful Action

I believe the first steps a person can take to generate more outstanding experiences is to get clear on: 1) What they want, 2) Why they want it, and 3) What’s required to get it.  Until an individual understands these things, their “goals” run the risk of being not much more than wishful thinking. They end up drifting.

In the workshop, we walked through the development of a Strategy on a Page for taking purposeful action.  This Strategy on a Page (a.k.a., SOAP), is a template for considering and summarizing clear answers to the following important questions:

SOAP - Personal

The last of these questions is particularly critical.  Self-limiting beliefs are one of the most significant barriers to clearly setting and working towards achieving goals.  We’ll be talking about these beliefs in the next section.

I also shared the following personal example of a completed Strategy on a Page focused on the goals I’d set for myself related to my health and fitness:

FWC SOAP Example

An additional perspective related to Taking Purposeful Action is that, for many of the most significant decisions in our lives, we have trouble aligning what we want today with what will actually make us happy in the future.  This phenomenon, called Miswanting, can describe situations where we want things that don’t actually make us as happy as we predict they will.  It also can describe our desire to avoid situations that, in the end, are not as bad as we expect they’ll be.  See Miswanting and the Pursuit of Unhappiness for more insight into this phenomenon and perspectives on how to avoid it.

2.  Mastering Beliefs

George Bernard Shaw said, “Our lives are shaped not as much by our experience as by our expectations.”  Our beliefs limit and enable what’s possible for each of us in our lives.  Regardless of what we’re willing to admit… our behavior is always fully aligned with our core beliefs.  In fact, we cannot activate, maintain, decide about, prefer, plan for, or pursue any goal which is not grounded (implicitly or explicitly) on a set of underlying beliefs.

For example, every one of us has powerful beliefs regarding intelligence that are formed early in life.  While some people have a deeply held belief that intelligence is a fixed trait, others believe that intelligence is more malleable.  This fundamental distinction has a profound impact on many dimensions of our experience.  Carol Dweck describes some of the implications in her book Self-Theories:

  • The belief that intelligence is a fixed trait causes many people to worry about how much of this fixed intelligence they have.  People with beliefs about fixed intelligence tend to focus on performance rather than learning.  They get worried about looking smart and avoiding looking dumb.  Even if the person is confident in his or her capabilities, their beliefs require a steady diet of easy successes.  They’ll tend to look for opportunities to demonstrate their intelligence rather than challenge or increase it.  They might pass up opportunities to learn if those opportunities involve the risk of making mistakes that might make them look inadequate.  They also tend to quickly disengage from experiences when those experience present obstacles.
  • On the other hand, some people have a deep-seated belief that their intelligence is malleable. They don’t deny that differences exist; it’s just that they believe that everyone can increase their intellectual abilities with effort. They want to learn and don’t waste time worrying about looking smart or looking dumb. In fact, they’re likely to pass up opportunities to look smart in favor of opportunities to challenge themselves and to learn. Even individuals with lower overall confidence in their current abilities can still thrive on challenge, throwing themselves into difficult tasks and sticking with them… knowing they’ll come out of that experience smarter. The challenge of mastering new skills is what makes these people feel smart.

Beyond intelligence, we each have beliefs that pertain to other aspects of who we are and the way the world works.   For example:

Belief Categories

The trick is to actively uncover and master your beliefs rather than be controlled by them.  This is both critically important and easier said than done.  Your beliefs are so much a part of how you think that it can be difficult to recognize them.  It’s like a fish being unaware of the water it’s swimming in.

While it is difficult to directly identify self-limiting beliefs, it is possible to recognize times that you’re feeling frustrated, angry, anxious, or depressed regarding something you’d like to accomplish.  When you notice these feelings, a productive exercise is to stop, reflect, and write down answers to the following questions:

1.  What am I feeling?

2.  What is the situation?

3.  What is the internal monologue I’m having with myself about this?

4.  What assumptions and self-statements are embedded in that monologue?

5.  If these assumptions and statements are true, what are the implications?

It’s important to answer question 5 with additional assumptions and self-statements not feelings, like I’d be unhappy.  You may need to repeat question 5 each time getting closer to statements that are core beliefs about the world and yourself.  Once question 5 gets closer to a set of core beliefs, the next step is to consider:

6.  Are these beliefs I’d chose for myself? Are they productive ways to think?

If the answer is no, the most important steps are to:

Develop a comprehensive list of every bit of evidence you can find that contributes to proving the case against this self-limiting belief.

7.  Clearly state the positive beliefs you’d chose in this situation

8.  Regularly (e.g, daily) reflect on the chosen belief and supporting evidence

For example, in order to accelerate progress towards my health and fitness goals described in my Strategy on a Page above, part of every workout has included time spent reflecting on the more productive set of beliefs required for me to be successful.

3.  Being Fully Present and Open

Our beliefs also have a profound impact on the way we perceive, interpret, and evaluate our interactions with the world and its other occupants.  Dr. Leonard Orr said this succinctly as, “What the thinker thinks, the prover proves.”

The brain works hard to preserve the consistency of what it already believes to be true.  It does this on a subconscious as well as conscious level.  There are good reasons for doing this.  We are continually bombarded with billions of bits of information.  You can consider the brain a very effective labor saving device.  It continually predicts what it expects to see and, based on those predictions, sorts through and filters the flood of perceptual information in order to allow us to pay attention to a relatively small number of things that appear most important.  A side effect of this process is that the brain often discards valuable information about what’s really going on in order to simplify our interpretations of this information.

What we expect to see has a powerful influence on how we perceive and interpret what is there.  For example:

Paris in the the Spring

Psychologist Richard Gregory’s Charlie Chaplin Mask video demonstrates a powerful example of how our top-down beliefs subconsciously change our bottoms-up perceptions in a way that reinforces “seeing what we expect to see.”

There are also numerous examples of how, once we have a belief about what we’re seeing, our perceptions tend to be resistant to change:

Face to Woman

The essence of Being Fully Present and Open starts with being aware of these perceptual filters and how our beliefs reinforce automatic assumptions.

In a fascinating CIA paper titled “The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis” Richard Hauer describes not only the issues surrounding the perception and interpretation of information but also outlines an approach to overcoming this bias.  The approach, called the “Analysis of Competing Hypotheses” forces analysts to more deliberately evaluate evidence for alternative conclusions rather than searching for evidence to confirm a pre-existing hypothesis.  I’ve found that following a simplified version of this approach to be invaluable on a personal level.  It avoids the tendency we all have to just look for and see the evidence that supports our pre-existing beliefs.  The basic steps of this approach are to:

  1. Identify a wide range of competing hypotheses
  2. Gather evidence for and against each of these hypothesis
  3. Prioritize each hypothesis on the basis of evidence that disproves rather than proves it

There are many examples of beliefs that don’t reflect reality.  For example:

“I know horoscopes can predict the future… I’ve seen it happen.”

“Couples that adopt are more likely to conceive a child… this happened to two couples I know.”

Evidence of the type mentioned in these statements is certainly necessary for a belief to be true.  If a phenomenon exists, there must be some positive evidence of its existence – “instances” of its existence must be visible to oneself or to others.  But it should also be clear that such evidence is very hardly sufficient to warrant these beliefs.  Unfortunately, people do not always appreciate the distinction between necessary and sufficient evidence, and they can be overly impressed by data that, at best, only suggests that a belief might be true.

Consider the common belief that infertile couples who adopt a child are subsequently more likely to conceive.  A major reason for such unsupported beliefs is just paying attention to the instances that confirm the belief.  This is the easiest thing for the brain to deal with.  However, to adequately assess whether adoption leads to conception, it is necessary to compare the probability of conception after adopting:  a / (a + b), with the probability of conception after not adopting c / (c + d).  cells “a” and “d.”

Conceive 2×2

In addition, we exhibit a tendency to focus on positive or confirming instances when we gather, rather than simply evaluate, information relevant to a given belief or hypothesis.  When trying to assess whether a belief is valid, we tend to seek out information that would potentially confirm ours belief, over information that might disconfirm it.  This creates two kinds of self-fulfilling prophecies:

  • True self-fulfilling prophecies… in which a person’s expectation elicits the very behavior that was originally anticipated. For example, behaving in an unfriendly and defensive manner because you think someone is hostile will generally produce the very hostility that was originally expected.
  • Seemingly self-fulfilling prophecies… that alter another person’s world, or limit another’s responses, in such a way that is difficult or impossible for the expectations to be disconfirmed. For example, if someone thinks that I’m unfriendly, I might have little chance to correct that misconception because he or she may steer clear of me. Another example would be when little-league baseball players are thought to be incompetent only occasionally get to play… right field… providing few opportunities to overcome the unfortunate reputation.

In summary, I believe there are three interrelated and mutually reinforcing levers for generating more outstanding experiences in our lives: 1) Taking Purposeful Action, 2) Mastering Beliefs, and 3) Being Fully Present and Open.   I’m sure this will continue to be a field that we have a chance to continue to explore as we continue our work.  I’m looking forward to getting comments from any of the workshop participants who care to contribute.  And remember:

The quality of life is not measured by the number of breaths you take…

but by the moments that take your breath away!