Once upon a time in business

Once upon a time in business...

Storytelling isn't just for kids; it can focus and grow your company.

by David Napier

As the person who started your company, you remember the best of times and the worst of times... the spring of hope and the winter of despair... If only you could commit this heroic tale to paper and use your corporate story to bolster productivity and profits. You can.

But, when asked to explain what their company does and where it came from, most entrepreneurs and executives cite bland mission statements or trot out well-worn words such as "excellence", "leader" and "commitment". They don't realize that the daring and determination that went into building their business is what customers and clients want to hear about. People have always loved a great story, including ones about business. In fact, storytelling has been the cornerstone of commerce since that day thousands of years ago when an inventive caveman hung out his shingle and started grunting about the usefulness of his new fangled "wheel".

Today, the best business leaders put the emphasis on telling rather than selling, using well-crafted narratives to engage people's imaginations rather than simply grab for their wallets.

From Solomon to Spielberg, the greatest storytellers have been the most influential people in society. Their influence is based on an ability to mold language and images into compelling narratives that in turn shape public opinion, affect buying behaviour and entertain people.

Good stories are as important to the success of companies as they are to the entertainment of kids. Take the case of Nike. Does the company behind the ubiquitous swoosh sell basketball shoes or trade in the more exciting commodity known as 'hoop dreams'? Does Mercedes sell automobiles or put customers in four-wheeled symbols of status and luxury? Does Coca-Cola peddle soft drinks or provide refreshment? The common denominator in each answer lies with the impressive use of storytelling to connect a product or service to a well-targeted audience.

But telling a good corporate story is not the same as marketing, and it's not to be mistaken for public relations. It is about getting beyond the basic mechanics of storytelling (the how) to the motivation (the why) of the story; an exploration of why the audience will be sympathetic to the narrator's tale, especially when they have so many options from which to choose. In this regard, a good corporate story is not unlike a good movie script or well-written magazine article: a connection is made between the storyteller and his audience that is so strong it overrides what may be considered hard-and-fast rules. Witness the rise of hip hop, the popularity of magic realism in literature, and the advent of making one's diaries available online, known as "blogging" - each has broken the rules of what was once deemed 'good' or 'proper' storytelling on route to becoming an extremely popular form of communication.

Progressive execs at companies such as IBM, BMW and DKNY have broken with convention and are using creative ways of storytelling as a means of capturing customers' heads and hearts, while securing positions of prominence in increasingly crowded markets.

"The founders of companies, the heads of businesses units, and leaders throughout organizations are... driven by a clear premise. Just like storytellers, they convert ideas into action, bringing to life a dream that is filled with its own kind of truth," writes Richard Stone of the StoryWorks Institute in his essay The Self-Knowing Organization. "Without sharing our stories with others, it's nearly impossible for us to fully grasp who we are."

At the heart of any worthwhile story is a 'simple, recognizable truth'. Finding this nugget of veracity can be as easy as a laser eye clinic saying it offers 'better vision', but it is often a more challenging process; one that can be a tooth-pulling exercise for those executives who recoil at the suggestion of being honest about liabilities as well as assets, weaknesses as well as strengths. The best companies have the ability to turn tragedy into triumph. Think of Tylenol, Exxon, and even Coca-Cola and its ill-fated attempt to produce "new" Coke.

"Essentially, a story expresses how and why life changes," said highly acclaimed scriptwriter Robert McKee, in an interview with Harvard Business Review. "A beginning-to-end tale describing how results meet expectations is boring and banal."

Those that resist addressing the negative or tackling conflict should be reminded that the most effective 'truth tellers' are children. Kids say the darnedest things (as TV show hosts Art Linkletter and Bill Cosby found out) because they are usually telling an embarrassingly honest form of the truth, and doing so in a way that shocks and engages the listener.

The next essential ingredient is that the point of view adopted by the narrator - be it in a speech, article or corporate report - be expressed in such a way that the listener/ customer/client can see herself as a player in the unfolding drama. Stories have been called pathways to the soul. This means that in a corporate setting everyone, from the owner on down, needs to find their place in the 'heroic narrative' - if not as main protagonists, then in key supporting roles. If people can't see themselves as worthwhile contributors, a company's internal communications will falter and its external messaging will fail. Take the case of the builders:

A woman was walking along a street when she happened upon three men at work. She stopped and politely inquired of the first man what he was building. The man barely looked up as he growled, "Hey lady, can't you see I am layin' bricks?" The woman walked on a few yards and asked the next man the same question. The second builder stopped and said politely, "I am putting up a wall." The woman walked a little farther and asked the third man what he was building. This man stopped, rose from his knees and stepped back as he dusted off his hands. Then he looked up at his work and said proudly, "We are building a cathedral."

The moral of the story is, obviously, that understanding what we are doing requires perspective - and pride.

Not everyone can see the so-called 'big picture', but those who can are often fine examples of the 'crazed but not crazy' storyteller. Richard Branson of Virgin is the quintessential freewheeling entrepreneur (so much so that, at times, his antics threaten to overshadow the products and services his empire offers). Another wild storyteller who always takes center stage in his own corporate tale is Mark Cuban, the boyish dot.com billionaire who plunked down US$248 million to become the outspoken, often-fined owner of the Dallas Mavericks of the NBA. Both men make the prospect of buying their products and services exciting. Sure you can buy a plane ticket from British Airways, but Virgin will get you there in comfort and style. Why watch the Mavs on TV when you can be part of the show by simply going to the arena?

Finally, there is the heroic narrative. It is the story of the rise, fall and rise again of the business and the people who persevered to make it happen.

Unfortunately, most executives only want to talk about the positive things that have happened to their companies and will, only in an effort to put out a fire or stave off a public relations disaster (a la Tylenol, Exxon and Coke), address the negative aspects of their business. It is an ironic stance given that every great story has, at its heart, drama - a cliffhanger or moment of controversy - that ultimately makes the tale truly entertaining.

On his deathbed, stricken with a disease that had robbed him of his ability to speak, a dear friend of mine typed out a final message to me. It read: "Disaster is a breakdown in communication." Conversely, I think there are few things more beautiful than the ability and freedom to tell a wonderful story.

Businesspeople who appreciate the distinction between telling and selling have the opportunity to use a well-crafted corporate narrative as a means of motivating staff, engaging customers and increasing profits. Best of all, the progressive executive will appreciate that stories told with passion and imagination have the ability to shape lives, improve societies, and build better businesses.

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