Messages and stories (2)

I dislike business fashions, and storytelling has been hovering on the edge of business fashion for a few years now. When I first came across it I had some pretty serious doubts, not least because the way it was being discussed made it difficult to see what it was actually for.

I still have some of that scepticism. All the same I’ve come to think there’s something here that could be useful.

I guess that one of the reasons why stories tend to be more memorable than messages is that we make them our own. If we like a story we’ll repeat it to others, in our own words of course, but trying to preserve the essence of the thing. We don’t confuse the story with our own lives, but if it makes sense to us, then that’s a sense we’ll pass on to others.

For organisations trying to understand their identities this immediately looks like a more promising tool than the ubiquitous and invariably bland vision and values. Visions and values are usually wish lists, which is why they usually look the same (and feel imposed), but to build a corporate story means thinking about where the business has really come from, trying to understand what makes it tick over, as well as what could make it accelerate forward.

This demands quite a subtle exercise. Understanding the story demands a degree of internal scrutiny, though I think here I’d differ from common business storytelling practice, which would typically get together groups of employees and encourage them to tell the corporate story as they saw it. Presumably this is partly to look for common elements in their different stories, but is partly too about securing commitment to the notion of a corporate story. I worry that this is putting the cart before the horse, because you are going to have to do quite a lot more work before you’re ready to start telling the corporate story. You’ll need to talk to representative stakeholders internally and externally, building a picture of the organisation’s strengths and weaknesses, with an emphasis on where it has come from, on what makes it what it is for better or worse. You can do this much as you’d do standard brand development research.

Then you need to sit down and work out what story it is that you need to tell. This is very much about making sense of the business: you don’t have a free hand, because you need to attend to the history of the organisation and how it influences current perceptions. You need to consider how the story you might want to tell is rooted in the historic narrative. Storytelling is about weaving disparate elements into a coherent and compelling whole.

What such stories would look like, and how they could work, I will explore in a further instalment.

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