Messages and stories 3

It’s been a longer gap than I’d intended, and I promised to conclude these reflections on messages so will, but I’m aware of how  far I’ll only be touching the tip of an iceberg.

I’ll start by asking how this notion of a corporate story would differ from the usual vision and values stuff?

In the first place with a good story it should be more obvious what all this is for. That’s got to be a stark contrast to standard corporate “value” lists which in reality aren’t values at all: more often they are attributes, and if you’re going to be that slack with the language you use at this level then how can you expect people to think about what you might really mean? There’s also a ready tension between theoretical “corporate values” and the actual personal values by which we all live. Do we really have to take these corporate values on board personally, or are they really guides to desired behaviour? But if that’s what they are then why confuse people with an incorrect label? Why not just be direct in telling people what you’re doing and what you expect of them?  

The point of a corporate story is to create something which, without depending on any particular form of words, offers a reference point from which people can judge their own actions. When you try to frame the story you’re looking to find and tell a truth about the organisation, about what’s really good in it. I said in my last post that the story needs to be rooted in the historic narrative, and that’s important because the story is about identity, and how you can play to the true strengths you have.

You’ll be looking at all the different things that have made the organisation what it is and see how they fit together. Some things won’t fit, and that will be enlightening in itself. This effort is likely to involve some understanding of the history of the organisation and also how it’s changed. For instance, for HP the legend of its founding in a shed is important, but so too is a sense of how that legend was left behind when the business merged with Compaq (I’m deliberately using an example here of a company I know little about).

The story will need to be written down, in the first place because that’s going to be part of the process through which it’s developed, and because senior people need to understand and accept it: they need to be part of that development. But it’s unlikely to be published in that written form. It’s a story which needs to be told, and as it gets told the words will change and different parts of it will be pushed forward in different contexts. This needs to be done all the time, but because the words will change people should not feel the same old “message” is being pushed down their throats. 

And the story will need to evolve with the business. Sometimes you might even need to start a new chapter.

Why is all this important? Through stories we try to make sense of our experience, to give it coherence in the form of a beginning, a middle and a developing end. That seems to me a better tool for managing the evolution of an organisation than a dubiously imposed brand identity. It also allows people to see their place in the story without feeling their personal identities are involved.

It recasts the role of the professional communicator. That role is usually understood to mean something about crafting given messages for given audiences, but in this context it’s the communicator’s task to understand the disparate elements of the story, and see how (and if) they can be brought together, and then help people to spread the word. 

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