The best stories grab us by the heart. They carry a truth that speaks to us on a personal level. These are the page turners that keep us coming back for more; the stories that we cherish and the stories that we can’t wait to share.
But there’s storytelling and then there’s “corporate storytelling”. Kendra Eash’s parody This is a Generic Brand Video along with Dissolve’s version of that video, exposes some of the worst, cliche-ridden examples of this.
Undoubtedly, there are some big problems with corporate storytelling. The first is with the very phrase itself: it seems to imply that stories about our organisations – about who we are, where we’ve come from and what we’re trying to achieve – are somehow a breed apart from other types of stories. It’s dangerous because of what it can so often lead to. It’s so easy for organisations to drift into a form of “corporate speak”; a formulaic way of talking about themselves that says nothing about who they really are.
AI and learning expert Roger Schank described the further problem; that there quite simply isn’t enough storytelling. It’s due partly to the fact that we’re in an era that Schank refers to as the “age of documents”:
“Now, 20 stories may be hidden in a single document and all the typically fun and memorable details that should have been in there may be encoded in a way that is neither memorable nor findable”.
Since the cavemen, stories are how we learn from each other; how we inspire, impart advice and encourage others to understand our point of view. So storytelling shouldn’t be confined to your brand video or ‘’About’ page. Think of all those case studies on your website. Think about that upcoming presentation for would-be stakeholders. Think about your welcome pack for new starters.
What’s memorable about them? What’s the point? Where’s the story?
No-one expects you to come up with your own version of War and Peace or Citizen Kane. But we should all be thinking a little deeper about where our stories lie; about opportunities for using them and how to make them the best that they can be.
So what makes a great story? Here are four lessons from the masters of the craft.
They create a world you can believe in
As well as being the year that Steven Spielberg turns 70, 2017 is also the 40th anniversary of his masterpiece, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Fresh from his Jaws success, Spielberg had a massive budget at his disposal and could draw upon the world’s best talent in terms of special effects. In Spielberg’s greatest storytelling, it works because people “go to the beach oblivious of the shark; they tidy up the kitchen without noticing the alien in the house”. It’s not the flashy set pieces that make the film a classic; it’s not because Spielberg is great at doing aliens – but because he’s a master at portraying humanity.
“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.” – Robert McKee, creative writer
As The New Yorker highlighted, Spielberg “turns us into participants, sometimes wary participants”. And you only have to look at these early films (Close Encounters, Jaws, E.T.) for an insight on how he does it. Getting the detail right, creating a setting that’s familiar before introducing something terrifying or awe-inspiring: that’s how it’s done.
Take the outdoor gear specialist, Patagonia. In their “Worn Wear” initiative they focus not on their most exciting products, but on everyday items; a pair of board shorts and a child’s romper suit, for instance. The company realises that it’s the stories surrounding these items; of how they are used in ‘real life’ and what they mean to real people that have the power to move an audience, not the items themselves.
Will your audience relate to what it is you are trying to tell them? Can they see themselves using your product? Does it seem real?
The characters are unforgettable
Why is it that Samsung has customers – whereas Apple has followers? To help answer, try this: ask around your office to see who has heard of Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Tim Cook. Then ask who can name a single exec who works – or has ever worked at Samsung.
Companies are vehicles; it’s the people behind them who carry your story. The story of Apple starts with two people and a vision of what home computing should look like. The story of Mattel begins with a pair of picture framers who decide to make dolls houses from frame scraps.
The 2007 financial crash isn’t a story. But the account in The Big Short of a disparate band of fund managers and small-time traders who second-guessed what was happening; there’s the story.
Likewise, the fact that your sales are up by a quarter this year; that’s not a story – more like ‘company news’ at best. Will this stat in itself be enough to bring you new customers? A few perhaps; but not many.
But how about the tale of that one customer whose life was transformed by your latest offering? Or the account manager who went above and beyond the call of duty to understand what the client really needed? It’s only once you add characters into the mix that the story starts to fly.
You can’t wait to find out what happens next
Charles Dickens was the master of the serial novel. His work tends to be episodic in the best possible sense because of the way in which it was distributed; bit by bit in magazines and journals. Reading a bound edition in its complete form was essentially the Victorian equivalent of bingeing on a box set.
“The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.” – Mary Catherine Bateson
By its very nature, your story is unfolding all the time. For your company to stay on track, it needs to have that unputdownable element – and this is where things can come unstuck. Even Tolkien and the masters of fantasy realised that stories stop working if completely unforeseeable plot twists are explained away by shouting “because magic”. True ‘unputdownability’ requires internal logic as much as it demands novelty.
We recently talked about how companies need to walk the tightrope between constancy and innovation – and of how customers are constantly demanding “more of the same please – only different”. From a storytelling perspective, if you fail to move the plot along, or equally, if you take a plot twist that’s totally at odds with what you stand for, you’ll find your audience will start to drift away.
You can hear it time and again – and always be moved
We all have a handful of films or books that we come back to time and again. Often, the narrative – or aspects of it – mean different things to us at different times of our lives. We look at it in a fresh light and discover hidden gems.
In some organisations, the raw subject matter of the stories it tells, rarely changes over time. Take the National Trust for instance. It’s hardly in a position to roll out ‘cutting edge new service offerings’ each year. So does this mean that its stories are staid or dull?
Not at all.
The organisation has developed a reputation as a storytelling master, precisely because of its ability to remind us of key aspects of its story in fresh ways. Its new initiative reminds us that it’s not just “a provider of days out at stately homes”, stressing that its core purpose is a conservation charity – and how members can be part of that cause.
With campaigns such as ‘50 Things To Do Before You’re 11 3/4’, it’s not changing the core narrative or ditching parts of its identity; it’s shining a light on the best parts of that story and making itself more relevant than ever.
Think about where the opportunities are for storytelling within your organisation. Put real people – you, your team, your customers – at the heart of that story. Make the plot credible and consider new ways to keep that narrative fresh. You’ll soon have people hanging on to your every word, and itching to know what happens next.