Once upon a time, constructing a compelling company story might have seemed like a nice-to-have. But, increasingly, being able to effectively convey the tale of your business – to both customers and staff – is becoming an integral part of success. Director meets the experts to find out why
Once it was the cave wall and the campfire, now it’s the flatscreen TV and the social media platform: but it’s as true today as it was 20,000 years ago that humans love nothing more than a good story.
And, in an era of dwindling concentration spans – 55 per cent of all web page views get an average of 15 seconds of engagement, according to research in 2014 by US analytics firm Chartbeat – business leaders are waking up to just how powerful a punch a compelling narrative packs when it comes to engaging audiences and forging emotional bonds.
In other words, strategic storytelling is not just the latest fluffy corporate buzzword – it’s an emerging business imperative.
The commercial might of a narrative thread was neatly demonstrated last year when Keith Quesenberry, a social media marketing professor at Johns Hopkins University, published the results of two years’ analysis of 108 Super Bowl commercials.
He found that people responded better to ads with the kind of dramatic story arcs favoured by William Shakespeare, involving elements such as exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement (“People think it’s all about sex or humour or animals, but what we’ve found is that the underbelly of a great commercial is whether it tells a story or not,” Quesenberry said).
US academics have also come up with scientific backing for the notion that a good yarn engages more effectively than reams of data.
Self-proclaimed ‘neuroeconomist’ Paul J Zak’s research indicates that our brains produce feel-good chemicals oxytocin and dopamine in response to a well-paced narrative.
“People are substantially more motivated by their organisation’s transcendent purpose (how it improves lives) than by its transactional purpose (how it sells goods and services),” he writes.
Which all points to the fact that being able to construct, and then convey, your company’s story in a compelling manner is now a major priority for leaders in the modern business arena.
“Stories are probably the oldest form of communication, bar gesture,” says Rob Wilson, the director of strategy and creativity at creative marketing agency RPM, “and one of the reasons companies’ stories are powerful is because they offer a glimpse of the humanity of a business. People find it much easier to connect with a human story.”
According to Wilson, a compellingly told narrative – “When I’ve seen brands get it wrong, they’ve tried to tell it in a tone of voice that just doesn’t suit them, or in a tone of voice that isn’t distinctive or differentiating,” he says – is particularly important for start-ups.
“Whether you’re talking about business to business or business to consumer, people find it very easy to absorb a story quickly, remember it and relate it to other people, because they’re linear,” he says.
“If, on the other hand, I was to list the 15 benefits of using my company as a cobbled-together bunch of bullet points, who will remember them?”
Award-winning speechwriter, business communication specialist and director of UK Body Talk, Richard Newman, agrees.
“Stories can be used to demonstrate the essence of a company, the values of its founder and what it stands for,” he says. “They can give inspiration to entrepreneurs, reassurance to clients and motivation to staff.”
Newman has a decent narrative himself, having learnt the power of non-verbal communication during a six-month spell in a Tibetan monastery with monks who spoke no English, and then perfected his techniques by delivering the same presentation to a Formula 1 team’s sponsors more than 1,000 times over five years.
Invariably, though, the best company stories have compelling formats that have captured people’s imaginations in different cultures around the world since time immemorial: Steve Jobs and his friend Steve Wozniak building the first Apple computer in Jobs’ parents’ garage, for example, follows the rags-to-riches format which gave the world Cinderella, Aladdin and Oliver Twist.
Meanwhile, the classic struggle against adversity is neatly embodied in Sir Richard Branson’s oft-told yarn about Virgin Atlantic being founded during a fit of frustration at being stranded in an airport when his flight got cancelled, and deciding to hire a plane and sell tickets to passengers who wanted a better service.
Keeping it real
But the fact that well-established story arcs are the most powerful doesn’t mean one should be tempted to bend the truth.
“There’s no point in fabricating a Disney-like fairytale,” says Newman, citing a 2010 TED talk during which American academic Brené Brown outlined the power of expressing one’s vulnerability in establishing stronger connections with others.
“It also needs a structure that compels people to listen. It’s about knowing which parts to keep in – those that fully demonstrate who you are and what drives you – as well as which to leave out. You should also include any breakthrough or ‘a-ha!’ moments.”
Based on Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey – a study which demonstrated how Hollywood giants from Alfred Hitchcock to Steven Spielberg to Quentin Tarantino have used mythic structure to create powerful stories – Newman has created a structure companies can use to portray their narrative as a hero’s journey.
Components include a challenge to overcome (the villain); a goal or vision (the hero’s mission); three stages of achieving it (“people love the concept of three in stories – hence The Three Musketeers and so on”) and a satisfactory conclusion.
“Other companies may have similar products or prices, but they do not have your story,” asserts Newman, adding that, for this reason, leaders telling their own company stories face to face packs a greater punch.
“We want to feel the story from you, not just read about it. Your story can give people a reason to care about and trust you, because it gives them a sense of who you are, where you have been and where you are going.”
Getting your story into shape and projecting it into the world – whether verbally, via your website, or through other media – is one thing, but another area of strategic narrative which is rising in prominence is the weaving and instilling of the business journey in-house, to promote morale, bonding, motivation and a sense of purpose among staff.
The intended result is that people inside an organisation not only grasp their company’s story and purpose to date, but actively play a role in plotting and sub-plotting the narrative of its present and future.
“A beginning-to-end narrative flow will instil company values and attitudes into staff far more effectively than a disjointed raft of messages about vision, values, mission and strategy,” says Alison Esse, marketing director of The Storytellers, a consultancy which creates bespoke programmes for the use of narrative to unlock potential in the workplace.
“We help create culture change and engagement by coaching leaders on how they can have these conversations with their teams around the story, and start to generate ideas for better ways of working in service of that narrative, and share stories of success that can be spread across the organisation.”
So what exactly makes a good story? “A really solid story is one that is simple and clear, reasonably top line, compelling and credible,” she says.
Sometimes, the stories seem to write themselves: Esse cites the example of staff at an American hotel chain who, having learnt that a child who was visiting regularly with his father was undergoing chemotherapy at a nearby hospital, shaved their heads in solidarity.
The incident was more than a heart-warming anecdote: it reiterated the company’s broader narrative – in this case, its commitment to genuine, benevolent customer care.
While asserting the power of narrative to boost morale – especially following internal tension due to disrupting factors such as a takeover or redundancies – Esse, like Newman, insists that leaders should be wary of sacrificing authenticity in pursuit of a good story.
“If you have a whitewash – this rosy picture of the future, a land of milk and honey – people won’t believe it,” she says. “There are cynics in any organisation, and if they can’t relate it to their own experiences, then it doesn’t hold any credibility.
It’s actually very damaging to the senior management team, because it doesn’t reflect well on them or inspire trust or a sense of being in it together.”
Tangible results from telling a company story
An example of Esse’s approach involved UK packing giant DS Smith, which called in The Storytellers to help manage the 2012 acquisition of larger rival SCA Packaging – a move which doubled the size of the organisation to some 22,000 employees.
Having calculated, using figures from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, that the takeover of an organisation of 1,000 employees is likely to result in a cost of £1.3m from employee turnover, DS Smith wanted the move executed with minimum disruption to staff contentment and cohesion.
“When you complete an acquisition it’s like dealing with a tsunami,” business development director Gary Saunders later explained. “We spent months planning in advance, culminating in a major meeting for our top 200 leaders three days after completion.
For this, our senior leadership team worked closely with The Storytellers to craft a compelling visual narrative of our vision for the future.”
How did the takeover pan out? “We didn’t lose a single customer due to integration issues, and… at a recent conference, a leader new to the business commented that it was impossible to tell who was ex-DS Smith and who was ex-SCA Packaging.”
Another UK company, creative communications agency Avvio Reply, was asked by tyre manufacturer Michelin to transform its UK vision into a story.
Having interviewed 40 personnel – from management to shop floor – it created an illustrated map depicting the company’s domestic raison d’être, including community initiatives and sales and manufacturing, plus international expansion plans.
Meanwhile, Nadia Conway Rahman of business change consultancy Afiniti helped a UK rail infrastructure business create a positive narrative when the old-style mechanical boxes that comprised its Victorian signalling system were replaced by a vast, single control room.
“It was a massive change in terms of getting people who were comfy on their beautiful islands to move to a windowless technology centre,” she says.
“We tackled it by putting change in the context of history – that the massive changes the railways have undergone every 50 years never spell the end of the world: in order to serve the nation it had to go through this stuff. It positions the people doing it as heroes.”
Key to a constructive narrative, says Conway Rahman, is a sense of adventure – which means including what the risks are.
“This is the difficult part with senior people – they don’t want to talk about the fact that people are going to lose their jobs and if we don’t make it, everything’s going to end,” she says, “but unless you have that there’s no excitement in the story.”
One company story
Conway Rahman says embedding a coherent narrative does more than shore up internal morale: it inevitably rebounds outwards, too.
“Aligning people around an internal, co-created message – people need to feel it’s their story – makes it easier to communicate that message to customers. Everyone in the company’s telling the same story.”
Jeremy Humphries, a BBC-trained director of photography who runs Skills2Film – which trains businesses to produce compelling filmed content – agrees with Rahman:
“I know of a UK company that has offices within just a few square miles of each other. A couple of their staff, who were always keen to have a go at making movies, now shoot a weekly news story streamed out via the company intranet,” he says.
“The directive was for colleagues to know what every department was doing. The two employees have been so successful, they now put their video content on the company YouTube channel – it’s not just employees who benefit: you can take your message to the customers.”
Rahman says this rebound effect can go beyond customers: “There are so many channels to market now, including employees talking to friends and families. On social media, as brand names are tagged, there’s a vast network of human interaction. Anything you write for a business audience, you’ve got to write it for a human audience so that people will discuss it with families and friends.”
All of which suggests that getting a grip of the plot should become the latest chapter in your company’s own story.
Strategic storytelling in numbers
34 The number of years journalist Christopher Booker spent working on The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories, a monumental book, released in 2004, linking the storylines of ancient myths, folk tales, plays, novels, popular movies and TV soap operas
39 The amount, in US dollars, Richard Branson charged fellow passengers stranded in the British Virgin Islands for a flight he’d chartered to Puerto Rico. The Virgin Atlantic story was born
15 The number of seconds 55 per cent of web page views last, according to research last year by US analytics firm Chartbeat
To watch expert videos on the art of storytelling, visit youtube.com/futureofstorytelling