"Every business has a storytelling ecosystem about it, whether they're intentional about it or not."
That's what expert storyteller Corey Blake told me during an interview, and it gave me pause. As a journalist, I'm supposed to be fairly good at storytelling, but how intentional, exactly, was our own business when it came to our "storytelling ecosystem?"
"A lot of times," he continued, "that story is defined by the market and the business' competition, not because they've gotten their own hands around it."
I was so busted. Not that Blake was being accusatory or singling me or my business out, but I saw that the reality of what he was saying applied very neatly to my startup's story.
There are consequences for a business not taking ownership of its story. Blake would know: he's the CEO and founder of Round Table Companies (RTC), a creative storytelling group based in Deerfield, Illinois, that specializes in experimental branded content. Their clients include Tony Hsieh and Zappos, and Terlato Wines International; RTC's work on the Dueling Pistols wine brand is how they came to my attention.
What are the consequences of a business not taking ownership of its story?
It can lose the true potential that its story has to magnetize. It can lose an opportunity to draw a community to it, and to help those people understand what it stands for.
That's the power of story. Specifically, it's the power of the origin story.
Here are two significant takeaways from this exercise that are relevant for any business that wants to take better ownership of its storytelling ecosystem.
Check how your "public story" aligns with your "real story."
Normally when I tell my business' origin story in front of audiences, it has to do with homing in on an opportunity. Namely, the opportunity in the wine world around a wealth of data and not enough smart usage of it.
Our origin story recognizes the ecosystem of our data partners, and how each one of them contributes a uniquely shaped piece of the wine consumer puzzle, and the story also recognizes the data analysis and interpretive skills of our core team, which I have always expressed as the ace up our sleeve.
I've told this story a hundred times. It seems to make good business sense, in that it identifies an unmet need and delivers the resources to fulfill it. It is, as Blake described, influenced and defined by the market and our competition.
It's a story that is 100 percent true.
Yet there's a completely different version of our origin story that is also 100 percent true, and it's one that emerged from a much more emotional, more vulnerable moment in my and my co-founder's lives.
He had recently and very unexpectedly been let go from the company that had employed him for some 20 years. Though we had long thought of having an "encore career" together that would merge his skill set and my own, the timeline for that enterprise suddenly hit fast forward. Very fast forward. Our business together was born just a few weeks later.
Whenever I tell this version of our origin story, usually in a much more personal environment, the response from listeners is significantly more empathetic, because they too have inevitably experienced some level of derailment of their professional lives.
It's an engaging story because it's relatable, but does it matter for our business? Doesn't the fact that we can get the job done successfully and exceptionally well matter more than the emotional circumstances out of which the business launched?
The jury, as they say, is still out. But going through the exercise of exploring the alignment of our "real story" with our "public story" (which is also "real") has raised our awareness of the vulnerabilities of business, as well as the humanity of engagement.
Storytelling is something you can learn, and must practice.
This isn't about telling stories for the sake of telling stories, or stringing your audience along with some fabulous, inauthentic tale. It's about understanding how story works, and how that's helpful for articulating your brand's past and, more important, its purpose.
For Blake and his team at Round Table Companies, this involves "essence work," which means drilling down to the most fundamental, essential things that make a person tick. Look for what people are running away from, Blake advises, and what they are running toward. Look, too, for what fears are driving them, and what ambitions.
It takes time and experience to listen to what is (and is not) being said, but it's worth the practice, both for yourself and your business.