Lately, storytelling has become such a buzzword that famed designer Stefan Sagmeister recorded this scathing video, mocking a rollercoaster designer who called himself a storyteller. The moral of his harsh intervention: not everyone is a storyteller (nor do they need to be). But this doesn't change the fact that one should acquire some basic form of narrative literacy in business.
Reduced to their core, every single communicative act of a company (from mission statement to value proposition to workshops and meetings) is a story and follows the stages described by Christopher Booker in his book, The Seven Basic Plots: from Anticipation and Dream to Frustration, Nightmare, and eventually Resolution. How the story plays out depends on the kind of story type you find yourself in and what you make of it: e.g. David vs. Goliath, rebirth, quest, comedy, or tragedy.
It helps to keep these archetypes in mind so you can recognize the small and big dramas of everyday business and design stories as the underlying structure of all interactions with colleagues and customers. "Leadership is the art of inspiring others to make a story come true," storytelling coach Andy Raksin once put it. This is particularly important with regards to leading a company. Venture capitalist Ben Horowitz proclaims: "The company story is the company strategy."
The stories we tell ourselves
But it's not just the company story. In business, you're entangled in a web of stories that inadvertently affect all of your actions. In fact, you are constantly surrounded by at least four types of stories:
- The story your company tells (your company story)
- "The story others tell about your company when your company is not in the room" - Jeff Bezos (your company brand)
- The story you tell about yourself (your personal story)
- The story others tell about you when you are not in the room (your personal brand)
Your company story and your brand don't need to be 100 percent congruent, but if there is more discrepancy than overlap, then you have a serious credibility issue in the marketplace (take Yahoo! or Volkswagen). The same is true if your personal story and brand don't match: reputation management is nothing but the constant effort to reduce the distance between the two.
Similarly, if your personal story does not correspond at all with the company story, you will likely suffer from a lack of purpose and intrinsic motivation. And if your personal story is at odds with your company's brand, then your integrity is at risk and you might want consider jumping ship.
Understand your customers' desires
So far, so good, but as a business it's not just about your story and how it is perceived; the more important story is that of your customer: his or her dreams and desires, his or her self-perception as opposed to third-party perception; in other words, who they are and who they would like to become, how they are seen and how they would like to be seen. Aside from merely functional benefits, these psycho-emotional features of your offering are the narrative landscape you should cultivate and shape (especially because it is also increasingly prone to algorithmic manipulation).
In effect, this adds two more stories (or four, if you're in a B2B market and your customer is an enterprise) to the grid:
- The story your customer tells about himself or herself (their personal story)
- The story others tell about them when they are not in the room (their personal brand)
- The story their company tells (their company story)
- The story others tell about their company when their company is not in the room (their company brand)
Think of these eight stories as overlapping maps. If all these eight fully match, you have no business and you won't be able to sell anything, because there is no need for change. If they are miles apart, you have no business either, as you are neither credible nor relevant. What you should be striving for is perfect incongruence. In fact, perfect incongruence will give you something even more valuable than credibility and relevance: it will make you desirable.
But how do achieve this incongruence? How do you navigate this complex web of stories and manage the ever changing gravity between them? Start with your own personal or company story and ask yourself the three meta-questions that the novelist Aditi Khorana identified as the three arcs of every story in a recent talk:
Who am I?
What do I want?
What must I do to attain it?
And then apply this roster to the other seven stories that matter to your business and to you as a leader. Everybody has intuitive answers to these questions, although they may not always be able to articulate them. It will be an eye-opening exercise and help you identify those opportunity spaces that are critical for inspiring employees and customers alike.
Use stories to humanize
There's a growing number of narrative analytics companies, such as the San Francisco-based Protagonist, that offer narrative insights based on scanning massive amounts of data. But data is always only half of the truth. While it enables you to grasp third-party perceptions (and your perceived relevance in the market), it will not help you understand the interior of your own story. You can't control any of the eight stories that form your narrative landscape, but your own story is the only one you can constantly change, thus shining a different light on the others. It requires more than data--imagination.
Stories needs humans, stories make us human. As data seeks to objectify everything, stories uphold the possibility of an inner truth, a deeper, emotional reality that defies evidence and allows us to feel more. As most digital technology aims to enhance convenience and effortlessness, stories bestow meaning on those efforts that are invisible, inconvenient, and lack concrete outcomes. And as the market rewards those who win--often at all cost--stories can honor those who lose.
Stories inscribe values and are the most effective bulwark against the persistent temptation to fully surrender to the logic of numbers. Stories are how ideas travel and how we form relationships and meaning. Without stories, there is no empathy and therefore no innovation. Stories are the oldest human technology, and for the foreseeable future they will remain the most exponential.
If you haven't told yours, now would be a good time.