Business Narratives

Photo by: Clem Onojeghuo

For us, for example, having run our own consultancy for thirty years, the story of our business is an important aspect of our identities as executive coaches. In fact we’re so committed to this way of thinking that we’re currently writing a book to capture and describe what matters to us most in our work. The Story so Far will be available early next year.

We believe that leaders have a vital responsibility to shape the narrative of their businesses and determine the way forward.

The Power of Storytelling

Photo by: Dung Anh

Stephen Denning alerted us to this truth in his Harvard Business Review article, ‘Telling Tales’ in 2004. There he noted: ‘the ability to tell the right story at the right time is emerging as an essential leadership skill, one that can help managers cope with, and get business results in, the turbulent world of the twenty-first century.”

Denning went on to write a book that acts as an esential reference point for those of us who advocate the power of storytelling in organisations, The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative.

In his book Denning identified eight key ‘story patterns’ business leaders need to recognise and master:

  • Sparking action stories – describing how successful changes have been implemented in the past
  • Communicating who you are stories – providing audience‐engaging drama and revealing some strength or vulnerability from your past.
  • Transmitting values stories – creating familiar feelings in an audience, prompting deep discussion about the issues raised by the value being promoted.
  • Communicating your brand stories – told by the product or service itself, by the customer via word of mouth, or by a credible third party.
  • Fostering collaboration stories – Recounting situations listeners have experienced and prompting them to share their own stories about the topic.
  • Taming the grapevine stories ‐ Highlighting through gentle humor some aspect of a rumor that reveals it to be untrue or unreasonable.
  • Sharing knowledge stories – Focusing on problems and showing, in some detail, how they were corrected, with an explanation of why the solution worked.
  • Leading people into the future stories – Evoking futures you want to create without providing excessive detail that will prove to be wrong.

Denning’s story archetypes are a useful reminder of the range of stories it’s possible to tell. You can find more detail here.

But times change…

Winning the Story Wars

Now, over a decade later, another respected business thinker, Jonah Sachs, is telling us another tale in Winning the Story Wars: Why those who tell – and live – the best Stories will rule the future. In the book Sachs says that the best strategy in a crowded market – the place where the story wars are happening – is to weave compelling stories that people can believe.

Everywhere you look, you can see it in action – in advertising, on-line, on people’s websites, sometimes on the actual packaging – businesses are engaging customers by sharing their stories. Some, like Innocent Drinks and Apple, are famous for it. Others seek to refresh their brands through rediscovering their origins and reconnecting with their founding myths. The resulting rich, deep, authentic stories touch people, building emotional bridges between a brand and those who are looking for meaning and connection.

This is true of commercial organisations as well as those in the not-for-profit world. Rekindling the bold, ambitious dreams of those brave souls who started some of our greatest philanthropic ventures makes a lot of sense as an outreach strategy.

Sachs says ‘get your story straight’ as a business. For him there are three simple things organisations need to do:

  • Be interesting
  • Tell the truth
  • If you can’t tell the truth, change what you are doing so you can. In other words, live the truth

But, says Sachs, we are all prone to what he calls the five deadly sins, namely a bunch of shortcuts around telling great stories. These five deadly sins take us away from the clarity and honesty of the authentic story we have to tell:

  1. Vanity – when you love what you are selling so much that you assume everyone else should love it too
  2. Authority – when we believe in our own expertise and understanding so much we expect others to ‘get’ it
  3. Insincerity – when you so want others to get it that you forget your own characteristic distinctives and try to fit in at whatever cost
  4. Puffery – when, insecure as we are, we start blowing air into our product or service in the hope that it might look better than it is
  5. Gimmickery – when we have no real confidence in what we have to offer so we try adding stuff on to make it look better than it is

Think about your organisation’s story. How much of that story has been contaminated by irrelevant, inauthentic expressions that obscure the simple, honest message you want to convey?

The Simple Story Test

In contrast to those who perpetuate the five deadly sins, Sachs suggests our stories need to pass what he calls ‘the simple story test’. This test says that great stories always embody these five key characteristics:

  • They are TANGIBLE – they make ideas, concepts and information real, visible and understandable because they give things a human scale.
  • They are RELATABLE – they help their readers or audiences connect with them through embodying and expressing the values that matter to those who hear them.
  • They are IMMERSIVE – they draw people into the experience being narrated.
  • They are MEMORABLE – they use images and metaphors that people can grasp instantly, creating evocative points of connection that people will naturally remember.
  • They are EMOTIONAL – they reach out to people and touch them viscerally, in their gut, at a deeper level than mere data exchange.

Make the stories you tell about your product, service or organisation, change or initiative tangible and relatable. Immerse people in them, make them memorable, and ensure they connect with your audience’s deepest emotions.

Sachs then goes into a detailed thesis on what he calls ‘organisational archetypes’, namely pioneer, sage, rebel, jester, captain and muse. To be authentic as a brand you must choose the best archetype to fit your business, then build your story around that. Businesses embody values and intentions from their founding charters, and these characteristics make up its personality. Bearing this in mind, what does your business stand for?

If you’d like to find out more, here’s a link.

If you are a leader who wants to improve your story and the way that you communicate that narrative, call us.