Better Business Through Storytelling

When you tell a story, you’re not always writing it in a narrative format. With a business plan, financial statement, or presentation, you’re often presenting facts that don’t look like a narrative.

But people understand facts by placing them in the context of a narrative. So even if you’re not deliberately structuring a narrative, your audience is always constructing a narrative around the facts that you present.

This leaves you with a problem: Are they constructing the narrative you want?

It’s easy to confuse the facts with our interpretation of the facts, or to assume our story is the only one that can be derived from the facts. It can be helpful to present the facts without trying to load a story into them, if you are presenting to a safe audience that can give you a different perspective on the story.

But when you assume that the story you’re telling yourself is the one your audience will see, you may:

  • leave out key facts
  • fail to contextualize the facts
  • fail to adequately explain causes and effects
  • over-emphasize less-important points
  • fail to present a coherent picture

Another part of the problem is control, or presenting the facts in such a way that they tell the story you intend. If you’ve ever been confused by what was supposed to be a straight-forward movie, then you’ve experienced a storyteller who lacked control. It’s a skill that can take years to master.

But you can improve your skills with everyday storytelling, and as a result improve your impact both in your organization and in your everyday life. Here are some questions I tend to ask, intuitively as a storyteller, when I’m presenting to an audience.

  1. Do these facts present a beginning, middle, and end? For example, do they represent what we expected, the facts and methodology that changed our expectations, and the new direction we find ourselves taking?
  2. How do these facts draw us out of the ordinary day-to-day of life, i.e., the assumptions and routines that form the way we operate in our eight hours a day?
  3. Who is the hero of this story? In other words, whose action is most important to the outcome? Am I asking someone to help me, or am I trying to help someone else? (Whoever is being helped to achieve something is usually the hero–but be careful, you may be asking someone to help you help them.)
  4. If I am the hero of this story, what role is my audience playing? What intrinsic motivations and extrinsic rewards can I reference to encourage their involvement?
  5. If my audience is the hero of this story, why am I involved? What do I have to contribute to the hero’s quest, and why do I care so much about it?
  6. If a third party is the hero of this story, why is the story so important? What is our motivation to collaborate and elevate the third party? And why isn’t that third party involved in the telling you’re doing now?
  7. What are the obstacles ahead? What enemies must be defeated, what challenges must be overcome, what dangers have to be endured? How can we prepare the hero to surpass these obstacles?
  8. What is the future if the hero manages to overcome the obstacles? Is it worth the risk and the investment, not just for the hero, but for everyone in the story? (Remember not to appeal to extrinsic rewards except where intrinsic motivations aren’t enough to spur action.)
  9. Why? A story illuminates the reasons (or lack of reason) behind everything. So for every fact and every statement, ask the question, “Why?”

The more you practice looking for the story and contextualizing your facts, the more intuitive these ideas will become, and the better you will become at controlling the story others are seeing.

Once again, it’s not always a good idea to control the story. With a safe audience, it can be better to present straight facts to check whether the story they see is the same as the story you have in your head. We don’t always have the best or most accurate story. However, it’s also dangerous to present facts to an unsafe audience without knowing what story you’re telling and whether you’re telling it well.

Writing Your Founding Myth

Yesterday we examined the existing story of your organization. Today we’re going to explore how we can nudge that story into place to create a founding myth–the story that underlies the identity of any company, nation, team, or collective.

As much as Americans may disagree about the particulars, most of us have a shared respect for our founders and place emphasis on the values of liberty and equality. Today, this story includes the long fight to end slavery and grant equal rights to minorities. This is our founding myth: a particular telling of our history, with emphasis on the values that form our identity and the heroes who championed those values.

A large chunk of the Hebrew Bible contains what could be called Davidic mythology: from foretelling David’s kingship long before his birth, to calling upon his bloodline well after his death. The patron, YHWH, brought the people out of Egypt and into a new land, established the identity and values of the culture, and provided a model and hero in the form of King David. This myth sustained the identity of Israel and the Jewish people through multiple exiles, through Greek and then Roman occupations.

As you can tell from my short telling of these two stories, founding myths have important characteristics that help to shape a community:

  1. Shared origins. Your shared origins might stretch back to the founding of the organization, particularly if it was founded last week or last year. Or it might only stretch back to a particular turn in the organization’s history. I began working at KPMG in 2005, shortly after a tax-shelter scandal that resulted in a deferred prosecution agreement with the government. The narrative at the time hinged on that event: we were going to become the firm with the most integrity and the highest-quality work. Sure, we could have traced our origins to the 1800s and the four partners that make up the letters of the name, but that wasn’t the story we were telling; that wasn’t the firm we were trying to be. Our story was of a new beginning, of a murky past and a better future.
  2. Shared values. It’s no coincidence that the greatest philosophers, scholars, and scientists of ancient Greece lived and worked in Athens, the city of Athena. Out of all possible patron gods, its founders chose the goddess of wisdom–not the god of war to have a powerful military, the goddess of fertility to have abundant farmland, or the god of the forge to have unparalleled industry. The story of Athens defined the city’s key value, and elevated that value above many other perfectly good values. If you lead an organization, I urge you to pick one value above all others that is of special importance to this group of people. Then make sure it is embodied in your founding myth.
  3. Shared destiny. It’s never enough to simply share a past. In order to build a community, people have to believe in a shared future that follows from that past. Your shared destiny is the natural result of the values that call you out of your origins; the message is that all that is needed for you to go from where you were to this bright future is to embody your values. Often this destiny is something you know can be achieved because in your founding myth it has been achieved before: George Washington’s presidency, David’s kingship, Steve Jobs’ release of the iPhone. But if your organization is too new to have past successes, or if you’re overseeing a major shift in culture and values, focus on the promise of the future you are trying to achieve.

Through all of these, the operative word is “shared.” You can’t dictate a new future from on high; it has to be something that each person in your organization can believe, a destiny and a set of values that each individual wants to execute. Be aware that this may also be a way to cull your membership; those who aren’t interested in being a part of your shared story may not belong in your community.

Of course, the one thing this story is missing is a character. The character is a champion. The story isn’t about the champion–not really–but the champion breathes life into the ideas. She emerges from the shared past (like everyone else), embodies the shared values (like everyone can), and creates a shared destiny (by virtue of her embodiment of those values).

George Washington was a simple land owner who embodied the values of liberty and equality, led the military forces of rebellion, and eventually became the first President of the United States. David was a humble shepherd who embodied the values of piety and wisdom, overcame both the Philistines and the forces of Saul, and became the first in a long line of kings. Neither of these men were perfect even in the myths–in fact, being an ordinary, flawed human being is important. But because they embodied the shared values, they brought about a bright destiny for all their people.

You might in fact be the champion of your organization’s founding myth, like Jack Welch was at GE. But the myth isn’t about you, it’s about the collective identity.

Once you’ve laid out what you want your founding myth to be, you will need people to buy into it. But recognize that your founding myth is what the people in your organization believe it is. It’s the story they tell, not the story you tell. The closer your myth is to the story people are already telling, the better you will be able to convince them. But remain open to the possibility that your story will need to go through several revisions before everyone’s on the same page.

Discovering Your Current Story

It’s imprudent to write a completely new story for your organization without first discovering what your current story is.

“Wait,” you say. “My organization already has a story?”

Yes, O dear reader! Everyone in your organization, whether it’s two people or twenty thousand, is telling a story about it.

I’m not going to get into methodology. You could survey the members of your organization, you could bring them in and ask them, you could start a discussion thread. You might ask your clients or customers, or you might keep it within your business. But the questions you will need to answer are generally the same.

  1. What do people believe are the most important values of my organization? (Not just the words in our on-boarding materials, but the values they are expected to play out on a daily basis in every interaction.)
  2. What does my org value that distinguishes it from any similar organization? Why does it hold that value as important?
  3. Do my org’s people know why and how they are expected to embody those values? Can they tell the story of a hero or champion of my org’s values?
  4. Where do my org’s people expect the company to be in five or ten years? How does that image reflect the distinguishing values of my org?
  5. What role do they see themselves playing in the evolution of the org?
  6. Where do my people expect to be in five to ten years? What does that say about their individual values?
  7. What role do they see the org playing in their personal evolution?

At its core, these questions seek to get to the “why” of your organization and identify the story your people are telling themselves about it.

Once you have answered these questions, start to piece together the puzzle:

  • Where do my people believe my organization is coming from? In other words, what is the relevant historical context?
  • What values are calling my organization toward a different future? How are those values shaping the organization as it is today? (Remember values don’t always have positive effects–cost-efficiency may result in fear and territorialism, while innovativeness may result in inefficiency. What are the benefits and the costs, not just to the organization as a whole but to my people?)
  • Who is the champion of these values, the example my people think of when they are trying to decide how to execute the values of the organization?
  • What kind of future is this leading us into? Is the path leading upward, downward, or on the same level? What specifics can I glean about the future my people are working toward?

With these elements in place, you will have the most basic outline of your founding myth. The next step will be to reforge that myth into something better.