Some people hate being asked the question “what do you do?” But I love it. Because I have such an odd job title, it’s always exciting to see how each new person reacts when I tell them what I do.
“Storyteller?,” they’ll say, their brow furrowed. “So, like, you read stories to children?”
Not exactly. Although storytelling has become the hottest buzzword in business, most people still think of stories as something only appropriate for kindergarten. In a way, they’re right, of course — stories are the way that we, as children, came to perceive the world. But there’s more to it. Stories are dynamic, creative, all-encompassing. They help us integrate what we think about the world with how we feel.
Many business people, however, are dead set on interpreting storytelling as something exclusively to do with marketing. Don’t make this make! Instead, explore the enormous opportunity that comes from a more insightful, more impactful and deeper understanding of storytelling.
Yes, this is storytelling. But it’s not what I do.
WHAT IS A STORY?
When I speak at conferences or lead workshops for corporate groups, I always begin my sessions by asking this very basic question: What is a story? Then, I look hopefully towards the crowd, holding my marker poised above the whiteboard.
Seriously, what is a story? People chuckle. Everybody knows what a story is, right? Then why is it so hard to express a simple definition? Finally, someone bold breaks the silence. “A story is a series of events.” Great. I write that on the whiteboard. What else? “A story makes us feel things.” (I write “All the Feelings” on the whiteboard.) Now people are feeling loose, and the ideas come fast and furious. A story is news, but it’s also dreams, but it’s also fact and fiction too. In fact, there are millions upon millions of definitions of a story — because there are so many different types of stories in the world.
Here’s my definition: a story is the relationship with which we perceive, experience, comprehend and engage wth the world.
A story is the relationship with which we perceive, experience, comprehend and engage with the world.
Yes, copywriting, video production, website design and branding are all elements of storytelling. But they’re not — pardon the pun — the whole story. Because in the same way that Game of Thrones immerses its viewers in a fantastical world full of characters, emotional relationships, histories and possibilities, a business engages its employees and customers with a sense of who they are and might one day be.
Mining the integrated depths of your story helps release its motivational aspects — motivation that can be readily created through the authentic resonance of emotional connection.
Don’t make this your organizational story.
AN INTEGRATED APPROACH TO ORGANIZATIONAL STORYTELLING
Think about what happens when you watch a movie. Something’s happening there on the screen. (We can call that the plot, or the “exterior” perspective.) But something’s also happening inside of you. And what’s happening inside you is deeply personal. You like the actor. You hate the actor. You’re engaged by the action. You think love stories are sappy. Whatever is happening in your own psychological and emotional world — what we can call your “interior” perspective — is going to determine whether you enjoy the movie or think it’s trash.
But there’s more than just your thoughts and feelings. Maybe you’re at the theatre with your kids, and your kids are enraptured with seeing Frozen for, like the fiftieth time. Even though you’re not that into it, you’d probably feel happy that your kids are entertained. In a sense, the enjoyment of your kids has become as important as your own entertainment. We could call that the “collective” perspective. You’d feel much differently about the same film if you were watching on Netflix, home alone.
How does this apply to your organizational story? Check out this graphic, which comes from Frederic Laloux’ wonderful book, Reinventing Organizations:
- the tangible, public, exterior world in which a business operates;
- the intangible, intimate, internal world where employees engage with their own thoughts, sensory experiences, learned biases and emotions;
- an individual’s perspective within the complex system of the organization;
- an individual’s perspective as a representative of both the organization as a whole, and one or more groups/divisions within that organization.
We get this implicitly. When someone asks you what do you do?, you might say I work for Business XYZ. If that same person then asked what do you do?, you might say I’m a Marketer for Business XYZ. If that same person asked, again, what do you do?, you might say I’m a brand manager for Product ABC, and I manage a team of 4 people. If that same person — now, being really annoying, asked, again, what do you do?, you might say, I’m building my brand management and leadership skills, in hopes of one day running my own business.
All four of these answers are equally “true”. But each answer addresses the question from a slightly different perspective.
All four of these answers are equally “true”. But each answer addresses that question from a slightly different perspective.
So which one is your “story”?
Trick question. All of them.
This is me. Am I a storyteller? A marketer? A therapist? An HR consultant? Yes.
SO WHICH APPROACH IS BEST?
You guessed it. Another trick question.
Each of the four approaches listed above are equally valid. The one you’ll choose will depend on how you feel about the person you’re speaking to. If it’s some stranger you meet on the subway, you’ll probably be brief. If you’re at a networking event, you’d probably be more specific about your role in the organizational structure, in hopes of making business.
If it’s your best friend or your therapist, you’re most likely to give the “real” answer that ties together where you’re at now with what you hope for the future.
Here’s the thing, though. If all four answers are equally true, then you can’t deliver one without delivering all of them simultaneously. You can say to that stranger, oh, I work for company XYZ, but in your answer — in the way you hold yourself, in your tone of voice, in the way you dress, and in a thousand more subtle clues, you’ll be telling them what you really think about your job and your ambitions for the future.
Sure, some people won’t notice, and will take you at face value. But if you would notice, then chances are most other people will notice as well.
“I guarantee you there’s no problem.” Sure, Donald.
INTEGRATED STORYTELLING EXAMPLES FROM REALLY, FABULOUSLY SUCCESSFUL BUSINESSES
An organizational story acts the same way as your personal story. Professional communicators can highlight one or more of the four quadrants listed in that image above. However, if the story is going to feel “authentic”, then the story must resonate with all four quadrants simultaneously.
Here are some examples of brands who have done that well:
- Brands like Tesla, Facebook and Apple market themselves based on the values of their visionary leaders. It’s impossible to think of Apple without thinking of Steve Jobs, his black turtleneck, his “One More Thing…” That framework has become an archetype which has been followed by the next generation of tech entrepreneurs.Apple is a perfect example of an organizational story based on one individual’s beliefs and mindsets.
- Brands like Southwest and Zappos, on the other hand, differentiate themselves based on the behaviour of their employees. Very few people know the name of Southwest’s CEO. But everyone knows that Southwest is the fun, comfortable anti-airline airline. Zappos 10 Core Values are their product — the shoes they sell are just the mechanism used to connect culture to customers. These are both examples of storytelling that highlights a company’s employee behaviours.
- Some brands make their name by telling us about their internal business process. For example, who hasn’t heard about how Google lets its employees dedicate 20% of their time to work on personal projects? Or that internal teams measure psychological safety? Or that the Googleplex is full of organic food, dynamic, modular workspaces and enormous donuts? Google’s story is its way of working — an example of business storytelling based on structures, systems and processes.
- Some brands make a point of selling who they are. For example, every new employee at the outdoor company Patagonia receives a copy of founder Yvon Chouinard’s book “Let My People Go Surfing” as a way of reminding them that the business isn’t about selling things, it’s about becoming something. In fact, Patagonia once went so far as to say to its customers “Don’t Buy This Jacket“, as a way of highlighting its higher purpose of protecting the environment. Of course, people did end up buying the jacket — and got drawn into what Simon Sinek calls the Why. Ben & Jerry’s is another company that sells a perspective embedded into its product. These are both examples of storytelling based on inward looking organizational cultures.
One organizational culture I can get behind. Yum.
INTEGRATION CREATES AUTHENTICITY
Each of these storytelling examples works because the stories are truly integrated into all aspects of the business. As an example, let’s consider Patagonia’s Don’t Buy This Jacket campaign.
Recall our Storytelling diagram for a moment:
That single campaign demonstrated all aspects of Patagonia’s story
- “we believe in reducing our environmental footprint” (individual-interior)
- “we actively make choices that will make the world better for our kids” (individual-exterior)
- “we integrate renewable practices into our organizational systems” (collective-exterior)
- “and, we’re willing to lose money to stand up for what we believe in” (collective-interior)
If any of these four components was untrue, then the campaign would have come off as inauthentic or phony. But the campaign reflected how Patagonia actually worked. As a result, it helped galvanize the organization’s growth, while preserving its cultural values.
Because the campaign reflected howPatagonia actually worked, it helped galvanize the organization’s growth while preserving its cultural values.
A happy storyteller.
HOW TO FIND YOUR STORY
Normally, my clients come to me with what a doctor might call a “presenting symptom”. They need a new website, or a new corporate slogan, or storytelling training, or a more compelling way of framing their products or services. But I know something they don’t. Symptomatic problems reflect deeper inconsistencies. My first step is always getting to the heart of what the story is all about.
This is the most unscientific part of the process, because it requires trusting your gut. I start by walking through their offices. I read their marketing and strategic reports. I talk extensively with leaders, managers and employees. And I walk my way through various systems, structures and processes.
A question starts to emerge. Why do you do things this way, and not that way?Their answer to that question is the first bread crumb on the journey that leads to your organizational story.
Yes, this process can be a lot of work. It’s integrated, which means it’s equally heart and data centered. But consider the examples above. Patagonia’s story started in the 50s, when the founder sold climbing gear out of the back of his station wagon. Google’s story started in a Silicon Valley garage. By now, we all know Steve Jobs’ story. What do these stories have in common? They are all real.
Stories are most interesting, compelling and motivational when they’re real.
Stories are most interesting, compelling and motivational when they’re real.
Nelson Mandela had a well-integrated, real story.
So what’s your real story? You can start anywhere: with the story of your founder, your products, your culture or your systems. Or you can start with yourself? But ultimately, all those stories will lead back to the same place. Why do you do things this way, and not that way?
Ask yourself and your colleagues that question. Then start storytelling.