Chapter four: Where to Tell your Story – Only Connect

chapter four

Where to Tell your Story

Where to tell your story? I suppose the short and predictable answer is “just about everywhere”. Every communication you issue, every experience you provide, should express the same story, and serve all your audiences. It’s no mystery why companies often fail to do this. Inconsistency on the outside so often reflects a similar fragmentation internally. Organisational silos inevitably lead to inconsistent storytelling. So we often find the makings of a really good story on a company’s Sustainability pages or report, but nothing like the focus, authenticity or imagination on its homepage, ‘About us’, or Annual Report. Or we might find a recruitment ad or microsite – because they derive from something called Human Resources – reflecting a more approachable side, but scant evidence of this elsewhere. This is a problem.

So many companies appear to be suffering from an identity crisis when it comes to telling their story. Whilst narrative inconsistency is unlikely to be a conscious policy, it can be deeply problematic when seeking to inspire trust. Different stories for different audiences suggests a company is speaking with a forked tongue. If your story fragments, your identity fragments. If you lose the plot you lose your audiences, or at least a measure of their trust. A customer or stakeholder relationship is a journey. If the thread breaks, so does the relationship. Story demands a thread, but it also provides one: connecting across as well as within the stories you tell. The plot of your story – the space you mark out, and the strategic focus and direction this allows – therefore must be connected across, as much as coherently expressed within, all communications and experiences. That is where true ‘integrity’ lies, and with it, credibility and trust built.

That does not mean your story shouldn’t be adaptable to specific needs, contexts and channels. Which is what this part of the book is all about. The following short chapters take us on a rather selective tour through the communications landscape, involving disciplines or channels with which I have direct experience. In each I briefly consider the role of storytelling in these particular areas, briefly touching on what could probably sustain whole books in their own rights.

So. Where to start? Whilst we still have the smell of popcorn in our nostrils, and the movie theme ringing in our ears, it makes sense to stay in the world of showbiz. The first examples of where to tell a story are applications where the narrative and dramatic arts are (or should be) intuitively applied. In one case they are often overapplied, and the other woefully neglected. We’ll start with Film and PowerPoint, the most showbizzy applications in the armoury of corporate storytelling practice.

Through Film

This is an area where story naturally belongs, providing an opportunity to unleash the inner director, revved up but ultimately restrained in our hypothetical story-development workshop. With film, storytelling is no longer like Hollywood, a set of principles to apply: it is Hollywood. And so the narrative essayed in the session, scaled down and succinctly expressed in your ‘trailer’, can now be given Technicolor, Dolby Stereo, Panoramic, Epic exposure in a homepage or boardroom near you. Right?

Wrong. I did say storytelling in practice might involve a bit of rule bending or breaking. Here, straightaway, is a prime example of this. Film is ironically the last place needing to look to Hollywood for inspiration when it comes to telling a corporate story. In fact, it should look away, applying other lessons from the principles of storytelling that lead it gently from the grand epic highways to more humble routes to the same end: moving human beings.

I’m not suggesting you should junk all the principles I’ve so earnestly proffered as a theory, now we finally come to apply them in practice. Especially not here. Film is what could be called a natural or even ‘pure’ storytelling medium. And so it pre-eminently demands clarity of theme, coherence of thread, and especially emotional connection. That’s why it is such a useful model for thinking about a core brand story. It would be a shocking waste of the medium if we then failed to use it for what the moving image does best: moving people through the power of storytelling. And we, who have grown up with countless examples of professional cinematic storytelling before us, have high expectations of what is possible through the medium. And that, paradoxically, is where the problem lies. Because we have such iconic examples before us, there is a strong temptation to emulate the tricks and trappings of the greats when we come to tell a corporate story through film. And so doing, radically and disastrously misapply the power of narrative to serve different objectives.

The Hollywood movie is a finely-tuned instrument for moving people for entertainment ends. It applies all the principles I have identified to grip people and gratify them through emotional connection and identification. Need to heighten that emotion? No problem, here’s some soaring sentimental music to underscore the effect represented by the actors, and ensure there isn’t a dry eye left in the house. It does all these things because that is its job. Corporate communications have a different job. And whilst they should be emotionally engaging, even entertaining, these things are a means to an end, and not an end in themselves. Cinematic storytelling is strong stuff. Narrative and emotive dynamite, to be handled with extreme care in the corporate communications context.

The problem is, it isn’t on the whole. Too many corporate videos emulate Hollywood but end up looking amateur. We have also grown up with the best examples of pop or classical music before us, but we wouldn’t dream of booking a stadium or standing in front of an audience to perform our debut on electric guitar or grand piano. So why think we are the next Steven Spielberg just because someone hands us a movie camera, an edit suite and a modest budget?

This may sound rather harsh, but it’s extraordinary how many companies use video to lavishly achieve little. The same soaring music that tugs at the heartstrings in a stirring epic of heroic endeavour or romantic comedy, ends up being simply cheesy when it accompanies scenes of manufacturing, corporate edifices or the stellar trajectory of a share price. Emotional connection shouldn’t be achieved with a cattle prod, compelling the audience to feel something the content itself cannot muster. It may stir the audience momentarily (if it doesn’t have them gagging or squirming), but it ends up imparting no message, and is therefore a wasted opportunity of a highly effective storytelling medium.

There are wasted opportunities every where you look. Video, by definition, is a visual medium, and so showing is far more effective than saying here. And yet so many corporate videos rely on written captions to tell their stories (the age of silent movies being well and truly past). Or talking heads, delivering monotonous monologues in dull generic settings. The fact that they often also supply a transcript of the address suggests an instinctive awareness of where this content really belongs. Videos are often used to convey information, which isn’t where their greatest strengths lie. They merely inform, when they should really seek to inspire.

Or when they seek to inspire, they go so far towards the other extreme they end up conveying very little you can usefully take away from the experience. Here we find companies attempting to say and show everything on a vast scale, yet without the narrative or selective focus effective storytelling demands. Too many corporate videos are effectively animated lists of everything the company does and where it does it, montaged together with suitably bombastic music to match the epic scale or the panoramic vistas of global dominance the company depicts.

Show real

I’ve said corporate stories always need to get real, to show how what the company does touches people in the real world, and why this ultimately matters. They need to do it here too. In fact, it’s what the medium does best. The moving image is made for moving people with stories about people. And yet too often this opportunity is squandered, ending up with what Dean Beswick, Head of Moving Image at Radley Yeldar, terms ‘corporate wallpaper’. His insights encouraged my demolition of the worst excesses of this medium. But what does he suggest companies should be doing instead?

For a start they need to scale things down. Don’t always try to tell the Big Story. You don’t have the budget, the screen ratio or the timeframe to compete with the Hollywood epic drama. And you’re not there to entertain. Dean therefore suggests documentaries are a far more useful genre for getting a company’s story across. They don’t try to say everything; but focus on real issues that matter to people. This keeps things to a human scale and make the benefits and messages tangible. Stories work best when your audience can identify with the issues or individuals depicted. And they can’t do that if you try to show everything you do, or talk about it in abstract or grandiose terms.

Even Hollywood doesn’t always adopt the high epic mode when telling its Biggest Stories. Its heroes are not always superheroes, but often just ordinary Joes we can identify with, caught up in momentous events. War films usually aren’t about wars anymore, and rarely about the generals. The world events provide the backdrop for human-scale universal dramas. War gives the story context (why the individuals face the challenges they do), humanity gives it relevance and emotional resonance. Similarly the big issues or challenges a company tackles are more credibly evoked if particularised and humanised on a smaller scale. As Dean puts it: “By focusing on the right detail, paradoxically you can tell a broader corporate story. So instead of trying to say everything, just say one important thing that’s meaningful, tangible, and above all engaging”. The particular becomes the universal, and the personal gives your corporate brand personality. This is the literary principle known as ‘synecdoche’, where a single part stands for the whole idea, and it can work very powerfully in a short film where an eloquent detail can speak volumes about a company.

I once saw a series of films about innovative materials, where those responsible for the inventions explained why they were so pioneering, and the use to which they would be put. These short narratives were, by definition, highly detailed; but were far more convincing and eloquent of the company’s ‘innovation’, than any claims they could make with talking heads or soaring music. What’s more, the genuine enthusiasm the inventors had for their creations was infectious, and made the emotional connection (despite the highly technical subject), far more effectively than any aesthetic embellishments.

Sound and vision

Telling stories with sight and sound gives your brand life, and can capture the ‘tone of voice’ of your brand far more effectively than any guidelines attempting to describe this in words. As I’ve repeatedly said, emotional connection is essential if a story is going to really communicate something. And emotion is what film does better than any other medium in the communications toolkit. Film can explore a whole range of emotions that simply cannot be conveyed in written text. It has a licence to be emotional, and through this licence connects with people who allow themselves to be moved. Humour can be genuinely funny, where in bare text it might fall flat; tragedy can underline the importance of an issue by bringing it into the realm of lived reality and make an individual story represent a universal need.

We know this. It’s why we go to the cinema. And it’s why, despite all the technological breakthroughs that supposedly defy distance, we still prefer to meet people face-to-face and attend important meetings in person. People connect with people. We’re wired to do it, and video is the most powerful surrogate for such real-time connections. Done well, film can show the human impact of your story, and the human face of your business, by people embodying it. Real people, that is. Don’t just let the CEO or Director of Something Important tell your story – they will do that at the AGM or in the pages of the FT – but extend the cast list to allow those close to those eloquent details to show why these make your story vital and interesting. Replace talking heads with acting people. Not acting in the scripted (insincere) sense, but the opposite. Real people in real situations displaying genuine emotion about why what they do matters.

User-Generated Video (UGV) is a very useful tool in this respect, and has become a familiar aspect of the social media landscape through the likes of YouTube. For a start it’s cost-efficient. Budget might not allow you to send a film crew to Kuala Lumpa, but you can send a flip camera with instructions and guidelines to employees around the globe and gather some great content. And whilst these guidelines are important for getting the best results, the ‘hand held’ rawness or naivety of the results are more easy to forgive than the failed Hollywood pretensions of many corporate efforts.

But the main benefit is the life it brings to illustrate and substantiate your story. Instead of talking about ‘innovation’, ‘service’ or the ‘values that set you apart’, let the people who embody or deliver these things bring them to life. Why talk about ‘solutions’ in abstract terms, when you can allow someone who solved a massive problem for you or a customer show it at work. By telling smaller, real stories, your bigger story is told far more credibly and compellingly. A series of short documentaries or mini-diaries dedicated to specific issues opens a clear window on your business and its culture.

Show business

Sometimes there is a need to get information across, and the right film genre can do this far more effectively than print or presentations. Animation often is perfect for this. If you have something complicated or new to get across an animated film can turn this into an engaging and easy-to-digest story. As Dean puts it, “animation is to diagrams and illustrations, what video is to photographs”. Motion makes it eye-catching and involving, and allows you to tell a story that turns raw information into a digestible coherent narrative. It can ‘dramatise data’, two words you don’t often see coupled together, but possible in this medium. If Information can be ‘beautiful’, when presented in elegant infographics, you can add the extra kinetic dimension by setting that beauty in motion.

You can illustrate scale, history, and the relationship between things far more succinctly than attempting to explain this, and so can tell a complex story simply. You can animate concepts, showing how elements come together, and thus make them live and have reality in the imaginations of your audiences. This can scale things down to pure iconic information which allows you to convey big ideas in tangible digestible forms. Animation allows you to use visual metaphors that can convey complex ideas in immediately recognisable, engaging and memorable ways. Metaphor means ‘to carry over’, with meaning being carried over by something else. In a dynamic medium such as film, it can carry ideas even further and more effectively, carrying audiences with you by involving them in the story your metaphors convey.

There’s also something about animation that takes us right back to our earliest days as story consumers. If you’re like me, you probably spent much of your formative years glued to the ‘goggle box’, where programmes designed for children were generally animated. I believe they still are. As these usually had an educative dimension, I suspect we unconsciously associate the genre with the pleasures of learning. Whilst all stories tend to put us in a more receptive frame of mind for learning things, animation may have a special place in our individual memories as the ultimate – because primary – narrative genre. Deeper still perhaps, if you imagine the effect of a cave painting flickering in torchlight. Animation perhaps connects atavistically, with a uniquely deep power to impart essential information.

But doesn’t animation lack that human touch I’ve been banging on about? Dean insists you can still achieve this powerfully through characterisation and voice. People relate to animated characters on very intimate terms. “Does Jessica Rabbit lack the human touch”? Good point. Animated characters don’t get stage fright. And if you want to be representative of geography, gender or nationality, this can save you a fortune.

Animation is also great for bringing brand (corporate identity) elements into a story. The film can be branded through and through with colourways and other graphic assets you might own. These elements can help provide a visual continuity that ensures your story threads together aesthetically as well as conceptually. Because it is not confined by space, time or any physical constraints imposed on human actors and locations, the sky’s the limit on what you can employ to tell your story. It can provide a richly rewarding expression of your brand by appealing on multi-sensual levels to ensure it really connects. If you can think it, you can dramatise it with animation.

So, maybe you really can be the Spielberg of corporate comms after all.

Through PowerPoint

Few tools in the corporate communications box are so often used and abused (in all senses) as this one. We all complain about ‘death by PowerPoint’, have probably experienced it at point blank range, and have sworn never to put others through the ordeal ourselves. Yet boardroom massacres are still a sad reality of modern corporate life. Everyday countless victims are found slumped in their chairs, their brains bored hollow with bullet points, their dying wish that the presenter had just told them a story. The medium, like those victims, is crying out for it. If corporate video tends to encourage too much misapplied showbiz, PowerPoint suffers from a pronounced deficit of what would turn an ordeal into an experience. This is one area that could benefit from applying the narrative and dramatic arts much more directly.

A PowerPoint presentation is after all a show. It is a live performance, with a captive audience. You can look them in the eyes, and create the emotional rapport upon which trust is built. It provides the perfect opportunity to employ some narrative and dramatic magic to have them eating out of your hands. The spotlight is on you, the audience are hushed and expectant… And that, alas, is the problem.

Anticipated stage fright often takes over, encouraging presenters to focus more on the content of their individual slides than the overall performance. In so doing they not only squander a perfect opportunity to engage people with a story, they misapply the whole purpose of the medium. The result? Something that would be better served up as a document to be read (or not). I know it’s easy to knock PowerPoint, and we all know we could do it a whole lot better. Be better rehearsed, more confident, rely on notes less, make eye contact more. Yet, somehow our resolve crumbles the next time we need to put a presentation together under pressure. “I’d rather get my content right, before worrying about the show itself”, we claim. And before we know it we have those towering walls of content no one can scale; lists without narrative thread, and a dead document we then attempt to resuscitate through amateur animations.

I’m not talking about presentation skills here. I’m no expert on that, I know there are plenty out there, and could do with their help myself. I’m simply talking about building a bit more narrative art into the PowerPoint experience. Thus turning a necessary evil into a more effective storytelling vehicle. If the showbiz magic of presentation skills represents the ultimate ideal; and the usual, too much content, crammed into a literary document turned live ordeal, is our starting point, we can at least aim for a middle ground. Pushing the dial more towards the ‘performance’ end whilst remaining in the comfort zone of “I need to get the content right”. Getting the content right is really all I’m talking about here. The right content in the right order to achieve the right effect on the audience. Story, at its most basic. It’s all about content and control. Remaining in control of the material, and of the audience for which it is designed, by using the medium for what it was designed: connecting with and convincing those audiences.

Which first of all means reversing the emphasis of that content and its role. Presenters who use slide content as a thread to get them through are unlikely to be telling a compelling story, because they’ve stopped thinking about their audience. We all do it. It’s less terrifying to stand up there if we at least know our slides have everything we need, and we can talk from them. In other words, prompt notes publically displayed – the rope we throw across the chasm of our presentation, saving us from improvisation freefall. But by thinking about our own needs we neglect those of the limp, lifeless victims we lose along the way. The thread shouldn’t be there to reassure us we know what comes next, but to make our audience, like any successfully gripped by story, wonder ‘what happens next?’

Wilkie Collins, friend of Dickens, and highly popular author of sensational fictions in his own right, summed up the storyteller’s art in the dictum: “Make ’em laugh. Make ’em cry. Make ’em wait”. Whilst it would be unwise to string it out as long as Collins’s own serial monsters (amounting to over a thousand pages at times), it wouldn’t hurt to bring some of this artistry into the humble PowerPoint presentation. After all, the audience is captive, you have their attention. It’s yours to lose. And with it, no doubt, a lot more besides.

PowerPoint therefore involves a different dynamic from the homepage or a piece of direct mail, where you have about a nanosecond to grab attention before they click or fling away. A different setting allows you to use a different story pyramid, which really does take them on a journey. You don’t need to blow all your ‘Wow’ up front. Save some for the finale, learning from the masters of the art. You wouldn’t give the punch line or reveal whodunit in the first sentence, so, when you have a captive audience and a dramatic narrative medium, use it to full effect. Surprise them. According to movie man Peter Guber, surprise is an essential in storytelling. “Expectation + violation of expectation” is what every successful storyline needs to deliver. And what better place to deploy this principle, than a setting where the expectations are not particularly high. Defying expectations will make them sit up and listen, allowing you to deliver your story to a captivated as well as captive audience.

Defy expectations, but do so on sure narrative foundations. PowerPoint is effectively a dramatic medium, so the rules of the well-made drama apply. When I first mentioned Aristotle’s dramatic principles, I made clear I wasn’t suggesting you model your own story on a Greek Tragedy. A happy ending, after all, is the outcome both you and your audiences are probably seeking. Yet, there is a lot to be learned from Aristotle’s outline for a three-act drama that can be applied directly and usefully to some PowerPoint presentations. A credentials presentation is a perfect example. This suggestion comes from a communications trainer called Greg Keen, and is really useful here. Keen urges companies to use the Aristotelian three-act tragic structure when presenting to potential customers or partners. And, as the essence of drama is conflict, he encourages companies to be quite honest about the struggles they’ve been through, the challenges they’ve faced, and even the mistakes they’ve made.

I know it sounds counterintuitive to dwell on your mistakes when the objective is to convince potential partners or customers of your competence, but that’s kind of the point. It defies expectations but it also makes a whole lot of sense. It takes some nerve, but then it displays some too. The reward is getting the audience on your side through the involving arts of storytelling. If you admit to struggles and explain how you have overcome them, you demonstrate resourcefulness and a determination to succeed (heroic stuff). And if you can show what you have learned (how you have grown) by what happened, you can deliver a moral to the story which is likely to resonate powerfully with your audience.

The example Keen demonstrates is a hypothetical company’s losing its way, going back to basics and listening to what its customers really want. Remember, every hero has his or her flaws. It’s what makes them human, and encourages us to identify with them, and find out how they respond to the challenges the narrative throws at them. The same dramatic/psychological principle operates here. The humility creates sympathy; the narrative encourages empathy; and the learning it demonstrates suggests a direct benefit to the potential client. So much more powerful and convincing than saying “we always listen to our customers”. Anyone can say that, and they usually do. But if you can explain why anecdotally you are more likely to be believed. Mistakes are human. Humans buy from humans, and they also love hearing their stories.

The abilities to respond to challenges and solve problems also sends a powerful message if dramatised in this way. After all, if you’re pitching your services or solutions, your audience more than likely face a few challenges themselves. What business doesn’t? By showing your mettle in this way you are demonstrating that you are a reliable ‘ally’ to the real hero of the story. Them. Nearly every hero has an ally (as Keen points out), and this is a great way of establishing rapport through narrative. You get to introduce yourself – essential if they don’t know that much about you, and for creating the human connection that will get them on your side – but you don’t go on about yourself. It’s all about them, drawing them into your story as the masters of the craft have always done, by allowing us to recognise ourselves in the mirrors they hold up to us. You involve them in your story, imaginatively at first; but then, all being well, in reality through the business you do together. The same satisfaction the brain achieves from solving problems is gained by seeing them solved in narrative. Stories – dramatic stories showing conflicts overcome – are, problem-solving vehicles.

Potential tragedy, averted into triumph can thus turn the usual plod through a company’s credentials into a compelling, surprising but convincing journey. “We always listen to customers” is simply a statement. “And that’s why we always listen to customers”, as the payoff of a plausible illustrative anecdote, involves them in your story, and gets them on your side.

There is often the ‘killer’ question at pitch presentations, putting the presenter on the back foot by asking him or her about their biggest challenge, or to confess to an occasion when things went horribly wrong in a professional relationship. This is usually to catch the presenter out, and thrown at him or her in the spirit of conflict. How much better to have used the homeopathic principle of admitting to mistakes or near catastrophes up front, rather than having to defend what you’ve left out of your sanitised version. A good response simply shows your resourcefulness under pressure. Triumphing over adversity shows you have what it takes to win, long term. And, if nothing else, your narrative is more likely to keep them awake, to find out what happened. So, when you do get to deliver your account of the triumph and what it taught you, you have their full attention, you have won their admiration, and possibly more. This may even be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Now that’s a story ending everybody loves.

Through Annual Reporting

After all this showbiz and drama, it’s maybe time to come down to earth. With a bump, by immersing ourselves in the sober world of investor relations. Presided over by accountants and company secretaries, and adhering to its own conventions, protocols and language, Annual Reporting is an area particularly resistant to the idea or arts of storytelling. If business really is a separate planet ruled by reason, and built on facts, then this is its very epicentre.

In some ways this is understandable, given the legislative pressures that continue to shape annual reports, with new demands appearing every year stipulating what listed companies must disclose. This is of course a response to the breakdown of trust in the corporate and financial worlds following the high-profile accounting scandals of recent history, and the retrenchment of market confidence in general. The logic behind the legislation is clear: more disclosures lead to greater transparency, and greater transparency will lead to greater accountability, which will in turn restore trust, and with it confidence. If investors can see everything, and have all the facts at their disposal about a company, they will be able to make more informed decisions, and the markets will in future be built on surer foundations. This all makes perfect rational sense. That’s just how things should work if the world obeyed the laws we create for it; if people acted in wholly rational ways; and, critically, if the vehicles that have to carry these legislation-shaped disclosures didn’t also have another important job to do: communicate with human beings.

Yet everything about this logical formula appears designed to inhibit effective communication, best achieved through story. With predictable results. Successive demands have generated diverse types of content by diverse hands with no clear thread, or little sense of what it all ‘adds up’ to. The proliferation of boxes to tick has meant the burgeoning of content, with reports expanding threefold over the last fifteen years. More disclosure doesn’t necessarily mean greater transparency, if there’s so much detail it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees. And finally, the compelled disclosure of facts and figures itself establishes a legalistic mindset fundamentality at odds with the emotional connection story demands and trust thrives on.

Fixed protocols mould corporate stories into generic shapes, encouraging everyone to say the same things and sound the same way. The more disclosure = more trust formula is therefore potentially a self-defeating exercise when translated into a communications vehicle. This might allow analysts to compare like with like. But such reports encourage nobody to actually like what they read or the company behind it. In short, ‘disclosure’ discourages story. The very term speaks volumes. It implies that the default setting is ‘closed’, and the lid is reluctantly lifted each year only so wide as compliance demands. The direct antithesis of the expansive open engagement at the beating heart of storytelling.

Yet hope may well be on the horizon. For whilst so much legislation has pulled reporting in a direction unconducive to storytelling, there is growing recognition of the need for measures that would reverse this trend, or at least mitigate the tendencies box-ticking and list-making encourages. The main developments that might eventually nurture narrative can be summed up as follows:

Cut the clutter. Leviathan reports defeat the purpose of protransparency measures if the salient details are obscured by immaterial material. Reports need to be clearer in their focus and their purpose, and provide a more visible narrative thread for readers.

Integrate. Whilst this is principally a call for a more holistic approach to aligning financial with non-financial information, this suggests a recognition of a need to join things up, providing greater narrative coherence where there is currently fragmentation.

Explain the business model. It is now law in the UK for companies to include a clear explanation in their reports of how they generate value. Not just how much, but how come. Not just a relationship between a company and its shareholders, but the relationship it has with the wider world as part of a value chain that ultimately impacts on that world. Not simply an account of how it adds up (financially), but what it ultimately adds up to.

Clarity, tick. Coherence, tick. And a compelling case for why what a company does matters in the real world of people and things, tick. The new demands potentially add up to a checklist of effective storytelling. Historically pulled in one direction by compliance legislation, Annual Reporting may well be encouraged to adopt a very different path, ultimately becoming a more effective storytelling medium. As the Accounting Standards Board report ‘Rising to the Challenge’ put it in 2009: “Business models cannot be conveyed through numbers alone, and it is up to the narrative report to tell the story of what the company does to generate cash”.

The (Re)turn of narrative accounting

I can’t help thinking the need for these developments is staggeringly obvious. Annual Reporting and the broader discipline of Investor Relations, seem tailor-made for story. It appears to be an intrinsically narrative medium, that was hijacked and hoodwinked by legislators and list-makers, but is now reclaiming its birthright.

This reminds me that the word ‘account’ doesn’t have an exclusively financial meaning, and how in Romance languages the family resemblance between bank-telling and storytelling is more apparent. For example, in Spain the verb “contar” means both to count (numbers) and recount (a story). When you ask for your bill in a restaurant: “la cuenta” is literally a numerical account of the meal you have just enjoyed. But you also hear people saying “cuentame”, meaning recount what happened, explain it, tell me the story. The word derives from Latin, and of course survives in our own words ‘account’ and ‘count.’ Una cuenta is an account (financial); un cuento is a tale or short story.

Accountants create accounts with numbers, authors with words. Language often reveals the deeper psychological connections culture and custom seek to obscure. It’s as though Financial Account (involving facts, details, bottom line, analytics, and reason), was separated from its twin brother Narrative Account (fond of imagination, drama, storyline, anecdote and emotion), and they now reside in very different dominions. And whilst legislation and convention have conspired to keep them apart, there are developments that may very well bring about their reunion in due course. The reconciliation of these two estranged twins is the storyline I’d like to develop in this chapter.

Everything about Annual Reporting, in principle, points to applying a more story-focused approach. The very genre encourages a degree of retrospection unusual for corporate communications, where the moment is always Now, and the focus is invariably on the future. Reports, on the other hand, are compelled to tell stories with narrative closure. To have beginnings, middles and ends. Year ends: making sense of the year as a completed, coherent whole. Most stories involve a degree of retrospection. The word ‘story’ derives from ‘history (again, in Romance languages they are the same word), and they are generally written from a perspective of retrospective knowledge. There is therefore everything to encourage the creator of the yearly story to give it a shape; to go beyond simply filing an account, into sharing an account. One that explains the bottom line by means of a storyline, and ultimately allows people to understand what all that financial adding up actually adds up to.

Yet, whilst the annual rhythm encourages retrospection, and imposes narrative closure, the ongoing business of Investor Relations involves a future focus and a continuous open narrative. The purpose of the report is not really looking back, but moving forward. It is there to show how this year’s chapter, or better still, episode, is part of a continuing never-ending story of value-creation, driven by a clear strategic focus and a commitment to perform. Its role is ultimately to inspire confidence in a continued investment relationship. If Reporting is intrinsically a narrative genre, then the broader objective it should fulfil demands a different model to the cinematic one that has served us well up to now. If not cinema, then what?

For my money, soap opera provides the perfect analogy and narrative model.

Corporation Street

There is actually much to encourage this rather surprising analogy, and much that Investor Relations can learn from one of the most successful storytelling genres. Soap opera is also defined by its open-ended, but episodic narrative. There is no end to the overall storyline, which keeps going for as long as ratings or advertising revenues hold up. This can mean over fifty years of dramatic cycles involving the same group of people in a close-knit community. Community provides continuity of values and personnel, whilst the development of multiple storylines depicting different dramas creates narrative momentum and maintains interest down the years.

These individual storylines have beginnings, middles and (often implausibly dramatic) ends, so the demands of narrative gratification are fulfilled episodically even as the main storyline of the community carries on interminably. Many examples of these communities are professional rather than domestic, being set in hospitals, police stations, or even, in the power-dressed days of the American 80s in the corporate world itself. In Dallas and Dynasty high drama was made partly out of boardroom intrigues. If soaps can turn to business, might the favour be returned for the task of Investor Relations with its episodic instalment the Annual Report?

I’m not suggesting that each Report should publish a yearly roundup of affairs, returns from the dead, arson plots and murders. This would be taking transparency a little too far. Yet there is much to learn from a genre that ultimately has the same purpose as Investor Relations: keeping its audiences with them. Everything about the open-ended, episodic machinery of the soap is focused on maintaining a relationship with its audience indefinitely. When successful this can breed obsession, with soap fans fiercely loyal to these characters and communities, and where the line between fiction and reality is delusionally thin.

Soap is a highly competitive business, with series engaging in a permanent ratings war, which, on the commercial channels translates directly into advertising and sponsorship revenue. The very name of the genre testifies to its close parity with the commercial world and the objectives of brand builders. FMCG manufacturers sought to tap into the devotion these long-term relationships nurtured, hoping to make their products as central to the lives of these audiences as were the dramas of the characters they followed. In a commercial soap, the most important character is really the brand that payrolls these dramas through sponsorship for as long as the audiences stay with them.

Such long-term commercial relationship-building is the purpose of Investor Relations. Its implicit message is stay with us, the story is going to get even better, the rewards for loyalty even more fulfilling. How can it do this? By building some of soap’s episodic narrative momentum into its Reporting, and some of its human engagement into its long-term relationship-building. If a Report is considered an episodic instalment this will encourage its own narrative integrity as a compelling, coherent account of the year. The year end imposes closure, and so demands the storyteller’s art to give that individual account meaning.

One way of achieving this is making Key Performance Indicators a stronger prominence in each yearly instalment. Performance defines the goal or Grail of ever-increasing value, a goal indefinitely deferred, but periodically gratified through major milestones and, of course, dividends. If this Grail shines enticingly at the end of the road both you and your investors are travelling, it is important to provide a clear map, coherent signposting, and progress reports. These are the milestones along the way, employing the rhythms of narrative gratification into the framework of financial returns. The more confident you are or wish to be perceived about the long-term journey, the more important it is to provide these milestones and maps. The Annual Report is partly an episodic progress report on that ongoing journey and its narrative. Its milestones give coherent shape to the open-ended investor-focused narrative the company is developing through time.

To be continued

In this way, individual storylines for that episode converge to form a coherent narrative for that year, contributing to the thread that binds past and future to the continuous present of the corporate community. Being clear about that core narrative of that community allows a company to identify these storylines, and bring greater coherence to both its annual reflections, and its ongoing projections and performance. An established company is a community after all. It has history (back story), and continuity of values and personnel, but is also subject to continuous evolution. New ‘characters’ join the cast, bringing with them their own back stories of experience and expertise. They make their own contributions to the company’s story, either thriving as long-term stars who shape its narrative, or suffer the corporate equivalent of the soap’s dramatic bumping off. The company adapts and evolves in response to challenges and opportunities in the world at large. Similarly, the slice-of-life realism of soap operas is a large part of their continuing appeal, drawing audiences in by reflecting the issues and dramas that touch their own lives. Annual Reports might usefully adopt a more slice-of-life focus too.

Explaining their business models means demonstrating clearly how the company’s creation of value adds up to greater value in the wider world. What need in the wider world drives the challenges the company meets, the solutions it provides? How does it touch the world of people, issues and things? And as soap operas develop a very strong sense of place (EastEnders set in London; Coronation Street in Manchester; Emmerdale in rural Yorkshire), so Reports need to demonstrate their command of the specific marketplaces in which they operate. The more in touch with this market it shows itself to be, the more confidence it inspires, allowing investors to believe its story about this world is an accurate depiction.

As soap operas have more than their fair share of community-threatening catastrophes to contend with, so companies need to be far more transparent in acknowledging their risk profile, and far more coherent in their accounts of how they will tackle these issues. What creates drama in entertainment narratives, builds credibility in their corporate counterparts. But only if they are prepared to engage honestly with the world at large. Evidence of risk mitigation in action might be built into a case study, to show it is being taken seriously and translated into positive outcomes. This is not only more convincing than the compliance exercise of risk-listing, but employs the powerful dramatic formula of conflict overcome to positive effect (as suggested in the PowerPoint example earlier). Story demands dramatic incident, and the reward for honest acknowledgement of material risks is the credibility and trust born of narrative engagement and empathy.

A truly exemplary attempt to use storytelling to engage the investor community through difficult times is IBM’s report from 2000. Instead of the usual reassuring platitudes adorning the cover, they decided to get straight to the heart of the matter, by summing up their year as if it were a rollicking read from the novel’s earliest days. In mock eighteenth-century letterpress it grabbed corporate America’s attention with the following:

It deserves to be a classic because it is modelled on one, or even many.

These were challenging times. The Internet bubble had burst, and all tech companies were guilty by association, or in very deep. And so, it confesses to ‘stinging defeats’, but also ‘feisty comebacks’, just like in the stories its audience grew up on. This is America, where the good guy usually wins. By self-consciously evoking, if not pastiching, both the verbal and visual rhetoric of storytelling, the company frames itself in the high heroic mode as a plucky survivor. It dug deep into the residual reserves of goodwill far more effectively than waffling away the disasters and making vague optimistic promises for the future.

The first chapter, entitled ‘Reports of our Demise’ appeared opposite a classic pulp fiction cover image of a boxer slugging his opponent out of the ring. This to illustrate IBM’s “Feisty comebacks in servers, storage and databases”. You’ve got to admire their pluck, if only their attempt to make that subject interesting. But comeback they did, IBM is not just a reinvented force to be reckoned with, it’s also a seasoned storyteller. Its ‘A Smarter Planet’ initiative is a leading example of the trend for big brands to engage their audiences by publishing quality content, rather than just promoting products (more on this tendency in my final chapter). But as IBM’s earlier foray into self-conscious narrative demonstrates, story is a great way of keeping your audiences rooting for you. If you approach reporting as an opportunity to open up and include people in your journey rather than an obligation to fulfil, you are more likely to keep them by your side. Through thick and thin.

Case studies provide perfect opportunities for narrative, and showing the business model in action. They have a core theme, because they should relate to a specific problem solved or issue resolved. They are completed, so have the beginning, middle and end of well-crafted narrative. If they show a problem solved there is scope to illustrate a need met, so there is every encouragement to bring out the human connection. And they demand the storyteller’s skills of retrospective selection, simplification and conclusion. The messy stuff of day-to-day business practice can be shaped and crafted to illustrate a core competence, a lesson learned, a milestone achieved. Everything is in place for compelling storytelling. This section should really be the narrative centrepiece of every year’s instalment. Yet how many companies really exploit case studies to their full potential? But, rather, have all the drama, risk, surprise or challenges drained out of them.

Each case study might be considered as a separate storyline showcasing the values and relevance of the wider corporate community and its story. Then consider these, like the most gripping soap opera storylines, reflective of the broader narrative and relevant to the world at large and the value-chain you participate in. These should be snapshots of the here and now of your story, the narratives with completion and closure yet part of the ongoing, open-ended narrative that keeps your relevance and relationship with your audiences alive. And as the famous cliff-hanger ensures audiences tune in for the next episode, well-crafted narrative at episodic level with a clear sense of how this is part of your long-term strategic ‘plot’, will help keep your own audiences expectantly engaged. The year end won’t really be the end of your story, if you maintain a coherent ongoing dialogue through other communications channels throughout the year, nurturing the relationship as an open-ended, forward-focused narrative that keeps your audiences hooked.

Finally, as character identification is at the heart of soap opera success, companies might think more carefully about how they present their own ‘casts’. Once again, there’s a need to make it personal, encouraging the star cast of the corporate community and its story to come forward. To emerge as human beings from behind the stiff pictures and list-like CVs. Each cast member surely has his or her own story to contribute to the broader narrative, a defined role to play in the life of this community. What are those roles? What do they bring to the decision-making process, how is their experience relevant to the story you are telling? Can we hear this in their own voice, rather than the perfunctory third-person roll call of a company compelled to disclose who is in charge and (reluctantly) how much they are paid?

A company that has started to do this quite effectively is Pearson, the publishing and education business. It’s not surprising that the owners of such brands as Penguin and the Financial Times might feel inclined to practice what they preach when it comes to storytelling. And so, their 2011 Annual Report is published as a video-rich PDF. It’s really important for a company like Pearson to demonstrate that it is facing up to the challenges digital technology presents to its core publishing assets. You can say you are doing it, or you can more convincingly show you understand how people are accessing information or consuming stories by simply enhancing your own digital presence.

Which is what Pearson is doing. There are short videos about new acquisitions, animated presentations of key facts and figures. But most significantly, presentations and interviews showing board members and key executives personally explaining strategic intent and developments. It’s difficult enough pinning important people down for even the photo shoot, let alone videos. So this shows a real commitment by a company who wants to explain where it is going and to bring people along with it.

Connecting as human beings, presenting developments in the true representative voice of a company will ultimately do more to inspire trust than the box-ticking, form-filling, detail-gathering disclosures of a legislation-compelled mindset. Create rapport rather than just ‘report’, and you will win the trust the corporate world so desperately needs to restore. Turning an obligation into an opportunity to build strong and meaningful relationships.

This may just come to pass if reporting takes hold of the communication advantages afforded by storytelling. Narrative Account, long-exiled through the ascendency of its Financial twin, may very well return to the reporting series. Will this dramatic story twist come about? The communications world eagerly awaits next year’s exciting instalment…

Through Sustainability
Communications

The third item of the main list of new demands for reporting is to integrate financial with non-financial disclosures more effectively. With this in mind I have integrated my own chapters on Annual Reporting and Sustainability communications into a special ‘omnibus edition’. The second part now focuses on how more coherent storytelling can help achieve greater integration between the two disciplines. In fact, through all disciplines, channels and communications.

Sustainability has traditionally been more accommodating to the idea of telling a story. Indeed, an Economist article from November 2004 entitled ‘Corporate Storytelling’ was all about ‘Non-financial accounting’, suggesting the concept of story entered business discourse through the CR backdoor. Emotive issues – people, rather than profit; melting icecaps rather than market caps – belong more readily to the ‘softer’ end of the communication spectrum. And yet, whilst many companies claim that Sustainability “informs everything we do”, they tend to declare or support it in the designated pages of their website, or in a standalone report. Such partitioning undermines the statement in the very act of making of it. And if it is flatly contradicted by what goes on elsewhere, then it will convince, or inspire trust in nobody.

And so, what exactly is meant by ‘integrated reporting’, and how can this be achieved? Ben Richards, Head of Sustainability at Radley Yeldar provides an answer, first by explaining what it is not: “it isn’t an Annual Report with a large Sustainability section. Nor is it an Annual Report with information tacked on at various points as an afterthought. Nor is it a report that tries to be all things to all people”. OK. So what is it? “It’s a report that seeks to show the relationship between financial and non-financial factors in a single narrative”. Sounds good to me. But alarm bells start ringing as soon as I encounter a phrase like ‘non-financial disclosure’. If ‘disclosure’ on its own indicates a mindset inhibitive to storytelling, the addition of an implied departure from the norm hints at the extent of the challenge before us. This challenge derives from historical legacies. Sustainability’s own ‘back story’ means it starts from a very different perspective, and goes against the grain of its more hard-nosed counterpart.

I’m not talking about the politics of Sustainability, but the challenge of telling its story as part of a broader corporate narrative. Politics are partly the problem here. Whilst any company is free to tell its own story, explaining how it creates value and where it is going on its own terms, the Sustainability story belongs to everyone and is all about problems. It’s shaped by the not-particularly welcome legacy of a lobbyist agenda historically at odds with the interests of the investor community. It is a collective story, dominated by attention-grabbing headlines which can be summed up simplistically and sensationally as ‘we’re all going to hell in a handcart if we don’t act now’. A company’s own contribution to this story is to explain what it is individually doing to mitigate (or perhaps even accelerate) this collective problem. This is where the problems start if alignment is the objective. Historically they start from different places, so their integration involves some resourceful strategic reorientation.

Here’s the challenge as I see it. Put simplistically, and with the broadest of brush strokes, the main investor narrative is usually a story about more; the Sustainability story historically about less. The former about increasing (commercial, economic) impact; the latter about reducing (negative) impact. Investors and analysts have their eyes on the bottom line and a progressive narrative about what the company is doing to generate more value for shareholders. This is a given, a collective story too in a way, but one that goes entirely with the grain of its principal audience’s interests. Growth is the Grail everyone is pursuing. It is then up to each individual company to make a compelling case through its personal story about why this archetypal narrative truly belongs to it. This is the implicit narrative of financial reporting, with everyone facing expectantly in the same direction towards the same goal of greater commercial impact leading to better financial returns.

Broadly speaking Sustainability starts from a different perspective and faces in the opposite direction. Its narrative imperative involves a company making a compelling case for what it is doing to mitigate the impact of its operations. Be this on the environment, on the welfare of communities or the welfare of its workforce. The very premise of mitigation means that its narrative momentum is away from problems, rather than towards opportunities. Not only is it facing in a different direction to the main investor story, it is going against the grain of narrative’s natural inclinations.

Getting personal

One of my themes is that stories love journeys, and feed off the human desire for progressive momentum. They don’t thrive naturally when moving away from something. Even when the quest is to kill a monster or avert a catastrophe, the story is usually really about the growth of the hero through his journey to meet this threat. This holds good when they take on real issues, such as when Hollywood goes environmental. In the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow the monster menacing New York City this time is no longer Godzilla or intergalactic aliens. It’s the nemesis of environmental neglect in the form of the mother of all deep freezes. Yet the main storyline still involves the journey of an environmental scientist who prophesised all this into the very eye of the storm to rescue his estranged son. The journey is still a progressive and a deeply personal one. Cheesiness aside, it does once again suggest that the principles of storytelling as perfected by Hollywood are relevant even when dealing with the most serious challenges the world currently faces. That there is a need to be highly resourceful in tackling not only the challenges the Sustainability story identifies, but the challenges this story itself faces when seeking to integrate it more closely with the main corporate narrative.

There is every potential to do this. One of the major advantages of the term ‘Sustainability’ over the more paternalistic ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’, is its fitness for progressive narrative. Sustain is a verb, immediately signalling a commitment to do something, to go somewhere, to move towards a progressive goal. It is perfect for re-framing in terms of a goal-focused journey.

How? By once again learning from Hollywood, and personalising the political. If the Sustainability story belongs to lobbyists and headline makers, companies will always be playing ‘bit parts’ in someone else’s epic. Everyone knows it matters; what companies need to explain is how it directly matters to their specific business. This isn’t about speechifying on issues, but demonstrating how a company’s individual Sustainability strategy reflects what is directly material to its core business or its brand. A good example of this in action is Reed Elsevier, the publishing company. Reed Elsevier’s core product is information, which it sells to scientific, medical, legal, business and risk professionals. Central to its Sustainability activities is what it calls its ‘Unique Contributions’. As it explains: “We believe we have the most significant impact when we apply our expertise to areas like universal, sustainable access to information, advancement of science and health, promotion of the rule of law and justice, and protection of society”.

If knowledge is power, then a company like Reed Elsevier can have the most positive impact empowering those most in need of its expertise. Its case studies illustrate this by explaining how it is helping organisations tackle human trafficking through the dissemination of information; or how it is supporting medicine, agriculture or environmental initiatives in developing countries through free access to research and expertise. As expertise is what its brand is all about, Reed’s efforts cumulatively reinforce its core story by demonstrating the global value of what it does. When the contributions you make are uniquely yours, then the story you tell can be too.

A material strategy can therefore reinforce a brand story, and also directly benefit the business. According to Ben, “material issues must go beyond the traditional comfort zone of measuring energy usage or community investment”. These are the generic concerns that belong to the collective Sustainability story shaped by others. A bank convinces nobody by talking about local communities, or child labour (unless it’s the Co-Op, of course); but if it has a robust approach to employee development and retention it is clearly showing how its policies impact its long-term competitive edge.

Getting real

Materiality therefore provides a key opportunity to reassure even the most sceptical observers that by doing sustainable business a company is sustaining its own business. Ironically, because of the political origins of the Sustainability story, the more self-interested, even ‘selfish’, a company appears on the measures it is taking, the more convincing its story will appear. So a company should be crystal clear about how its approach to Sustainability brings it benefits. Whether it’s generating revenue, reducing costs, managing risks or motivating the workforce, if the interests are aligned the narratives can be integrated. By entwining its own core business story and objectives with the Sustainability agenda, a company starts to personalise the political and take credible ownership of the issues. Personalising the Sustainability story in this way is the first step towards integrating financial with non-financial narratives.

A famous example of this strategic integration achieved by a UK company is Unilever. Before 2004 the FMCG giant was a classic House of Brands, finding no benefit in consumers knowing that the same company made many of the household brands they used, including those that competed for share of market in the same product categories. Since then it has increasingly reversed this policy, using the more consumer-friendly logo that signalled the company’s relaunch in 2004 as a Branded House to endorse its products and add implied value to its diverse product range. From what the company declared back then, Sustainability issues were a major factor in encouraging it to step out from behind the corporate curtain: “The world we operate in is changing. Consumers are demanding more and more from the companies behind the brands, increasingly bringing their views as citizens into their buying decisions. They want brands they can trust… Standing visibly as Unilever behind our products will enable us to take the next step in transparency and accountability”.

Its Sustainable Living Plan, launched in 2010, further commits to making Sustainability a core component of its main corporate narrative. Instead of the two narratives pulling in different directions they cohere to inform a balanced expression of strategic intent: “to grow the business while reducing our environmental footprint and increasing the positive contribution which we make to society” (my emphasis).

By recognising that sustainable business is in everyone’s interests Unilever doesn’t need to speak with a forked tongue. For as it declares: “in our experience, sustainability drives growth”. Consumers want it; its customers and supply chain partners need to demonstrate it; and it encourages the company to innovate, thus giving it a competitive edge. Unilever can thus reconcile its ambition for growth with a strong focus on the positive impact of its core business.

Lifebuoy is one of its oldest brands, created to bring affordable sanitation to the disease-stricken populations of Victorian cities. It is now playing a similar role in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, where simple hygiene measures we in the West now take for granted, can make a major difference in different markets. The Lifebuoy Handwashing Behaviour Change Programme focuses on reducing respiratory infections and diarrhea, the world’s two biggest causes of child mortality. By 2015 it aims to change the hygiene behaviours of 1 billion consumers by promoting its product. Now these initiatives are not soul-saving measures to balance its main business of pursuing profit. As it makes clear, these markets are highly attractive to the company, and constitute key opportunities for growth: “there are billions of people in the world who deserve the better quality of life products like soap, shampoo and clean drinking water can provide… we shouldn’t be ashamed of growth”. Sustainable growth, that is. Something you can only really claim if you have an integrated strategy, and an integrated business narrative.

Integrating narrative therefore starts with aligning objectives. If the core business story and the Sustainability strategy face in different directions and appear to want different things, then they will never be aligned. But if they seek to answer the same questions and achieve similar objectives, they will build a much stronger collective story. By joining forces and becoming a single narrative project, the core business story and the Sustainability story will trade-off some useful reciprocal benefits.

As I highlighted earlier, a listed company is now legally obliged to explain its business model, why what it does is part of a value-chain that touches the world at large. And if it wants to tell a more compelling, engaging, trust-enhancing story it has to get more emotional and reflect its human side far more prominently. The Sustainability story originates from that world at large, and deals with real, tangible and very pressing issues. It operates in the world of specifics, things, resources, and measurable impacts, rather than that elusive Grail everyone is pursuing, ‘value’. The Unilever integrated narrative demonstrates such holistic thinking well, bringing consumers, interested communities and investors into the same frame of reference. The same story. As it implies, value doesn’t flourish in a hermetically sealed environment governed exclusively by economics. It is connected to the purchasing decisions of consumers, who belong to communities and who are increasingly aware of their connected existence on an imperilled and deeply divided planet. Supply chain and value chain are intrinsically linked. Gaps in one create leaks in the other.

Getting closer

Stories are a great way of showing the possibility of change without preaching, but only if they illustrate real, tangible and achievable outcomes. That’s the strength of the parable, the issue-focused narrative demonstrating an implied course of action without explicitly telling people what to do. It’s also partly why soap operas are useful not just for product sponsorship, but issue sponsorship too. Soap operas, especially in the UK, are very good at weaving real issues and problems from the world at large into their storylines. This helps maintain their claims to realism, but also makes big problems much more manageable through narrative development and resolution. Racism, homophobia, unemployment, financial crisis are taken from the headlines and woven into the fabric of everyday life which the narrative unpicks and then resolves.

Making Sustainability more personal for the corporate community normalises it, and makes the big problems it presents much more scalable, immediate and real. As each episode in a soap opera achieves resolution, so each individual case study supporting the main strategy marks a progressive achievement towards a defined, manageable and measurable objective. But those stories achieve little if they are not personally material to the core business, as grist to the corporate mill.

The political becomes the personal in a very real sense if a company’s Sustainability story reflects the issues that are material and important to its people too. Employee welfare is, of course, an important part of developing a sustainable business. But employees are also essential when seeking to embed robust Sustainability within the culture of an organisation. As Ben puts it: “Sustainability issues often resonate with individual’s personal beliefs. They can inspire people within an organisation to be part of its story if that story involves aspects other than simply making money”. Sustainability becomes a collective objective and a more convincing story if this story is personalised and shared. Asking questions such as “what does it mean to me, my team, for all of us”? broadens the ownership of initiatives, and becomes a chorus rather than a managerial monologue on issues outside of most people’s reach.

This is again partly about using storytelling to bring big things down to a human scale. The Big Sustainability Story of the headlines (especially the environmental headline-grabber) is about colossal problems that get bigger and more remote with every fresh report. Too big for any one company or even one country to deal with, and a story without any foreseeable closure (bar that of global catastrophe). Individual stories about Sustainability issues make big problems human sized, bring them closer to every day life, and allow the possibility of individual plot resolutions. They seem less impossible as a consequence, and can be a tangible expression of a company’s values to both external and internal audiences alike.

Which brings me to the next important place to tell a corporate story: internally.

Through your People

Here I talk all about Employee Engagement, or what is sometimes called Internal Communications. Story has a major role to play here because it is all about people. Not figures, results, strategies, visions, values or messages, but people. Diligent, dedicated, valuable, voluble, independent, insecure, disgruntled, disengaged, uncontrollable people. The ‘greatest asset’ of many organisations (or so they claim) as well as the biggest liability if they don’t feel this is true. Corporate storytelling would be a relatively simple matter were it not for people.

You can craft your core story down to a nicety, employing the full panoply of narrative principles until you have the very Booker prize of corporate comms. But if the story you tell and the reality that is experienced don’t match up, then your story will be just that, a story. A lie in fact. With a service or B2B brand this is largely determined by how employees and representative behave, or the personal relationships they build. As Wally Olins has observed, in such cases “the most important audience for the organization is its own people”. If a corporate story told through communications is a surrogate for the journey you want to take customers on, then this is where that journey gets real. The narrative buck stops here.

But it starts here too. If people are the ultimate problem here they are also the solution. Story is the most human-centric mode of communication we have. Because it ultimately resides in the hearts and imaginations of recipients, people are the true media of its truths. By helping to establish belief and belonging internally, story provides the master key for engaging the collection of individuals that make up an organisation. Belief and belonging are among the fundamental drivers of the human urge for narrative, and can help encourage desired behaviour by tapping into the powerful forces that have shaped our collective existence as a species.

Belief

The success of any story in any context depends in a large part on its believability. Even the wildest fictional fantasies have to remain plausible within the bounds they establish. Explaining the Whys and ways of the world is one of the most ancient functions of story. Such wisdom is the bedrock of belief, as understanding that things happen in predictable ways is a prelude to explaining why? The Whys of the empirical world can build communities of belief through narrative. For, as Brian Boyd points out, “religious convictions derive less from doctrine than from story”. The empirical can slide into the ethical if you have a master narrative explaining Why. Someone or something in charge. Belief becomes a potent cohesive and regulatory principle for any community, shaping its sense of where it has come from, how it should act and where it is going. Such belief can carry it through the wilderness years, and keep it focused on its destiny in a Land of Milk and Honey. Belief can move mountains, if the story enshrining this belief is compelling enough.

Humans are not particularly good at change. Yet the business world feeds on it, restlessly searching for new roads to riches, new worlds to conquer. Stories are also always about change. They introduce conflict to create dramatic interest, and build narrative momentum by resolving the problems they create. Whilst humans might resist imposed or unexplained change, they do like and need stories. It’s also likely that their own stories of selfhood involve personal goals, aspirations and journeys. We rule our lives through the stories we tell ourselves. About who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we believe we are heading. Employee is only one role we play in the complex dramas of our lives. Life is constantly throwing us experiences that we make sense of in terms of stories (memories, anecdotes, gossip). And we are constantly presented with stories that teach us all about life. Both aspects of storytelling are relevant in this context, with narrative providing a bridge between resistant individuals and insistent businesses.

Using story to affect change is what Stephen Denning’s famous concept of ‘The Springboard Story’ is all about. As he explains:

“A springboard story is a story that enables a leap in understanding by the audience so as to grasp how an organization or community or complex system may change. A springboard story has an impact not so much through transferring large amounts of information, but through catalyzing understanding. It enables listeners to visualize from a story in one context what is involved in a large-scale transformation in an analogous context”.

Such stories help leaders to bring about organisational change, and overcome resistance by appealing to the heart and imagination, rather than providing a whole load of rational justifications. Stories enable people to picture the future in inspirational ways, and see themselves as part of it. Inspire first, justify second; working back from the vision of changed realities with the steps that will take you there. For, as Denning points out: “Anyone who has a new idea and wants to change the world will do better telling stories than by offering any number of reasons”. Visionaries, messiahs and inspirational demagogues repeatedly illustrate this through history. The future is always envisaged through stories (both utopian and dystopian), and can provide ‘springboards’ into new realities through narrative.

If your own story isn’t inspiring enough, you can always borrow one. Not from a competitor or as a ‘me too’ bid to be something you are not, but from the great story archive we all carry around with us in our collective memory. Peter Guber’s book Tell To Win opens with a personal story about how he discovered the power of storytelling in a commercial context. Guber was a successful movie exec, whose company Columbia Pictures Entertainment was acquired by Sony in 1989. Gruber found himself CEO of a sinking, demoralised ship. His team lacked direction and any sense of belonging to an organisation “7,000 miles and a major culture gap away”. But Guber casts himself as a hero, determined to find a “creative way to persuade both Sony and the disparate, disgruntled band of executives I’d inherited to unite and play for the future. But how?”

Through inspirational storytelling, of course. They were in the business of stories, after all, and so Guber seized on the tale of Lawrence of Arabia, as immortalised by Peter O’Toole in Columbia’s iconic movie from 1962. In 1917 Lawrence attempted the impossible, uniting a disparate band of Arab tribes to attack a Turkish garrison defending its hold on Arabia at the now Jordanian port of Aqaba. Lawrence crossed the Nefud desert, believed to be impassable, to reach Aqaba while the Turks defended the sea. His success helped to bring a measure of unity among the Arabs, and expel the Ottoman’s from the region. It created a legend, was made into a film, and then a succinct mythical formula applied to a similarly impossible situation in early 90s Tinsletown. Guber distributed framed photos of O’Toole as Lawrence to all his execs, drew the analogy and only had to intone the rallying cry ‘Aqaba’ whenever their resolve faltered. The rest, according to Guber’s heroic retelling, is Hollywood history.

People respond to and participate in stories only when can find their relevance to their own personal narratives. Which is why something like ‘maximising shareholder value’ is not a story, or really even the makings of one. Those tasked with delivering this will want something a bit more inspiring and personally relevant if they are to help it come to pass. Participation through personal recognition is essential in this context. For, as Radley Yeldar’s Isabel Collins, explains, employees are unique “in that they are both actors and audiences in the story’s performance. This makes them arguably the most important and most critical audience in the equation”. Critical in all senses. If they don’t buy it, they won’t buy into it, and so will not play the role scripted for them.

The big inspirational narratives have an important role to play in ensuring people understand the vision, and sign up for the journey towards it. But these visions are nearly always utopian, and cannot be sustained indefinitely if they are not reinforced by narratives that connect directly with the individual actors’ roles in the collective drama. This is where individual stories have a role to play in supporting the vast span of the corporate or visionary narrative, which can collapse if it is not grounded in the daily reality of those tasked with delivering it.

Narrative brings things to life, making them tangible and relevant. This applies to specific issues as much as abstract ideals or motivating visions. The importance of health and safety or security vigilance is far more effectively understood and internalised through story. A code of conduct, or a list of rules is impossible to remember, and is far too dry or seemingly remote for most people who just want to get on with their jobs. Such documents usually dwell on ‘What’ – what’s expected of people – whereas ‘Why’ this ultimately matters is vital for building belief and affecting change. Story is great for explaining Why. It places issues in context and shows the consequences of actions through narrative. Stories illustrate the relationships between things, allowing people to see the bigger picture, and understand their own role within it.

Showing the bigger picture through storytelling was the objective of a series of safety films Radley Yeldar made for Network Rail. Network Rail is responsible for operating and maintaining the infrastructure and systems of Britain’s rail network.

Safety is, of course, of paramount importance, and so there is always a need to reinforce its principles throughout the whole organisation. For this network to operate efficiently it’s essential that an holistic view is taken, where people don’t just think about their own or their team’s role, but how what they do can have a knock on effect down the line.

The company commissioned a series of short films to promote such ‘System Safety’ thinking. This encouraged us to suggest breaking with the usual genre. A genre my colleague in Employee Engagement, Martin Skeet, calls “ketchup on the tracks”. As he explains, safety films tend to depict “something bad happening, and then draw the lesson from this about what you shouldn’t do”. They tend to be quite didactic. And so, because someone got it wrong, the defensive barriers can go up in the audiences, who might unconsciously resent an implied finger wagging. Such gruesome spectacles can also use up the experience in emotion, repelling people but leaving little room for the learning they are designed to convey.

So to break with the genre, Martin and his team suggested using humour, and a very different style to the usual slice-of-life melodramas. Humour can deal with difficult issues, but it can also break down barriers, and put people in a more receptive frame of mind. Celebrating what people did right encourages others to identify with the ‘hero’, thus reinforcing behaviour in a positive engaging way. To encourage this identification they used animation. Animation, as I suggested earlier, is great for universalising. In a complex, multi-faceted system such as a rail network, it’s vitally important that people do not think too locally. Realistic footage runs the risk of people focusing on the specifics rather than the bigger issue at hand: thinking “that’s not my region, that’s not my problem”.

So, the team created an illustrated diagram of the entire network, which they then brought to life through a series of animated incidents. A whole world was created, a bit like a 2-D Trumpton (yes, I’m very old), with each episode narrating a different incident somewhere in this big but connected world. These incidents were not Toy Town fantasies ’though. Each story was based upon real anecdotes and incidents gathered through consultation with people from controllers to trackside personnel.

My favourite is about a cow on the track, and how a potentially network-closing incident was averted by Dave the switched-on controller doing the right thing. The story literally reverses expectations, putting surprise to good effect by telling the story twice, with two different endings. The first depicts what might have happened, the potential threat to the system that reinforces the need for joined-up, System Safety thinking. The action then goes into reverse, and replays what actually happened, catastrophe (not to mention the usual sombre didacticism) averted with a happy ending. Using comedy rather than tragedy meant that professionalism could be celebrated, shared and reinforced. Real anecdotes and incidents could be circulated around the entire network through these films, building a community through storytelling, whilst encouraging bigger-picture thinking by means of a pooping animated cow.

Belonging

Belief is only one part of the equation for engaging internal audiences through story. It is incomplete without the emotional connection born of belonging. Belonging is another fundamental function and outcome of story, pointing to the role of narrative in tribal bonding. Sharing a common story powerfully brings a disparate group of individuals together to share common values and pursue common goals. As Jonathan Gottschall points out in his fascinating book The Storytelling Animal, the tribal function of storytelling goes very deep. He even suggests the rather counterintuitive, if not heretical, view (if you are Richard Dawkins) that religion may serve an evolutionary function enabled by sacred narrative. Bringing people together around a common code of belief and values can encourage cooperative behaviour vital to the survival of the tribe.

Stories don’t just reflect reality, they reinforce behavioural norms, creating cooperative communities bonded by ethical standards. Before writing, this could only be imparted orally, and narrative is the most effective means of ensuring messages live in the imagination and stick in the memory. Think of gossip, the most everyday manifestation of the human need to tell stories. As gossip circulates, so it regulates, sustaining tacit behavioural norms through the exchange of anecdote. Gossip, is of course, endemic in the corporate environment, a culture primed for using storytelling to far more constructive effect.

Sharing a story reinforces its ability to both move and bond individuals. As Gottschall reminds us, until relatively recently storytelling was predominantly a communal, performative activity: “For uncounted millennia, story was exclusively oral. A teller or actor attracted an audience, synced them up mentally and emotionally, and exposed them all to the same message”. Stories still have this potential. Gottschall prescribes a cinema visit to see this in action. Not to watch the movie, but the audience: “If the movie is good, the people will respond to it like a single organism. They will flinch together, gasp together, roar with laughter together, choke up together. A film takes a motley association of strangers and syncs them up. It choreographs how they feel and what they think ... Until the lights come up and the credits roll, a film makes people one”.

Making the many one – believing as one, belonging as one, behaving as one – is, of course gold dust for anyone seeking to influence a body of individuals. This is why propagandists find stories (as well as public rallies) far more effective than simply disseminating doctrine. Yet this influence needn’t be manipulative or malign, and can be used to simply ensure a corporate lives up to its name, and acts more purposefully as one body. Now, I’m not talking about creating lobotomised corporate clones. Quite the opposite. The unique power of stories is their ability to both individualise and universalise. By appealing to a common humanity, people are able to recognise their own selves and stories within broader narratives and step into the collective circle.

The very act of sharing individual stories can bring people together, as any campfire moment demonstrates. This is one of the main roles of narrative in the corporate setting for professional storytellers such as Annette Simmons, who proposes it as a far more effective and long-lasting people fixative than such ephemeral team-building stunts as white-water rafting or paintballing. Whilst these are immediately focused on action, humans are more likely to act as a community if they have things in common, and remember those things long after the adrenalin-stoked camaraderie has faded along with the stains and the bruises. Story gets to the heart of this commonality. Not only is it a powerful ‘choreographer’ of emotions as an experience, it is a powerful connector of human beings through the recognition of common experiences and values. The sharing of stories can serve a bonding role in its own right (a form of narrative grooming for besuited primates). But it also yields insights that contribute to the collective narrative lore of an organisation, providing anecdotal evidence of shared values, beliefs and goals.

Such connection is particularly useful when there is a need to erode entrenched divisions and silos within an organisation. Humans are fundamentally tribal animals, something that can work for good or ill, depending on where their allegiances reside. The tribal sentiment which narrative nurtures can also encourage divisiveness and foster cynicism if the centre of belonging is too locally focused. A sense of ‘Us’ is nearly always reliant on a ‘Them’. That’s fine if ‘Them’ are the competition, as a common enemy is a great way of unifying a tribe. Yet too often this focus fragments internally, with the principal ‘Them’ being another team within a division, another division on the same floor, another region, a recently acquired company, or those high up in the C-Suite who believe they are steering a happy ship all pulling in the same direction.

If the big story a company tells has no relevance or resonance for individuals or their tribes, these individuals are likely to subscribe to more localised narratives that undermine and fragment the official one. They will carry their own firmly held stories of grievance or indifference around with them, and you have to work hard to replace this with your own story. But you need to listen to those stories first. Individual stories, or stories belonging to a team, can provide a bridge between the personal and the collective. The big corporate story might appear too abstract and remote, without such intermediary narratives establishing connections. The individual story contributes to the team narrative, which in turn can find points of connection with the collective corporate narrative, and build a robust framework for belief and belonging.

A particularly acute need for such ‘narrative engineering’ is when there has been a merger or acquisition. It’s hardly surprising that the alliance of two formerly warring tribes might not be an immediate recipe for communal bliss. An acquired/merged company may lose its name, move to new premises, be subsumed within an apparently indifferent entity, but you can be sure collective identity will remain through the stories it tells itself. Stories helped keep the Children of Israel together through the centuries of captivity and exile. “Yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion”. They can do the same in what might feel like exile in a new company, perpetuating fragmentation and dissent.

Such tribal lore can be turned to positive account if it is given space and makes its contribution. No doubt the new parent paid a lot for the company, it may as well use the stories not featured on the corporate lawyers balance sheets, but which in the long term may make all the difference. Listen to these stories. Let them make their contribution. “We do things differently”. Great. Explain how. If such anecdotes become part of the collective lore of the company – through case studies, insights, a new values set – then it is more likely that the two tribes will start to become one, and set their warring sights on a new common enemy residing two steel and glass encampments along.

Collect, Celebrate, Circulate should be the mantra for a corporate storytelling culture. Not broadcast. The many are more likely to become the one, if the many (stories) support and feed into the one, rather than vice versa. A corporate story built from the ground up is far more likely to bear the weight of its ambition, and brave the tempests of circumstance. The plurality of stories is a strength to be celebrated rather than heresy to be suppressed, and goes with the grain of how storytelling is developing in the broader communications landscape.

As will be explored shortly, developments in digital media have started to erode established distinctions between internal and external, brand owner and brand audience. Social media externally finds its counterpart internally in the form of ‘Social Enterprise’ platforms such as Yammer, which are increasingly replacing intranets for circulating information internally. The more fluid exchanges people have come to take for granted through their external networks draw attention to the limitations of the more top-down, command and control mode of communication within. Platforms such as Yammer are great for allowing the horizontal flow of ideas to find collective solutions to corporate needs, and for empowering individual ‘actors’ in the collective corporate production. And, like their counterparts externally are perfect for circulating and celebrating people’s stories.

Such sharing is particularly appropriate when it comes to the issue of corporate ‘Values’. Most companies have a set of values. They often list them, sometimes explain them, and occasionally live by them. A way of connecting people more closely to a company through values, is asking them what they value about the company. This can help align personal value sets with the corporate ones, allowing people to recognise and ‘own’ them as personally relevant. It’s also likely to generate stories when you ask for examples of these values in action. These might not always be the ones it officially proclaims, as I recently had occasion to witness.

A company was pretty clear about what its corporate values were, and engaged us to help disseminate them through communications. We conducted a series of workshops designed to gather individual stories that demonstrated these agreed values in action. Yet what we discovered was a mine of anecdotes that consistently pointed to a different, more distinctive, more authentic set of values than the ones agreed in advance, and which reflected how the company felt it ought to be perceived. These revelations at first created something of a crisis; but the exec eventually recognised a truer reflection of itself in these authentic stories. Gathering and sharing the stories that reflected its values had a greater longer-term value than the communications tasked with circulating them. The company found its true self through narrative.

Companies don’t have values. People do. A company that celebrates and circulates its people’s stories demonstrating values at work creates a much more credible and cohesive sense of belonging than one that advertises adjectives paired with clip art around the office walls. Adjectives remain abstractions without real stories to illustrate them. ‘Performance’ is not something you talk about, it is something you demonstrate. That goes for Integrity, Teamwork, Customer focus, and all the usual words companies intone in the hope that such incantatory rhetoric will magically make it true.

Words do have magic. They cast their spell more powerfully when they are formed into stories, and are more convincing and influential when those stories are true.

Through the Digital Universe

The web is a foreign country. They do things differently there. I’m advised to remember this every time I work on a digital project. The rules are constantly being rewritten. The status quo is perpetual revolution. Multiple platforms, micro-segmentation of users, audience empowerment through social media, all potentially lead to fragmentation of story, dilution of brand. The old push model of corporate monologue won’t wash. Users want to pull in content where and when they want it, tailored to their needs, answerable to their views, from sources they trust. They are ‘always on’, on the move and have little time and even less patience. If it’s not real-time and relevant, adaptive to their devices you’ve lost them. What role can storytelling – perfected in literary and cinematic media, and associated with the broadcast mindset of traditional marketing – play in this topsy turvy, constantly moving, audience empowered world? Must we totally rethink everything that has gone before?

Not entirely. Whilst we shouldn’t expect the old-world means and methods to slot neatly into these new channels and circumstances, we shouldn’t be so overawed by the differences or so overwhelmed by the technology, that we lose sight of the common denominator surviving into even these turbulent times: human nature. As long as it is human beings who are creating and participating in digital experiences there will be a role for story. We just need to be more resourceful about how its principles are applied. Even more clear, more coherent, and especially more connected.

Standing out

If the first principle of story is clarity, then this couldn’t be more needed here. Online content creation cries out for the discipline of storytelling. Pare it down. Signpost it clearly. Cut out the jargon. Manage the details. Keep lines and paragraphs short, with one idea per paragraph. As users scan rather than consume content, you have to be extra vigilant to ensure they cannot miss the point, obscured by a wall of waffle or buried deep in some dungeon of detail. Web users are a peculiarly impatient species, we are told. They are trying to do a thousand things at once, and are besieged by distractions. You are merely one possible source for what they are looking for. They will devote very little time to looking for it. Attention, it would appear, is at a premium online.

Attention, according to Brian Boyd, is also a major psychological component of storytelling. Whilst it might be in particularly urgent need now, it has also played a key role in our evolution as a species. As his On the Origin of Stories explains, the old social Darwinist view that evolution rewards selfishness has been largely rejected, with evolutionists now stressing the adaptive advantages of cooperation within a social unit. However individuals still need to compete within these units. For resources, but also for maternal love. As Boyd puts it, “The more dominant the primate, the more attention others direct towards him or her”. And he references the inordinate amount of attention the media still bestows upon the rich and famous as a measure of their success. But he also explains how storytelling has attention-grabbing and gratifying built into its very machinery: “We crave acceptance and, if possible, respect, prestige and status because of the difference they can make. Since the attention art can command offers both a first payout of status and a base for latter dividends, artists can be strongly driven by the desire for wide, high or long-lasting attention”.

The bard, the jester, the stand-up comedian, and the class clown all find a route to preferment in the attention-grabbing dynamics of storytelling. If story can keep a drowsy (and despotic) emperor awake above the uproar of his court, it can surely work on impatient analysts and journalists on a crowded tube train. Whilst there may not be time to ask “are you sitting comfortably”? the means to grab attention and hold an audience have been perfected through millennia of narrative practice.

If the corporate website is a window on your world, it needs to be kept crystal clear, with your story prominently displayed for immediate standout. Video is a great way for achieving this online. For once I’ll briefly bombard you with some facts and statistics, as these particular stats are quite attention grabbing in their own right.

Research found that web pages that include video have a fifty percent better chance of appearing on the first page of a Google search, and deliver a higher click-through rate as the content really stands out in text-based results lists. The advantage starts with Google’s optimising richer content. Video pulls us in.

Another study found that whilst ninety percent of internet users leave a text site in four seconds, sixty percent leave in that time if video is on the home page. The same study found that visitors who remain linger for an average of five minutes and fifty seconds on a site featuring video, as opposed to forty-two seconds for a text-based site. Video keeps us there too.

We’re not talking YouTube yoofs looking for performing pets here. Forbes Magazine surveyed US corporate executives about their online habits, and found that nearly sixty percent of their survey said they would watch video before reading text on the same web page. And seventy-five percent watch work-related video on business websites at least once a week. Twenty-six percent watch website business video daily. Video brings us back for more. Forbes also found that sixty-five percent of their survey had visited a vendor’s website after watching a video hosted elsewhere; whilst fifty-three percent have conducted a search to locate more information. Moving Image moves us to act too.

Of course, there’s video and there’s video. Whilst this is obviously a popular medium for engaging audiences online, the gnat-like attention of web users demands that you have to gratify what you have grabbed. Fifty-three percent of viewers click away from online video within one minute. So, either the videos hosted need to be brutally succinct, or so irresistibly compelling and well-crafted that they convert clickers away into stickers around, gratifying the attention you’ve grabbed with a clear and coherent narrative experience.

And that’s where the challenges really start.

Joining up

As everyone knows, stories are supposed to have beginnings, middles and ends. Even the films of David Lynch or Tarantino, who push sequential narrative to the limits, eventually throw their audiences a line. A thread is there to be found if we are prepared to search for it. But online audiences probably aren’t. You can’t control the beginnings and middles of web journeys, let alone the ends. The beginning is where the user joins it (which could be anywhere if they’ve Googled in), and the end is when they say it is. The middle will be very short if they can’t navigate swiftly and smoothly to what they need. Coherence, as I’ve argued, is essential for turning otherwise random messages into a story. Yet randomness is what the web is all about.

The discipline of User Experience (UX) has evolved specifically to answer this need. And as the following succinct description suggests, UX might simply be considered web jargon for storytelling:

“A user journey is a path a user may take to reach their goal when using a particular website. User journeys are used in designing websites to identify the different ways to enable the user to achieve their goal as quickly as possible”. (Experience Solutions.co.uk).

Apart from the final reference to speed, this definition would serve perfectly well for the concept of ‘throughline’ essential to the fictional and dramatic arts. Entertainment stories use a character’s throughline as their goal and motivating purpose, they then put obstacles in their path to create the conflict upon which drama thrives. UX is also about character development, relying on archetypal ‘personae’ to ensure core user demographics achieve their objectives. These characters, like their fictional counterparts, have back stories, names, ambitions, hobbies and obsessions, but above all goals. Then different scenarios are scripted to ensure these characters reach their goals under various circumstances.

In UX individual web pages are considered “decision points that carry the user from one step to another”. Decisions are what fictional characters and website users take on their journeys. Narrative, as I’ve argued, is a problem-solving mechanism. And this applies to functionality as much as to fun. In entertainment stories the structured journey is an end in itself. In online communications it is an efficient means to a defined end. UX ponders the same questions as storytellers – of motivation, direction and context – to create coherent narrative journeys.

That’s the theory. Yet even if users don’t stick rigidly to the UX plot, like audiences of Tarantino or Lynch, they might just create narrative order themselves. The human brain likes to make connections and find patterns, and gains pleasure from solving problems. Remember the sage advice of the screenwriter that films should give audiences 2 + 2 rather than 4? Online you probably can’t give them 4 directly anyway. But users might just piece together 2 + 2, or even 1 + 1 + 1 + 1. Yet only if the content is compelling, and the website functions as a storytelling channel, a showcase for the individual stories that engage audiences with your core brand narrative. This, of course, starts with a clear idea what that story is, which then informs editorial policy on what content supports it with on-the-ground examples. A corporate website can serve as a live storytelling feed, connecting with audiences, through real, relevant and timely stories about what you do and why it matters.

I was recently involved in a project that had this principle at the centre of the brief. GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the global healthcare company, wanted to redesign its corporate website. This had outgrown its origins and needed to move to a Content Management System. The CMS would allow the company to rethink its online communication priorities, whilst a more adaptable interface design would mean it could share its story in more engaging ways with all its stakeholders. GSK already had a great story, defined by its mission: “to improve the quality of human life by enabling people to do more, feel better and live longer”.

Yet GSK is a complex organisation, driven by scientific research and development, and ultimately answerable to its shareholders. The need to connect what might be going on in the lab (such as a breakthrough vaccine in the late stages of tests), with the knowledge-hungry demands of the investment community, often meant the human impact stories about why they do this got buried too many layers down. Factor in GSK’s ownership of consumer healthcare brands such as Ribena, Lucozade and Panadol, and you have a diverse mix of audiences and messages to bring together in one place.

We thought the “Do More. Feel Better. Live Longer” strapline could help here, by doing a lot more itself. So we proposed using it as the narrative thread connecting the stories GSK showcased online. There was a wealth of great potential stories, but the website had outgrown its Information Architecture, meaning higher-value and impact content was often buried. The great stories needed to reach the surface. And so, while we ensured the investment and scientific communities, journalists and career seekers could easily access the information they sought, we also wanted the site to provide a more immersive experience in the company’s narrative.

GSK’s core story was relevant to all those audiences, and so we designed a prominent section of the homepage which invited all users to ‘Explore GSK’. This opened a window on GSK’s world by explaining their impact around the globe. The mix of stories showed the breadth of their operations, across pharmaceutical, vaccine and consumer healthcare, but with Doing More, Feeling Better, Living Longer providing the theme and focus for what this all added up to. This thread was woven consistently through the site architecture, ensuring wherever you were, and however you got there, you understood what GSK was all about. By inviting users to explore GSK’s story about life, we brought their own story to life online.

Joining in

With compelling content clearly displayed, and coherent user journeys, a corporate website can be a great place for companies to tell their stories. But is this what online audiences are looking for? Are they not principally looking for information? If your story gets in the way of that need, then it will have precisely the opposite effect it was designed to have. And a corporate site may actually be the last place people now go to access the information they need, relying on their networks, third-party forums or blogs before seeing what the company itself has to say. For story to survive and thrive online it has to adapt to customs of the country. Content may still be king, but it is reduced to a constitutional monarch in these democratised times. It has to work closely with first minister Context, and is ultimately answerable to new power in the realm: the User.

Users are on the move, always on, and expect content to scale to their devices and adapt to their needs. Demanding “Great content spread through social media and consumed anywhere”, as one recent report on digital marketing trends summed it up. One-size-fits-all won’t wash anymore. Design needs to be adaptive, allowing content to flow to different devices, and scale to different contexts – desktop or laptop, tablet, smartphone or traditional phone; at work, on the move or at home. Content owners now need to author once and publish many times, and can no longer see the corporate website as the central broadcasting hub. Broadcast is no longer tenable, as users increasingly demand far more tailored content, depending on their circumstances and preferences. They don’t want stuff pushed at them, but want to pull in what they are looking for.

And who are these ‘users’? Do they really conform to the categories of Investors, Media, Careers, Corporate, or Customers we’ve traditionally labelled them with? Such labels might make content creation and management easier for companies, but do not necessarily reflect the way users access information. On any given day, a business customer might also be a potential investor, a potential employee, or a consumer of the product or service. And then next day it’s all change. So it’s better to think of mindsets and behaviours rather than such rigid and internally-focused designations, when adapting content to audience. A ‘Dater Miner’ one day may be a ‘Rapid Reader’ the next, or grow into a ‘Brand Ambassador’ through time. Really understanding the mindsets and behaviours of users, demands a more human-centric approach to communicating. The more the user is in the ascendant, the more channel owners have to subordinate their own communication objectives to the demands and habits of individual users, the more they have to rethink how they attempt to tell their story online.

If mobility of users is creating the need for a new way to share content, adapted to their restless habits and precise demands, then this potentially turns the journey metaphor for stories on its head. By making it real. In the relatively ‘passive’ media of print, screen or stage, involvement is achieved through empathy. Audiences imaginatively put themselves in the protagonist’s shoes, and are moved to understand the message or moral of the story by this emotional connection. The story ‘transports’ audiences. The storyteller takes people with them, if only in imagination. In this new mobile media environment, audiences actually are on a journey. It’s their say whether you are allowed to accompany them. And so it’s down to you to keep up with them, shaping your story to the journey they are on. The roles and relationships are reversing. The user doesn’t identify with the hero. He or she is the hero, engaging with the content, being part of the story, going on the never-ending journey in real-time.

Letting go

The technological revolution has achieved what all revolutions, by definition, eventually accomplish. It has come full circle. The touch screen environment symbolised by the tablet (and tablets of clay or wax were one of the earliest media for written communication), puts a premium on manual dexterity as of no time since perhaps when primates first evolved elongated opposable thumbs and gained technological mastery of their world. It is happening again in the virtual world of information and the machinery of its dissemination. Digital technology is now quite literally that, as the humble finger becomes the preferred tool of the tuned-in info seeker on his or her joined-up journey through the day. Technology has made itself invisible, and shaped itself intuitively to human form. Humanity is back on top, and steadily wresting control of the media once preserved for the few, to tell its own stories. We have moved through a communications cycle: from oral to written; written to technologically-restricted reproduction and dissemination by the few to the many; to the technologically-enabled sharing of the many with the many.

In April 1999, when the corporate world was preparing for the Y2K time bomb that never exploded, a band of disruptive web visionaries identified an incendiary quietly ticking away that finally has. The Cluetrain Manifesto consisted of 95 theses about how the internet was developing and what this might ultimately mean for businesses and their audiences. It claimed to be “lobbing bombs”, but also “optimistic” about what it foresaw. It spoke of conversations, connections, a human-centric web, and networks as “markets” which operated like the physical marketplaces of old, where people met, exchanged stories, traded gossip and ideas as much as goods. One thesis stated that: “People in networked markets have figured out that they get far better information and support from each other than from vendors. So much for corporate rhetoric about adding value to commoditized products”. In this, and other prescient proclamations The Cluetrain has finally delivered.

If this were only a technological revolution it would not have mobilised so many people. It would not have created such a groundswell. ‘The groundswell’ is the term Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff use to describe this massive upsurge in peer-to-peer networking. And to those who would seek to pitch their marketing tent in this avalanche of consumer empowerment they issue the following challenge: “Start by admitting that you are no longer in charge… Your brand is whatever your customers say it is. And in the groundswell where they communicate with each other, they decide”. A brand has always been what customers say it is. It’s just that until recently those customers’ ability to broadcast their views about the brand has been relatively restricted.

Not any more.