How to Develop your Story
They say everyone’s got a novel inside them. I’m not so sure. I’ve worked in publishing, and seen Reject Manuscript Mountain. It’s a depressing sight. If there really is a novel in everyone, not everyone has what it takes to get it out and share it with the world. Robert McKee has called story “the hardest thing we all do”. The good news is, because we all ‘do’ story, we are all instinctively experts in what makes a well-told tale. We just have to remember and embrace this in the business context. And so, whilst not everyone has a publishable novel or blockbuster screenplay in them, every business has a story to tell. If you truly know your business you can tell your story. You don’t have to create a work of art, but you can learn from them – applying what works in the story business to your business story.
The quest for your story
Cinema again provides the most useful model for doing this. You could say cinema has perfected the fine art of narrative compulsion for commercial ends. And whilst commerciality probably smothers too much creativity at birth, the industry still manages to tell stories that make sense and move people. These stories work because they tend to draw repeatedly on archetypes that have served the industry since its infancy. Some of these classic plots go back to the very origins of storytelling, yet remain useful, relevant and bankable today. Hollywood continues to find a market for its products not because they are perennially new, but reassuringly old. Or as Jonah Sachs recently put it, perfectly summing up the power of mythic narratives in any context:
“These tales are deeply ingrained in our DNA, and no matter where or when you were born, certain patterns of stories will influence you enormously. When we hear stories based on these patterns, we feel more like we’re remembering something forgotten than learning something new”.
Not every new film is a Classic, but the ones that work tend to be based on them at some level. Pouring new wine into very old bottles for successive generations.
This archetypal emphasis should reassure and embolden any company tempted to despair that it might not have anything ‘original’ to say as the makings of its story. If a multi-billion-dollar industry can repeatedly riffle through the Seven Basic Plots and still find infinite capacity for invention; if the human taste for heroics can connect across the centuries that divide Beowulf (the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, not the 2007 movie), and Wolverine III (which I assume is either in production or out already by the time you read this), then any company who trusts in the power and techniques of storytelling can share its own tale with the world.
Of all the identifiable archetypes perhaps the most universal, and most relevant for our purposes, is the quest narrative. Nearly every epic falls into this category, from the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh to Lord of The Rings, via Pilgrim’s Progress, to James Joyce’s Ulysses and O Brother Where Art Thou (both based on Homer’s Odyssey). This is Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces, constituting what he called the ‘monomyth’ of the hero’s journey. As Campbell describes it in his introduction:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Campbell claimed this myth was identifiable in the stories of Christ and The Buddha, as well as Homer’s Odysseus, and has subsequently inspired that of Luke Skywalker. Quest narratives reveal the close relationship between stories and journeys, as they follow the hero’s journeying to find some Grail, but ultimately to find him or herself. Some quest narratives only involve metaphorical journeys, with the questor journeying into him or herself to find enlightenment or discover their true identity. And whilst this might appear to be stretching a point for the purposes of artistic classification, it does show the robust flexibility of its basic structure, and how it might prove useful as a working model for developing a core corporate narrative. Or, to put it another way, you don’t have to be in the travel business to find the journey archetype useful here.
That’s the power of archetypes. They are applicable anywhere. Their universality allows us to look beyond the local details of what a business actually does, to identify a core truth that might form the basis of a story. The hero may be dressed in armour, bearing the shield of Arthurian allegiance, or in uniform wearing the badge of LAPD; but he or she is setting out to find something. These heroes find themselves a whole lot wiser at the end, and we the audience journey with them, share in the wisdom they gain and imaginatively apply it to our own desires and circumstances. That’s why quests and journeys provide the perfect models for our purposes. They have knowledge, experience and momentum locked into their very structure. For as George Clooney’s character in O Brother keeps saying, “Everybody’s looking for answers”. And every company has a yearning desire to get ‘somewhere’, to get on. Stagnation is as destructive to business as it is to dramatic fiction. Your story is the surrogate for the journey of discovery and fulfilment you promise. If the story inspires, coheres and compels, then customers will be inclined to embark on that journey with you.
Scripting a core story
We often use the following exercise at workshops, helping clients develop their own core story by looking to Hollywood. The session adapts a version of the classic story arc structure employed in countless movies. Comprising:
1. Introducing the hero’s world
2. The quest identified
3. The journey, involving trials and challenges
4. The resolution: the hero’s transformed world is re-established.
You can identify this structure underlying the majority of Hollywood movies, adapting a basic outline that has served storytellers since at least the days of Aristotle.
What follows is an overview of a half-day story development workshop. It’s designed to provide a starting point for thinking about using the discipline of creative story development to define a company’s brand offer. I should point out that, although I’m drawing on an archetypal pattern made visible in countless Hollywood treatments, this doesn’t involve applying Archetypal Psychology to the business of brand building. That’s a whole different discipline, beyond the scope of this discussion, and more readily applicable to consumer product branding. Whilst a product brand can usefully model itself on a human type – be these Rebels, Sages, or Jesters – so that it resonates at a deep unconscious level with consumers, a company is already crammed full of human beings. Their collective history, culture, values, ambitions and energies contribute to who it uniquely is, or could be. A product brand can be whatever it needs to be, based on opportunity or perceived need, a corporate brand needs to enter into dynamic dialogue between who it is and who it wants to be. If archetypes are used they need to be reflections of an authentic reality, defined by culture; rather than entirely projections of an ideal self.
The workshop methodology is designed for companies who want to discover or re-discover their core stories. It might be used as part of a brand development process (with the due diligence of interviews, audits, consultation and visual development all playing their allotted roles). Story, as I’ve suggested, is often a more acceptable term than brand in some places. And so using a story development workshop for a specific communications task might open new horizons for the company and its brand. The journey we are about to go on may be the start of a bigger journey still.
the ero’s world
Every fictional story starts by introducing the hero and the world in which he or she lives. This establishes the normality that will soon be disrupted by the events of the narrative. A story needs a hero, and it is also useful to think about any brand or business in heroic terms. For a start it encourages singularity of focus. Even superheroes can’t be all things to all people, or they risk being bland or confusing.
In a start up or less-established company the hero is likely to resemble the founders. They are the story as it currently stands, but what heroic qualities are they blessed with? In what way are they going to change the world? A charismatic CEO might be the media face of the company, and the first PR reference point. But can the company’s story really be carried on one man or woman’s shoulders? The limitations of that are obvious, given the average churn at the top. It’s unwise to put all your egos in one basket when seeking to develop a sustainable story. Branson is Branson, but we also know what he stands for, and how this runs through every venture Virgin embarks on. And so, whilst it’s useful to imagine an individual ‘hero’ when thinking about the company’s story, this is largely an analogy. A corporate brand should be like an individual, but not exclusively embodied in one.
Thinking of your brand as a hero, and taking him or her on the classic journey of self-discovery encourages us to get to the heart of your offer, the motivating Why it ultimately matters. This heroic structure helps identify the big idea at the heart of your brand, which allows you to develop its story. We start by taking stock of our hero’s world in the here and now. Covering the following broad themes:
Where have you come from?
Who is important to you?
What do you value?
Who do you compete with?
What presents a threat to your world?
What do people say about you?
Some of these questions will be more relevant than others, and some will prove more difficult to tease out or gain agreement on. It’s useful at this stage to consider a company’s heritage, or, in screenwriting parlance the ‘back story’ to the narrative. Where the hero has come from may play a defining role in his or her identity and motivations. The company’s founding vision, the challenges it has already overcome, even its ‘family tree’ (if it has come about through a whole series of alliances), may be relevant to the story we are now shaping. We may even be chronicling a corporate legend of ancient standing. But a heritage story isn’t right for everyone. And as many quest narratives show, back story often holds the hero back. Think of all those flashbacks explaining why a hero suddenly doubts his or her abilities at a crucial moment. It’s best to get this all out in the open before we start. Heritage might contribute to who you are, but you need to assess what is useful from the past going forward. You can’t take everything with you on your journey. It will only weigh you down.
Who is important to the hero? Will this change, does it need to? Who are the principal beneficiaries of your business, the most important audiences for your story? It is worth identifying them on setting out, as you must be accountable to them later. This means internal stakeholders and audiences as well as external. Is the hero an independent loner, free to define his or her own destiny, or forge fruitful alliances down the road? Or are you part of a family, with a Group of different siblings or brand offspring crowding around? Do they contribute to your story, or hold you back?
If there is a hero there must be an antagonist, or a set of forces determined to thwart his or her progress. After all, it is often the arrival of a threat that encourages the hero to first show heroic properties, and embark on the journey. A common enemy is one of the most powerful means for galvanising any company into defining who it is, and rallying together to oppose it. Knowing who you are not and why – “we just don’t do things like that”… X would be quite happy to do that, but we would take a different route” – can be really useful in forming the nub of a story. Knowing who you are is partly knowing who you are not (as the showdowns between the likes of Apple and Microsoft; Coke and Pepsi; Virgin and the World testify).
This threat might not take the form of competitors, but can be found in external forces that compel the hero to put up a fight or take a different course. These might be the circumstances that have encouraged the company to take stock of who it is, and where it needs to go as enshrined in its new story. The story it tells and the story it lives may be the much-needed catalyst to a new future. But these threats may more insidiously and dangerously lurk within. No hero is perfect, else we mortals couldn’t identify with him or her. It is the imperfections that the narrative puts to the test. As the hero might have to vanquish his or her own demons to fulfil his or her destiny, so a company may have to come to terms with things that hold it back and prevent it moving forward. These demons – constituting the shadowy counterparts of the hero’s own ideal image – might represent the threat of what you will become if you do not embark on your transformative journey. Dealing with these at the set up means they are more easily identified and vanquished when they are encountered later.
Every hero has special qualities, the powers or weapons that will protect him or her, and be sorely tested during the course of adventures. What are yours? What makes you special? This is a common question when defining brands; but putting it in this journey framework helps to focus the mind on whether such qualities are useful or sustainable. Are these the strengths and values that can equip you for the road ahead? These might evolve in response to the journey, or you may need to acquire new ones along the way. The narrative mindset and forward focus involved in developing a story encourage a rigorous examination of values, helping to challenge complacency about the values you might believe are fixed in stone. Will they serve you well on the journey? If not, the questor needs to challenge them.
Finally, what do people say about you? In the press, around the industry, even internally? Are you happy with this, or do you want to be more in control of this reputation, by proving you are able to create a different reality? A useful exercise for drawing this out is to imagine the company’s epitaph. What would people say about you if you expired tomorrow? Would it be the sad tale of potential unfulfilled, a life half lived? If so, lament not. There’s still time to change all that. The journey hasn’t even begun.
Conflict is the essence of drama, and through conflict change. The call to go on a quest brings about that conflict, representing a classic example of what Aristotle – the world’s first story theorist – called ‘The Inciting Incident’. The well-made Aristotelian drama is usually in three parts, with a beginning, middle and end. The story really starts with this incident, which kick starts the action by presenting a problem to be solved. At their most basic, dramatic narratives are problem-solving mechanisms. You set a problem up in The Inciting Incident, and make your hero solve it (but never easily), through the twists and turns of the narrative. In a quest narrative this initiates the search for whatever is needed to resolve the crisis. And so the journey begins. The hero might not want to go on the journey, and be quite happy with things as they are. But stasis is not an option. If things stayed the same there would be no drama, no story. Even superheroes have to prove themselves occasionally.
Journeys always involve challenges, even sacrifices. What’s important now might not always be so. The journey helps us understand and accept that. One of the major advantages of imagining the company as an archetypal hero is the objectivity this affords. An archetype universalises, and so de-personalises sufficiently to allow people to imagine other possible futures freed from the past or politics. As Oscar Wilde put it, “Give [a man] a mask and he will tell you the truth”. We’re not talking about role playing here (although that can prove useful in places), so much as identifying what’s important to our hero on his or her journey. The hero can only retain what’s useful to fulfil the quest. And so going along with the logic and momentum demanded by story can help companies let go of some dearly held sacred principles going forward. Going forward is what narrative, and ultimately business is all about.
The identification of a quest, a Grail to aspire to, helps us imagine the different realities the hero could occupy, serving ultimately as a catalyst for change. The quest journey may actually reinforce the need to restore order, or go back to basics, in the face of imposed change. If so, then like the hero in the story, the self-knowledge gained through the quest is invaluable and well worth the journey. Remember, quest journeys usually have a metaphorical dimension (testimony to their deep psychological resonance), with the hero proving he or she has the strength to respond to challenges. Heroes often return from their journeying, and know the place they left for the first time. That’s what Dorothy learns from Oz, and Gulliver discovers on his Travels; understanding either the blessings or shortcomings of the worlds they temporarily left behind.
This exercise can therefore put an existing corporate or brand strategy through its paces, road-testing it through the rigours of the journey undertaken to turn it into a story. We’re now deep into the dynamics of storytelling as perfected by the dream-dealers of the silver screen, and so we can give full scope to imaginative inventiveness that defines their ability to touch and move millions. So, the big question posed at this stage is:
What is your vision, your goal, your Grail?
Most companies will have a vision somewhere about the organisation. They may even have a Big Hairy Audacious Goal roaming their corridors, like some Yeti yet to be captured (or accomplished). Identifying the quest for the corporate story provides a good opportunity to dust off the vision or see if the goal is quite as big, hairy and audacious as it needs to be. Thinking in terms of a quest gives the task of defining the focus for the corporate story a singularity and inspirational urgency that might be lacking in an existing vision or goal. The screenwriter or author constantly asks him or herself, what does my protagonist want? This informs the ‘throughline’, and it should for yours too. The problem with many corporate visions is they tend not to be all that visionary or focused enough. Vision suggests clarity, something you can see, almost touch, it is so distinct and real. We’re back to the need for stories to have focus, sharp-edged definition instead of woolly sentiments or rhetoric. Story helps you make your vision visible. When a hero has the vision that sends him or her on their quest there is no ambiguity about the goal. They reach out to touch it, but it dissolves, and so they set out to find it. Realising the vision becomes the goal.
‘Grail’ might be a more useful term here. Evoking both vision and goal, this romance archetype has entered common parlance as a metaphor for a mission of singular intent. The Grail of your narrative should also be crystal clear, luminous in its tangibility and achievability; but also aspirational and inspirational. Would it allow your story to stand out distinctly enough from your competitors’? Is it precise and lucid in its details, but also missionary enough to motivate people to pursue it, and transform your business story? The story of a business transformed. It’s useful to really picture this changed reality before setting out, and question whether you have what it takes for achieving it now, or whether you are prepared to change. If your existing corporate vision or goal has these qualities, then they can contribute to the Grail of your narrative. If not, then push harder before setting out. No conflict, no drama, no story.
I’m not suggesting you now have to put ‘Grail’ alongside vision and BHAG on the shelf of things you ought to have or need to say. Rather, by applying the rigours demanded of well-made narrative, you can bring greater clarity, coherence and momentum to that strategy. Story puts strategy to the test. Its role is to distil strategic thinking – demanding a streamlined singularity of focus that has no room for woolly (or even hairy) thinking. The quest for your Grail is simply a means to an end here. It helps to road-test the robustness and usefulness of any existing strategic thinking, by exploring whether it stands up or stands out strongly enough to be the basis of your story. If you can imagine your future in terms of a clear and compelling story, then it is more likely to be realisable. Trial by narrative, if you will, tested by the rigours and disciplines of the journey.
The Grail identified, this becomes the inspirational focus of the story you are developing, and the ‘throughline’ of the narrative you start to plot out. It’s now time to put it and your own heroic mettle to the test. The hero often comes to a crossroads soon after setting out, and faces the first challenge to his or her resolve. You also need to be absolutely certain of the direction you propose taking with your story before you develop it much further. Start by questioning the Grail itself, put the proposed theme and focus of your story on trial. Literally, if it helps. Elect some devil’s advocates to question the proposed direction. There are bound to be a few sceptics in the group anyway, so dragoon them into defending it. Make its firmest advocates the ones who pull it apart.
Start with the big question: ‘ Who cares if this is the theme and focus of your story?’ Is it compelling, differentiating, motivating? Will it make a difference to anyone? Especially those who matter most to you. This might even involve some role playing (as we are now in full dramatic flight), with people representing the perspectives of various stakeholder groups. The audiences identified at the outset can now raise some challenges, repeatedly questioning ‘What’s in it for me?’ This helps to ensure your road trip doesn’t turn into an ego trip. The story you tell, the direction you take, needs to be compelling for those that matter most to you. If not, take another path. It’s better to go back to the drawing board than to head off in the wrong direction, and end up in Vanity Fair or even the Slough of Despond.
The dramatic insistence of conflict as the essence of narrative finds its counterpart in the need to identify a real problem to solve. The need you fulfil, the difference you make, should have an urgency and relevance to it. If not, it probably doesn’t have the makings of a compelling story, nor a very compelling brand offer. How urgent will depend on the sector in which you operate, and your appetite for conflict. A challenger brand eats conflict for breakfast, and generally has a good story to tell as a consequence. A charity or a pharmaceutical company has a clear and urgent fight to fight, and so by identifying the conflict at the heart of its offer, it can build a core narrative that casts itself as the heroic champion of a manifest need. A little conflict goes a long way in this field. So a bank may wish to tread carefully when identifying the need it meets, to remain in the zone of credibility or comfort.
And yet every brand should be able to articulate its offer, and that offer needs to supply a need and inevitably solve its customer’s problems. Problems imply conflicts, and resolution of conflicts is what stories love to get stuck into. It’s best to think big and heroically in these passages dedicated to conflict, as you can always tone it down later when you come to share your tale.
The next challenge involves proving you have what it takes. This is where the big story idea symbolised by your Grail gets real, with some feet-on-the-ground examples to support it. As some of the most compelling narratives carry the legend, ‘based on a true story’, so one of the best ways of ensuring a corporate story can deliver on its promises is to found it on anecdotal evidence residing in the company. As I explain in more detail in my chapter dedicated to storytelling in Employee Engagement, getting people to share stories of what they value about the company can provide a powerful means of building a shared sense of belief and belonging in an organisation. And it can unearth some promising material to use in developing and supporting the core brand narrative.
Such anecdotes constitute a form of corporate wisdom; and gaining special wisdom is a key stage in most quest narratives. Such wisdom might just provide the magic keys to unlock the insights needed to complete the quest. Narrative riches might be found in the anecdotal treasure you already have.
And so, after a series of trials, setbacks, and crises, the hero gets close to fulfilling the mission. He or she then usually suffers a near-fatal reversal of fortunes towards the end, demanding one final burst of heroic resourcefulness. Do you really have what it takes to deliver what you propose? The people, products, processes, culture to make the story you tell a consistent reality? Could you tell it now, and be able to deliver on what it promises? Probably not. Or if you could, it may be your Grail is quite visionary enough, and you are missing an opportunity for using your story to move your business into a new reality. So what needs to change? Are you prepared to see this through? This involves some real soul searching, and will probably raise some doubts and dissent about going forward.
The archetypal quest narrative often involves at least one trip to the Underworld at a critical moment such as this. The hero is confronted by shades of the departed who impart vital knowledge, or issue warnings that help complete the quest. Similarly, you may need to employ your equivalent of this experience by invoking the epitaphs you devised earlier. If you turn back now, falter in your resolve, and not complete your quest, are you content to have this as the final word for your story?
As the journey comes to a close, we have to think about the return to reality, to the light of common day. So the resolution is where we gather all the various strands together, and tie up any loose ends. This involves rigorously selecting the ideas and anecdotes that deserve to survive the journey. How will these work in the world you inhabit? How will that world need to change to accommodate them? And so the final scenes involve one final taking stock, to be sure you are quite clear about the implications of the new world your story promises.
Again it is really useful to visualise things, to picture the new reality in all its detail. What will it look like, feel like, and sound like in the way this story is told? What will people now say about you? Are the values you set out with still useful to you? Does the wisdom you have gained demand a different outlook and image? A whole new identity? Rewrite those headlines according to the new story. If there’s time you might even re-visit those epitaphs, and write new ones. We are now thinking about narrative closure, and so have to accept that every hero’s story has, as well as a beginning and a middle, an end. And this is The End, my friend.
Actually, it’s not. It’s only the beginning. The workshop may have ended, the show is over. But as the lights go up, and we trudge through popcorn and post-it notes back to our desks the real story begins. Not just the story you tell, but the story you now have to live…
That sentence fell a little flat even as I typed it. We all know that brands have to be ‘lived’ if they are to deliver on their promises. But we also know how difficult this is to put into practice. Brands are difficult things to live, because they are not in themselves alive. As a noun ‘brand’ is an abstraction that needs other things or other people to make it real and give it life. As a verb it acts on these things, branding them by conferring meaning through association. It is up to those things then to carry those meanings, either passively if they are the inanimate objects (physical collateral bearing the attributes of corporate identity); or actively if they are humans responsible for behaving in ways that support the claims made in the brand’s name.
Although deriving from the realm of ideas and forged through the medium of words, stories are inherently about actions, behaviour, events, relationships and experiences. And it is through behaviour and experience that most corporate brands deliver on their promises, and build their relationships. So, whilst a brand is a difficult thing to be part of, story is perfect for participation, allowing people to identify their own roles and goals within the tale that it tells. A ‘telling’ is also a reckoning. By road-testing your brand story in this way you are preparing it for the rigours of the real journey ahead, when story becomes experience and delivers the promise of your brand. Knowing where you are going with your story can inspire people to go on the journey with you. It can therefore ultimately bring about much greater unity within an organisation, so you can present a much more coherent identity and a more consistent story to the world. Stories are often circular, and can set up a virtuous circle where narrative and reality seamlessly join. The story you tell will then reflect the story you live, and become the story others share about you.
Journeys within journeys. We’re actually talking about three here, and at least three possible stories emerging from this scripting process:
1. Your journey of self-knowledge to discover and determine what your story needs to be all about
2. The narrative journey of the story you develop, serving as the surrogate for the journey and relationship you propose taking your customers on
3. That relationship itself, the journey you go on and the stories it generates as a lived reality.
We’ve already been on the first journey. We now need to think about the second.
Developing your core story
So, you have your story. A quest romance full of valiant deeds, inspiring visions, and a thrilling, but thoroughly road-tested resolution. You can now share it with the world. Not quite yet. It would be great if a four-hour or even full-day workshop provided good-to-go content, ready to flow into the homepage or ‘about us’ pages of your corporate website, or the introduction to a brochure or annual report. What you have has great potential. But, as they say in Hollywood: ‘it still needs work’. The real business of telling a story that’s fit for your purposes starts now, drawing on the experience and insights afforded by going on the quest. The quest generated the raw material for your story, but not the story itself. The Once upon a time … of our narrative helped to identify the heroic ‘who’ of the drama we scripted. But this doesn’t necessarily mean you should lead with ‘Once upon a time there was a company that did X’. You have to tell your story differently. You don’t simply replay the narrative scripted in the session. In fact, you reverse it.
You reverse a lot of things now. You shouldn’t start by talking about the hero and his (your) world. Because when you start to tell your story, you are no longer the hero. Your audience is. It’s no longer all about you; but about the world you will create for those who matter most to you, through the benefits you bring. This is ultimately what quest narratives are really all about, and what explains their enduring appeal. The hero’s role is that of saviour. But he or she is only a means to an end.
The interests of heroes and superheroes are generally subordinate to the greater good of the communities they serve. The collective cause may even involve their individual sacrifice (remember Campbell included Christ as one of the Thousand Faces of his archetypal hero). The heroes who stop serving the worlds they have saved, transformed or redeemed, or who fail to be re-integrated into these communities, either die or are rejected. They become outsiders, withdrawing to the margins, or riding off into the sunset, until they are required again in the sequel. That’s the ritual function of story as a social act, serving a broader purpose than individual heroics. The compulsion factor – what makes these stories great entertainment – is identification. The audience identifies with the hero, or rather that part of him or her they want to be in their own dreams and aspirations. This essential empathetic role stories have always fulfilled.
It is the same with your own story. This has to pass the “what’s in it for me?” test, making it easy for your audiences to relate to and see themselves in the world you promise to create for them. They’re not really interested in you. Sorry. But in what you can give them. Like the hero, you are merely a means to an end. So, you start with that end – the end you reached and thoroughly road-tested by going on your quest. The world you promise to enrich or redeem through the Grail should be the focus of your story. And this story should not be the epic saga of your struggles and challenges. Most of the material you generated on your own journey will probably hit the cutting room floor. But that’s ok. It’s done its job. The understanding and belief gained through the experience will be invaluable. A core story is not about elaboration, but distillation, summing up your offer succinctly and with some urgency. You have to grab the attention before you can grip it with your full narrative, and gratify it with the lived relationship. Remember the Movie Pitch scenario? It is now time to devise one for your own story.
But think of it as the trailer for the movie (story) you have now developed. This is a useful exercise for ensuring your core story can be summed up and delivered with the right emphasis in a limited time span. The audience are thinking about themselves, and have no time for anything that doesn’t grab their attention by being relevant to their world and their needs. So, pitch your story. The story you propose to tell them about the journey you will go on together. The Movie Pitch is, of course, a version of the famous ‘elevator pitch’, and serves the same function. The exercise of thinking in terms of dramatic narrative, applies an extra rigour to ensure it holds together as a story worth telling or hearing. This story must grab the attention sufficiently to want people to know more, and go on the real journey. You need to imagine ‘That Voice’ used for about 99% of trailers (whom my colleague Mike Oliver informs me was called Don LaFontaine) thundering out… What?
Setting out your plot
The following adds a little showbiz attention-grabbing to a classic elevator pitch formula:
Ok, maybe the last part is getting a bit carried away, but your vision might slot in there if it is inspiring enough. And I’m not suggesting you have to adopt Mr LaFontaine’s voice when you come to pitch your story (especially if you actually are in an elevator when the opportunity arises). This exercise provides one further rigorous test for your story. If you can define the benefit; the problem you solve; why it is different and makes a difference; why people should care; and why you are best placed to deliver it, you have everything you need to start telling your story, and elaborating on how you can fulfil these promises. As Mike Oliver puts it, “we need to be as singular as the great Don Lafontaine himself, who actually wrote the words he intoned, in summing up our context and offer as clearly and concisely as possible”.
The trailer leads to the movie; the movie is then experienced; this experience then lives in the imagination through identification. It becomes the audience’s story. You are seeking to establish a similar chain. The Movie Pitch discipline provides the wherewithal to set it in motion, ensuring the elements are in place, by relying on the time honoured means Hollywood has perfected to grab the attention, before it grips and gratifies with the product itself.
Telling your core story
The Movie Pitch is but the tip of your story’s iceberg. It provides the succinct expression of your brand story, but rests on the strong foundations of knowledge, proven substance and real-life anecdote gained on your quest. As such, a core story is very much like a brand positioning, road-tested for narrative application. Putting it through the rigours of narrative gives it a coherent plot, ensuring it has everything in place for sharing it with the world. Because it is already narrative, it closes the gap between ideas and their expression, and makes the passage from abstraction to action more fluid and achievable. Brand developed as story brings us one step closer to sharing this consistently across communications, and delivering it as an experience. That, for me, is the main contribution that story can bring to business and branding, providing a rigorous but richly rewarding vehicle for carrying out communications needs.
Yet, I don’t want to suggest there is a one-size-fits-all formula to corporate storytelling. Story brings discipline and a rigour, but it shouldn’t be a straightjacket.
A core story should provide the cloth from which you cut the coat of your specific communications needs. Different channels and applications demand different ways of telling the core story, tailored to specific circumstances. Story, at its most basic, is the right words in the right order to achieve the right effect on the right people. That order, and the emphasis it brings, is likely to change in response to those circumstances.
Take the Movie Pitch exercise for distilling the core story into a succinct form. This is a variation of what I call the Wow, How, Who narrative structure. I mentioned this earlier when I explained how we used this to help a technology company cut to the chase of a complex offer on its corporate website. We actually essayed this story first for a PowerPoint presentation, designed to generate interest among potential investment partners. In both cases, there was a need to grab the attention of non-specialists with a clear and compelling articulation of the benefits, before going on to explain how this might be accomplished and why these are the only people who can do it.
Wow, How, Who is perfect for occasions and applications such as these, when you cannot guarantee any prior knowledge of the company; any detailed or technical grasp of the subject; or much time or attention span. If you don’t grab the attention on the homepage, or in the small window of opportunity you have to convince very rich, seen-it-all-before people why they should give you their attention (let alone their millions), you have lost your chance to explain the How or the Who. All that is now immaterial. The show has moved on. Yet so many companies are caught up in What they do and Who they are, they lose the focus on Why this matters, and neglect to make clear first and foremost Why anyone should care. Lose this focus, and you have already lost the audience. These companies may have a great story to tell, but they tell it in the wrong order for the specific audience or opportunity.
It’s sometimes useful to think of your story in terms of a pyramid, then decide what needs to go at the apex. It wouldn’t be a business book without a few models, but I think this is a useful and a very simple one for thinking about narrative structure when sharing a core story. It can help to ensure the right messages are in the right order for the right audience and channel. Why a pyramid? Because pyramids have structural integrity built into them, helping to visibly reinforce the core principle of narrative coherence. They have geometrical and mathematical associations, which are apt for expressing the logical rigour of good storytelling. Yet their association with one of the oldest civilisations, who told hieroglyphic stories on these edifices we don’t yet fully understand, also gives them an ancient authority and imaginative allure. They were made for telling stories, and have generated countless stories in turn. Besides, the basic triangular structure is perfect for emphasising the need to have a succinct, sharply-focused message uppermost in your story, resting on all the thinking and messages that supports this top-line message and ensures it all stands up.
Many companies tend to have an inverted pyramid as the structure for their story. They often try to provide all the details about what they do and who they are up front. And so the story falls over. The more detail you have to impart, the more complicated the messages, the further down the pyramid these should be. If you attempt to cram them all into the apex of your story pyramid, it’s all pulled out of shape, grows top heavy, becomes inverted and topples over. Thinking in terms of a story pyramid for a website is perfect. You only have a very small window to grab attention, so you need enough Wow there at the outset, to ensure the relationship deepens as the story journey develops. (Those who are familiar with the inverted pyramid model proposed by journalism and PR might be puzzled by what I suggest, but it’s not so very different, despite my inverted emphasis. Yes, you should put everything that’s important at the top, but this should be succinctly expressed to provide a discipline to ensure it is clear and singular in its focus. By being succinctly compelling you encourage readers to stay for the How and the Who, which can be elaborated in more detail below.)
That’s not to say there isn’t a place for what might be termed ‘eloquent details’. These are used very powerfully in fiction, and find their counterpart, if used judiciously, in corporate communications. The eloquent detail of a man’s footprint provides the main turning point in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, informing the lonely castaway that he has human company on his island. And of course details in the form of clues are essential to detective, spy and mystery narratives. Similarly, a choice example (maybe an innovative product or groundbreaking material as the star of a short piece of video) might speak volumes about your approach and what makes you special, far more effectively than reams of adjectives attempting to say what you could more eloquently show. You will know your business, and if you start to find your voice and understand your unique story, you will instinctively know where these riches reside.
Nor is it to say that Wow should be uppermost every time. You will know what’s right for your story, and thinking in terms of a pyramid helps to determine the ordering of core messages and appropriate use of detail. Who (you) might actually be what gives your story its Wow, and in some circumstances this may be the message you need to lead with. Who, is of course, an important component in any story. A story needs a hero. And whilst that might ultimately be the customer or another important stakeholder, people buy from people. Emotional connection is vital to storytelling, and there is a time and a place to bring this to the fore.
Indeed, as Annette Simmons argues, it is always essential to establish Who it is telling the story upfront. Her excellent book The Story Factor delves deep into the psychology of story, and the many ways it can be used to win people over. Even those predisposed not to believe or trust in you. As she argues, people have often formed their own stories about you, before you attempt to utter a word. Telling a personal story at the offset, or a parable that illustrates a different view point, is likely to change their views, and put them in a more receptive frame of mind to hear what you have to say. And whilst Simmons is mostly concerned with how the persuasive power of story works in ‘live’ situations, such as presentations or meetings, her insights and suggestions are useful for thinking about the more indirect or virtual encounters many communications entail.
You can’t control the stories others might already be telling about you, based on scant evidence, hearsay, or simply the endemic mistrust attending the dog-eat-dog world of business. These might be stories such as “I can’t afford your services”, or “You’re too big/small for my needs”, or simply “I’ve heard it all before”. These are emotional barriers, based on half-formed, often unconscious, sentiments rather than concrete facts. As such, countering these barriers with a whole lot of rational evidence is unlikely to get you very far. You can only fight story with story. It is there to build bridges, and make connections. As Simmons puts it: “A story is more respectful than telling someone what he or she ought to think. Respect connects. Once you have connected, you are ready to move your listener, step-by-step, to see the world as you see it”. And whilst no one-size-fits-all for story, understanding its dynamics and applying its principles will enable your own story to eventually triumph in the only place it is likely to have any real influence: the emotional and imaginative sphere.
I instinctively felt the need for this when I started to write the book you are now holding. And so my own story pyramid starts with Who uppermost. You don’t know me from Adam, and so I have to establish some credible authority for addressing you on this subject. My own story tells of my professional experience in both literary and commercial contexts. I can hope this experience goes some way to authenticating the views I want to share with you, and establishes a measure of authority in seeking to do this. You need to know who I am before you are prepared to even consider what I have to say. If you are in a bookshop or browsing a retail site, you are potentially in the market to be told or sold a story. Whilst the cover blurb should seek to entice you with a bit of Wow, pretty soon I have to back this up with the Who, before going into the Why, What, How and Where of storytelling. Wow, How, Who is great for when there is no time and no necessary inclination to be told a story. But you are not always in this situation, so you need to be flexible with your approach.
Sometimes, as Simmons, suggests, you need to take it slow, or you will scare the horses. Rush in with the facts, rational arguments or hard sell, and people immediately switch off. Tell people a story, and you might slowly win them round. And whilst I have argued that stories need to have clarity, Simmons suggests that part of their persuasive power can be in ambiguity or unfinished nature, allowing people enough room to form their own conclusions or morals from the tale they are told.
Stories should not deliver dogma, and their greatest appeal is to the imagination. Or, as Andrew Staton, a professional screenwriter put it in a recent TED lecture: “don’t give your audience 4, give them 2 + 2”. The brain loves to solve problems, and be involved in completing things. Stories allow it to do this. A story really starts to live in the imagination when it is completed by the recipient; turning the 2 + 2 into 4 on the intellectual level, and identifying with the core emotional truths it holds by applying them to our own lives and stories. It achieves this most effectively by not being so rigidly defined.
There’s such a thing as being too direct. Storytelling, as the masters of the craft know well, is often the art of seduction. I once saw a strapline for a bank which boldly declared “We want your business”. “You don’t say”, I thought (actually something ruder). But it set me wondering about why this was such a lousy strapline, despite having the best intentions. You can see what it’s trying to do, dispense with tricksy word play or airy promises, by making an honest appeal to the consumer as straight-talking adults. But it both says too much, and not enough. By blurting out what is effectively the basic premise of all marketing, nay, all commercial transactions, it fails to even begin to tell a story. You want my business? So do they, and them, and them. And who cares what you want anyway? What about what I want? As my mother always used to tell me, “I want doesn’t get”. Try a bit harder. Tell me a story.
It occurred to me that the addition of a single word ‘because’ at least starts to tell a story. Now I’m a bit more intrigued, and prepared to imagine all the things this bank might be prepared to show me to prove this point. “Because we want your business” still isn’t the greatest strapline in the world. But it at least implies a benefit to me and starts to take me on a journey. It starts In media res (in the middle of things, where so many great stories start). It could either be the sign-off to a compelling testament proving why the bank wants my business, or the start of that conversation. It has implied back story (the unspoken proofs to a question I don’t remember asking) and forward momentum, the incitement to discover Why and How. The addition of one word says so much more, by not attempting to say everything. Give them 2 + 2, not 4.
And so, in the spirit of indeterminacy, I should observe that the principles explained in the first half of this book should not be treated as cast-iron rules or inflexible formulas. The whole point of using story in this context is to cut through the cliché and codswallop with something that communicates authentically by connecting emotionally. The last thing I want to do is to turn an intuitive and human impulse into a mechanistic dogma or set of tricks. These are principles, not rules, to be observed but also adapted when occasion demands. Because they are based on intuitive and time-honoured practices that work within the grain or our brains, understanding them and applying them with confidence will in time make telling your story as a story second nature.
It’s now time to consider how all this might be applied in appropriate ways to the day-to-day business of corporate communications.