Why stories matter

Other stories photo by Tim Rich

The Association for Qualitative Research recently asked me to write a piece on storytelling in business for its InDepth magazine. That issue is out now, and it’s worth tracking down a copy (over here) because it also contains excellent articles on storytelling by, amongst others, the estimable Martin Lee of Acacia Avenue. You can read my contribution below. This piece was also published in Market Leader magazine Quarter 1 2014, published by Warc in association with the Marketing Society. 

Walking up London’s Regent Street the other day, I noticed a distant sign saying & Other Stories. At first I thought it might be for a new chain of bookshops – what an optimist! A few steps later I saw that the shop’s windows were full of dresses, jumpers and knickers. A smaller sign inside read: ‘Personal style tells a story’.

Being a business writer and communications consultant – and something of a narrative nerd – I went inside in the hope of finding some interesting story-led writing. I encountered plenty of colourful hyperbole but, alas, no narratives. Despite its name, and its website URL stories.com, nothing I read in & Other Stories was actually a story.

& Other Stories is not alone. Countless others are employing ‘story’ as a synonym for communication. But a story is a distinct form. There are different types of story, and many ways to tell a tale, but all stories have the same three-part process at their heart.

First, there must be something difficult or dangerous to overcome – a challenge, a threat, an obstacle, a mystery and so on.

Second, an individual or group of people must act decisively to address the challenge or difficulty.

Third, the world must be a changed place as a result of their actions.

In short; challenge, action, transformation.

Of course, the weft of a good story may well include many smaller challenges, along with diversions and prevarication. Ultimately, however, a narrative’s momentum must carry it from the before state – where the challenge looms large – to a changed world via human action.

Critically, if there isn’t something to oppose or resolve it isn’t a story.

The second part of the process – an individual or group taking decisive action – is key to how stories connect with people. While standard business communications often talk in impersonal ways about abstract subjects (commitments, systems, performance, corporate responsibility), a good story is usually about remarkable events happening to someone, and that someone doing something tangible in response. It’s personal, active and vivid. Compelling stories are also generally grounded in a strong sense of both place and time. Here’s the opening line of Dante’s The Inferno, in The Divine Comedy:

Midway upon the journey of life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward path had been lost.

The time, place, characters and events of a story seem to take us closer to lived experience than abstracted communications such as reports, statements and the like. In his book Things That Make Us Smart psychologist and industrial designer Don Norman captured this well when he said:

Stories are important cognitive events, for they encapsulate, into one compact package, information, knowledge, context and emotion.

Glenlivet brand film by Aesop. Director Matthias Hoene. Production by Rushes CG Commercials.

Glenlivet brand film by Aesop. Director Matthias Hoene. Production by Rushes CG Commercials.

So much for theory, what does a brand story sound like? Here’s an example. The Glenlivet is the world’s second biggest selling single malt brand. But rather than focus on claims about popularity, the brand film on its website goes back to the drama of the product’s creation. This is how the voiceover begins:

It all started in the upper reaches of Glenlivet.

Its remoteness allowed smugglers to run their stills slowly to produce a legendary smooth whisky.

It was demanded by King George IV, who had heard of an illicit dram so smooth he had to taste it himself.

It took a gritty, single-minded Speyside farmer called George Smith to have the courage to set up a distillery to capture its character.

It was defended on more than one occasion…

And so it unfolds, describing ‘heroic responses’ in the face of tribulation while underlining the brand promise of ‘smoothness’. It demonstrates how the energy of a story is drawn from its point of opposition – the challenge, the difficulty. Which is why memorable business stories often involve an opponent (think Virgin versus BA, or Apple versus a complacent tech industry).

22936f891739004cc4eee726c818303992829316Here’s another example. In this founders’ story the challenge is whether the people involved should risk giving up their jobs:

We started innocent in 1999 after selling our smoothies at a music festival. We put up a big sign asking people if they thought we should give up our jobs to make smoothies, and put a bin saying ‘Yes’ and a bin saying ‘No’ in front of the stall. Then we got people to vote with their empties. At the end of the weekend, the ‘Yes’ bin was full, so we resigned from our jobs the next day and got cracking.

This lovely anecdote, from Innocent Drinks, has several qualities that make for a powerful story: something is at stake; people act; there’s a striking image of a bin full of yeses. In other hands it might have been reduced to a statement declaring:

From day one we’ve been a customer-centric food and beverage company producing brands that match people’s lifestyles.

Stories can play a particularly important role during tough times. For example, back in 2002 the Swedish telecommunications company Ericsson faced an unexpected and rapid market downturn. Working with David Stocks at SAS London and brand consultant Leonard Rau, we advised the somewhat introverted leadership team to present a powerful, narrative-led argument to shareholders through its high profile Business Review. The front cover declared:

2002 was tough.

Our customers bought less equipment, competition increased, the roll-out of 3G was slow, and the market was difficult to predict.

Some observers see no end to these difficulties.

We take a different view.

Ericsson 2002

Writing by Tim Rich. Design by SAS London.

The story continued throughout the review. This straight-talking approach resonated with readers, who appreciated the candour, the company’s active response and the promise of a brighter future. Challenge, action, transformation.

It’s hardly surprising that more and more businesses are drawn by the power of stories. The problem is that relatively few have a culture that fits well with the direct, open nature of a story-based approach. Here are some of the obstacles to narrative I’ve encountered:

• We don’t want to focus on problems, weaknesses or issues.

• We would never get this past the lawyers.

• We’re concerned that our story will be subverted by competitors/opponents/journalists.

• We’re not sure that emotions are appropriate in a business communication.

• We’re not clear what our story is.

• No-one reads any more, do they?

Stories aren’t always the right way to communicate, but to reject them wholesale is timid, especially if bland corporate-speak holds sway. It’s simply not good enough for a company facing an existential threat to say ‘It has been a challenging period’, or to rue ‘a difficult environment’. Contrast those evasive phrases with these words from Warren Buffett, in the 2005 Berkshire Hathaway annual report:

Long ago, Mark Twain said: “A man who tries to carry a cat home by its tail will learn a lesson that can be learned in no other way.” If Twain were around now, he might try winding up a derivatives business. After a few days, he would opt for cats.

Timid communicators often search for a safe harbour in Plain English. This is a mistake. Information-led content should be clear, of course, but in no other area of business activity do we aspire to be only as good as our competitors. Design briefs never say ‘make us look exactly the same as everyone else’. Plain English is communications as compliance rather than competitive advantage. More on that here.

Of course, this cultural issue of timidity goes deeper than communication. There’s a lack of philosophical steel at the top of many companies. When was the last time you saw a truly inspiring example of a business leader making the case for what their company does and why they do it? Meanwhile, The Edelman Trust Barometer 2013 perception survey reports that levels of trust in business and business leaders have risen slightly since 2012, but remain lamentably low. And this is by no means a new issue. The words of journalist Euan Ferguson, writing in the Observer back in 2005, still resound:

Management, its transparent duplicity of language and shallowness of soul and thorough lack of wit, is not just disliked today in Britain, it’s quite actively loathed.

In the face of cynicism, many companies appear to have internalised anti-business sentiment. Time and again the core purpose of shareholder-owned companies – to create value for investors – is shrouded in polite waffle and forgettable messages about its wider social contribution. Business is on the back foot.

Great stories rarely emerge from a timid culture. But as I said, I’m an optimist. I believe stories can help a company move from timidity to confidence – if the will is there at the top. Stories can help to define issues, set out actions and describe an alternative outcome. And, in my experience, meaningful stories stick with people longer than statements and claims.

Of course, whether a company uses narrative or not, its story is being told in all sorts of ways each day. From journalists to customers, campaigners, competitors, ex-employees – it’s never been easier for people to have their say. Compelling anecdotes get shared and amplified. The official story of a business or product lives in an increasingly contested space. Companies must learn to compete more effectively at the level of the word.

Tim Rich

Some other pieces on brands and story:

The book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath is an excellent exploration of why great stories are so inspiring and memorable.

What is brand storytelling anyway? is a terrific post by writer Tom Albrighton, who gives brand storytelling a thorough going over.

Writer Nick Asbury looks at the strange story of story – highly recommended.

Writer Mike Reed has written a robust and useful analysis of what makes a story (and what doesn’t) in What’s the story?

Writers Robert Mills @robertmills and John Simmons @JNSim tweet regularly and insightfully about brand stories and storytelling. John blogs here and Robert here.

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