Here’s a setup for a social experiment that sounds like a setup for a bad joke: a man walks into a bar and sees three people sitting at three different tables. At the first table is an attractive single woman, at the second table a job interviewer, and at the third a psychiatrist. Our guy joins each of them for a beer, and one by one, his drinking companions ask him: “Tell me a little bit about yourself.”

Does he tell each one the same story, or does he give a different spiel to each person?

Maybe the psychiatrist would be curious about his previous work experience. And maybe the HR rep would appreciate his flirty sense of humor, and maybe the eligible bachelorette would warm to the vulnerability of his deep-seated abandonment issues. But probably not.

Film studios know this, and because they want to reach broad demographics, they typically release a varied slate of movies in many genres, starring heroes and heroines of various races, ages, genders, etc. Warner Bros., the film industry’s 2013 domestic and global leader in market share, grossed more than $5 billion on the strength of a diverse slate of offerings — comedies, dramas, literary adaptations and superhero blockbusters.

It’s possible that the same filmgoer might pay hard-earned money to see modern-day fairy tale Jack the Giant Slayer as well as horror flick The Conjuring, followed by Jackie Robinson biopic 42 and capping off the season with the supernatural teen romance Beautiful Creatures. But probably not.

Posters CollageAll images copyright Warner Bros.

The main characters of any story are typically designed to act as mirrors or stand-ins for its target audience. This doesn’t mean that people only like movies starring people who look and act like themselves. It means we’re conditioned to respond to people and problems that feel familiar.

We all share different sides of ourselves, depending on who we’re talking to and what we want to happen with that particular relationship. So, if an organization wants to develop or strengthen relationships with different audiences, why should it tell only one story about itself? It sounds obvious, but too often a corporate history only includes the founding story—a singular “period drama” that misses the mark with most constituencies. If an organization is hoping to speak to many different groups of people, it should have many stories ready to reach each one of them.

Certain elements in a company history might work for a whole host of audiences. A few details about an organization’s founding and early years can help provide context, just as our “man in the bar” might talk about where he was born and raised with any of his three drinking partners above. But this is merely a jumping-off point, not the whole story.

Before diving into our StoryARC process, we need to get a prioritized sense of an organization’s target audiences. These audiences might include new hires and longtime employees, existing and potential customers, domestic and global communities, government leaders and regulators, suppliers, subcontractors, scientists, shareholders or store owners. Once we know who we want to reach, we can figure out what we want to say to each of them.

If a client wants to inspire an R&D department to take risks, they must tell a powerful innovation story with past and present risk-takers at the heart of the narrative. If they want to inspire employees to become more active members of their community, they shouldn’t regurgitate the innovation story. They must showcase a distinct narrative framed around the organization’s history of social responsibility, and how they have connected employee volunteers with underserved nonprofits then and now.

A compelling, well-told story has the potential to excite and inspire a wide range of audiences, regardless of the core intent. But to truly target a message and inspire change, we need to consider our audience as the protagonist of its own story.

Of course, even this approach can become overly formulaic—take a look at recent movie poster designs and you can see how pointedly the film industry is marketing to its target audiences. Once we have our overall themes and audiences in place, we can finally focus on what makes a story successful: how it’s told.

We invite you to see where this storytelling series began and how it resolves. Follow along and feel free to send us your exceptions to the rule. Until then, here’s where we’re headed:

  1. Shaping Your Story
  2. Relying on Truths vs. Fictions
  3. Delivering a Story for Each Audience
  4. Starting Before Your Founding Date
  5. Finding Compelling Drama in Challenge and Conflict
  6. Crafting Details and Scenes, not Dates and Statistics
  7. Setting Up the Sequel, Writing Your Future