Sometimes when I tell people that I work for The History Factory, they ask me, “Oh, does that mean that you fabricate history?” The question they’re actually asking me is, “Are you a spin doctor?” And my answer is “no.”
To have integrity, every story must be substantial and authentic, or else it belongs in the fiction section of the bookstore. We must bring truths to the surface. Notice I don’t use the word fact—defined as “a thing that is indisputably the case”—and notice I don’t use the singular word truth. Different people have different perspectives, and they can all be valid. Sometimes, a piece of company history filters down from 150-some years ago and becomes folklore—part of the fabric of the company even if we don’t have all the factual evidence to back it up. Typically, the audiences receiving these stories are the ones who actually lived the history. We want them to nod their heads and say, “Yes, that’s how I remember it.”
Authenticity is the particular mixture of accuracy and pride associated with a shared heritage. To create this authentic, substantial content, the most useful tools in our storytelling arsenal are archives and interviews.
Our founder and CEO Bruce Weindruch likes to say, “Archives confess the truth,” and I’ve found this to be, well, true. With an archival collection, a legacy of preserved documents—whether yellowed paper from last century or digital e-mails from this morning—blend with photographs, articles, film, audio, artifacts and other records to paint a picture of the past. Sometimes they’re neatly organized, and sometimes they’re a mess of overflowing boxes. A good portion is probably junk. But when you find that perfect gem, it can become the linchpin for an entire campaign. With savvy research and a keen eye, we find the specific words and images that paint an intimate portrait of a captain of industry; or we find a barely visible symbol on a 100-year-old washing machine that becomes the foundation for a global brand.
In archival materials, we may be dealing with both hard and digital evidence, but reading a written transcript of an executive’s speech, for instance, is not the same as experiencing that speech in person. This is where interviews come into play.
The opportunity to sit down with another human being, look them in the eye for an hour or two, and listen to the story of their life and career is one of my great honors. This is where we find history through the lens of an individual, and once they settle in to the strangeness of this rare personal attention and begin speaking from the heart, interviews unearth unique and personal proof points that no spin doctor could ever fabricate.
One of my favorite projects was an oral history program we did for the team at Adobe Photoshop on the occasion of the product’s 20th anniversary. We talked to nearly all of the people whose names appear on the splash screen as the application loads. One by one, they told us how they came to Photoshop, who mentored them, how major innovations came to pass, and how they tackled and overcame a particularly onerous challenge from Apple. Before the company initiated this oral history program, none of these stories existed in fixed form. Afterward, they could be edited into digestible videos, ready for distribution on social media and other communications channels. These stories inspired the PS team to rally together and reach similar heights during the next development cycle—and as a nice side effect, they reminded millions of customers of the human faces “Behind the Splash Screen.”
Most importantly, interviews add to a living corporate archive—a collective organizational memory that is substantial, authentic, truthful and absolutely great fodder for storytelling.
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.
- Shaping Your Story
- Relying on Truths vs. Fictions
- Delivering a Story for Each Audience
- Starting Before Your Founding Date
- Finding Compelling Drama in Challenge and Conflict
- Crafting Details and Scenes, not Dates and Statistics
- Setting Up the Sequel, Writing Your Future