“What I have learned from our work with The History Factory is that our brand is so much more powerful when we can connect it to our history—when we can prove that we are what we say we are, because we have done this in the past. It gives us a strong foundation to stand on.” —Director of Product Management, DI, Adobe Systems Inc.

There’s a scene in the acclaimed HBO series Deadwood where E.B. Farnum, a businessman with a habit of circuitous speech, is stopped mid-sentence by the hard-talking, hard-drinking Al Swearengen, who tells Farnum: “Say what you’re gonna say, or prepare for eternal [expletive] silence!”

Words inform, inspire, inflame. In the field of corporate communications, though, practitioners too often employ vague platitudes that don’t really mean anything (“We value excellence! ”), or string enough corporate jargon together to numb their audience (“Implementing scalable functionalities through synergistic convergences of seamless deliverables…”). In an era of mass media and mass skepticism, humanity’s collective tolerance for nonsense is lower than ever. This is what brings many clients to our door.

In late 2009, we were contacted by Adobe Photoshop on the occasion of the iconic product’s 20th anniversary. They had developed some program ideas to support their anniversary, but needed our help finding content and developing authentic stories to support those programs.

While we dove into our StoryARC™ methodology, researching and crafting content for their 20th Anniversary Story Palette™, the Photoshop team tackled creating Photoshop CS5. The new version, by all accounts, had one of the most challenging development cycles in the history of the software. New challenges make for a more interesting story, and we worked with the team to capture about twenty-five oral histories, allowing the people involved to document the intensity of their multi-year experience in their own words.

The resulting video interviews formed the foundation for our ongoing “Behind the Splash Screen” campaign, which illuminates the people who build and improve Photoshop, and shares their stories of challenge and triumph. An article from Adobe’s internal newsletter Inside Adobe describes the enlightening results:

“What the DI team has learned is relevant across Adobe. The benefits of documenting and communicating a product’s history range from developing a deeper understanding of the brand and forging a stronger connection with customers through social media to giving…recognition to team members. This knowledge also enables a team to tell customers why they are doing something, not just what they are doing.”

The advent of social media allows our client to share these uniquely personal stories with a much wider audience, including their two million Facebook fans. Our first “Behind the Splash Screen” video received over 1,000 “likes” within minutes of posting, and over 20,000 YouTube views in its first week online.

The video allowed Photoshop’s external users an “honest and candid glimpse” of the reality behind the typically esoteric world of software engineering. As Inside Adobe relates, the video has also served as a way of uniting Adobe’s employees:

“I’ve got about 300 engineers…[at] sites around the world,” one Adobe employee familiar with the program explained. “I have taken the video with me on visits. It really gives people a better sense of the team’s culture; it inspires them and makes them feel part of a greater group.”

Above all, the videos work because people receive these stories without the typical filters that tend to deaden the potential effectiveness of corporate communication. A company creates authenticity by pulling back the stage curtain and revealing its actors. There is always value in carefully crafting a message, and making sure it’s fit for public consumption. But when we allow our sung and unsung heroes of business to “say what they’re gonna say,” people listen.