The History Factory’s Adam Nemett recently shared his experiences and insights as a guest lecturer at the University of Virginia’s “Literature and the Professions: Money Talks.” The new course for first-year students encourages analyzing the meaning and value of capital through readings of novels, plays, and poetry. Invited by English professor Herbert Tucker, Nemett facilitated a book discussion and introduced the concept of corporate storytelling to the class of 35 students.

“I approached Adam after hearing about what he does for a living – writing the life stories of corporations,”  Tucker said. He was struck by the relevance of Nemett’s work to the topic of the class, and was eager to introduce the students to Nemett’s unique ‘real world’ perspective. “He was able to show from a wide professional experience how common the practice of corporate biography is, to assess its purposes – from internal esprit de corps to external promotion – and thus to offer a fresh perspective on the role played by narrative in shaping a business image.”

This is a photograph of the book Gain by Richard Powers.
Gain by Richard Powers, 1998

During Nemett’s visit, the students were focused on Gain, a novelby Richard Powers that chronicles the founding and growth of a fictional consumer goods corporation called Clare International. The history, which stretches back to the early 1800s, is woven together with that of a modern-day resident of a Clare factory town whose ovarian cancer may have resulted from exposure to Clare chemicals.

Nemett recognized that many students would approach massive corporations like Clare International from an outsider perspective. As students and consumers, they are not often exposed to the internal storytelling programs detailing the complex histories and dynamic individuals behind the corporations. “I asked how many of them had parents or relatives that worked in a corporation or large organization and at least half the class raised their hand, but no one had any knowledge of the history or story of these companies,” he said. In contrast, as UVA insiders, “they deeply understood the history and lore of the university and its founder, Thomas Jefferson, and were able to recognize how his founding vision filters down into their daily lives nearly 200 years later.”

With this in mind, Nemett’s challenge was to prove that “no story is black and white.” He drew from his background in researching and telling corporate histories with The History Factory, citing examples from past projects to illustrate the ups and downs organizations experience as they strive to stay in business for 20, 50, or 100 years while increasing their global reach. The ongoing challenges, flaws, triumphs, and compromises, in addition to a consistent set of core values, make for powerful storytelling material. “Through corporate storytelling,” he explained, “The History Factory aims to ‘show, not tell’ these values in action, and see how they really work in the company culture throughout time.”

Following his lecture on corporate storytelling, Nemett facilitated an engaging discussion, during which he introduced the students to idea of the corporate biography – the corporation as a person – and the consumer’s role in the arrangement. He challenged them with questions like these:

  • How should an organization with an individual at the helm attempt to live on once their leader dies?
  • What happens to public opinion when corporations operate like people, declaring strong ethical stances?
  • Although consumers want everything to be Good, Fast, and Cheap, what happens when they sacrifice one in favor of the others?
  • When things go awry, as with the Clare situation in Gain, should the consumer be held partially responsible for their choices and the outcomes?

Tucker explained that students were grateful for Nemett’s thought-provoking lecture and discussion, and left with new perspective on the power of corporate storytelling. They discovered “that a commitment to telling their story well commits corporations to dealing with mistake as well as triumph. That ambivalence about business values need not disable work like Nemett’s but may enliven it. That corporations indeed have personalities, which may be disliked or admired just like real people.”

To follow more of Nemett’s insights on corporate storytelling best practices, follow his Insights Blog series, “Corporate Storytelling: 7 Tips for Audience Engagement,” and subscribe to receive updates.

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