June 23, 2020 • Adam Nemett
At History Factory, we’re leaders in corporate anniversaries—calendar anomalies that offer a great excuse to chronicle the birth, evolution and future of an organization or product. So we couldn’t help but flip the mirror and reflect on the 10th anniversary of StoryARC,™ the proprietary storytelling methodology that we launched in 2010.
The origins of StoryARC stem from our last major economic downturn, and we hope this resonates with people during this current anxious moment. Here, we’ll share our story, told in three acts using StoryARC’s 11-point storytelling framework.
I was hired by History Factory in April 2009, smack dab in the middle of the global financial crisis. My wife and I had driven from San Francisco to Baltimore the week that Lehman Brothers collapsed, and by the time we reached the East Coast, jobs were impossible to find.
I had a motley Master of Fine Arts (MFA) resume that spanned multiple forms of media and storytelling, which confused most employers but fit perfectly with History Factory. As one of the company’s new senior idea engineers, my goal was to collaborate with founder and CEO Bruce Weindruch to innovate our way out of a daunting economic landscape that became known as the Great Recession.
Learning and interactive sessions were already part of History Factory’s arsenal. We had a methodology called Clear Line of Sight™ that was designed to understand a client’s goals, audiences and success metrics. We had another called Solutions Mapping™ to explore the existing and potential communications vehicles a client might use to tell their story.
In other words, we had the tools to understand the beginning of an engagement—aligning around a shared vision—and the end—how the company’s message would ultimately be distributed. But something was missing: the middle, where we craft the story itself.
How could we bring our clients into that creative conversation, allowing them to guide our understanding of key plot points, characters and emotional moments in their history?
With a background in filmmaking and fiction writing, I was big on story structure. I reviewed screenwriting and narrative theory books—from Aristotle’s Poetics to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces to Christopher Vogler’s A Writer’s Journey. I’d been schooled in these long-proven algorithms: organizing a story’s plot points to make the strongest emotional connections with audiences.
The key, I knew, was conflict and challenge—establishing a compelling character that wants something, and then watching them overcome obstacles to succeed. Novelist John Irving once described storytelling like this: “I think up people, try to make them likable for the reader, and then I visit trouble upon them.”
The method was clear. But would corporate clients go for it? A methodology rooted in the MFA, not the MBA? One that required them to talk openly about their troubles and all the moments most businesses like to sweep under the rug? We weren’t sure.
Working with Bruce, we prototyped a methodology called StoryARC. It’s an 11-step journey built on the “hero’s journey” story structure that shows up everywhere from ancient myths to today’s Hollywood blockbusters.
After registering the trademark in June 2009, we took StoryARC for its maiden voyage on August 11. Carrying a bazooka-sized tube of rolled-up posters, we traveled to Chicago. We taped the worksheets to the walls of a CME Group conference room and walked the company’s senior communicators through the fledgling methodology.
The Chicago Mercantile Exchange had recently merged with the Chicago Board of Trade and NYMEX, so representatives of all three were present in our first StoryARC session. The newly merged organization needed a way to parse their unique but similar histories, hoping to find common ground.
Referencing our poster-sized worksheets, the first question we asked was the Danger question: “When did it look like all was lost? When did it seem like one of the exchanges might not survive?” We always start with the Danger question for two reasons. First, it helps us pinpoint the core conflict, ensuring the story will have drama and tension; and second, it’s provocative, and wakes up the people in the room.
Participants eyed each other across the table, wary of exhuming dark times. Then, the floodgates opened. They told stories of seismic industry shifts, of fires and floods, of 9/11. Through these events, they did indeed find collective experience.
A single story quickly evolved into a full-scale communications platform for the organization—including stories about the origins of commodities trading, the evolution of global commerce, innovative technology, risk management, regulation, and personal prosperity. StoryARC served as a collaborative framework for not only a CEO speech and website, but also for a comprehensive museum exhibit on the Executive level of the exchange. The exhibit was unveiled on June 8, 2010: the date that StoryARC truly “arrived.”
With the CME success under our belts, we quickly found plenty of other companies keen to tell their stories authentically and transparently. The global financial crisis had shattered Americans’ trust in corporate institutions. Clients came to us not for spin, but to tell their “warts and all” stories, rebuild credibility, and shape their future communications.
“Early Tests” marks the beginning of Act II, where our characters begin to grow and change and find their sea legs. It’s a great opportunity for a montage:
• In 2010, a tequila-fueled StoryARC session with the Adobe Photoshop engineers led to a powerful oral history and social media video campaign. Behind the Splash Screen told the story of dedicated developers doing battle with Apple against the backdrop of Photoshop’s 20th anniversary.
• The following year, a series of StoryARC sessions at City of Hope Medical Center gathered stories from administrators, clinicians, researchers, nurses, donors and patients, leading to a centennial campaign that included a definitive publication, an oral history program, a traveling exhibit, a walking tour, a fundraising initiative, videos and a website.
• For its centennial in 2011, Whirlpool Corporation asked History Factory to conduct StoryARC sessions around the world to weave together the histories of acquired brands in Italy, India, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, China and the United States.
Across disparate industries, countries and job roles, the methodology was working. It had become a staple of our anniversary planning and storytelling engagements. Now it was time for StoryARC to prove its mettle.
In early 2014, StoryARC met with its biggest test to date when publishing firm HarperCollins hired History Factory on its bicentennial. We were tasked with gathering stories from a global company (facilitating sessions for U.S., Canadian, Australian, Indian and UK divisions) for diverse audiences (authors, employees, designers, booksellers and readers), and for disparate products (fiction, nonfiction, reference, romance, children’s and Christian books).
This time, however, we were telling stories for and about storytellers. If anyone could judge the merits of StoryARC, it was a 200-year-old book publisher.
By all accounts, the project was a home run. StoryARC provided the structure for HarperCollins’ new headquarters exhibit as well as an extensive content bank that fed the publisher’s bicentennial website and social media feed throughout its 200th year.
Our HarperCollins project led to a 2016 engagement with 21st Century Fox, the film/TV wing of the Murdoch media empire. We’ve continued to use StoryARC for our larger, more complex international projects, and we developed a more targeted version for unique client needs. In 2018, for instance, we developed the ARC Storytelling Training program for Hershey’s internal sales team to help them infuse colorful and compelling storytelling into their R&D process.
StoryARC was thriving as an in-person experience. At its best, it’s akin to watching friends tell stories around a campfire. Moments of connection occur, as do moments of fierce debate. People can find familiarity in each other’s’ perspectives, or they may remember the same event in vastly different ways. Sometimes, it’s like group therapy.
But in any good story, we ultimately reach the danger point. We’ve hopefully made our characters “likeable for the reader” by this point. Here, at the end of Act II, is where we “visit trouble upon them.”
When COVID-19 hit in early 2020, it had a major impact on every aspect of our professional and personal lives. Unlike the occasional economic downturn or industry disruption, the global pandemic affected everyone, not least of all because it required an extended period of quarantining. Travel restrictions and work-from-home culture became a major obstacle for our in-person, group facilitation of StoryARC. Who knew how long it would last?
Something had to change.
And the change came in the form of more chaos: a health crisis, an economic crisis, civil unrest, culture wars and a looming national election. Nobody knows what will happen next.
So we arrive at Act III, where—in any good story—our protagonist overcomes obstacles and makes positive changes. In StoryARC’s case, Act III is still being written.
As the first anxious weeks led to an extended period of social distancing, our daily collaboration moved from the conference room to the Zoom screen. Just as the StoryARC methodology was born in a time of economic downturn and disruption, COVID-19 offered us an opportunity to evolve the methodology, delivering an innovative approach for an increasingly virtual corporate workforce.
Today, we are adapting our in-person approach to an online format. Our north star is the same: It has to be just as collaborative, dynamic, personal and fun as the in-person session. And now it has to work across geographic boundaries.
Ten years in, StoryARC is getting a serious upgrade.
Company and product histories need not be entirely based in the past. They can be aspirational and forward-looking, especially in Act III. So, with that in mind . . .
We’re preparing to run our first internal session using StoryARC 2.0, built on an exciting new technology platform. During one of our regular Thursday evening virtual happy hours, we’ll augment our typical Zoom hangout with the new and improved StoryARC methodology, using our own history as a fertile basis for story gathering. Having recently celebrated our own 40th anniversary, our employees—even those who’ve only been here a few months—already have a shared grasp of those decades of experience.
We believe the new format will allow for the kind of real-time data capture, aggregation and interpretation that has always been missing from the analog in-person sessions.
We expect that the new version of StoryARC will be something much more than a quarantine quick-fix. Looking ahead, it will likely become our new approach to in-person story gathering, as well.
Just as every company has its financial crisis story or its 9/11 story, every organization will have its story of 2020, which shows no signs of calming down anytime soon. We are living through a crucial moment, and our experiences should be captured, preserved and crafted into stories for future generations. Whether gathered around a campfire, clustered in a conference room or communicating across screens, people crave connection. Now more than ever.
Storytelling contains a strange paradox. The best stories are about change—our capacity to grow and evolve for the better—but also commonality—the timeless, universal and shared experiences of being human. Stories teach us where we’ve been, and they help us understand where we’re going, with the sequels yet to be written. Stories are how we craft order from chaos.
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