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Corporate Storytelling: 7 Tips for Audience Engagement #4 — Starting Before Your Founding Date

October 22, 2014 • Adam Nemmett

Let’s recap. In the first three installments of this corporate storytelling series, I defined what is and is not storytelling, discussed the raw source material that informs our stories, and explored the idea of delivering unique stories for different target audiences. How about we finally discuss the story crafting process itself?

You’ve got a blank page. Where do you start? Progressive Insurance, for example, is all about disruptive marketing, and the character “Flo” is one of the most successful icons in advertising history. Unfortunately, Progressive’s company history conforms to the same problematic opening used in most corporate histories:

[Insert company name] was founded in [year] by [some guy] and is now the world’s leader in [selling some kind of goods or services].

This may be a decent opening for a corporate bio, but it isn’t a compelling story,mainly because it “starts” at the wrong point in time. We have no idea where our founder has been or why they chose to launch this particular business, no understanding of their struggle, and therefore no reason to root for them to succeed. Even the ending has been spoiled.

That’s no way to create connection or drama. We need context—a little backstory.

The biopic 42 doesn’t open with fans showing respect for Jackie Robinson as a talented Major League Baseball player but rather with a bigoted gas station attendant berating him for using a “whites only” restroom. Jack the Giant Slayer doesn’t start with an adventurer climbing a magic beanstalk or besting a giant but rather with a poor farm boy desperately trying to sell his favorite horse.

In the case of an organization’s history, we need to start before the founding date. In the prototypical Hero’s Journey, this stage is called the Ordinary World. In Hollywood, it’s known as “Luke [Skywalker] on the Farm.” In our StoryARC™ methodology—which we use to craft dramatic stories of a company’s founding, growth and innovation—we call this first stage “The World Before . ..”

luke_small wizard-of-oz-1_small Matrix_small

(Whether looking to the stars, over the rainbow or behind the Matrix, most beloved film protagonists begin their journey from a place of restlessness, dissatisfaction or simply wanting more from life.)

We need to see our hero in their everyday life, where something is missing, unrealized or downright unpleasant. Our audience needs to experience this unsatisfying starting point along with the hero in order to empathize with their desire for growth and change.

Put in terms of a business narrative: what did the world look like before a particular company was founded, or before the organization established a global presence? Show this incomplete world, with all its flaws, and then we get to show how the company evolved toward something far better. Let’s look at a few:

  • Sometimes, a company is young enough or an audience old enough to remember The World Before. Many recall a time before Photoshop, for instance, when graphics could only be created if you had access to expensive and specialized tools. Today’s twenty-somethings might need a reminder that it wasn’t always possible to accomplish such feats with a laptop.
  • With older companies, we all might need a refresher. In telling the multi-faceted story of book publisher HarperCollins, do we start with the first publication in 1817, or do we return to the days when kings and censorship committees controlled all intellectual property? In this and other cases, it pays to start the story earlier than the founding date.
  • On the flip side, when we consider developing different stories for different goals and audiences, occasionally we need to start later in the chronology of a company’s history. In telling the story of a “merger of equals” between Lockheed and Martin Marietta, we can start the story after the Cold War—a time of drastically decreased defense spending, when contractors had to adapt and collaborate in order to survive.

The starting point for an aspirational story might even be the present day, with relevant threads from history appearing later in the story as flashbacks.

Consider your organization’s many objectives, which might include growth, talent retention or product innovation. Then, take a few steps back. Sometimes, clarifying what the world was like (or would be like) without your organization, or without a particular product, service or internal initiative, may help clarify what makes these elements so vitally important today and how you can use them to meet your current and future needs.

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

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