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Corporate Storytelling: the 7 Tips for Audience Engagement

June 6, 2019 • Adam Nemett

This series, originally posted by History Factory writer, Adam Nemet in July 0f 2014 was recently updated and consolidated in June, 2019.

“Storytelling” is trendy, but it’s hardly a fad. Stories are one of the most ancient and timeless forms of communication in human history. Recently, I’ve heard all manner of marketing initiative lumped in with that sexy term, and I’m not sure it always makes sense. Is a television commercial always “a story”? What about blog comments or tweets? A marketing director at a major UK candy manufacturer recently claimed that “even our pack designs now tell a story.” Is every brand communication now “storytelling,” or are we simply trying to avoid using words like marketing, packaging or (gasp) advertising?

Pictured: A few of Kurt Vonnegut’s story “shapes.” Along with the work of Aristotle, Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, story structure experts like Vonnegut have helped inform The History Factory’s StoryARC™ corporate story gathering methodology.
A few of Kurt Vonnegut’s story “shapes.” Along with the work of Aristotle, Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, story structure experts like Vonnegut have helped inform History Factory’s StoryARC™ corporate story gathering methodology

I don’t mean to imply that it’s impossible to create a compelling tale with a single sentence or well-structured image. But it’s time we got more serious about the word “storytelling”—what it is and what it isn’t. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be planting a series of stakes in the ground. Without further ado, here’s the first of our 7 Tips for Audience Engagement:

Tip #1: Stories must have shape.

A timeline is not inherently a story. Nor is a slogan, a tweet or candy-bar wrapper (well, there are exceptions to every rule). A story is not flat. It must have an arc, some ups and downs, twists and turns. It must promise us something and then deliver, in a surprising yet inevitable way.

Stories can take many shapes, but most have a beginning, middle and end. Aristotle was one of the first to call this out, and many other smart folks like Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler have developed this idea into what we now shorthand “the hero’s journey.” We’ll talk more about this in the coming weeks. But the word “end” implies finality, so let’s try: setup, tension, and resolution.

In our setup, we need a protagonist—a person, a group or an organization—with a unique personality or set of values. Let’s call this character. Our protagonist must want something—their goal or endgame. Let’s call that mission.

The essence of storytelling is the tension of character and mission set loose in an unpredictable world. The audience needs to watch this mission—and the obstacles impeding its realization—play out in some sequence. Our character may remain steadfast in the face of adversity or may evolve over time. But the audience must care about whether or not our hero achieves their goal. As storytellers, our job is to create and complete this satisfying arc—the oversimplified shape of a story—and allow the character and mission to resolve, like the final chord in a refrain we can’t wait to hear again.

For a company, an anniversary year is a common resolution moment—a great excuse for an organization to drive toward business and communication goals. The key is collaborating with organizational leaders to help understand and define what this resolution might look like, and then work backward. We then craft a narrative that draws on relevant pieces of distant and recent history, allowing the organizational story’s resolution to feel both surprising yet inevitable.

Tip #2: Relying on Truths v. Fictions

Sometimes when I tell people that I work for 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 little known toy design to become the symbol for a tool company’s global anniversary campaign.

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.

Tip #3: Delivering a Story for Each Audience

Here’s a setup for a social experiment that sounds like a setup for a bad joke: a man walks into a bar and sees three people sitting at three different tables. At the first table is an attractive single woman, at the second table a job interviewer, and at the third a psychiatrist. Our guy joins each of them for a beer, and one by one, his drinking companions ask him: “Tell me a little bit about yourself.”

Does he tell each one the same story, or does he give a different spiel to each person?

Maybe the psychiatrist would be curious about his previous work experience. And maybe the HR rep would appreciate his flirty sense of humor, and maybe the eligible bachelorette would warm to the vulnerability of his deep-seated abandonment issues. But probably not.

Film studios know this, and because they want to reach broad demographics, they typically release a varied slate of movies in many genres, starring heroes and heroines of various races, ages, genders, etc. Warner Brothers., 2nd in the film industry’s 2018 domestic and global market share, grossed more than $1.9 billion on the strength of a diverse slate of offerings — comedies, dramas, sci-fi, fantasy and superhero blockbusters.

It’s possible that the same filmgoer might pay hard-earned money to see the latest installment of the fantasy Fantastic Beasts, superhero hit Aquaman, followed by children’s movie Paddington 2 and capping off the season with the mega-blockbuster, A Star is Born. But probably not.

The main characters of any story are typically designed to act as mirrors or stand-ins for its target audience. This doesn’t mean that people only like movies starring people who look and act like themselves. It means we’re conditioned to respond to people and problems that feel familiar.

We all share different sides of ourselves, depending on who we’re talking to and what we want to happen with that particular relationship. So, if an organization wants to develop or strengthen relationships with different audiences, why should it tell only one story about itself? It sounds obvious, but too often a corporate history only includes the founding story—a singular “period drama” that misses the mark with most constituencies. If an organization is hoping to speak to many different groups of people, it should have many stories ready to reach each one of them.

Certain elements in a company history might work for a whole host of audiences. A few details about an organization’s founding and early years can help provide context, just as our “man in the bar” might talk about where he was born and raised with any of his three drinking partners above. But this is merely a jumping-off point, not the whole story.

Before diving into our StoryARC process, we need to get a prioritized sense of an organization’s target audiences. These audiences might include new hires and longtime employees, existing and potential customers, domestic and global communities, government leaders and regulators, suppliers, subcontractors, scientists, shareholders or store owners. Once we know who we want to reach, we can figure out what we want to say to each of them.

If a client wants to inspire an R&D department to take risks, they must tell a powerful innovation story with past and present risk-takers at the heart of the narrative. If they want to inspire employees to become more active members of their community, they shouldn’t regurgitate the innovation story. They must showcase a distinct narrative framed around the organization’s history of social responsibility, and how they have connected employee volunteers with underserved nonprofits then and now.

A compelling, well-told story has the potential to excite and inspire a wide range of audiences, regardless of the core intent. But to truly target a message and inspire change, we need to consider our audience as the protagonist of its own story.

Of course, even this approach can become overly formulaic—take a look at recent movie poster designs and you can see how pointedly the film industry is marketing to its target audiences. Once we have our overall themes and audiences in place, we can finally focus on what makes a story successful: how it’s told.

Tip #4: Starting Before Your Founding Date

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 rock and roll love story, A Star is Born, doesn’t start with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s characters belting out a steamy, sultry duet. It starts with Bradley Cooper’s character popping pills as he walks on stage to blow the roof off of a packed Coachella. Aquaman doesn’t start with a superhero surfing on turtles, but rather with one lighthouse keeper’s discovery of a wounded, seemingly drowning woman washed up on the shore in a storm (spoiler alert: she turns out to be the queen of Atlantis).

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 . ..”

This is a screenshot from a scene in Star Wars: A New Hope. This is a screenshot from a scene in The Wizard of Oz. This is a screenshot from a scene in The Matrix.

(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 toolmaker, Stanley Black & Decker do we start with the company’s bolts and hinges in 1843, or do we return to the emergence of New England as an industrial center in the young nation? 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.

Tip #5: Finding Compelling Drama in Challenge and Conflict

Picture this: You’re at a party and you meet an interesting couple—one of those opposites-attract duos. After a few drinks, you ask one of the all-time great storytelling prompts: “So, how did you two meet?

And they answer: “Oh, well, 10 years ago we saw each other on a street and we were both single and immediately liked each other, so we went out on a date where conversation was great and nothing tense happened, and we wanted to live in the same place and had all the same interests and opinions and had no obstacles to overcome and our parents immediately approved, so he proposed and I said yes, and we’ve never had a rough day together!”

That response has never happened in the history of ever. And if you ever did get that response it’d be annoying and would end the conversation. A dynamic duo would cease to be dynamic. In fact, you’d suspect they were hiding something.

To reiterate from an earlier tip: A timeline of accomplishments is not inherently a story. A story must have an arc, some ups and downs, twists and turns. The essence of storytelling is the tension of character and mission set loose in an unpredictable world.

Everybody falls the first time . . .

And that’s why, whenever I begin a StoryARC™ session with one of History Factory’s clients, I don’t start with the company’s founding,  or with a laundry list of high points. I start at the nadir—the low point between Act II and Act III. Our first question is what we lovingly refer to as the “danger” question: “Tell me about some moments in your organization’s history when one of your goals was in serious jeopardy—when it looked like all was lost.”

The question inevitably elicits some nervous fidgeting. Most corporate histories are a boring list of how a company is, has always been and will always be great, and our participants are not accustomed to sharing anything un-great. But the point of this exercise is not to air dirty laundry; it’s to explicitly show how people worked together to heroically overcome moments of danger or challenge. In other words, the point is to find and elevate the dramatic tension.

In every industry and period of history, in small and large ways, every company experiences tension. The great ones have a legacy of successfully dealing with this tension and emerging stronger. In every StoryARC session, there are dozens of these moments people readily call to mind: external naysayers mucking up best-laid plans, massive global challenges like wars or epidemics or financial crises, and intimate anecdotes of personal struggle that suggest far greater adversity.

If we can identify a handful of the most significant challenges—both past and present—these instances will organically suggest what comes before and after: the moments of commitment that set them on a given path and the lower-stakes trial-and-error moments that lead to great accomplishments.

So let’s get specific with examples:

As you can see, discussion of conflict and challenge need not be tied to an organization’s missteps. Quite often, challenge is simply intrinsic to managing large teams of talented people, to merging disparate organizations with distinct cultures, to competing with other companies on a global scale, and to humans attempting to do impossible and impressive things. Embrace conflict!

Tip #6: Crafting Details and Scenes, not Dates and Statistics

Remember that interesting couple you met at the party? Well, picture this: you come home from that same party and tell your wife that you’d like to invite them over for dinner sometime.

“Okay, but which couple?” she replies. “We met a ton of people tonight, Charles.”

“Joel and Erica—you remember.”

“I don’t remember. I had, like, three or five martinis.”

“Joel was 6 feet tall, 196 pounds. He was born April 2, 1973, in Skokie, Illinois, and–”

“How many martinis did you have?” she asks, dabbing off her lipstick with a paper napkin. “I have no idea who you’re talking about.”

“Erica had a bright turquoise owl necklace and wore a little too much lavender perfume. Joel was wearing the blue bow tie, and you said he laughed like Eddie Murphy. We bumped into them at the fridge when we were all looking for extra olives, and you accidentally opened the freezer door into his head, and he said ‘Don’t worry, there’s ice right here!’ and stuck his head in the freezer.”

“Oh, of course,” she says. “Joel and Erica.”

Facts, figures and dates can be essential to a corporate narrative’s authenticity, but trying to jog someone’s memory or inspire emotional connection using numbers is typically fruitless. Scenes that include dialogue and visuals—as well as other sensory detail—can help forge both memory and emotion in the “mind’s eye.”

At the outset, our audiences are all metaphorically blind. It’s our job as storytellers to help them see.

When we tell the story of an organization’s founder, their birthdate and birthplace may sit on a shelf of vital statistics, but we’re much more interested in exploring who the person was, and how their words, actions and appearance illustrate their character. Was he always decked out in a three-piece suit and starched shirt? Or was he a roll-up-your-sleeves type, fingernails stained with motor oil? Did he saunter deliberately through the board room, forcing those around him to conform to his relaxed pace? Or did he nearly sprint from meeting to meeting, as if racing some unseen opponent?

Filmmakers take great pains to develop sets, lighting, sound effects, hair and makeup—also known as mise-en-scéne—to create a believable world for the audience. So, too, in other forms of storytelling. In his seminal book On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner writes: “Good fiction sets off . . . a vivid and continuous dream in the reader’s mind.”

Of course, corporate histories are nonfiction. Taking liberties in regard to details and dialogue can yield a narrative that is overly dramatic or, worse, fabricated. This is where first-person accounts come in handy. In addition to newspaper editorials, letters, journals and other detail-rich archival materials, we use oral histories and StoryARC™ sessions to glean memories directly from those who experienced moments in a company’s recent or more distant past.

Consider the following Wikipedia sentence: “Corona started under the name ‘Discoverer’ as part of the WS-117L satellite reconnaissance and protection program of the US Air Force in 1956.”

Now, this one: “Program manager Jim Plummer holed up in a rented motel room on El Camino to begin working on the technical drawing for the top-secret Project Corona, until heavy rains came in and ‘the whole darn motel was under water.’”

There’s a time and place for the first sentence, but the second sentence conveys a sense of specificity, detail and human-level challenges that the first sentence doesn’t achieve.

Specific, personal stories and quotes bring color to otherwise drab and shapeless milestones. Sensory details and dialogue—the lifeblood of scenes—help engage audiences viscerally and emotionally. We may not aspire to the fiction writer’s goal of creating the “vivid and continuous dream,” but we can still aspire to cast reality with substance and authenticity.

Tip #7: Setting Up the Sequel and Writing Your Future

We talked about the shape of stories, discussed the raw materials of corporate narratives, and looked at how to develop different stories for different audiences.

We discussed where Act I should begin and how to develop drama in Act II. And we dove into the details of how to create memorable scenes. Now, let’s bring it on home. In fact, that’s what Act III is all about.

Act III is where the story pays off—our protagonist metaphorically “returns home.” We arrive at a familiar place or situation but better off than before. Only tragedies truly “end.” Unless we’re telling a cautionary Enron-esque tale, our narratives should “resolve” like a good melody, leaving our audiences satisfied.

Which brings me to Crispin Glover.

You may remember him from such films as Back to the Future, or his more oddball and iconoclastic moments since then. What you may not know is that he took umbrage with the scripted ending of BTTF.

When Marty McFly returns home to 1985, his parents are nicely dressed, fresh from the tennis courts. His siblings look fancier, too. Biff is their servant, and he has just finished waxing Marty’s new truck. Glover felt the moral of the story was that money equals happiness and that the focus should have been on something less materialistic.

It’s difficult to know what was originally scripted and how much of Glover’s argument actually affected what was shot, but the point is this: Act IIIs are important. As storytellers, we must be hyperaware of the note on which we’re ending.

A story focused only on year-over-year bottom-line growth may resonate with shareholders, but will employees and customers respond as favorably? Or would they be more excited with an ending focused on a unified, supportive culture or a socially responsible commitment to communities? And, most importantly, what actions must a company take in order to make this ending an authentic reality?

Crafting an organizational narrative is not only about chronicling the past; it’s about creating the kind of future that people want to be part of. Maybe that future is already palpable, or maybe it’s something organizations have to deliberately create.

The best endings leave an audience satisfied . . . but still wanting more. I’ll call this: setting up the sequel.

For argument’s sake, let’s agree that everything is more awesome at the end of BTTF than it was at the beginning (at least on a superficial level). Marty is about to jump in that sweet truck with Jennifer and head off to the lake. The audience is experiencing a feeling of peace after a long, arduous journey through time. But if we actually followed Marty and Jennifer as they ride off into the sunset, we’d soon get bored.

Instead, Doc Brown shows up and commandeers them for another adventure. The DeLorean lifts into the air and shoots into space, and that tease of a title card tells us “To Be Continued . . . ” We get sad when good things end, but with the promise of more excitement, we’ll absolutely buy a ticket for the sequel.

Pictured: three screenshots from ending scenes in the Batman TV show, Back to the Future, and a James Bond movie are spliced together to show how stories can set up for a sequel.
The End?

In terms of corporate storytelling, a great founding narrative might lead perfectly into a growth narrative, which might segue into an exciting innovation narrative. But each story in and of itself should resolve with an arrow pointing to the future. In fact, if you remember my advice in starting before your founding date, we always craft our stories with this maxim in mind: Start With the Future and Work Back.

Most clients have deep respect for the past, but their anniversary must celebrate a forward-looking organization. For example, every chapter in our Lockheed Martin publication culminates with a cliffhanger. They’ve successfully risen to meet a particular era’s challenge head-on, and now a new, destabilizing force is rearing its head. However, the cumulative effect of seeing all these achievements is that once we arrive at the final chapter, we’re left with a sense of adventure and faith that the organization will always rise to the occasion.

Knowing what came before gives people the intellectual touchpoints and emotional fire-in-the-belly to charge forward wisely and passionately. If your company has been around 10, 25, 50 or 100 years, chances are good that there’s another adventure right around the corner. If that adventure is out of tune with the company’s stated values, it’s up to leaders, employees and customers to help create the more heroic future that will instill pride and loyalty for years to come.

So here we go again, folks, and buckle up. Because where we’re going, we don’t need roads.

For more information on how storytelling can help your organization, check out our comprehensive guide to corporate storytelling.

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