Last Wednesday, I arrived at Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia, to offer a guest lecture for Professor Caleb Dance’s undergraduate course, “Improvisation and Performance Culture in the Ancient World.” The class examines improvisation’s fundamental role in the overlapping art forms of storytelling, public speaking, theater and music. Dr. Dance asked me to relate my storytelling work at The History Factory to the oral storytelling tradition found in epics like Homer’s The Odyssey.
Naturally, I asked him if I could talk about the 1984 mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap instead.
Early in the film, the three core characters recount the history of their heavy metal band. Their origin story starts in the early ’60s, running through ever-changing band names and their series of ill-fated drummers who died of bizarre, unnatural causes.
It’s widely known that all dialogue in Spinal Tap was improvised. Less discussed is the fact that great improvisation is based on painstaking preparation and shared history.
According to Spinal Tap actor Harry Shearer, “…one of the first things we did was write the entire history of the band, and of all the members of the band, so that any time we were sitting around, we knew exactly what the characters would say, so that there wouldn’t be any unexpected moments. That was the very first step we took, making sure we all had a shared base of knowledge.”
Our founder, Bruce Weindruch, even talks about the art of improvisation as it relates to history in his new book, Start with the Future and Work Back: A Heritage Management Manifesto:
When great musicians get together to jam, they’re constantly veering from the present to the past and back again. To the uninitiated, this improvisational music can sound like a jarring clash of sounds. And in a similar regard, the sheer amount of content and data currently streaming into—and out of—organizations on a moment-by-moment basis can look and feel, even to the savviest of communicators, like an incomprehensible blur. When organizations have a sense of their history, that blur begins to look a lot less hazy.
I explained to our StoryARC™ methodology is the preparation that helps us understand a client’s shared history that is so vital to effectively telling their story. The students all chose a favorite film and mapped its plot points, finding that the storytelling algorithm we use tends to repeat throughout history and across genres.
On a macro/plot level, the types of heroes, villains, situations and outcomes found in early epics have been altered and recombined thousands of times throughout the history of storytelling, stretching to today’s Hollywood blockbusters. On a micro/language level, a set of patterns and storytelling techniques ensured that the myths could be relayed effectively.
Start with the Future and Work Back explores the history of The History Factory and, by proxy, the histories of dozens of organizations and industries we’ve worked with over the past 37 years. To remix Bruce’s words: to the uninitiated, our approach to corporate storytelling can appear like a jarring clash of archival materials, well-worn leadership stories, unsung employee anecdotes and editorial interpretation. But the fact remains, when we know and deeply understand the music that came before us, and have integrated that knowledge into a deft communications strategy, the incomprehensible blur goes away. Our messages become so effective, it’s almost like, “How much more effective could these stories be?”
And the answer is: None. None more effective.
 Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest and Company, location 439
 Weindruch, Bruce. Start With the Future and Work Back: A Heritage Management Manifesto, Hamilton Books, 2016, p. xiii