June 5, 2009 • Adam Nemmett
Last weekend I went to a house-warming party—a smallish one, mostly populated with tangential acquaintances and strangers. After a drink or three I found myself launching into some of the amusing/charming anecdotes I tend to bust out at these types of events: here’s the one about the time I thumb-wrestled Willie Nelson . . . which reminds me of my Jell-O embarrassment on Mount Fuji . . . and did I ever tell you the one about . . .
See, I’ve got this stable of stories (we all do); the polished and often self-deprecating ones. The reasoning is obvious: I’m under the impression that the content of these stories is amusing/charming and the very act of telling these anecdotes makes me, by association, seem amusing/charming. I fancy myself a solid storyteller and heaven forbid someone else try to recount a shared experience their own way. If you ever spot me at a cocktail party slumped in a corner, mumbling angrily into my Heineken, it’s probably because some yutz just hijacked my stellar Jean-Claude Van Damme yarn . . . and didn’t even tell it particularly well.
Here at The History Factory, we often find ourselves in the role of storyteller—helping businesses cull the most interesting bits from their histories and creating from this raw material compelling and dynamic journeys. Again, our reasoning is obvious: stories are the primary means by which people—including customers, employees, etc.—connect to an “other” and engage with the various cycles of its narrative.
And here’s the rub: whenever there’s a compelling story to be told, rest assured somebody is going to tell it . . .
Which brings me, somehow, to Sonia Sotomayor.
When President Obama announced his nomination of Judge Sotomayor to the Supreme Court last week, the initial critique revolved around the fear that Judge Sotomayor might rely too much on her personal history. Countless media outlets—including Amy Goldstein and Jerry Markon’s fine article in The Washington Post, “Heritage Shapes Judge’s Perspective”—cited excerpts of Sotomayor’s speech to a Berkeley law conference in October 2001: “Our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging . . . Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see.”
Justice John Roberts’s similarly scrutinized “judges are like umpires” comment from his 2005 Senate Judiciary Committee opening statement would seem the dispassionate polar opposite of Sotomayor’s more personal interpretation. I admit I find it interesting that after being so attuned to personal narratives in regard to electing federal executives (who could forget the painstaking personal vetting of the recent Obama/Biden/McCain/Palin electoral cycle), Congress somehow expects our appointed federal justices to assume a robotic and agnostic role divorced from past experience.
But if Sotomayor’s personal history is going to be so central in her confirmation process, you’d better believe there will be a massive effort to manage her story. Indeed, “Senior White House officials said that the key to what they hope will be a 72-day campaign to confirm Sotomayor . . . is to ensure that they retain control over the story line of the judge’s life and career . . . ‘We have to keep control of the narrative, to make sure that her story doesn’t get told by someone else,’ the senior aide said.”
Despite these words, many are already attempting to tell their version of Sotomayor’s story. The Post’s “Heritage Shapes Judge’s Perspective” article contains a mini-exhibit of sorts intended to encapsulate Sotomayor’s backstory: from B&W baby pictures through elementary school beginnings, continuing through middle school graduation and scholarly college photos, up through modern-day color shots of Sotomayor alongside female family members young and old.
So the question is: where do the experiences of businesses fall along this spectrum of storytelling? Are we accustomed to viewing corporations as faceless and dispassionate entities? Or do we already proscribe narratives onto these brands? Finally, should businesses strive to be seen in a more personal light, in connection with their employees and customers and “life experiences”?
After all, brands are vetted a billion times every day by a wide range of internal and external audiences. Isn’t every business in a perpetual state of “confirmation hearings”?
Just as the White House must retain control over Sotomayor’s personal story, so too should businesses understand the importance of managing their own historical narratives. By leveraging its past, a company can gain support for future initiatives. The other option is for companies to relinquish control of their story to a rogue storyteller and wind up in the proverbial corner of the cocktail party, mumbling into their proverbial Heinekens.