There is plenty written in the corporate world about narrative and especially the need for a ‘compelling story’. But, if you laid out the typical corporate narrative alongside a film or TV drama, there’s no contest in terms of which one grabs your interest. Outside of the immediate small executive group, and maybe a consultant or two who have developed the narrative, the output– the story– often isn’t compelling at all and falls on deaf ears. In theory, anyone working in an organisation should be keen to hear what the vision and strategy of the business are and therefore, what the story might be. So what’s stopping the corporate narrative being of interest to the identified audience? Why are business narratives less than engaging?
If you want to write a compelling story and have it made into a film, then your first port of call probably isn’t the accountants. (These days it may well be, but that’s another story). So why do we think we can find a compelling narrative for a business in the financial charts and spreadsheets? It might provide the context, and contain the data for the story, but after you’ve gathered the basic information, what you need to do next is answer a simple question: what type of story is it?
Type of Story
According to Christopher Booker in his book “The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories”, there are…well…only 7 basic plots. By the way, I’m inclined to believe him since he spent 34 years researching and writing this book! Since we can rule out both Tragedy and Comedy (at least as preferred business outcomes) then it only leaves us with five. So, have you asked the simple question, what basic plotline am I writing – what type of story is this? Here are the five, with a simple way of seeing them as business examples:
Overcoming the Monster– Taking on the competition or other enemies of success, such as rising costs, falling market share, tackling disruptors, or reputational threats.
Rags to Riches– Any growth story, sales, new technology or skills, competitive advantage, scaleable products and services, rapid start-up to global domination.
The Quest– Innovation, technology, new product development, new business risks, being the disruptor, anything striving to discover more and push boundaries in any way.
Voyage and Return– Opening up new markets, new territories, new business risk, business transformation, with or without technology at the forefront.
Rebirth – New business model, diversification, shift in direction and strategy.
Like any categorization, it is rare that you will find any one of these a perfect fit, but because they form the core of human storytelling, there’s a good chance one of them will be somewhere near.
It wouldn’t be appropriate if we didn’t share at least a small story of where we’ve seen this work before. We’ve been working with a client recently who is a serious player in their market, but by no means the biggest. Not only do they have large and ferocious competitors, they also have a level of comfort in their established business. This makes it hard to motivate staff to take on new business risks, open up new territories and genuinely tackle the competitors. We helped them to identify the type of story they were in and how they might like it to end. As you can see from our descriptions above, they are definitely in a Voyage and Return story, but also with a bit of Overcoming the Monster. The story they chose and identified is well known enough: ‘Jack and The Beanstalk’. So why is this help them create a more dynamic and inspiring narrative than the usual strategic slide decks? As this work is still in flight, we don’t have all the answers, but we can tell you what we already know.
- The story of Jack tackling his quest has strong roots in western culture and the imagery is already in our heads. When allied to the strategic intent, identifying with ‘Jack’ is very dynamic and challenge-focused. Everyone knows what the prize looks like and what it might mean. A goose that lays golden eggs has more allure than a big number.
- Jack is adventurous and spirited: the desired new behaviour. He takes risks, but we know they have a positive outcome. It shapes the way.
- The ‘Giants’ are easy to identify and it helps to physicalize the competitors in this way. We are able to use illustration to show how big the ‘giants’’ are.
- People have had fun imagining other characters in the story and the role they play. This has added a richness to the strategic narrative, and everyone understands it because of the common language.
- It makes for great illustrations in power points and makes it fun.
You might think that this is just storytelling for kids and has no place in a serious business environment. But it’s worth knowing that this client is not only a serious player, but also in a traditionally conservative and serious-minded industry. The allusion has not been made lightly and whilst, like all metaphors, it can only go so far, it has already provided the spark the executive were looking for. By knowing what type of story they are in, they are also free to point to the happy ending that everyone is looking for.
Once you’ve written a compelling story, you need to leave it in the hands of a skilful storyteller, who has a personal connection to the story– but that’s another chapter, for another day.