My six-year-old son recently went through a period where he rejected picture books in favour of stories that I made up for him. I can’t say I embraced this impulse with adequate enthusiasm—composing a story on the spot is much more difficult than reading “Murmel, Murmel, Murmel”. However, it quickly became apparent that what he wanted was not just any yarn that I could spin, but stories about him. He accepted liberal borrowing from well-known tales, as long as he became the centre of them. And as long as the story version of himself got to fight zombies.
I don’t think we ever outgrow this impulse for stories about ourselves. I devoted an unspeakable number of post-secondary years to reading, and it strikes me that even in an age of streamed and downloaded content, or perhaps especially in such an age, eating up stories is how we take in the world and find a place for ourselves in it. Stephanie Meyer—a stay-at-home mother of three—didn’t sell all those Twilight novels to teenage girls because she was telling stories about herself. She told a story about her readers: who they are, who they might like to be, or what they might like to have happen.
Corporate Cliffhangers: Creating a Relatable Story
Even though I’ve recently shifted my career path from teaching novels to writing for business, I find myself in the throes of a literary hangover: I still spend a lot of my day thinking about narratives, although they’re now non-fictional. Maybe business narratives don’t deal with battling zombies or kissing vampires (or maybe yours do—no judgement here) but they are still stories: how we got here, how we spend our days, what giants we’re trying to slay.
The idea of storytelling in business is well-known among marketing teams, but it has a wide relevance if we define a story as a thoughtful account of people and events. If you’re seeking a job, you ideally set up your résumé to tell a coherent story about your capabilities and achievements. If your business is seeking strategic partners, you tell stories about what you can offer them. If you’re seeking grant money, you tell a story about how your proposed project will help you gain new ground in your industry.
As I’ve suggested, the narratives we tell are not solely about ourselves, but about whom we’re talking to: you enthral your potential employer, partners, or funding organization with a story about themselves. This isn’t just about pointing out the financial benefits to them of investing in you, but about intangibles. What do you stand for, and how will their affiliation with you reflect on them? Think about The Body Shop, for example, as a business based on a narrative of social consciousness. My local public library, to take a not-for-profit example, now offers updated technologies, such as a 3D printer, for clients who may not see themselves as traditional library patrons.
Lost Plots: Managing Unavoidable Change
I recently came across the idea of “narrative wreckage,” a phrase Arthur Frank uses in The Wounded Storyteller to describe people’s reactions to serious illnesses. Most people have “stories” about themselves and their communities—whether these are stated aloud or floating in the mind—that are composed of what’s meaningful to them, what’s happened to them, as well as their powers and pitfalls. In the face of catastrophic health change, though, the stories people tell about their lives sink. As Frank explains, the ill person is shipwrecked, stuck with a map that no longer explains the geography.
The idea that we may reach a point where the old narratives no longer work is relevant for business. In the face of market downturns, new technologies, and other crises, the stories a business has been building might crumble. When North American farmers faced serious droughts in the 2000s, the reputation of the mid-west and the west-coast as places of agricultural plenty were critically threatened. As digital photography became the standard, Kodak lost its status as a top name in photography products.
Sequels: Communicating Change to Stakeholders
Frank emphasizes that wrecked narratives can be made anew, rebuilt to locate a strengthened sense of self. I would add that this kind of retelling can be meaningful even when change is not catastrophic: the smallest shifts might call for adjustments. In business, this means strategizing: How are we going to get new technologies? How are we going to give our employees the skills they need to advance? How might we secure new markets? Then, find ways to explain these new directions to key audiences: customers, partners, employers, or funding bodies.
This, in fact, is what excellent storytelling does. It’s not about flowery language; it’s not Billy Flynn in Chicago singing, “give ’em the old razzle dazzle.” Skilled storytelling is the opposite: it involves reflecting honestly on who we are now as well as how we ended up here, what we can do, and what we’re working towards. It’s about finding the plotline and tailoring it to your audience’s perspective with lucidity, precision, and purpose.
And zombies. Don’t forget the zombies.
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