Does a business story need people?

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Today we will look at the question "does a business story need people?"

AKA "Can I make my company a character in the story I want to tell?"

The answer may surprise you. The journey to answering it will reveal some powerful truths about storytelling that you can put to work in your business.

But first, another question: why do we even need to address this?

We need to because of something I discovered in 2012 when working applying the power of story to business.

The word "story" is thrown around and used as a crutch. People use it to describe corporate strategy, objectives and many other things. "What's our story?" gets asked in leadership meetings and the answers and dialog undoubtedly focus on the "what" and "how" of a strategy, a program, a market.

"Why" and "Who" is often left out.

What goes wrong? It's pretty simple. Because our brains are wired on narrative and stories are so compelling we subconsciously want to use storytelling as much as possible. The problem is, as busy business people, we often short circuit something to keep moving fast. We see it in the curse of knowledge, in the overuse of Three Letter Acronyms (TLAs) and metaphors.

Metaphors and analogies are potent proxies for storytelling. They are arguably a distilled form of storytelling that is useful for quickly getting people to understanding. Used without preparation can result in leaving ideas on the table.

Storytelling has fallen foul to over metaphorizing.

Your reaction to this may be to seek to educate people on what story is. I know because I've fallen into that trap. Storytelling is powerful, and we should call it what it is and not call things it which aren’t. Right? Mostly.

People don't like being preached to so rather than tackling this with a "that's not a story" response consider the situation and formulate how you can put the characters into the story, no matter who or what they are.

Let's take stock for a moment. What are the ingredients of a story?

  •  Characters - that the story happens to and because of (protagonists, antagonists, supporting characters)
  •  Obstacles, or challenges - to be overcome
  •  Stakes - what is lost/gained by the overcoming or failure to overcome obstacles
  •  Structure - having things in the right places. Beginning. Middle. End

Is Shrek a human person? No. Is Woody (Toy Story) a human person? No. What about HAL from 2001 a Space Odyssey (it's being re-released!). Nope, not a human person. The whale from Moby Dick. Certainly not human. Think of fiction you have seen/read with protagonists or antagonists who are not technically people.

When there are non-human protagonists, they are often anthropomorphized, to make them more human, and thus relatable. R2-D2 anyone?

And therein lies the key.

The power of story is for us to relate to what is told, and for it to change our minds and behavior.

As with Aesop's Fables we know stories can make a point and shape how we act.

So, a talking chair, a storm with a vengeance, or an impassable mountain could (and often do) fall into the 'obstacle' element. And that is fine. Sometimes they become much more. Let's look at an example.

The classic Lord of the Rings does this particularly well. Sauron, once a physical manifestation of a demi-god in the Tolkien's Middle Earth, was reduced to little more than an idea, a 'will' being exerted through the hearts of others. And (spoiler alert) the destruction of the ring, which also was able to exert influence and shape the story despite being "merely" an object resulted in Sauron's will being flushed from the world for good. Sauron was, arguably, anthropomorphized rather heavily. But the ring wasn't. Despite efficiently playing a starring role.

So, Do stories always need a human protagonist?

In a word the answer to the question is "no," but it's slightly more nuanced than that.

A story needs characters, be they people, whales, rings or evil intent.

If you are going to craft a story with your company as the character, that is fine, just make sure you anthropomorphize it accordingly. Do your homework. Prepare. Give your company wants, needs, desire, fears. Look to your employees, founders, and their shared history. Ensure the company plays the role of a character in your story. A character subjected to the obstacles, stakes and delivered in the appropriate structure.

Then go one further.

Put your company to the side and consider your customers. Give them the starring role, make your company the supporting actor.

None of this diminishes the power of real people and real stories as a powerful element to shape minds and change behaviors. You should look to authentic stories to make your point wherever and whenever possible

Always be mindful that it's a slippery slope to saying "story" and meaning something else.

Have you constructed a story with a company as the lead protagonist? How did it turn out?

Go Narrative is a marketing consultancy that assists business leaders in technology firms to build and implement advanced marketing strategies. Our secret sauce is storytelling for business growth and transformation. We can help you cut through the noise and improve your reputation. We love helping business leaders understand, use and apply storytelling in business via writing, presentations, video, strategy and actionable plans. Get attention. Be heard. Make an impact.

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