Before I was taken over by expensive Hugo Boss suits and the boring life of a consultant, I wore flip flops and dirty clothes and spent my life driving around with an old and crappy Lada from the 80’s. It was painted black with red flames and decorated with chrome skulls. This beautiful piece of human technology certainly had a story, it was a story and it generated so many unforgettable stories to me and my friends.
Our everyday life is full of stories and we know more or less what we mean by the word ‘story’. All changes when we come to corporate world. More and more companies have a section titled ”Our story” on their web page, but the sad thing is: when you go there and read it, many times it has nothing to do with a story. It seems that many companies talk about their ”story” just because it’s the cool thing to do – without actually knowing what a story is.
It seems that many companies talk about their ”story” just because it’s the cool thing to do – without actually knowing what a story is.
So, what is a story?
I will offer here the ’ABCs of a corporate story’ – a simple and very practical tool to test whether your company has a story or not. You can check if there is some resource you have not utilized to the full extent.
A good corporate story can come from any or all of these three elements:
A) The myth of origin. Probably the first thing we think of when we hear the words ’corporate story’ is how the company came into existence. The pattern that pleases our brain the most is the ancient Cinderella story: a sympathetic protagonist goes from rags to riches. Apple started in a garage and the IT establishment scorned the young idealists but gradually they overcame the obstacles and ”got married with the prince” – i.e. became the most admired company in their field. Cinderella pattern encounters us with thousands of variations when companies or ordinary people tell about their achievements.
What if your company does not have an interesting history? No worries – there are still other ways of having an interesting story:
B) The promise. A story is about meaning, and what your company means to people is what it promises to them. When looking for a promise, don’t think of ”customers” or ”consumers”, think people. Try to formulate the promise of your company in a very universal and human way. Try to put it into a form that even a child understands. And if there is something fascinating in your promise, don’t fail to verbalize it! When Steve Jobs presented the computer in 1980, it was not ”a calculation device that helps us to carry out computational tasks efficiently” but ”a bicycle for the mind”! Think of the difference between these two formulations. And the most importing thing? Jobs kept his promise.
At its best, by making fascinating promises and by keeping them, a company can create:
C) A continuing story where every person can have a place. The first people who bought Apple products did not do it only because of practical needs or technical features. They wanted to belong to something. When Apple re-shaped the technological environment, the ordinary people who owned their products felt like they were part of that revolution, and even more: the doers of that revolution. I think something similar is going on among the people who invest in Bitcoin. It is more than a rational choice. It is about participation in some value system. It is about identification: we represent a new generation and want to restore the power to where it belongs. It is about a formation of a tribe. Our brains are from the Stone Age, and even in this era of individualism we have a continuous thirst for belonging to something. If a company can create a platform for this, its story has reached the highest level.
I have referred to Apple at every point of these ABCs because Apple has become an iconic corporate storyteller.
But you don’t have to search high and low for something that is in front of you. There is actually a young successful Finnish enterprise that ingeniously masters all three of these aspects of corporate storytelling. It is a business seminar started from nothing by a couple of young bright guys in the provincial city of Jyväskylä (Cinderella pattern), inviting people to listen to a striking cavalcade of the top of the top of business speakers from all over the world for two days in a year (a fascinating yet simple promise), gathering thousands of people together who are proud of being NBF-goers (formation of a tribe).
The most important thing about a corporate story: it has to be based on truth. First, be good to people and treat them well, and they will become your most faithful storytellers. That is where it all begins.
The most important thing about a corporate story: it has to be based on truth.
About the writer: Juhana Torkki is a business advisor and the author of the best-selling book on storytelling (Tarinan valta 2014).
Upper photo Jussi Sirviö
Lower photo Jani Laukkanen