Once upon a time, all we had was storytelling.  Fairytales, folktales, legends and fables were passed from group to group, tribe to tribe and generation to generation as a way of sharing experiences and teaching values.

In the days before pen and paper, people carved images into the trunks of trees and, via tattooing, even themselves, so that the story wouldn’t be lost.

Fast forward a millennia or three and where are we today?  With 24 hour media, instant messaging, email and social media, we’re bombarded with short-term messages and uncoordinated images.  So much information that I can’t help but wonder: have we lost the art of storytelling?

In a business content, of course, we don’t call it storytelling.  We call it developing the narrative, a word derived from the Latin verb narrare, “to tell”, and related to the adjective gnarus, “knowing” or “skilled”.  And while a narrative often describes a sequence of events, with skill it can also be used to set out what we – or our organisations – stand for.

The jury is out on what exactly makes a good story.  Good characters.  A splash of passion.  A soupcon of conflict.  Protagonists and antagonists.  Conflict and change.  That sounds about right.

But now think about your own organisation.  Can you hand on heart tell its story succinctly and with feeling?  Or do you sink under a weight of policies and programmes until, like a story with too many subplots and characters, you can’t see the wood for the carved trunks of the trees?

When I was at The Body Shop, we used a professional storyteller (yes, such people exist!) to help us verbalise our corporate purpose.  Not to create it, but to hone and shape it until our very reason for being was as memorable as something by the Brothers Grimm.  Anita’s first shop, borne of necessity while Gordon trekked  the Americas, opened sandwiched between two undertakers on a Brighton roadside.  The signature green colour scheme chosen because it was the only colour of paint that covered the damp and the mold on the walls of the shop.  A memorable story that influenced not just what we said, but also how we operated.

Of course it’s easier to do when our organisations have a singular vision of why they exist and where they are going.  It’s significantly harder in government and the public sector when the issues we tackle stretch up to the horizon and beyond.

Nonetheless we fail to tell our corporate tale at our peril.  I’m not saying it’s easy but in the 24-hour world of modern media, it’s never been more necessary.

In oral traditions, stories were kept alive by being re-told again and again.  Are yours?


Image used under Creative Commons from Digital Explorer