A company story is more than a single story

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —September 12, 2022
Filed in Business storytelling, Corporate Storytelling, Strategy

“We need a company story.”

I’ve heard this statement so many times, and it’s vastly misleading.

A company does NOT need a story, a company needs many stories, thousands of stories, told many times.

I would go as far as saying a company is defined by its stories. What a company can do, what it wants, how it presents itself, the people it attracts, the products it makes, and the customers it serves are all shaped by its stories.

But what stories does a company need to share? And how does it create the conditions for useful stories to be retold?

The answer to these two questions could be book-length. So here, I will focus on a handful of things every business needs to consider when cultivating its company narrative.

Small stories. Not Hollywood. No heroes’ journeys.

When you collect stories in an organisation, and we’ve collected thousands, you quickly notice that people rarely tell beautifully crafted stories. Instead, they tell brief (if you’re lucky) anecdotes. No three-act structures. No storyboards. And definitely no heroes’ journeys.

Organisations run on small stories—thousands of them. And therefore, the stories you should encourage, which are most likely to be retold, will be small stories: anecdotes.

Stories that make a business point give a reason for a story to be retold

This week, I was listening to a head of communications list the many story topics her company could tell. It was a remarkable set ranging from discovering the DNA that makes up a disease to drones that can spot endangered species, all the way to banking EFTPOS facilities serving thousands of businesses.

If an employee heard any of these stories, they might think, “Wow, that’s amazing. I had no idea we did that.” And that’s where it ends. The story remains untold.

However, if the anecdote had a business point like “When you make a big investment, make sure you protect against the downside,” the story has a good chance of being retold when an investment is discussed.

Team meeting

Business points give stories practical value. It also increases the chance the story will be triggered in future conversations. These are two of the six characteristics I describe in Putting Stories to Work that encourage stories to be shared. The other four are emotion, social currency, visibility and reinforcing your identity.

It is a skill to identify business points in a story. I sometimes tell a story about Victoria Mars, a former chairperson of Mars Inc (the people who make Mars chocolate bars, among many other things). After telling the story, I ask my audience to identify the business points; about half of the group can do it easily, and the other half struggle.

This skill comes with practice and seeing other people do it. Without it, your stories will struggle to travel.

Stories of how we behave

Most companies have a set of values and a stated purpose. While these efforts are essential, they are a tiny subset of the lessons we learn from stories that show us how we behave. Here are some examples.

We are working with Nokia to teach their global salesforce story skills. Recently we heard a story from a participant in Europe. A European government infrastructure department asked Nokia to help them prepare a tender. Nokia declined because they are a supplier of the equipment that would be used in the project. The customer head explained, “As a supplier, it would be unethical for us to provide the tender documentation because it could give us an unfair advantage. We can, however, help you find an independent consultant.”

At Nokia, we behave ethically.

An insurance company we worked with has an unwieldy mainframe system. They are working on making the interface more user-friendly, but most people just complain and moan about it. Except for one young fella, the CEO calls Macro Man. Off his own bat, Macro Man has created a set of Excel scripts to extract information from the mainframe to help his division get its work done.

At this insurance company, we take the initiative.

A few years ago, I visited the HP headquarters in Silicon Valley. Inside their newly built building, they had reconstructed David Packard and Bill Hewlett’s 1950s offices. As you can imagine, there are many stories about the founders that still influence the company. My colleague, Mike Adams, tells this one in Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell.

HP was founded in 1939 as a test equipment manufacturer. Every HP employee knows the story of how co-founder Bill Hewlett came in to work on a weekend and found the equipment storeroom locked. He smashed the door to pieces with a fire axe and left a note on the smashed door, insisting it never be locked again.

At HP, we trust our people.

I’m sure you can imagine that these ‘how we behave’ stories should also be told about your values, purpose, and mission. And the more told, the more concrete and meaningful your values and purpose become for everyone.

The strategy story and stories of the strategy happening

They say if you can’t tell the story of your strategy, you probably don’t have a strategy. Your strategy story then becomes an explanation of what’s going on in the business (the diagnosis), the choices the company is making (the actions), and the expected result (outcomes). Most importantly, it must answer why the choices were made.

All your leaders must be able to tell this story without PowerPoint and in their own words and accompanied by their own personal experiences.

The strategy story is a top-down effort. To really make your strategy stick, you must also work from the bottom up.

A person at the front line is rarely interested in the company strategy. But they are fascinated by examples of good work that get the attention of their managers. These stories of the strategy happening should be found and shared and discussed widely, systematically and purposefully.

One-on-one meeting

So when you are thinking about working on your company story, think about the many stories you want to encourage to be retold in your company. Together these stories share your culture and your business.

Focus on the small stories. Help your people work out the business points of any stories told. Hone in on stories of how people behave. And craft your strategy story that explains your strategy while finding and sharing examples of your strategy happening.

Done together, you are developing a story-powered organisation where everyone can share examples (stories) of what makes your business special, what everyone should be focused on, and how we should behave to generate success.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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