The Biggest Reason Businesses Care About Story (It's About Solving Problems)

by giovanni rodriguez

[this article originally was published in Forbes, where the author is a regular contributor]

As a communications consultant to organizations in both the public and private sector, I am often asked to explain the reasons why story is not only “humanity’s greatest social tool,” but an organization’s greatest social tool as well. I first start with the argument that we are wired, both culturally and biologically, to communicate via stories. I then note how collective stories -- what we sometimes call narratives -- help bring different kinds of stakeholders together. This has particular value for corporate communications and marketing people -- especially in the digital age -- who are often tasked to find effective and efficient ways of connecting with different kinds of audiences; without narratives, the work of connecting with multiple groups becomes more burdensome.

But I then explain that there’s a third and probably more important reason why story is so important in the institutional context: the three-part structure of story -- quest, conflict, resolution -- follows the solutions-based logic of selling that organizations of all kinds must embrace. In fact, organizations that take the time to study each of these three fundamental story components can gain a distinct advantage in their marketplaces because few organizations bother to do so.

Purpose

It all begins where all stories begin -- an articulation of the thing that the protagonist wants to pursue.

In the institutional setting, this often goes by the name of “mission.” In the case of the so-called “purpose-driven enterprise” (the subject of a later article), this goes by the name of purpose.  As is true of each storytelling component, the size and scope of the quest are important. Without heft -- take, for example, Google’s mission, “to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful” -- the story will not matter as much. And when we say matter, in the institutional context, we are talking about the value of the organization’s offering or the valuation of the organization itself. By declaring a big mission, an organization could position itself to sell its products or services at a premium, or be acquired at a premium.

There are two other things an organization must think about when developing its mission. First, it’s critical that the mission is at the service of its stakeholders, not itself. In other words, the hero or protagonist of the story is not the organization. Going back to Google’s mission statement. To “organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful” is a statement of the value that Google aims to bring to its users, not to its shareholders. There’s a place for shareholder storytelling that’s consistent with a good mission statement, but should never be the initial focus of messaging work. Because storytelling follows the logic of selling, it’s critical that it focuses on the first class of people the organization is selling to: the users if not buyers of the product or service. Second, it’s important that the mission is known to be reputationally achievable, even if it’s audacious. Again, in the case of Google, the company chose a mission believably within its reach because of its early dominance in search technologies which emerged as the leading approach to consumer-serving information access at the time of Google’s market ascent.

Conflict

If it were all as simple as that. A good story does not end with a good mission. All good stories are driven forward by conflict.  

Outside the institutional context, this principle is well understood. Students of writing, theater, and filmmaking all learn the value of driving the plot of their stories forward by setting up obstacles to the hero’s journey. In cinema, this is widely known as Act II, and typically it is the longest act. In the institutional context, conflict is just as important. But whereas in theater Act II is long, in the institutional context, conflict may be merely daunting.

Again, a case study might be helpful to illustrate the value of this principle. In 2000, I had the good luck to work with a technology company called VMware, which at the time was a small company that sold software to engineers that enabled them to test software on a single PC but in multiple operating systems. I was part of a team that was hired to position the firm for a different kind of customer: IT directors who were looking for ways to maximize their spending dollars by getting the most out of the servers they bought and were stuck with during the go-go years of the late 1990s.  It was a pretty big mission back then. But as it turned out, the technology that VMware pioneered back then -- virtualization of simple Intel x86 chips -- was a huge challenge. VMware met that challenge with a team of scientists -- some hailing from Stanford -- and that became part of the company’s story (Act II of the story, to be precise). Lesson learned: as a well-known funk-music artist in the 1970s used to say, “the bigger the headache, the bigger the pill,” and VMware was in the business of curing a very bad headache. Today, it is one of the largest companies in Silicon Valley.

Resolution

And the “pill,” of course was Act III of the story, the resolution. There are three things worth discussing here.

First, as I have often said in client engagements, it is the journey from conflict to resolution where value and valuation are created, and in my experience, this is the biggest opportunity for organizations that are seeking to position themselves most effectively. You can have a great, outsized mission statement. You can speak to a great, almost insurmountable challenge that your customers are facing. But without a great resolution -- or, solution, as it’s known in the business world -- you will find yourself in the middle of a story with no clear ending. You will not be able to sell.

Second -- and perhaps this should go without saying -- in order to provide a meaningful resolution to the conflict, you will need to go beyond mere words and perform in deeds. This is another place where corporate storytelling often fails. A meager resolution to a great, challenging quest will feel hollow. After VMware stated the “conflict” as the virtualization of the Intel x86 chip -- a feat in engineering -- it was able to deliver in a way that made it impossible for other companies to compete in this new technology category.

Third, there’s the most elusive thing of all in corporate storytelling: understanding that this is your organization’s moment to shine. No, your organization is not the protagonist in the story. But it plays a critical role in the story: the role of enabling the protagonist to transform itself, one of the key moments in all great storytelling. In folklore and legends, there is often a sage who appears before the hero to counsel him or her on what to do. If the hero heeds the advice, the story ends well. If the hero does not, the story is known as tragedy. In the end, the sage imparts a great gift to the hero, and the act of giving creates a bond of trust.

In a world where trust is increasingly scarce, deciding how to shine at this moment in the story is a very important task. We’ll take up that task in the next article where we go deeper on the topic of transformation.