Stories and aspirations

Lynn Shepherd’s take on corporate storytelling — Tell-Tale Signs: Decoding the Secrets of the Corporate Grapevine, from the Huffington Post — is worth sharing.

Shepherd offers this as a caution — when an organization organically evolves its own story that becomes a tribal murmur running counter to the mission statement, it’s time for a frank conversation around the campfire.

(Yes. Me too. I hate mission statements.)

But of course, there are lots of positive ways to put an organization’s tribal myths to work in social marketing. We rally around stories; they can be concocted deliberately to focus team members on a valued objective. If a story is an honest reflection of a founder’s vision, it doesn’t have to be the literal truth. It only needs to be plausible enough to gather a consensus — a reasonable aspiration. If your team embraces the story, it will ring true in the messaging you put in front of customers.

zurichActually, storytelling is something I’ve been meaning to write about for a couple of months. We all do it, professionally and personally. We storify our experiences. It’s only human.

I spent a couple of days in Zurich with family at Christmastime, and I found myself explaining how it is that I developed such a love for that city, having spent only an afternoon there previously, more than 20 years ago. It’s a tale I’ve told many times, always essentially the same way: I’d visited on business, and spent the afternoon with a business contact, a successful woman living rather comfortably in a villa overlooking the city. She took us to lunch at an elegant place on the quai overlooking the Limmat River.

The story I tell is that this woman’s ex husband, when they divorced, gave her as a parting gift, an oil company.

Evocative, isn’t it? It’s always good for a moment’s speechless gape. (And isn’t that what every raconteur is looking for?) Of course, it’s a story about wealth, and the truth is, I’m not an uncritical admirer of wealth. But this individual impressed me in the way she wore it. Her villa was lovely but not huge or especially ostentatious. The art was tasteful, modern stuff. Of course the view was breathtaking. Lunch was in an establishment that, while not outrageously expensive, was clearly not an easy place to get a table for five on short notice — but that was childsplay for Madame.

My story isn’t so much about wealth as it is about access. It’s easy to appreciate and fall in love with the best features of a place when you can just breeze in and avail yourself of everything it has to offer.

Oh, and the oil company: My story glosses over the fact that the oil was the sort that goes into cosmetic moisturizers, not the kind that wars are fought over. And that Madame had at least as much to do with building the company as did her ex, and that he didn’t simply give it to her. He just signed over his shares.

Disingenuous? Possibly. But it’s one of those examples of a particular turn of phrase giving a story a greater economy — more bang for the rhetorical buck. Not so very different from Google’s mission statement (“Don’t be evil”) or Disney’s “Happiest Celebration on Earth.”

In an age when the unit of narrative is a photomeme, a 30-second video clip or 140-character koan, economy of verbiage is paramount. It’s an important aspiration.

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