Jonathan Littman, co-author of the international bestsellers The Art of Innovation, and Ten Faces of Innovation, and I were discussing storytelling recently when we realized that there are dozens of books that explain how to write books, movies, websites and other narratives. And plenty of books and articles on storytelling. But it’s really hard to find successful plots for business narrative necessary for strategic public relations, crisis management, Internet strategy, advertising, treks through the social media landscape, and other business communications functions. Here’s the CliffsNotes version of developing a narrative around your business strategy. PART 1
Plot #1: Your Lucky Stars
STORY INGREDIENTS: Rising company, stellar talent.
We begin with one of the most desired plots of all: the rise of talented men and women enjoying the rocket ride to stardom. We’ve all seen this before—the cluster of business partners smiling into camera, accompanied by the tacit burst of applause. The brilliantly innovative individual staring into camera with a determined stare.
The storyline starts with the creation of an idea, supported by 80-hour workweeks and generous portions of luck, timing, and bad pizza. Make sure there is conflict: a big bad corporate competitor, a dull former corporate job with knobbyhead employers. And then the rise to grace, thanks to an angel investor, shelf space at Walmart, or world charm.
Examples abound in software, advertising, design and biotech companies. They even include DreamWorks, the dream film company created by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen.
The challenge of this high-wire act is that for most companies, it is probably less plotline and more tactical. The storyline and the Lucky Stars themselves must continue moving in a gracefully upward arc. The irony, of course, is your audience is waiting for their inglorious fall from grace (also followed by a burst of applause). Only an able—and incredibly lucky—few are able to keep the suspense growing and reboot themselves with enough frequency to ride this rocket of success.
Think Richard Branson. Think Oprah.
Plot #2: Return of the hero.
STORY INGREDIENTS: Formerly incredible company experiences declining sales, market share, and questionable management. Original entrepreneur returns, reclaims the company and moves toward even greater success.
Entrepreneurial passion is born, not bred. Successful companies find it difficult to sustain themselves following the loss of their entrepreneurial leader, and managers slip into the driver’s seat. Sometimes, the original leader is called back to the helm. Examples: Steve Jobs’ legendary return to Apple. Howard Schulz’s equally passionate return to Starbucks. Martha Stewart’s recent return to her own Board of Directors. Companies like GE, IBM, HP and even companies without initials have suffered ups and downs when their charismatic founder(s) left the helm (Thomas Edison, Tom Watson, Messrs Hewlett and Packard, respectively). For the Return of the hero to be successful, of course, requires a sometimes violent course correction (Steve Jobs has been quoted as saying that upon his return to Apple one-third of the people knew what he was about and stayed on, one third were let go, and the other third left of their own accord). But given the successes of Jobs and Schultz, good things come to those who return.
Plot #3: The “Doing the right thing” thing.
STORY INGREDIENTS: Conscious capitalism wins out.
When husband-wife actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward started their Newman’s Own food products company and donated all their proceeds to Save The Children over 20 years ago, it was unprecedented. Today, the notion of giving a portion of your company’s proceeds to nonprofits is almost a given. Buy a pair of TOMs shoes and the company gives a second pair to a needy someone in the Third World. Homeboy Industries helps ex-convicts rehabilitate themselves. Bono’s [RED] campaign aids Africa. Target stores donate millions of a dollars each week to help support education (and have been doing it for decades). Doing good, whether the story surrounds green sustainability, giving to Haiti, the homeless, or to the worthy organizations around the world, has gone from fringe politics to an increasingly can do effort. Why? That’s another story. But, as many advise, it’s no longer simply a sidebar story, but must be integrated into the company’s overall values. For more information, try out the Conscious Capitalism Conference in Austin, Texas being held October 9-11.
Plot #4: Flipping bad news. Or, Making lemonade.
STORY INGREDIENTS: Turning negative into positive, or The Midas Touch
One of the greatest spins in history is when advertising agency Chiat-Day (today known as TBWA Chiat-Day) was doing poorly at its New York City office. As a result, the agency was forced to downsize their Manhattan office space. Never one to est crow, founder Jay Chiat was able to turn lemons into lemonade by declaring the smaller office (where people were now relegated to lockers and work areas rather than expensive cubes and desks) as the new way to office. Hanging his hat on the mantle of creative extremism, Chiat used gobs of poetic license to claim the space reduction was actually a step toward the future officeworking psyche. (Of course, survivors of that era claim cramped quarters and abandoning the office altogether in favor of the local coffee shop.)
Plot #5: Passionate zealotry.
STORY INGREDIENT: Actually love what you do.
Now, here’s a concept: actually love what you do. All over the world, people follow their passion and find themselves steeped in success. This is not new. Thomas Edison was driven by the need to invent and we’re all the better for it. Danny Meier is passionate about his restaurants. Gary Vaynerchuk is passionate about wine. Jim Koch of Sam Adams beer is passionate about his brew. Passion is the finest form of selling, and creates a terrific narrative.
And who knew there could be so many kinds of passion?
Whether it’s passion for customer service like Southwest Airlines and Zappo’s, or passion for quality like Louis Vuitton or Ferragamo, or passion for incredible design like Santiago Calatrava or Jonathan Adler, this story pushes the boundaries of ordinary zeal. You get the feeling that Sir Jim Dyson actually cares about creating a new vacuum machine. It’s about excess and wonder and joy. And the great, crazy thing about this narrative is that the outcome must be more and more new, wonderful, amazing things to be passionate about. This is the kind of narrative that moves people from Who cares? to I care! Care about what you do and others will care about you, too.
Plot #6: Superior Being.
STORY INGREDIENTS: Company with seemingly omniscient powers pervades the Earthly realm with supernatural powers. Extraterrestrial powers are an advantage.
This is not an easy storyline to pull off. Superior (or supreme) beings are hard to come by. IBM has been able to successfully tell the tale via their Deep Blue chess matches and server bench strength. Their superhuman servers have defeated chess champions like Gary Kasparov from 1996 on, with eerie effectiveness. They are fond of pitting their artificial intelligence against pitiful humans and coming out on top.
But Google has been able to work this form to death (perhaps even virtually creating it) thanks to their seemingly omniscient powers—from Google maps to GPS data that knows where we are at all times (or, as least they know where our smart phone is). Twitter consciousness is also approaching Superior Being status, with its ability to leap socio-political borders, stir uprisings, and becoming a communications feed for social media masses. Tweet is the new text. And Facebook’s hyperconnected backroom that logs our interactivity helps them come close to deified omniscience.
These narratives follow the suspense story arc, and are dependent upon an endless stream of OMG innovation—a continuing reveal of larger than life powers, as we gawk in awe, powerless and wondering, What happens next?
Plot #7: Us vs. Them
STORY INGREDIENTS: Two pitched rivals slug it out in public, to the merriment of all.
Coke versus Pepsi. Mac versus PC. Maxwell House versus Folgers. Halo versus Call Of Duty. It’s fun to pick sides. The terrific thing about this narrative is that it’s a high-energy slugfest that keeps everyone focused on the two players, even when the category may be filled with rivals (Coke and Pepsi are hardly the only soft drinks in town, right?). This narrative also helps you figure out who you are, and who or what you never want to become. The positioning lines are clearly drawn (and therefore must be clearly defined) and the conflict is inherent in the plotline. What’s left is the continuing saga as the public engages in its own You versus Me rivalry. Not for the faint of heart, this storyline requires erstwhile competitors able to go for the long haul. The best thing may be that no one ever really wins or loses. They just keep going.
McCann Erickson took a similar approach recently when it squeezed its lemons to claim that, rather than due to business losses, their laying off hundreds of people was necessary to pay its incredibly talented (and apparently highly paid) new hires.
Plot #8: I’m so bad, I made it good.
STORY INGREDIENT: Dominant personality able to spin repeated successes.
How people succeed once is a story by itself. How they lost it all is the foundation of tragedy. So the rags to riches to rags and back to riches narrative is endlessly fascinating, and the stuff of “Made for T.V.” movies. Examples? Former heavyweight champion George Foreman has made more money selling his eponymously branded barbecue grilles than he ever did as a professional boxer. Madonna has been the poster child for repeated success as she has spun from Material Girl to Lust Goddess to Eva Peron to Motherhood. And no matter what you may think of former President Jimmy Carter and former Vice President Al Gore’s politics, they have been able to rise to greater fame as humanitarians and globe watchers.
This is by no means the end to plot outlines. Possible others include Egregious Greed, Revenge, Against All Odds, Deliverance From Evil, and more.
But no matter which plot you find yourself leaning toward, the storylines must introduce choices, put the characters in difficult positions and allow them to make believable choices that direct the story’s outcome. These points concern the technical structure of a story. Use them as a skeleton and add life by using emotion, rich characterization and fascinating settings. Use minor and major climaxes, building to the final major climax and revelation that leaves the main character changed in the end. Storytelling is a craft that has existed as long as humankind. Some people verbalize their stories while others write them down. The most successful ones are those that know how to capture their audience’s attention.