What can the business world learn from the greats of the page, stage and screen? In Only Connect: The Art of Corprate Storytelling, Robert Mighall, former editor of the Penguin Classics series, explains corporate communicators still have a lot to learn about the art of storytelling.
“But I never read business books”. “Good”, replied 26er Martin Liu, who had asked me to write one. “Then maybe you’ll write something worth reading”.
I’ve been earning my living in corporate branding and communications for nearly 15 years, but not immersed myself fully in this world. Partly through writing books on English literature and cultural history. But also by not reading those that claim to “super-charge”, “boost” or “maximize” anything, or reveal secrets to instant success. Promising you the earth, but boring you to tears.
But I was comfortable with the proposed subject. One with no new “secrets” to impart, because it was as old as history and as natural as breathing: Storytelling. The universal human currency, and becoming something of a buzzword in corporate comms when we had the conversation.
Fast forward close on two years later, “storytelling” is now talked about everywhere. Yet, as another 26er Tim Rich recently pointed out, so imprecisely it is in danger of meaning everything and nothing. So what is my book about, now it is published? How can I contribute meaningfully to the clamour?
It’s called Only Connect: The Art of Corporate Storytelling. But maybe an earlier subtitle explains better: “What the Business Story Can Learn From the Story Business”. Both titles refer to my own story. How I started out in the story business – as an Oxford fellow in English Literature and then the editor of the Penguin Classics series – but ended up creating business stories. Only Connect is about connecting these two worlds, applying the principles perfected by the greats of page, stage and screen to the task of corporate communications. It exhorts companies to use these principles to make their communications clearer, more coherent, and more human. Stories work and endure for a reason. Those reasons, and how to learn from them, are spelt out in the book.
How is this new? Well, as I said, it isn’t really. 26 knows this more than anyone. The founders of this organisation have been extolling the humanising virtues of stories for the business world for years. As John Simmons pointed out in The Invisible Grail (2006), story is a “bridge” between our personal and professional selves. And my own book further supports this idea. If story is a bridge, it is a uniquely powerful and enduring one, spanning across time and diverse cultures. Understanding the principles of this power, and putting them to work – at work – is what my own book is all about.
But precisely because storytelling is so intuitive and natural it has slipped into professional parlance and practice so swiftly and comfortably, it risks becoming a cliché before it has completed its mission. From where I’m standing, story as a concept is doing much of the work of “brand” in the corporate space, but without one iota of the navel-gazing and definition afforded that concept. My particular hobbyhorse is the need for a bit more clarity on how story can help corporate branding, and what this means for the future of branding.
Here’s what I think: Story takes the abstractions we call brands and brings them to life. Brands exist in the realm of ideas, and are only given the tangibility and relevance their creators crave when they become narrative. Either through communications, or in the imaginations or anecdotes of others.
Whilst brands belong to professionals, stories belong to everyone. If I share a story with you, you immediately have it. It’s yours as well as mine, and is free to come alive in your imagination. And that’s where brands with relevance and resonance ultimately live. Story can carry the rational and emotional freight brand deals in, making it accessible and relevant through the universal urge to narrative.
Or, to put it more simply, brands end up having life through stories. So it makes sense to think of them in narrative terms from the offset.
For me story is as much a mindset as a set of principles or formula. You don’t have to create a work of art, but you can learn from them. You don’t have to have a great founding legend, but can be a lot more articulate on where you are going and why this matters.
And should we believe the story war has been won, consider one final tale. How I scuppered an annual report pitch quite recently, partly (as the feedback informed us) because of my reference to Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare, we were informed, is not a fit subject for a boardroom. It’s true they didn’t like my suede shoes, or elbow patches either. But this suggests, whilst we might be getting a little ‘story bored’, through the lazy overuse of the term, many clients still have a long way to travel on the road to that Grail.