Why corporate storytelling sucks

Andrew HillA provocative article by Andrew Hill in Tuesday’s FT skewers the current focus on storytelling in executive communications blogs (like mine!).

Hill notes that companies like Microsoft and SAP have people on staff with the title “chief storyteller”. He dismisses the interview that Steve Clayton conducted as a walkabout with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella as “anodyne”.

Moving on, he highlights the danger that corporations will construct unrealistic myths with a “a coherent plot…no implausible twists, or awkward gaps” to tell the story of their success which leaders then become trapped in. The risk is, he claims, that corporate storytellers start to believe their own stories.

I’d argue that while there’s some truth in Hill’s admonitions, he over-eggs the omelet in criticizing the desire of communications professionals to tell stories. To achieve even a modicum of success in this endeavor is something to applaud. As welcome relief from the endless march of PowerPoint slides displayed in meeting rooms worldwide, a real story is a rare treat.

The Heart of Storytelling

In fact, I’ve noted that a previous Microsoft storyteller, Justina Chen, has described in detail the messy, complex and conflictual nature of telling the story of the Xbox team who had to deal with games consoles catching fire and other challenges on the road to success. Chen, a successful author who knows what captures the imagination, recognizes the power of overcoming adversity in telling a good yarn:

Don’t be afraid of discussing failures, the crucible moments in the company history is where we see character emerge. Speechwriters can research the times the company has failed and show the lessons, the backbone, and the spine of the organization…

Of course, no company is going to write the corporate equivalent of a Bleak House, or a Gormenghast. When our daily bread is at risk we prefer tales of success to dystopian failure.

Propaganda

WWI PosterIndeed, I believe Hill’s critique is more appropriate if broadened to encompass the similarities between modern corporations and authoritarian regimes or even Fascist states. There’s the common themes of veneration of the organization over the individual, devotion to a strong leader, perpetual competitive engagement as a key motivator of “the troops”, and a fevered dedication to territorial (or market-share) expansion. Propaganda is employed as a tool of conformism and control.

Hill’s critique of “happy ending” storytelling is a really critique of corporate propaganda. Many specific propaganda techniques are deployed by corporate PR and communications professionals: the tireless repetition of an idea, appeal to fear uncertainty and doubt, jumping on the bandwagon, inevitable victory, black and white choices, the cult of personality, demonizing the competition…and so on.

Transmedia

Hill acknowledges the positive origins of corporate storytelling in the work of Stephen Denning. He also references John Hagel of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge (where U2’s guitarist hangs out?) who has suggested:

…it may be healthier to think of business stories as open-ended narratives in which everyone participates, rather than finite tales told by a single raconteur to a passive audience. But he points out that “narratives cannot be crafted by PR departments [and] existing institutional leaders are generally poorly equipped to take on this opportunity”.

When highlighting the importance of context and narrative, Hagel points to the democratization of the means of production of stories:

Digital technology provides all of us the ability to define and communicate narratives in rich and textured ways. Video and audio tools and platforms supplement conventional text-based forms of communication, and put them in the hands of everyone. Of course, the democratization of communication poses its own challenges. While it helps us to frame and communicate our own personal and institutional narratives, it makes it more challenging to frame social narratives that can unite rather than fragment us as we seek to learn faster by working together.

This is supported by my own experience at companies like Cisco where an internal YouTube-like service allows all employees to tell stories. This “show and share” initiative opens the floodgates to immersive storytelling and transmedia where not only the Führer, or CEO, is the focus of the story.

Authenticity

At the end of the day, Hill admits, it is a question of the authenticity of business leaders’ communications, which face innumerable barriers. With Dilbert filling George Orwell’s role in satirizing authoritarian empty suits, the time for “writing with courage and character and grit” is now. But that’s the focus of the column to the right of Andrew Hill’s on p.8 of the March 18 FT.

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Thanks to Gary for pointing out an interesting review of corporate communications at Oracle that includes an appreciation of the storytelling skills of CEO Larry Ellison:

Larry Ellison (co-founder and CEO of Oracle) is a world class storyteller. He just has ways of putting things in a certain perspective. … He said let’s work together to bring the fragmented voices within the company into a cohesive organisation that can tell the right stories at the right time to the right people in the right way. So from the top of the company down there is very strong support and interest in doing this right.

I would agree that it comes down to authenticity…you can’t just “make something up” because it sounds good and hope that everybody will happily run off into the sunset.

In the corporate arena, I also think that stories need to be backed up with action and purpose that people can relate to.



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