Telling stories

open book of ideasWe can’t throw a rock across the Web without hitting one of the many articles, posts, books, podcasts or interviews focused on the use of storytelling in business. Arguably kicking the magic out of the hat, most of them address the way stories are used in marketing goods and services (yawn). We need to think about storytelling from a different, more exciting angle. I think about competition and the way stories play a pivotal role in creating competitive advantages. Good stories reign. Stories about how to tell stories, not so much.

Story is everything. No effects needed. All by itself, it has accomplished miracles. Story has replenished spirits spinning yarns of hope in times of adversity. Story: the most precious resource. The oil greasing time in between moments. Muscle growing thick on bone. Landlocked puddles that eventually make it to the sea. Since before we knew whatever it is we pray for now, as fires built strong and bright licked up our backs keeping predators at bay, people have told stories. Since there has been anyone sentient enough to notice we have crafted narratives. Story was, is and will always be about the story. When the dust settles and all is left to the rain, it endures adrift in the air. Stories make us who we are.

Our dearly beloved Kurt Vonnegut used to say,

“Be careful who you pretend to be because, in the end, you are who you pretend to be.”

We all build mythologies, stories that tell the world about ourselves, our experiences, our families and our lineage. Big life changes are a great example. When we are facing a relationship that is ending, we immediately begin spinning the tale of why we were incompatible. We generally justify ourselves against the facts, truth and fiction, in order to reach a place of comfort in order to move on and begin building again.

Business is no different. The stories we tell about ourselves (and our companies) illustrate the struggles we have overcome to arrive here and now. The narratives we build illuminate (or obscure) all the choices we’ve made—the right ones, the wrong ones, how we reconciled or mitigated the wrong ones and learned to make better ones. Stories defend our choices, demonstrate a sense of belonging along with others who have made the same choices or overcome the same struggles. Stories validate how we got here, why we are right, where we are going and why we deserve to succeed. Story is identity’s messenger.

what is your story?If narrative is a tool and identity is a state-of-mind, then conflict emerges from the state-of-mind that narrative creates. Coke and Pepsi are more or less the same thing but it is a state-of-mind, created by narrative, that sets one apart from the other when someone chooses which to drink.

Competition is a battle of identities. This is nothing new. It happens around the water cooler, the backyard barbecue, the playground, the pub, it happens around the sewing circle: he or she who spins the best yarn wins. Old as the hills. We all know someone who can hardly wait for the person who is talking to pause so they can tell a bigger, badder story. This is not always successful, either in personal relationships or business. Ever notice how social media is all about listening? Telling a story is a subtle art. It is not about brute strength. If this were the case, brands would all succeed and the girl who interrupts everyone at the party to tell her story would go home with someone every time instead of ending up alone, time and time again.

Whenever I talk to successful people about their work, the conversation quickly turns into a humble and historical tale: who the founder(s) are (were), what they were interested in, why they formed, what happened in the struggle to create the company, how they won that early angel client. In the end, it’s one compelling, often very personal story. Being able to craft compelling stories is a fundamental tool for anyone interested in being successful. If you’re a good storyteller, many things will be easier for you. Is this a lesson we should teach our children? Is this why an MBA is hardly a guarantee of success?

There are no guarantees of anything, except that one day we will pass through this life. Only our stories will remain.