Yes, there are a lot of pretty awful attempts to tell corporate stories out there, along with a burgeoning mini-industry of people proclaiming stories to be the new ‘most valuable corporate asset‘, and any number of job ads and titles purloining the s-word for a sprinkle of zeity geistiness. But this does not mean that storytelling in business is any less important, just that it could do with being done a whole lot better.
Indeed, as Lucy Kellaway says: “Stories in the right place are an excellent thing…We all like stories because we like emotion, and because they are easy for our befuddled brains to follow. They liven things up. They cheer us up. They can inspire us… [but]…The trouble with stories is that to have any effect they have to be good ones – and most people are rubbish at telling them.”
To reinforce her case, Lucy Kellaway claims that plumbers, along with dentists, are mercifully story-free professions: “Plumbers don’t tell stories because they are too busy unblocking your toilet.” But of course, because plumbers, like us, are only human, they do. Especially when, like Charlie Mullins, they have built a great big plumbing business brand: Pimlico Plumbers.
A bog standard story is no doubt not worth the paper it’s written on, but a brilliant story is unquestionably priceless. Indeed, I’d argue that it is just about the most powerful (and pleasurable) thing there is.
Hot on the heels of being bought up by Nikkei, the FT has seen the value of declaring its shared mission: “to translate information into knowledge with timely, accurate reporting and analysis around the clock from Beijing to Brussels, Tokyo to New York and London to Johannesburg. With our global networks, we connect the dots in an increasingly interconnected world.”
While lacking the fire and zing of “Without fear and without favour”, it is nevertheless a decent statement and underlines the value of making your purpose clear for all to see and react to. As Grant Thornton UK’s chief executive Sacha Romanovitch puts it, “a strong sense of purpose helps a venture thrive.” It gives people a shared cause to rally around, a big why to spur them on, a point of guidance for day-to-day decisions and actions.
So a strong purpose is both glue and fuel – a potent mix for any organisation or endeavour.
In an article exploring the heavily analysed utterances of central bankers, CNBC’s UK business editor Helia Ebrahimi highlights the importance and trickiness of “making words perform the exact meaning one wants”.
Yes, words are slippery eels, especially when it comes to trying to synch what you want to get across with what people understand by what you say. Just what does Mario Draghi mean by “whatever it takes”? The phrase gains different currency as, for example, events in Greece unfold, and these events in turn are open to multiple interpretations.
Meanings, like markets, move. But that does not create a get-out clause for clarity. Helia Ebrahimi quotes former US Fed chairman Alan Greenspan: “If I turn out to be particularly clear, you’ve probably misunderstood what I’ve said.” A neat turn of phrase, but one which makes light of always striving to be clear no matter how complex the issues.
After all, a little more clarity back in 2007/8 could well have meant a lot less crisis.
Wise words from the man in the 90-year-old lederhosen…
Johannes Gutmann has over the past two decades or so built from scratch a highly successful business based in his home region of Austria marketing organic produce to over 50 countries around the world. Along the way he has become known for sporting the same pair of 90-year-old lederhosen and scarlet shoes pretty much everywhere he does business.
It has been a highly distinctive and memorable bit of brand building. “You just need an idea of how you want to present what you have,” says Johannes. “For example, for someone who sees my lederhosen, they are worth nothing. But they have a high non-material value: they are a story. And that works just as well on the world stage as at a market in the Waldviertel.”
From Austria to Australia, from farming to pharmaceuticals, no matter where in the world you are or what business you’re in – for your brand, stories are priceless.
Courtesy of the FT’s Lex, a passing mention of how ArcelorMittal likes to call reducing capacity at its steel plants an “asset optimisation plan”. Usually I like to let such examples of cloudy business speak pass, not least because the market for criticising them is crowded and noisy. But this one caught my eye not so much because of its ugly unclear nature so much as its lack of point. A waste of words, it tells you next to nothing worthwhile. Every plan is or ought to be about doing and achieving the best (optimisation). When did any of us last set out to do anything less? What Lex readers (direct and indirect investors and commentators on the company) really want to know is why and by how much ArcelorMittal is reducing resources. So the language is not only unlovable but reflects poorly on the company’s ability to live up to its responsibility to communicate clearly and characterfully.
This isn’t simply an ethical responsibility, it is a commercial one. As the canny souls who set up a clarity index a few years ago explored, being clear can help a company make money.
So let’s all plan to optimise our communication by being as clear and characterful as we can.
While over a billion people have Mandarin Chinese as their first language the number for English is less than 400 million. Yet what my mother tongue lacks in volume it more than makes up for in value.
“Measured in billions of pounds, Chinese is ‘worth’ four hundred and forty-eight billion, Russian eight hundred and one, German one thousand and ninety, Japanese one thousand two hundred and seventy billion, English four thousand two hundred and seventy-one. English is the buyers’ and sellers’ language, the stock language of the market,” says Melvyn Bragg in his enlightening study The Adventure of English.
“And English is the first language among equals at the United Nations, at NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund. It is the only official language of OPEC, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the only working language of the European Free Trade Association, the Association of Baltic Marine Biologists, the Asian Amateur Athletics Association, the African Hockey Federation…while it is the second language of bodies as diverse as the Andean Commission of Jurists and the Arab Air Carriers Association.” English is in short the world’s language of choice when it comes to sharing ideas and information across countries and cultures. The ultimate international language. The language of connection.
So what’s the source of its power? The value of English lies less in its political, economic or historical associations than in its inherently open and evolving character. English is freely adopted around the world and happily adapted and enriched by all who embrace it, with new words and turns of phrase being added all the time – from bamboozle to bishy barny bee, from wig wag to wiki. In so doing, this eminently lovable language grows in value with the world.