What is a real corporate story?
Over the past few years I’ve researched and written six company stories. I am currently finishing the seventh and starting a new one. Researching and writing a corporate story is completely different from brand storytelling, corporate storytelling for leaders to empower or motivate staff and certainly completely different from creating your business story for marketing.
Storytelling is all the rage in leadership, branding and marketing these days. It seems everything has a story and that marketing has morphed into one big storytelling fiesta. So much so that I think we’re all in danger of being over-storied and not appreciating actual business stories and business histories. With all that's going on the world right now the phrase, 'those that don't remember the past are condemned to repeat it' could not be more apt.
So, I thought I’d share how real corporate storytellers go about their craft, just so everyone can learn how to pick the marketing/brand/hype story from the real thing. A real corporate story is a significant piece of writing, I am talking over 10,000 words and sometimes up to 100,000 words.
1. Listen and read
All good corporate storytellers spend a lot of time listening and reading. We interview people who belong to the company, own it, work for it, supply goods or services, are clients or customers and sometimes competitors. In interviewing people we listen to their memories and stories and about their interaction with the company and its owners and managers. We gain a number of different perspectives of the same events, activities and operations.
These interviews are recorded and summarised, shared with the interviewee (they might remember other things and/or correct some errors they’ve made. Interviews are a vital and dynamic part of any good corporate story…they are the real story in fact. Without these memories a corporate story is nothing more than a collection of facts and figures.
While we’re interviewing we also read a lot from varied sources: the company’s own archives, newspaper reports, analysts reviews, industry overviews, about broader country and world events . . .anything that helps to place the company’s story into a wider context.
This might take weeks, months and, sometimes years.
2. Thinking and planning
Once we’ve listened to people, read widely and thought about the key themes, messages and actions that keep recurring across these varied sources, we then think some more. Usually this involves long walks, standing under the shower, gardending, more walks . . . just to work through in our minds what the storyline is going to be, how we’re going to approach writing it.
Then we plan what we’re going to write. We create a chapter outline, work out how the break-up the story into manageable parts and how they’ll link together to form the whole story.
3. Writing and revising
After all of this is done we then start to write. Personally, the hardest moment for me is writing the first sentence and paragraph. It might take me a week or two of thinking about it before I am ready. I recently had this challenge when I was getting close to the deadline for the delivery of the first draft. I just couldn’t think how I was going to bring all the parts together. It took we two weeks of ‘not thinking’ about it (which really means not panicking that I hadn’t started) to come up with the approach. While walking one morning I remembered a film that Forrest Whittaker was in about an assassination attempt on the US President that was shot from the perspectives of five people. That was it, that was the way I was going to approach my story. I rushed home and found the name of the movie, Vantage Point, and started writing.
In my case, once I’ve got the first sentence I usually don’t stop writing till I’ve completed the first draft. This might take me one week, several weeks or 6 months, but it’s a pretty intense time an I’d be writing 10-12 hours a day. There’s so much information in my head, and spread all over the floor in notes, books that are tagged and files on the computer that its hard not to think about the story all the time.
Once the first draft is done I usually put it to one side for a few weeks and then go back and review it, review it again and review it for a third time. And, I am always changing things. Only after these reviews do I share it with the client . . . and then as a first draft.
In all drafts writers would include footnotes and full reference details. Apart from anything else it helps us remember where we sourced information from and when there’s a question about the accuracy of information it makes it much easier to back track and find the source. In many cased the footnotes don’t make it to the final publication, but they’re an invaluable resource for those interested in finding out more detail if they want to.
4. Share with the client
This is an extremely tense time. I liken it to a painter walking around their exhibition on opening night, listening to what guests are saying. After all the effort and work that’s gone into the work there’s no guarantee others (the client) will like it. Of course, it helps to have a good brief to start with and to share initial chapters with the client early on so you get some immediate feedback and can course correct if you need to.
Once the client has reviewed it and provided feedback, it usually goes through another one or two review stages before it’s a final draft.
5. Rework, then professional editing
Only after all this is the draft then edited by a professional editor . . . and yet another round of review and correction is then undertaken. I used to get somewhat demoralised at this point as editors pick absolutely everything up in terms of punctuation, spelling, grammar, sentence structure you name it.
It is only when this stage is completed that I regard a manuscript as completed and I can clear my brain to start the next project.
So, it takes time, focus, passion, discipline and an ability to engage with people and listen to their stories as well as synthesise a lot of written information, to write a great corporate story. It’s not a 2-day marketing exercise or a branding process of creating a story. They are completely different things.
Corporate storytellers capture history, we don’t invent it.
Of course, I also manage corporate story projects through the production and publication stages as well so my role often continues past the writing right through the launch, distribution and marketing . . .but that’s another story altogether.