There are lots of lenses through which we can view the world. For some, it’s a struggle between good and evil. For others, a matter of who works hard and who doesn’t. For still others, it’s all about great ideas.
They all make sense, more or less.
My lens is the story.
Sure, when I’m putting together a public relations plan for a client, I tend to start by thinking through the client’s market position, strategic strengths, stakeholders and so forth. We set goals and objectives, then develop strategies and tactics. Then we do stuff and see if it works. (In the business, we call that implementation and evaluation.) If it doesn’t, we try something else.
But none of that energizes anybody. It doesn’t inspire or motivate. You can’t rally around a plan. You don’t take a buddy to lunch and tell him about it.
You need a story.
I spent several years managing employee communications for BellSouth, which had 90,000 people at the time. We talked a lot about developing a “corporate culture.” But what drives a great culture?
Great stories. People going to extraordinary lengths to take care of a customer. An engineer with an idea. In the 1970s and 1980s, the hot business book was In Search of Excellence, by a couple of consultants named Tom Peters and Robert Waterman. Everybody acted like it was a revolutionary new roadmap for success. Really, it was just a book of stories.
The common thread: Recognizing and telling a great story
If you look at people who matter, you’ll notice that most of them have this in common: They recognize a good story. They tell it. They make us remember it. Brother Bryan told drunks in Birmingham how they could get their lives back. He told the next drunk how the last one did it. He told us about them, and we gave him money to help more.
There are millions of others. Franklin Roosevelt told us stories of better times behind us — and ahead. Mother Teresa told the stories of outcasts. Martin Luther King told the story of his dream.
We love our storytellers, whether they be troubadours like Bob Dylan, humorists like Garrison Keillor or novelists like Truman Capote and Robert Heinlein. We buy the ideas of a Tony Robbins, knowing he’s basically just a pitchman, because he tells a great story. Without his storytelling talents, Steve Jobs may have never formed a cult of people who pay more for his products just because they’re his.
A story makes us remember an idea like a song can make us remember a poem. It lowers our defenses. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on the ropes trying to sell an idea, then turned things around by saying, “Let me tell you how ___ did this.”
Tell stories. Make good stuff happen.