The value of once upon a time

Every company has a story to tell.

Every company has a story to tell.

Doing so in a compelling and accurate manner can make for a fairy-tale ending. In those long-ago days before the internet and more demanding disclosure, a company told its story - if it told one at all - on paper or in person, in boringly stark terms, with no frills and not much fuss, often doling out the task to somebody who handled "press relations" part time. The company gave the story to people who wanted it and actually asked for it, and the story lived as a happily ever afterthought.

In the past decade, though, telling a company's story has become an essential, often nuanced expectation by any would-be client or journalist clicking on a company website or lunching with one of its leaders. Tell it right and your company's tale translates into a better image and perhaps greater profit. Bungle it and your tired spin could prove a confusing embarrassment.

A firm today has many ways to explain its mission and relate its history. Making it memorable and meaningful is the challenge.

"In the perfect world, a company is telling a story all the time formally, informally," says Ann Wylie, president of Wylie Communications in Kansas City, MO, and the writing coach for the PRSA. "When I'm talking about telling a company's story, I'm really talking about storytelling. I'm talking about identifying the points we want to make about an organization and finding stories to illustrate those points through actual anecdotes about a company."

This illustration can come through so many ways that nailing down the exact definition of telling a company's story can be impossible. But what are possible to identify are the key components of good storytelling.

To Robbie Vorhaus, it's a matter of getting companies to look at storytelling as a legitimate means of business communication. Vorhaus founded New York-based PR firm Vorhaus & Company after leaving CBS, where he handled corporate communications, advertising and promotion. He said his goal was to incorporate traditional storytelling into business communication - the kind of storytelling that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, where there are characters and a message, and things happen that get resolved by the last sentence. It's been a tough sell sometimes.

"When you mention storytelling to most CEOs," Vorhaus says, "they think it's something they do with their kids. Very few know how to tell their stories in the classic storytelling sense. ... The first thing is to understand what a story is. A story is simply a complete argument."

Most important, everyone within a company should be on the same page, Wylie says. Managers and employees need to express the message and the mission of a company, whether they're writing it up for the company website or discussing it during small talk at a conference cocktail hour. And they need to be expressing the stories in a, well, non-boring way. "You need to draw people into a company's story," Wylie says.

Once people are snagged by a company's story, they need to be kept there, Vorhaus says. This entails giving them something to remember and something to learn, which can be done, he says, by remembering the essential elements of storytelling.

A company's story has to have something a reader can identify with. Then, that certain something - or someone, in the case of, say, a company's founder - has to have something happen to it. Finally, a story has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, Vorhaus says. The beginning could be, he says, when a firm hits a crisis. The middle would be how that company handled the crisis with an innovation or an idea. And the end would be the company returning to the public eye triumphantly.

For firms to do all this, they must know themselves thoroughly, and they have to know their audiences. They also have to be sensitive to what information they're telling to whom, especially when it comes to finances. Tell the wrong story to the wrong crowd, and all the preparation for telling an effective story is nullified or worse.

"It's just always keeping in mind you have to tailor your information flow to your key audience at that time," says Hulus Alpay, SVP of IR for Makovsky & Company, "But, in the back of your mind, you've got to be worried about other constituencies, other influences that are going to take this information and do something with it."

After the big things of storytelling, like to whom and for what, comes how. Many companies use the web to tell their stories, and that has its positives and negatives, Wylie says. The pluses include accessibility and space, but the pratfalls are there.

"You wouldn't want a link from the home page to a stand-alone, anecdotal thing," Wylie says. "You would want a link from the home page for something like a company history - and have a link from the company history to a long anecdote about something. ... I don't think any top-level web page should start with an anecdotal lead."

Beyond the web, companies can harness brochures, conference calls, electronic newsletters, and press releases to tell their stories. Finding the right way might prove elusive, even embarrassing at times. But half the battle of company storytelling is agreeing on the message.

"This is the truth: When we sit down with the CEOs, they don't even know what they're selling," says Mike Niederquell, president of Quell Communications Group in Troy, MI. "So they're selling A, B, C. A competitor's selling A, B, C. We go in and say, 'That's not really it; you're selling D. Nobody else is.' ... So now we have something that's made the company unique, so our job of selling the story or packaging the story becomes easier."

Companies should crave feedback once they've told their stories, Vorhaus says. Otherwise, the story just twists in the public wind, with the company never knowing if it hit its intended marks. All easier said than done, but, then again, effective storytelling is still catching on among companies.

"It's not that they mess it up," Vorhaus says. "It's that [company] leaders are just today learning the power of a story."

Technique tips

Do know what you're selling and why

Do make sure that everyone representing the company is telling the same story

Do have a beginning, middle, and end to your company's story

Don't tell more than one story, especially when it comes to what the company sells

Don't ramble in your story - give it structure and make it engaging

Don't limit your storytelling to the company's web page - the story can be told in myriad ways, including through employees who know what to say

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