New York, 1970. Richard Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century Fox, has flown in for a meeting. He’s early and there’s time to kill, so he decides to walk to a nearby cinema where one of the studio’s more obscure movies has just opened. His partner David Brown tries to dissuade him. “ It’ll only depress you,” he says. “There’s been no publicity, no PR at all; there are no stars and an unknown director – and besides it’s pouring with rain.” But Zanuck puts on his coat and insists he’s going anyway. Two hundred yards from the cinema he spots a big, big crowd waiting outside. He starts to run towards them. There are people queuing right round the building, never mind the rain. The story goes that he cried out loud: “ How do they know? How the hell do they know?”
How did they know? The answer is very interesting. They knew by word of mouth; because all the “little people” – technicians on the set, editors, dubbing mixers, neg-cutters, colour graders had been passing on their message of enthusiasm to all their friends – “this film is something else” – and all those friends had been telling other friends in turn. As Mori’s top psephologist has reminded us, Word of Mouth is the most lethal and powerful of all forms of mass communication. And internal communication. And here’s why: Word of Mouth is always story telling. Even in its most disparaged forms – “gossip”, “the scuttlebutt”, “the grapevine”, Word of Mouth consists of scintillating, inflammatory sparks from story – in King Lear’s phrase – “who wins; who's in, who's out... the mystery of things...” Word of Mouth is a juggernaut , because it’s story. The more mundane effusions of the PR department get buried under its wheels. Interim results, news of new targets, the contours of the corporate restructure map – Word of Mouth can smother them all, because its got the juice, the jazz of story... Which is all very well, says you – but my job is to communicate Interim results, news of new targets, contours of the corporate restructure map. To which my response is – well, why not try, by the alchemy of people-centric narrative, to transform them into a story?
The mini drama ( “Mr Zanuck’s Rainy Day” ) about the greater drama ( M*A*S*H* ) is in itself a perfectly formed corporate narrative, structured through a deceptive beginning – a desultory, rain-soaked day – and forces of opposition against which Mr Zanuck struggles… his schedule, the weather, his partner, his negligent PR department… His amazement at and reaction to what he sees outside then inside the cinema … Heroes – the little people within Fox who’d been word-of-mouthing the excellence of M*A*S*H* for all they were worth… Villains – the fat cats in the PR department who’d ignored and derided the film… A pretty satisfying outcome in sunny Los Angeles, the South of France and worldwide when Mr Zanuck gets Fox to straighten up everyone’s performance and put their shoulders behind M*A*S*H* : Because, as you probably know, this little, unregarded, internally discounted film, directed by the unknown Robert Altman, starring the unknown Elliott Gould and the unknown Donald Sutherland, got Four Oscar nominations, the actual Oscar for best script, the Palme d’Or at Cannes and 12 other international awards. And it was also, of course, the progenitor of one of the most successful TV franchises in the history of the small screen.
The M*A*S*H* story is one that demonstrates vividly how internal and external communications are intricately woven together; how when there’s a great story on the loose, it escapes all the border controls… And what I want to do is turn aside from the content of that particular story and probe the general structure of story more deeply; to look at how narrative works, unconsciously, in the public domain, consciously, when we take command of its strengths, as a vital tool of communication. The editor-in-chief of NBC news, when it was the most successful news organisation in the world, sent a memo to his staff saying this: “ Every news story should display the attributes of fiction, of drama. It should have characters, structure and conflict, problem and denouement, rising action and falling action, a beginning, a middle, and an end. These are not only the essentials of drama; they are the essentials of narrative. And we are in the business of narrative because we are in the business of communication .” And you are in the business of communication, so you should be in the business of narrative Essentially what he meant was: follow this structure and you’ll tend almost always to get it right…
We are so intimately familiar with the structure, from infancy onwards, that there’s almost a kind of déjà vu when we see it written down… Happy Goldilocks gets lost in the woods/finds the bears house/satisfies her appetites/sleeps doesn’t realise the bears will get home before she wakes Escapes Frodo lives in the Eden of the shire Gandalf comes for Bilbo’s birthday and persuades B to part with his precious ring/the long Act 2 leads to Mordor the shire will not be the Eden it was before (can never be) the shire is scoured, but the end is melancholy: “the road goes ever on”, but the clock goes never backward. Macbeth is a good soldier, loyal subject, with an ambitious wife meets the three/weird sisters/ascends bloodily to the throne/thinks he’s supernaturally invincible what he doesn’t know is that Burnham wood can come to Dunsinane, if chopped down and carried the tyrant is slain, the tyranny is over... Note that as a story-teller you can actually start at any point you choose (one could say, the narrative structure is a chronological order, the plot is the order you choose to put it in: cinema and television love to move backwards and forwards in time from one of the plot points to another as they circle the resolution.
THEME HERE IS PEOPLE Each act is dominated by a particular mood… And what you’ll notice, critically, and this should affect the way you frame and shape your communications, is that these acts, and actions, and their moods, aren’t governed by products or services, but by people – And all your internal – and external – communications should have people at the front of their stage, and your products or services are, as it were, props for the drama of character which is taking place in the narrative. What seems at first uncanny is the way experience, both internal and external, personal and public, seems to render itself down in functioning discourse into this structure and this dynamic and these moods, but in fact, there’s nothing supernatural about it because…
This is the way we think … or to put it another way, narrative is not a technique for thinking, it is the way we think . Neither Mark Thomas nor Julian Jaynes, quoted here, are drama teachers: Jaynes was an anthropologist and psychologist; Thomas is a distinguished neuroscientist, whose studies of the workings of the brain have revealed this underlying narrative structure patterning the very way we think. One more quotation on the same theme, this time from a scholar of law, Peter Brooks: “ Our very definition of ourselves as human beings is bound up with the stories we tell about our lives and the world in which we live. We cannot, in our dreams, our daydreams, our ambitious fantasies, avoid the imaginative imposition of story form on human life.” Do staff have “dreams, daydreams, and ambitious fantasies”? You bet they do: if they did not, probably we wouldn’t want to employ them. To emphasise my argument: we do not impose narrative structure on our thoughts: we draw it up from the way we think and recognise its power: the structure of narrative mirrors the natural process of thought. Let’s look at some examples from commercial life:
The self-confident organisation will use story as an instrument of strategy because strategy is story... So we can use story structure to build powerful narratives which involve our clients and staff in what is – or should be – a corporate adventure which brings true tests of character which are, in themselves, the powerful engine of story. In story-form, character-testing form, corporate targets cease to become mere statistics, or coshes which beat the staff, and become instead acts in a drama in which everyone is involved…
The sudden invasion of our space by a competitor is a development which is written into the play – which is anticipated, because in a corporate drama the unexpected is expected – you are ready for it when it happens – it becomes the latest challenge which will move character into the limelight, where it belongs. My theory is that some of the great corporate success stories of our time were success stories because their pioneers understood the role of story structure in corporate strategy: The emergence of Britain’s first virtual bank, First Direct, from the torpor of Midland… [BUT EGG… MORE-THAN, Internet banks seize the baton… So First Direct adopts a people-led strategy, challenging the purely mechanistic frustrations of on-line banking...] The emergence of Britain’s first cut-price airlines, EasyJet and Ryannair, from the monolithic, cumbersome, expensive once-upon-a-time of the pre-existing airline business… [BUT ECO-ALARM, CARBON EMISSIONS…] The constant David and Goliath attack on establishment after establishment by Richard Branson and his Virgin brand… [AND HE WILL IN TURN CHALLENGE THE FIRST OF MY EXAMPLES, FIRST DIRECT, WITH VIRGIN MONEY]
An interlude from the East… a slide with some Zen ideas about composition (because we are all waking up, aren’t we, to the fact that the sleeping tigers of the east are now wide awake?) Asymmetry: an upset apple-cart; the negation of “balance”; small confronts large, new confronts old, cheek confronts pomposity. And so on. Simplicity: (speaks for itself) - “KISS” (“Keep It Simple, Stupid”)- Coleridge: whatever can be said more simply, and isn’t, is badly said. Austerity: meaning, here, sticking to the essentials; seeking out the kernel of the story, paring off and chucking the husks – R L Stevenson: you must leave out not just the tedious and unnecessary detail, but the tedious and necessary detail [or, another way: the necessary detail must never be tedious] Naturalness: bring it to life with the kind of character, incident and detail which take the audience vibrantly into the tale Resonance: your communication has to strike chords, all the time, with human life, its dilemmas and predicaments, and with your audience Freedom: … from prejudices, arbitrary rules, old habits, distortions and propaganda Tranquillity: rest and a new order, after the struggle (through the story, and for the right expression)
This is the first practical model – a way you can use narrative to structure internal communication. This is the Holy Grail/Treasure Island perspective. I tend to use this one when working with people who are communicating upwards – talking to the executives. What do they want? Or, what do you want them to want? Next – why do they want it NOW – how will their world change for the worse if they don’t get it? Third movement – what are the obstacles in the way of getting to this goal? They are described vividly, dramatically? Last – what will be the rewards of getting past the obstacles and to the goal, the treasure – what will this new world be like and what rewards will it bring? You will see that this pattern follows the act structure I’ve been describing all along – As does the next...
I tend to use this structure for communications to staff. It is, if you like, the Frodo Baggins perspective. The heroes – that is, the staff, are confronted by a challenge which they didn’t ask for, choose or seek. But they must accept. The temptation to do nothing, to retreat into the narcotic of no-change, is powerful. You must describe, again vividly, what the consequences of no change will be: standing still is going backwards – the route through the frozen kingdom to ruin. The clock goes never backwards. The journey forward is long, is fraught with difficulties and hazards – describe them. It will be a struggle, there will be other temptations to backslide, people may fall by the wayside or defect. Along the way there will be battles fought and triumphs won which can be savoured, and which feel as if they should be a last battle, but are not... But the rewards of the goal are worth reaching for and are all the more tangible and precious by the heroes struggle to get there. And the rewards aren’t only material – success brings pride, brings insight, brings a new strength and sense of purpose.
Your corporate communication must follow the rules of narrative: Momentum – it cannot stand still, must move on to the next story point, must use the language of action, be athletic, race, struggle, achieve. Your corporate communications must be wary of: Reaction – NEVER issue any communication which simply reacts to something someone else has said or done: you are surrendering your story. Every reactive statement must precede and lead directly to a new action, a command manoeuvre which seizes control of story and initiative. Your corporate communication must at every stage focus on People – people stories trump every other story. Product and services stories only work when told through people.
There are four tools you should have sharpened in your box. Research : do you know your organisation’s story as a story ? The twists, turns, conflicts in the past which got you where you are now? Character : Can you tell your organisation’s past, present and projected stories through real characters – making sure that your story is what every story should be – a people story . Could you, for example, cast the chief executive, or an inventor, or a veteran, or a product or services hero as the protagonist in your story? Who or what would be his or her adversaries? Time? Competitors? Inertia? Self-doubt? Apathy? Timing : Information is ammunition if you time it right. You decide exactly when you are going to launch each part of the story on your audience, when is the best time to move it along, when you should wait and when you should act. Cause : There has to be a moral dimension to the narrative, a cause that’s worth your heroes fighting for. Let’s acknowledge that nobody ever rolls their sleeves up and goes into battle or even works all night for shareholder value. Remember 3MP, the “third money paradox” – which says that the company which puts “making money” higher than number three in its list of priorities will make less money that the company which ranks “making money” below excellence of service and total client satisfaction. Analysis of the stock movements has proved that the more prosperous company is the one that sincerely wants to make the world a better place and its citizens happier people – so think about it. What cause are you fighting for?
Cause, you see, is what one philosopher described as the watchtower in the storm. And the storm is life itself, in which another said that warfare – conflict – is king. Conflict is the music of story… Without jeopardy no narrative is credible Because no human life that was every lived has been devoid of jeopardy and conflict, and stories are about human life…
“ Marathon oil to cut 265 jobs” The temptation in corporate communication is to attempt to make all the crux points positive, to fly from and be shy of conflict – But this not only flattens – emasculates, one might say – the narrative: it alienates the audience, because audiences don’t believe stories that lack conflict and jeopardy… The mind invariably either tunes out of propaganda or actively scoffs at it… The mind tunes into true story… Always keep in mind what Lynn Barber said in The Observer : “Readers aren’t stupid. I firmly believe that even stupid readers aren’t stupid.” Probably the most dangerous thing we can do is to snarl at our audiences and mutter to each other – “they just don’t get it.”
And Orson Welles: “ I can think of nothing that an audience won't understand. The only problem is to interest them; once they are interested, they understand anything in the world.“ What interests the audience, as Welles profoundly understood, is the story . Think of your audiences as what they are: Intuitive, perceptive and merciless: They judge your internal communications by criteria they import from their external worlds: They judge your newsletter as if it were a newspaper… They judge your corporate video as if it were a television programme… They judge your website by the standards of Amazon, Opodo, eBay and MySpace… Internal communications, handed up to the HoD or CEO, tend to come back down purged of excitement and conflict, heavy on achievement and “key messages”, like a cross between a piece of vanity publishing and an evangelical tract – and staff treat them accordingly with scepticism or distrust (or even, contempt). You have to fight against this with any means you can, explaining that just as it takes heat to boil a kettle, it takes narrative to fuel a communication: otherwise, it simply won’t work.
This curious statement of Napoleon’s should make us pause and ponder. Surely all communications, including all stories, for that matter, are trying to influence our thinking in some way? But remember the old saying: everyone hates a sermon; everyone loves a story. Put the message (because there surely will be a message) deep inside a narrative which illustrates and brings it to life and gives it momentum. When I started out, I remember a man who became a bit of a guru saying to me: “what do you want your readers to feel, Frank, at the end of your story?” I began to reply – “I want them to think...” “ No, no, no,” he cut right across me. “You can’t force people to think anything – but you can make them feel something – and feelings are what govern reflection and action.” “ I feel proud; I feel courageous; I feel alarmed; I feel threatened; I feel reassured…” All are, in their own way, touchstones of character and calls to action. Do your communications communicate feelings? Or do they sit on the shoulders of your staff like irritable and irritating parrots, squawking raw and unappealing “key messages” Feelings last; feelings make us reflect… and then we think… and then we act…
The great Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa said something in an interview which echoed Napoleon’s assertion. What he said was this: “ I am not consciously trying to teach a lesson or convey a political message, to express any philosophical or political views, since audiences don’t like that. “ They are sensitive to such things, to such ‘sermons’, and rightly shrink from them….” But then he added, with a certain oriental subtlety, a postscript that almost passes unobserved:
“ I think I have made audiences aware of certain problems without them having had to learn about them directly.” In other words, he got his message across not explicitly by sermonising, but implicitly: through the arrangement of the story; through a developing structure and arc of conflict and resolution, of aspiration, challenge, and above all, of character, and the adaptation of character to changing circumstances and demands in changing relationships. The tools, in fact, that even the humblest of story-tellers, in the most comfortable of settings, use to make their narratives interesting, entertaining, emotionally engaging, enjoyable, memorable…
In another programme I teach, I talk about how organisations cope with what seems to me to be the almost inevitable passage from entrepreneurial beginnings to institutionalised maturity. Organisations start out with passionate subjectivity, boiling with ideas, courting risks, authors of their destinies. Heroes on a quest. They finish up in passively objective: rigid, authoritarian, risk-averse. Tired monarchs, uneasy with their crowns. Where once they were intuitive, now they’re mechanical. Initiative is stifled by reaction. The mission for change morphs into a lock-down to stay the same. Instead of looking forwards, people are looking over their shoulders and guarding their backs. In these first phases, communication is dynamic and confident – the organisation is a story. Born out of vitality and imagination, it doesn’t need a “mission statement” – it is a living mission statement. When the “mission statement” gets written, you can be pretty sure the mission is dying or dead – the pulsing centre that once pushed out to an ever wider circumference of action has become a piece of archaeology, a fossil, and the circumference is now a “ring to bind them” into fixed behaviours, into “the way we do things here.” And communication becomes tougher, beset by muddle, hesitation, obfuscation and propaganda. If you’re here, you’ll need to work harder than ever to keep the communication alive and reach the story. More than ever you’ll need to focus on people, on tangible, clear strategies which can be portrayed as obstacles to be overcome, treasure to be got... It’s a tough task, but, always, you need to believe in the power of story... of imagination and originality.
Aristotle, a wise man indeed, said that a communication without a story was an empty vessel, waiting to be smashed and swept away. Stories are what make people pull up their chairs to the fire and listen. To mix the metaphor, all of us in communications think the customers are going to come into our shop. In fact, ours is just another fascia along the mall. The excellence of our story is the decisive factor which will persuade people to linger by our window and then step inside. If you aren’t telling the corporate story, someone else will, in the car park, or the canteen, or the pub. And the spin that he or she is putting on it is probably one you wouldn’t like.