The enemy of your stories

Business narratives are hard to convey because they force us to articulate why our business exists and why others should consider what we do. 

Jeff Bezos’s executive meetings start in silence. Everybody has 30 minutes to read the executives’ six-page memos in which they discuss their ideas in narrative form. Why in narrative form? So that everybody fully understands what they are trying to present. PowerPoint is not allowed.

A business needs to be clear about its narrative before turning it into stories. The narrative covers why they are here, why they cares, what they are changing, and why it matters. The narrative can sometimes be understood as the foundations of the story. Apple’s narrative is great design and performance, and building a better future. Before we tell any story we need to be clear about our narrative about our foundations, because any story can only exist based on this framework.  

In his book Onward, Schultz says that Starbucks is not a coffee company that serves people. It is a people company that serves coffee. Once you know that, it’s easy to understand why it offers healthcare benefits to part-timers working 20 hours, and gives anyone who works at Starbucks equity in the company. Its main focus is its people.

Apple’s narrative around design, performance and a better future was the foundation of how the company saw the world. This narrative was translated into different stories: stories for the crazy ones, the troublemakers, the rebels, those who think differently and want to change the world. Apple even created its own enemies: complexity, lack of good taste and conventional thinking. The stories were a way of connecting their vision with their audience.

It also infused its narrative into its culture. For example at Apple everybody had access to computers, whereas IBM was more focused on selling them than using them. Apple wanted to live in a future where everyone had access to a personal computer. 

It’s true that the terms can be confusing. There are so many definitions of the words story, narrative, vision, mission, that we might be tempted to start over-analysing these concepts and get into some sort of academic debate. There’s no need; no matter what term you use, one thing is clear: you can’t tell a story if you don’t know who you are and what you truly want to achieve (beyond selling a product or service).

When things are difficult we all hold on to our narratives. Everybody in your team should understand the narrative, who you are and why you are here, because eventually you will make decisions based on it. This scene from the film Jobs describes well how in times of crises purpose-driven leaders are led by the narrative and the vision, not by making shortcuts.

Some people skip the narrative and jump into stories wanting to find engaging ways of telling what they do. But a story needs clear understanding of the fundamentals.  Your team and your customers need to understand what is at the core of what you do and who you are. If you want people to feel part of what you do, the narrative is the place to start. If you want to entertain them, tell them stories.