Business Storytelling vs. Storydoing

In his recent HBR article, Ty Montague calls great companies ‘storydoing’ organizations. The premise: great companies are story doers, not just storytellers. Specifically, this means they take action on stories, and run efficiently and more profitably as a result. Montague has also written a book, True Story: How to Combine Story and Action to Transform Your Business.

A Purposeful Company Story Aligns Resources

The model used in this article recognizes and tries to measure the fact that stories align and focus resources, and they drive performance. As a marketer and storyteller, I think the author is spot-on. A ‘story doing’ company uses stories to drive product development, develop rich experiences, and create world-class customer service. Too often, storytelling is seen as a marketing and communication issue. By contrast, storydoing companies create compelling actions and experiences that put the corporate narrative to the test in everything they do. I’ve written about this before: a core story is a strategic GPS and it guides a company’s actions – all of them. A story communicates the company’s DNA; and storydoing puts that DNA into action.

Corporate Storytelling Drives Performance

Researcher Adam Grant found that when teams were given stories about customers that related to the company mission and how it is fulfilling that mission by helping customers, those teams were 300% more productive over the same time period than counterparts who didn’t hear customer stories. That’s powerful.

Storydoing companies use narratives to drive better products and services and to catalyze loyal fans – loyalists – to evangelize. That means storydoing companies have their stories told primarily by others, not themselves: TOMS Shoes, IBM and Red Bull, for example. I agree with Montague; these are all companies I’ve written about – they are great examples of story and purpose driving performance.

Customer stories, then, don’t come out of nowhere; rather, they happen because companies are fulfilling their brand promises, their larger purposes, and are consistently acting on their own core story by backing it up with great products and service.

Storytelling Methods and Imperfect Methodology

The way Montague measures performance isn’t perfect and he readily and respectfully admits it. Many readers –inlcuding me – pointed out that some of the companies in the 42-company study are not fulfilling each of the criteria that he spells out (there are six in all). He and his team also examined a number of privately held companies for which public information is not available. That’s a complicating factor.

Stories Also Align Employees

Some of the most important storytelling has to be done internally. Stories have the power to align and inspire employees. As Grant’s research shows, when employees understand and buy into the company’s mission and core story – that there is a bigger mission of helping people – they are more productive. This is key. Certainly, while Montague’s criteria include using stories to drive HR policies, compensation, and product, he does not elaborate on the most important employee factor – employee alignment and storytelling. Employee word-of-mouth is critical because they are brand ambassadors and champions for the corporate cause.

Moreover, what’s also important and not mentioned in Montague’s methodology is the needed alignment between the story senior managers understand and care about and the story (ies) that employees understand, care about and act on – or tell! Any misalignment compromises performance.

Montague cites Target, for example, as an example of a storydoing company – and that example generated a lot of disagreement and discussion by me included. I would argue Target has not used stories cohesively to drive action internally, though it has articulated a great story outside the company.

Employee word of mouth matters, too

Employees are Brand Champions and Keepers of the Company Story (Just as Executives are)

What’s missing from this model is the employee evangelism factor. Storydoing companies must have ‘galavanized’ employees who are among the most rabid fans, and who, as previously mentioned, buy into, understand, care about, and tell the most powerful stories. And those stories must be in alignment who the company says it is externally. That alignment is critical.

A Model to Quantify The Power of Stories

Despite its challenges, Montague is onto something with his methodology. While it will and should evolve to address the shortcomings, it is a step in the right direction because it recognizes the power of narrative to drive strategy and product, align resources, create compelling experiences, and catalyze the most important factor in word of mouth – people!

That’s my story!

What do you think?

Email me at kathy(at)keepingithuman(dot)com

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8 Responses to Great Companies Aren’t Just Storytellers: They Act on the Company Story to Drive Results

  1. This post is really profound, I loved it Kathy. Really reminded me of Daniel Pink’s book, Drive. Stories have immense power in building communities, but what I loved about your post was that, it’s not just stories, it’s what you do with them. In the end, the one thing that separates successful people from failures is action. Awesome post Kathy!

    • admin says:

      Thanks, Akshay. I agree – action is really the way a story drives everything a company does. I believe a great story or purpose is a strategic GPS for a company.
      Best!

  2. Love this post Kathy. Storytelling and Storydoing is something I need to incorporate more into my marketing. I do a little bit, but I don’t think it’s enough.
    This article is a great start for me :)

    • admin says:

      Thanks, Phillippa. I think all entrepreneurs are storytellers – we just need to remember that and tell our stories! It gets harder as companies get bigger. I think ‘story’ is the most powerful differentiation a business can have!

  3. Stories give people (both customers and employees) something to hold onto. Everyone loves a good story because it connects with something inside you that goes deeper than just a product or a service.

    • admin says:

      Joe – I agree. Marketing is never about the product or service – it’s about what that product or service can do for people. What’s the story behind that product or service? How do products and services make customers’ lives better? That’s what matters. And, yes, stories galvanize employees and that such an important point. You can tell the how employees feel about their company from the stories they tell.

  4. Reminds me of the discipline in web development of user stories or user personas. Investing time in knowing all about the communities around a product pays off. Knowing the experience we want for our employees of all levels. Knowing how we want them to communicate our mission to the world. Knowing what narrative we want to write with customers. That’s a priceless investment.

  5. […] Execs storytellers must create an organization of storyACTING, not just storyTELLING. Stories become… That means stories are acted on; not just told. For example, if a company says its mission is to […]

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Your marketing story is always bigger than your products and services. The most important question to be answered is, "What do you stand for in the world?" That means knowing how you leave the world better off. Don't just create marketing; create a movement.