I think the most compelling shape of story has to be ‘success against the odds’. I’m not alone. If you think about it, it’s a classic story arc for documentary makers, it’s the driver of every game/quiz/talent show, and it describes 80% of movie scripts.

So what does that mean for the way you communicate about your business? Well here are some implications to consider: –

  • The success or superiority of your company/product, in isolation, might not the most engaging part of your story.
  • Sometimes, to express how good you are at what you do, it could be effective to express how hard it it can be to do it or why you care about doing it.
  • The way you handle negatives such as disgruntled customer, PR disasters or lean times, could become your best stories.

Here’s a true story. A friend of mine flies a lot for his work. On one occasion he had such a dreadful experience on a Virgin flight that he wrote a stinking letter to Richard Branson to complain. Two weeks later my friend got a call on his mobile, “Hi this Richard Branson, thank you for your letter. I’m sorry you had a bad flight. Would you mind giving me more feedback on your experiences as one of our passengers?” My friend spent the next 30 minutes telling Richard Branson how he felt things could improve. My frequent flying friend returned to flying with Virgin and he regularly tells that story. In fact Mr Branson has possibly won more brand loyalty by addressing the bad experience than he might have done by just providing my friend with a comfortable flight.

The ‘against the odds’ story can be persuasive for internal communication too. In 2010 I was asked to help a law firm prepare a presentation for the entire company to get everyone on board with a new radical management strategy. Their issue was that supermarkets were going to be allowed to sell legal advice and so their business was suddenly very vulnerable in its current form. We explored their company story and I soon discovered that they defined their recent history in terms of pre 2007 and post 2007. They talked about the very painful staff losses and difficult business environment of 2007. They also talked proudly of their recovery at a time where many fell. So the story was clear to me:

“With good management choices and your hard work and flexibility we recovered from 2007 to be where we are today.”

Show graph describing recovery between 2007 and 2010.

We have a plan to meet this new challenge but it requires the same commitment, flexibility and creativity to succeed. These are our targets.”

Show 2011 targets.

“And this is what we need from you to achieve them”.

Outline new strategy

The partners were really delighted with how the message was received. With staff talking saying things like “It’s scary what’s coming what with Tesco law and everything, but as I said to my husband, they know what they are doing and I am confident that we’ll be fine.” By tapping into the ‘against the odds’ story they had increased confidence and engagement with their staff to face what was ahead.

So perhaps the next time something kicks off in your business and it feels like everything is unraveling, you could think of it as the moment to show what you really stand for. The writers of movie scripts put adversity in the way of the hero specifically to show off his or her most admirable qualities, so it make sense to use adversity in your business story in just the same way.