Following up on the idea of shifting the innovation process by “learning from experiments,” featured expert Nancy Duarte discusses the importance of communicating your business story.
Nancy Duarte, the author of three best-selling books, is the CEO of Duarte Design, the largest design firm in Silicon Valley. Her new book, Illuminate: Ignite Change Through Speeches, Stories, Ceremonies, and Symbols, details how persuasive communication can turn ideas into movements. We spoke with her about the importance of company stories and ways that small business owners can use them to create success. More info about Nancy’s work can be found at www.duarte.com.
Your Business Story
Businesses start from ideas. A person notices something that’s missing in the world, a need that could be satisfied by a product or service, and they start thinking. This initial thinking process is the beginning of a story that will eventually include a cast of characters, pivotal events, and relatable emotions that capture the human experience.
For instance, writing a novel is more than just translating an idea into words on pages. It involves hours, weeks, perhaps years of creating and defining characters and scenes, pondering emotions, capturing details, and understanding how it all works together to take the story from Point A to Point B. If done well, this journey will capture the interest and hearts of people and compel them to share it with others.
Business leaders should follow a similar path, defining a compelling mission that people can rally around:
“If we look at business as a story being told, do you clearly know what yours is? Is your customer’s version of the story the same or different? To align and strengthen it, everyone at your company should understand and use that story within your business operations.” – Nancy Duarte
How might small business owners think about their business as a story? By reflecting on what makes their business unique, by crafting a cohesive, engaging story that employees and customers want to be part of:
“Your company story must be authentic. Of course, no two stories are the same (in fact, that’s the point) but there are two essential elements to a great company story: origin and impact. Together, these two elements convey your company’s unique value and passion for the problem you are solving, creating an emotional connection by putting a face and voice to your brand. The origin portion of your story should explain both how and why your company came to exist, while your impact story should explain the effect your company is having on your customers as well as the world. I know that it’s Duarte’s stories — both the ones we share internally and the ones our customers tell about us — are what have maintained our culture and kept our phone ringing all these years.” – Nancy Duarte
The Origin Story
Your business started with a belief—a mission to bring something that would improve the world. This purpose fueled your late nights, long hours, and investment gambles, all to build a business you felt mattered. You shared this story with others who saw your vision and joined it, adding their time, money, and hard work to its maturity. With each telling, this communication evolved into a de facto mantra that you refined each time you shared it with someone.
Over time, it’s possible to lose sight of the beginning. Eventually, you or your employees might question your business’ purpose, wondering what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Or, worse still, your customers might. Certainly, things will change as the market, economy, and your customers’ interests evolve, but recognizing the origins of your vision and how that’s evolved will keep your long-form business story engaging and, ideally, inspiring.
Informing the Future
Crafting a business story isn’t just about engagement. Understanding your business’ past can provide insights into its current state and yield ideas for future growth. Sometimes, it’s best to take a step back, remove yourself from present stressors, and thoughtfully connect the dots between your past and the future. This process can yield perspective that guides constructive thought:
“Taking time to plan a strategy for your broader communication forces you to look at the whole picture instead of just focusing on the next presentation you need to deliver. It’s the job of a leader to see the future, but also communicate in a way that makes going into the future feel less scary. If you’re too busy putting out fires, you won’t make the time to think about the long game. While preparing this year’s vision presentation, I dove deep into the communications and collateral of Duarte’s past and found incredible insights that helped determine our future. The vision I’d been trying to articulate ended up being largely taken from communications I’d shared during a similar season our company experienced in 2001. Taking the time to gain perspective helped me understand where our company needed to go, and gather the tools I needed to motivate and inspire people to follow me there.” – Nancy Duarte
Where have you been, and where will you go? Creating and understanding the framework of your business story can help keep you on track, even when things don’t go as planned.
All Great Stories Have Tension
Let’s face it, some ideas will fail. Business owners are human beings who make mistakes, poor decisions, and incorrect assumptions. When these things happen, a solid story framework can help you bounce back. Your business’ mission can help you regain your footing, learn from mistakes, and rebuild momentum.
In order to ensure others understand how you will use this failure to become better, business owners must take ownership of the mistakes, be transparent, and share insights. Otherwise employees and customers might think, “What are they doing?!” Negativity could quickly infiltrate company culture and erode trust.
Help your stakeholders see the broader picture and how the business can benefit and grow from trial and error. After all, tension is a key component of a great story. It sets up the recovery and happy ending:
“Even great leaders have bad ideas sometimes, yet they are able to quickly learn from failures and use them as teaching moments. By talking about problems openly and honestly, a leader can turn a misstep into a lesson they and their team can learn from. Acknowledge the problem, explain the changes you’re making to course-correct, and share the lessons you learned about how you ended up there in the first place. By establishing a stream of thoughtful, transparent communication throughout the process your team will feel comfortable letting you know when there are bad ideas more quickly. Taking ownership of the situation will establish a sense of mutual trust and respect, and the story of the experience will live on to help your team identify and prevent similar problems in the future.” – Nancy Duarte
Why Your Stories Matter
Consider the effect your words have on your staff. A moment of positive encouragement or the building excitement around the launch of a new product or service ignites passion and inspires loyalty in your team. Sharing an employee’s story of hard work and its impact on the business story empowers employees, giving them a sense of purpose within the greater narrative.
Similarly, if products and services are positioned to support the company mission, you invite customers to be a part of something bigger, something more life-affirming than a product that simply satisfies a temporary need. Think of Harley Davidson or Apple and their compelling stories. Purchases from these companies make you feel like you are joining their mission, an exclusive club of people who share the same values. With one transaction, these customers are part of the story.
“Countless companies offer similar products and services, yet it’s a company’s stories that help them stand out. Done well, a company story can have a tremendous impact on your employees, your customers, and even the people who don’t work for you or buy from you — yet. Within your organization, a company story establishes a common set of values and experiences to guide your employees’ beliefs and behavior, which shapes and maintains your culture. When I share our company’s values with new employees, I exemplify each one with a story so they can understand the type of behavior we seek and reward. Beyond your team, a memorable company story can affirm or sway a customer’s choice for your brand, and even act as a tool to help people market and recruit for you.” – Nancy Duarte
When sub-stories support and develop an overall company story, the impact is incredible. Are you communicating in ways that create this kind of allegiance? Do you have a clear understanding of your company’s story?
Knowing what stories you want to tell and tying them into your marketing and onboarding materials humanizes your business, creating a long-lasting, authentic brand relationship with customers and employees who become ambassadors for your business, voluntarily sharing your story.