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The Corporate Folklorist’s Credo

September 5, 2014
Borderless Leadership

Storytelling is key to a strong brand and culture — if it’s done right. Having a corporate folklorist on staff helps to convey an organization’s purpose and values through stories and artifacts.

But since it’s a relatively new function, it could use a credo to inform and inspire good work.

Physicians have the Hippocratic Oath, reporters have the Journalist’s Creed, and military recruits have the Oath of Enlistment. Even as a little kid, I had to abide by the Girl Scouts Law (and sell a wagonload of Thin Mints to someone other than my dad) if I wanted to add badges to my Brownie sash.

What would the folklorist’s credo include? Here are some principles that guide my own work, gleaned from market research, social science, and storytelling best practices.

Ask lots of questions. There’s a story in every situation, and it’s the corporate folklorist’s job to find that juicy little nugget of narrative. Ask your interview subjects (executives or worker bees, customers or partners, whomever they may be) open-ended, I’ve-got-no-agenda kinds of questions. Simple prompts like “How did you get started in this work?” or “Tell me about the first time you attempted to do this” can unearth a deep narrative vein that branches off in multiple directions. Then probe for truths that expose underlying values: What did they try and fail before discovering the right path? Where did they find the courage to persist? How did that shape their values later on? Let the phrase “say more about that” weave its magic and then follow that thread as far as it goes.

Trust but verify. Storytellers often have a reputation for stretching the truth (at least in my family), and dramatic license certainly can make a story more lively. But as folklorists, we aren’t writing novels; we’re documenting history. So, facts matter as much as entertainment value. We need to capture the “who, what, where, when, why, and how” of a story and corroborate those claims with multiple sources (eyewitness perspectives, third-party coverage, public records, and so on) for a more complete account. For instance, when my colleagues and I crafted a corporate narrative for a life science firm, we gathered anecdotes from R&D and sales leaders about how their company’s technology had been used by health care firms across the country. But we supplemented their accounts with first-person perspectives obtained directly from customers, along with news coverage about the disease outbreaks that their technology had helped to stem.

Tell the whole truth. Every story has many sides, and the folklorist should represent them all truthfully. Including multiple points of view makes a story well-rounded and believable. What if stories are unflattering to a particular person or product, or to the company as a whole? Tell them anyway, because they may contain lessons that somebody needs to hear. For instance, the history of a major product launch should include the flawed prototypes, missed deadlines, customer complaints, or competitive countermoves that taught the launch team hard lessons and made the product stronger in the end. Learning from that past helps prevent bad decisions on other products and builds confidence that leaders in the company have the skills to handle tough situations in the future.

Make it interesting. Folklore may be an important source of learning, but it won’t get its point across if it’s dull. This is where the art of storytelling comes into play. It’s not a natural language for analytical thinkers, but you can guide them into a dramatic frame of mind and set the stage for a high-impact story by probing for details about a specific moment. A few years ago, I worked with a college educator who explained to me — in a logical (and dull) narrative devoid of conflict — how he had radically restructured his school’s curriculum. He happened to mention that he tested his initial ideas with new students (who loved the changes) and tenured staff (who hated the changes) over a series of meals that led to increasingly heated debate. I saw those events as the turning points in an emotionally charged story that pitted idealistic students against jaded teachers in a battle over the future of education. I then shaped his anecdotes into a classic three-act structure — likeable hero encounters obstacles and emerges transformed — to convert a factual account into an engaging tale.

Share the lore. Folklore is more than content; it’s the corporate conscience. The stories you tell about your company’s mission and values, including successes and failures, reveal the soul of the organization and the character of its people. Don’t allow them to be reduced to meaningless, jargon-filled platitudes. Instead, teach your leaders and employees how to share stories about your values in a personal, emotionally rich way. Companies like Mars, Boeing, and Esri embed storytelling into their culture by training employees to document and present their stories. Nike goes a step further by cataloguing stories about their maxims in video form. At Duarte, we ask functional teams to stand up at all-staff meetings and tell stories about situations when they embodied one of our core values.

Regardless of what form your lore takes, the corporate folklorist role demands rigor. As Voltaire and Spiderman’s Uncle Ben said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s time we took a pledge to use our power well.

by Patti Sanchez

Source: HBR

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