Organizational storytelling

Eight reasons TV is a great role model for organizational storytellers

Think of your organization as a television show. How are your ratings? If you’re like most people, you probably aren’t attracting the audiences you want in the numbers you need, especially online.

But thinking about your organization as a television show is a great way to improve those ratings. Here are eight ways that your organizational story is like a TV show:

Expertise is not enough in the Interactive Age

To understand how communications have changed so quickly and why it is virtually impossible for expertise alone to cut it in the Interactive Age, you have to think of information as a commodity.

For most of human history, the information market was functionally an oligopoly: a few information producers and brokers (royalty, the church, scholarly institutions, etc.) dominated the market. Their production systems—chiseled stone, monastically scribed books, a limited run of hand-pressed Bibles—were expensive and labor-intensive. As a result, there was an extremely high “price” for accumulating information, which restricted learning to those who had stature and wealth.

During the Industrial Age, the supply of information gradually broadened as universal education became widespread. During the Information Age, however, the supply of information exploded as technological advancements lowered the price for the production and accumulation of information.

The supply of information greatly outpaced its demand long ago. Anyone who’s ever been to a library has seen a vast amount of information languishing on dusty shelves.

Ironically, in the Information Age, information became less valuable than ever before. But because the channels over which this “cheap” information flowed was until recently controlled by corporations, the media, Hollywood, and the recording and publishing industries, the price for that information could be artificially manipulated. As long as they controlled the distribution of information, these multi-billion-dollar industries thrived, generating profits that would make a banker blush.

The Internet broke the lock on the flow of information and people began freely sharing ideas, images, videos, music, and art. Where consumers once paid money to receive information (via subscriptions, cable fees, telephone bills, movie tickets), they are now getting it and giving it away for free.

Today, the value of information is not predicated on how much people are willing to pay to receive it. It is determined by how many people want to share it.

The consistent delivery of relevant, accessible, and/or entertaining content will build “brand loyalty” that can be used to earn revenue the old-fashioned way, while also creating an emotionally invested community of supporters.

To learn more about how to communicate effectively in the Interactive Age, check out our new book, The TV Guide to Telling Your Organization's Story.

A note from the authors of "The TV Guide to Telling Your Organization's Story"

"Kinda like a 21st century Moonlighting, right Megan?" "Not so much, John." Where would you be today if, back in 1994, someone gave you a book that explained how cell phones, PCs, and tablets were going to change the world over the next two decades?

This is that book.

No, John, it isn’t. But it does serve as a primer on some of the large-scale shifts affecting communications and provides strategies that you can adopt to successfully navigate them, using the model of a TV show.

A TV Guide, if you will.

And much like a TV Guide, it provides brief but enlightening overviews, not of shows but of concepts and tactics that you can use to tell your organization’s story more effectively. It also helps you identify areas that you are interested in spending more time learning about.

What it doesn’t do is teach you how to tweet, post, #hashtag, or Skype. And if you’re looking for scholarly insights about the literary themes in famous stories, you’ve got the wrong book.

Instead, it delivers the context and insights to help you become a better communicator in any medium.

And it does it in a way that allows you to jump around so you’re not forced to read a bunch of chapters just to get to the good parts.

Specifically, this book is comprised of four distinct sections which can be read independently or in any combination. The first section explains how we communicate with each other today—both as individuals and as organizations—and what we can do to communicate more effectively. Sections two, three, and four offer specific advice on how to successfully find, tell, and live your story in the Interactive Age.

And there are quite a few pictures and bullet points to make the reading feel a lot less like work.

One of the reasons our partnership works is that we’re extremely different in our perspectives, experiences, mentalities … and writing styles. So you will notice two distinctly different voices in this book.

I tend towards abstract and educational tones, while John provides concrete narratives.

The combination of two very different minds also went into the overall structure of the book. I usually read books from start to finish, and prefer a cumulative, linear approach to learning.

Blessed with the gift of attention deficit disorder and a dash of dyslexia, I like the freedom to hop in and out of a book without having to remember a lot of plot. So I need short sections, pictures and lots of white space.

Regardless of your preferred style of learning or level of background, this book will be helpful in navigating the future of communication.

And we hope you have as much fun reading it as you do buying it.


TV or not TV? Why your television may be your best social media mentor

"That's what 'twerking' means? Why didn't somebody tell me BEFORE my speech?" The following is an excerpt from our new book, The TV Guide to Telling your Organization's Story--Insights and tools to help you navigate the Interactive Age.

Like what your see? Get yours here.

  • In 2011, part-time nanny Molly Katchpole told Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan and the online world that she didn’t want to pay a new $5 monthly debit card fee. Moynihan was “incensed by the bad press,” and vowed that he “won’t budge on the new fees.” But the banker budged … and the nanny won.
  • In 2012, Hollywood’s top lobbyist Chris Dodd blasted his former colleagues in the US Senate for killing his signature legislation, the Stop Online Piracy Act, which would have allowed the government to censor the Internet. Upon losing what had appeared to be a slam-dunk deal, an enraged Dodd said, “Don’t ask me to write a check for you [politicians] when you think your job is at risk and then don’t pay any attention to me when my job is at stake.” This refreshing candor resulted in its own online petition on the White House website calling for an investigation into Dodd’s alleged “open admission of bribery.
  • In 2013, Canadian PM Stephen Harper announced that he “has a lot of fun twerking,” but only with close friends and “every now and then with President Obama.” Before a media aide could update the PM on early 21st century parlance, he added that he “would like to twerk with every Canadian but that of course is impossible.”

There was a time when emulating society’s leaders was a viable strategy for success. But those days are truly gone. The 20th century leadership skills that catapulted people to positions of power—being unilaterally decisive and hogging the megaphone, to name just two—are liabilities in the Interactive Age, where collaboration trumps intimidation.

The sense of unassailable superiority by those in power is resulting in regular digital spankings as the once-untouchable establishment titans go head-to-head with “little people” who may lack executive prerogative, but more than make up for it in social media savvy.

But if successful business and political icons of the 20th century can no longer guide us to success, who can?


Yup. The faithful companion that taught you how to run faster, jump higher, and build strong bodies 12 ways can now help you navigate the roiling waters of social media.

Think about it. The world is changing faster and more dramatically than at any point in human history. Every aspect of communications is changing in ways we could never have imagined a decade ago. Keeping up with the changes is next to impossible and the struggle can overwhelm the strongest of us.

One way to get grounded and to regain a sense of balance is to filter these new experiences through the lens of something familiar; something that is feeling its way through this brave new world like you are. And there’s nothing more familiar and universal—in the 20th century, anyway—than television.

As the television industry navigates its way through these tectonic changes, it can teach us how to respond to similar challenges.

Coming up ... "Channeling your inner TV show." Stay tuned!

The End of the Public: Interactive Age Storytelling

The following is an excerpt from our upcoming book, The TV Guide to Telling Your Organization’s Story. In the Information Age, we were (generally) able to share a set of cultural norms and experiences to create a (generally) mutual understanding of morality and reality. The Interactive Age signifies the end of any opportunity to “teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony.” Instead, the Internet has given everyone the opportunity to apply their own, highly fluid set of beliefs and experiences to their entertainment and information choices, which ultimately determine what information they consume and who they share it with.

These beliefs and experiences bring people together in online tribes—some large, some small. Some long-lasting, some just short bursts of communal energy—but all of which are constantly in flux.

This creates a distinct challenge for organizations trying to tell their story or communicate a consistent brand image: different people will interpret and react to these efforts in different ways and at different times.

For instance, compare the norms of earlier days to those of today. Ads that might have drawn a giggle or a wink in 1963 could cause you physical harm today.

And because there is no “sunset provision” for information in the Interactive Age, you have to be mindful of how your messages today play in the not too distant future. You are communicating with a spectrum of generations, beliefs, knowledge bases, etc. every time you post online.

One of the better ways to facilitate communication among very different communities is to spell out the assumptions and beliefs that are behind a given conclusion.

With organizational storytelling, this translates into considering your organization as a new world for your audience. Like a TV show, it may have many similarities to the world that some of these individuals inhabit, but interaction is aided by repeatedly citing the core tenets on which your communications are based.

Create your own buzz or prepare to get stung.

"What have we to talk about, hmmmm?" In the summer of '68, we spent a few days chucking water balloons at a cluster of cicada killer wasps that had gathered on a patch of sap on the oak tree in Billy Clifford’s backyard.

These wasps were huge. And really mean looking. We convinced ourselves that they were going to swoop down and kill the slowest of us unless we took them out first.

But it turns out cicada killer wasps only kill cicadas. It also turns out that these were male cicada killers, which means they didn't even have stingers like female cicada killers do. So rather than defending ourselves, we were, in reality, attempting to commit insecticide.

Since we were eight years old at the time and the patch of sap was about 40 feet above us, we went through a lot of water balloons before we nailed them. But once we did, those wasps exploded into a buzzing frenzy of “What the HELL, man??!! Are you serious?? What’s wrong with you goddamn kids?!”

One of them fell to the ground right in front of us. Well, it actually fell where we had been standing before we scattered like coked-out cockroaches.

Marius Overhand was the first one to go back to see if the wasp was dead. The rest of us followed a sensible distance behind. Once we all gathered around the body, we unknowingly acted out scenes from “The Crowd,” a short story by Ray Bradbury about a crowd of weirdos that would show up at car accidents to decide if the victim lives or dies.

“Is it dead?”

“Yeah, it’s dead.”

“So pick it up, but watch out for the stinger ‘cause they can still sting after they die.”

“I’m not picking it up! YOU pick it up. And no way they can sting you after they’re dead.”

“Can, too!”

“’Fraid not!”

Unfortunately for all involved, this wasp was very much alive—albeit a little stunned—and very, very angry. When it started flapping its wings—which I swear were held in place by rivets—we all bolted in different directions. All of us except Scott Lindholm and Eddie Foley, who banged heads together so hard that they, too, ended up flat on their backs surrounded by a crowd of eight-year-old boys who were busy determining their friends' fate.

“Are they dead?”

“Scott's eyes are open but they're crossed. And Eddie ain't moving. Let's get outta here!"

I bring this up because, much like the crowd in Ray Bradbury’s story, people will always try to tell your story for you if you’re not telling it yourself.

Look at Edward Snowden. After he let the world know that crazy ol’ Uncle Sam is also a "creeper," he fell off the grid, leaving the entire world to define him as a traitor, a hero, a self-indulgent narcissist, and a loser.

The same thing is happening right now with your organization. The Internet hates a vacuum. If you’re not telling your organization’s story, somebody else is. And you can bet that they're using this image Grumpy Cat

to describe you instead of this one. cute kitten


“Eulogy for a Travel Agent” or "Things to do on the Internet when you're dead"

"It's not personal. Your job in accounting got offshored to India so we're moving you to the kitchen for a special assignment." My friend and brilliant economist Craig Garthwaite once said, "It must suck for the guy on the road crew who holds slow/stop sign to know that he could be replaced by a bucket of sand." Craig is very compassionate that way. But technology isn’t. Technology is eliminating redundant middlemen faster than the Ark Fleet Ship B from planet Golgafrincham.

And now technology has its sights set on you, the communications expert. Don't believe me? Take the following quiz to see for yourself:

Do you include any of the following among the "critical contributions" you make to your organization?

1. Serving as a conduit between the C-suite and PRNewswire;

2. Making sure that Legal has approved the draft release that’s scheduled to go out next Tuesday; or

3. Sitting on the PR Selection Committee to determine which agency your organization will hire to tamp down that ugly flare up with the Digby account

If you answered "yes" to any of the above, you need to listen carefully to this eulogy for a travel agent, lest you too find yourself replaced by the proverbial bucket of sand.

Eulogy for a Travel Agent

“Bob wasn’t just my travel agent; Bob was my friend. Not the come-over-and-watch-the-game-tonight kind of friend. But the kind of friend you’d call when you needed to make travel arrangements.

“Bob was my go-to guy. He’d get me the best air fares. He’d find those secret, unadvertised rental-car upgrades. And he always booked me into a modestly priced hotel right near the convention center. And not one of those flea-bag joints down by the bus station, either. I’m talking a Red Roof Inn with a continental breakfast and free Wi-Fi.

“But Bob saw the writing on the wall. One day when he was booking my trip to Peoria for the Mystery Shopping Providers Association Summit and Expo, he leaned over his desk, and he says to me, he says, ‘I can see the writing on the wall. This Internet thing is going to put me out of business.'

“So I say, ‘What do you mean, Bob?’ And he says, ‘Why would anyone hire me—or any travel agent for that matter—to do what they can easily do for themselves online?’

“I said, ‘No Bob! Even if we can book our own travel, we’ll always need travel agents because … well because …

"At that moment, we both knew it was over for him and the travel agent business.

“Bob’s with us here today. I can feel his presence. And I can see him right there in the back row. In fact, I see Bob all over town since he got laid off. Poor guy’s got nothing to do and all the time in the world to do it. Ain’t that right, Bob?”

“Damn straight!”

“So if we learn just one thing from Bob’s experience, let it be this: Don’t wait for the Internet to put you out of a job. When you see the writing on the wall, teach yourself ways to write better, run faster, and jump higher. Because that’s what Bob would have wanted.”


“Thanks, Bob.”

Five ways to relate your quest to other issues

In our fast-moving and cluttered information-based society, it’s unreasonable to expect that your quest is going to often (or ever) be at the top of the news cycle. So learning how to tie in, adapt around, and build upon other events is a crucial skill in keeping a content  stream flowing. 1. Scope it up or down. It’s easy to get stuck in a self-created rut, so ask yourself:

What cultural, environmental, or economic obstacles do you face in achieving your quest?

  • Do you have an interesting perspective on them or their impact?
  • What other problems are being caused by these same obstacles?
  • Who is benefiting from or getting hurt by these obstacles?

This series of questions should help bring to mind a number of larger, tangential issues where your organization can share expertise, offer opinions, or provide a new angle.

In order to scope it down, ask yourself:

  • Do you know of any individual or group that has benefited from your work?
  • Are there individuals or groups that are or would be especially affected by the problem that you hope to solve/prevent?
  • Do you have a perspective on how a county, state, federal, foreign, or international issue affects individuals or groups?
  • How does your quest play out at the local and individual levels?

2. Look for quest alignment opportunities. Chances are, you aren’t the only organization facing or trying to solve these problems, and that these problems cause or contribute to a multitude of other problems. So look for groups with complementary quests, or build coalitions out of diverse groups who happen to share an interest in one or more aspects of your quest. How can you partner with others to magnify your voice?

Similarly, think about legislation, natural disasters, or economic trends that effect or are affected by your quest. How can you contribute an interesting perspective or inform the larger debate?

3. Find your line(s) in the sand. Anyone on a quest faces obstacles and opponents. Who and what are yours? Why do you disagree with these people or ideas? What “common knowledge” do you know to be wrong or incomplete?

In particular, being clear about not only what you stand for but also what you stand against creates opportunities for telling your story. These include:

  • Responding to, explaining, and/or correcting erroneous or misguided content. (While there is an appalling amount of unproven, misleading, or outright untrue content out there, be extremely careful to verify the facts or anecdotes you use to debunk them. Your efforts will backfire if someone ends up debunking you.)
  • Creating a dialogue with people of differing viewpoints, to both share your own story and to learn where there may be opportunities for persuasion or partnership.(If your organization can find a “sparring partner” on your issue, this opens up great opportunities to refine your story, work together for some form of a debate, debunk misconceptions, refer others to that group when they are looking for opposing views, etc.
  • Tracking news on your obstacle or opponents to identify additional angles for incorporating your story into existing conversations and debates.

4. Find “the rest of the story.” Why is your quest worth pursuing? What do you know that would motivate others to change their mind or more strongly support your quest? What alternate perspective, arguments, or facts can you provide that most people don’t know about your issue? By providing new material or insights, you create opportunities for people to change their minds without being “wrong” and give ammunition to your current supporters.

5. Ripples in the pond. Organize all of your issues into a diagram like the one above to visualize how different types and scopes of related content can be used to make “ripples in the pond” of your audiences’ mind. Put your most tightly and precisely defined quest in the middle and put your more tangential, secondary, or global aspects of your quest in the succeeding circles. Try moving them around a bit to see if you can make a coherent “flow” of issues. While opportunity will guide some of your decisions, you should largely be communicating about these issues in the order of their relationship to the central quest: you should be looking at how each of these issues ties back to your quest each time you address them, and the more directly they relate, the more often they should be tackled.

Challenges and Tips for Creating Your Organization’s Quest, Part II -- Nonprofits

please giveThere are currently about 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States alone. That’s about one for every 200 Americans. If you’re shocked by that number, consider the kinds of organizations that fall under that category:

  • 501(c)6 nonprofits, what you might call Association-to-Business (A2B) or trade associations
  • 501(c)3 nonprofit, which is the more traditionally imagined nonprofit
  • Universities
  • Churches

Since the first two tend to have less concrete quests, here are a couple of examples of how nonprofits can better define their quest.

Trade association: Imagine that you work for a dairy farmers’ trade association. Your mission statement reads something like “We represent the interests of dairy farmers from around the country and promote the consumption of dairy products.”

If someone asks you what you do at a cocktail party, you might say “I work for a trade association that represents the milk industry.” And you might joke about being a “milk pimp” to your friends.

Chances are, however, that you aren’t just working for a paycheck. So what is it? What’s your quest?

A cynic might say, “To sell more milk.” But that’s still an outcome. Here are a few options that are more in line with a quest:

  • “A majority of Americans aren’t getting enough calcium. We want to fix that.”
  • “We work to make sure that our nation’s dairy farmers can continue to make the best milk in the world.”
  • “We want to make sure that all children can grow strong bones by encouraging parents to give them milk, instead of soda or sports drinks.”

501©3 nonprofit: Many nonprofits have a more quest-oriented mission statement, but there is generally still room to improve. For instance, a homeless shelter might have a mission statement of “Helping the underserved and indigent population of Smith County.” But their quest might be:

  • “Working to make sure that everyone in Smith County has a warm bed and a hot meal on a cold night.”
  • “Preventing anyone in Smith County from losing their life because they couldn’t find a safe place to sleep.”

A word about coalitions and partnerships: Another benefit of identifying your organization’s quest is that you overtly develop common ground with other organizations. Taking the dairy farmers’ association example, there are relatively few organizations that are going to feel strongly about promoting the dairy industry. But a number of different groups—from child welfare organizations to senior health groups—would find the quest to make sure that all Americans get enough calcium appealing and a natural fit with their organization.


As you can see, there are endless options in defining your quest—and that quest will likely change over time and be refined in different ways by different parts of your organization. But again, your quest should be something that is either currently true or that your organization will make true. The most amazing and admirable quest in the world will backfire if you aren’t actually pursuing it.

Missed Part I of the series, which focuses on entrepreneurs? You can find it here.