In Vulnerability, Veritas (or, Why Risk is Essential to Great Storytelling)
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A meaningful story doesn't just happen. It's a feat of strength that actually takes courage.
Story is still the most undervalued technology in American corporate culture. That might sound surprising, given the countless gigabytes that’ve been devoted to the importance of brand-based storytelling. But the problem lies in story’s ubiquity.
Story is our original connective technology. Every day for the past 50,000 to two million years (depending on which anthropological theory you subscribe to), story has delivered serious human currency: news, wisdom, horror, awe, humor, gossip. Because humans talk, write, read — because we tell, hear, and interact with stories every day — there’s an unconscious belief that story is commonplace. Simple. Like breathing, we don’t even notice it.
What we do notice are story’s lasting impressions — the feelings and images that get left behind, long after a story has ended. This is the real current running through story. And it’s a voltage powerful enough to change us in small and significant ways.
Great storytelling is an artform. When done well, it’s an art of the highest order. Like great coding, it requires advanced study, natal talent, hard-won skill, and a ridiculous amount of practice. Because story is also a technology, whether it works or not depends on its foundational programming.
Per that metaphor, here are two lines of code that can make a good story great.
From Purpose to Prose
Great stories arise from a quest, a cause — a potent blend of internal and external drivers that spur a hero into action. This is purpose in its purest form.
Back in the 20th century, in the old paradigm of American business, that purpose was profit. Profit for profit’s sake was not only expected, it was noble — a pursuit of one of the unalienable rights of “corporate citizenship” (a grossly exploited concept I won’t excoriate here). But the paradigm’s shifted. New-paradigm thinking sees profit as the final third of a balanced triad — the third leg under a three-legged stool that supports holistic sustainability: People. Planet. Profit.
In the new paradigm, people and planet come before profit. And from people and planet arise purpose. Real purpose. A hero’s purpose.
At Emerge, we parse it this way: Are you in the business of making money? Or is making money a byproduct of purpose? Defining that purpose — living, producing, and governing by it — is, for us, the difference between an old-paradigm business and a courageous brand. When it comes to telling a brand’s story, it’s also the distance between good and great.
Taking the time to discover, then carefully articulate your purpose is one of the most important investments a person or business can make. A well-defined purpose becomes a headwater — an unassailable wellspring from which every action flows. Finding it takes commitment, and honest answers to deep questions. What is it you’re driven to do? What sets your heart on fire? What’s the mythic Call that feels like your magnetic north? And most important, why?
Excavating these questions — and finding their truthful answers — is deceivingly difficult, but the digging and effort pay off. (Big time.) Once a company’s purpose is clearly defined, its true story begins to take shape. And truth is the second line of code that elevates story technology.
From Vulnerability, Truth; from Truth, Trust
As predators, we’re programmed to hide weakness. Our primal selves sense the risk involved in being real — a practice that usually involves revealing fears, insecurities, and less-than-flattering facts. To the amygdala (the “lizard brain” as some call it: possibly the oldest part of our neural net, yet a part that still governs decision-making and our emotional response to stimuli), vulnerability runs counter to survival.
Reveal weakness, and prepare to die.
Though this is merely an idea — an ancient, primal opinion — biochemically, it feels like fact. A dangerous “fact” at that, as the above idea is another pillar of old-paradigm thinking. Cut-throat competition, corporate Darwinism, posturing, false-fronts, evasion of the truth … all of these are the currency of fear, ego, and the small-mind’s countless seductive tricks to gain “power over”, as opposed to power with. As a result, it takes courage and self-awareness to be real in the face of our core programming. But vulnerability — and the truth that flows from it — are essential to great storytelling. That’s as true for a work of fiction as it is for a corporate website.
But truth is an interesting thing. In science, truth is a result that’s repeatable and verifiable. (And even then, truth can change.) In relationships, truth is a little less empirical. Truth is a feeling — the net result of an amalgamation of someone’s tone of voice, facial expressions, body posture, energy, and a tight alignment between words and deeds. The latter can require an additional ingredient: time. History (or experience — with a person, company, or product over time) is the relational version of “repeatable and verifiable.”
When truth is revealed over time (vulnerably and consistently), it garners trust — the highest currency of all.
Pushing it further, not only does a company or brand need to summon the courage to lead from purpose — with a consistent, verifiable alignment between words and deeds — it must also bravely expose both successes and failures around that purpose. This requires true and consistent talk (content, story) about what’s working, and what’s not. What marks have been hit — what strides made — and where are the shortfalls? What unmet goals are fueling change, transformation, and success? And, most important: What are the tactics and strategies being implemented to get there?
While it may feel counterintuitive to our primate core-programming, vulnerability is the gateway to truth. And when truth is revealed from a place of grounded self-awareness, it becomes a powerful force of nature. True power. Twenty-first-century power. The kind that drives the triple bottom-line. (People. Planet. Profit.)
From Good to Great
In the world of storytelling, the more intensely personal a story is, the more universal it becomes. When a writer, character, company, or brand reveals truth from a place of vulnerability and purpose, only then can we as individuals see ourselves in the story. When this happens, we become riveted. Gripped. We spontaneously graft our own truth, path, and trials to the story at hand. We see ourselves in one another. And we do this without even trying.
It’s that powerful, this durable, ancient, connective technology.
At the highest level, great storytelling allows us to feel less alone, more understood. It strengthens the fabric of the collective, weaving us into a textile strong enough to support each and every one of us, regardless of circumstance.
Great story builds commonality. Commonality forges connection. Connection fuels engagement. And when we’re engaged, the world opens to our understanding.
Perhaps this is the main reason story is so ubiquitous. It’s the framework for universality — a platform, rife with elegant code, that allows us a bright glimpse of each other, ourselves, and a deeper purpose we can all be a part of. That is technology built for the common good. That is the power of story.