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If You Tell It, They Will Come

If You Tell It, They Will Come

December 19, 2018

In 1867, a hard-nosed American businessman made a decision. A very unusual decision, both for that period in history and also, apparently, for him. He closed his factory on Christmas Day, paid his employees for the day off, and sent each of them a turkey as a gift.

The motive behind this largesse? The evening before, he had been deeply moved by a public reading of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.”

This event is just one of thousands of acts of generosity and kindness that Dickens’s yuletide perennial has inspired over the years, and it’s a reminder that few things have the power to move us the way stories can. It’s something deep in our nature. Appeals based on logic, facts or reasoned argument may leave us unimpressed, but give us a good yarn and we sit up and listen. We want to know how things turn out, what the ending will be. Even when the story is just that, a story, with fictional characters who have no basis in reality, we still care. We’re still hooked. We can’t help ourselves.

At this time of the rolling year, as you’re rounding out 2018 and thinking ahead to the challenges and goals for your business in 2019, take a moment to consider the power of stories to inspire and to change. If your company were a story, what would that story be? What would be the coherent narrative that defines it, that directs and inspires your employees to be their best, that lets your customers and clients know exactly what you do and when they should reach out to you? Find that story, and people will respond. It’s what they will remember about you.

Few people outside the industry will be able to tell you what Apple’s EBITDA was for the last fiscal year, but they will be able to tell you the story of how Jobs and Wozniak started that trillion-dollar enterprise in a garage. Likewise, no one who isn’t a shareholder is likely to know, or care, what Amazon’s EPS was for the last quarter, but they’ll be drawn to the story of how the giant that would come be known as Amazon started by mailing a book from a living room in July 1995.

For a more up-to-date example, consider office products distributor Source Office & Technology in Denver. When Amazon Business entered their market space and began impacting their margins, Source skipped nimbly out of the way, reinvented itself as a provider of contracted office services and, as in all the best stories, never looked back. There’s a reason Source CEO David Sass tends to have a line of people waiting to talk with him after he speaks at MDM events, and I don’t think that all has to do with Source’s improved margins (though assuredly, they don’t hurt). It has a lot to do with the compelling nature of a company with a clear story, a clear vision of who they are, what they do and where they’re going.

It doesn’t matter where your company is now, if your story is confused, unfocussed, incoherent, with little prospect of a happy ending. Or if your employees don’t look forward to coming in to work of if you have no plans to react to the threats and changes in the industry. As Ebenezer Scrooge himself remarks in “A Christmas Carol,” the ending of a story is not predestined but will change along with the actions of the people who inhabit it.

Dickens himself, of course, knew the value of a story as well as anyone and built that knowledge into his Christmas classic. Early in the book, Scrooge remains stone-hearted and unmoved in the face of multiple appeals, whether from the local businessmen collecting for the poor, from his nephew, or even from his dead business partner. All humbug. But when his ghostly visitors present him with a story, the narrative of his own life, his lonely, neglected childhood, his abandonment of the people who’d shown him kindness, the death of his beloved sister, the loss of his fiancé, it changes him more profoundly than any argument ever could. And if a story can change a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” beyond recognition, imagine what it can do for your business. 

Today, December 19th, marks 175 years to the day since the first publication of “A Christmas Carol.” We’re still reading it. What will be your business’s compelling story for 2019?

© 2019 Gale Media, Inc.

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