Telling an Organization's Story

Telling the story of an organization can be similar to telling a personal story.  As Donald Davis says, one key to developing any story is identifying a central crisis.(1)  Or, as I like to say, look for the trouble and you're halfway to the story.

To tell a great story, you have to know how it ends.  Look for the trouble that you've escaped to start thinking about your story.  Understanding how you got out of it will help you craft the middle of the story and the major plot points.  And your final out-of-trouble triumph can be your inspiring ending.  Stories don't have to be inspiring, but most of the time when people are hoping to tell the story of an organization to a new audience, they are aiming to inspire.

I'm working on crafting a workshop for a group of non-profits supported by a central organization based in Springfield.  They need to know how to tell the stories of their organizations.  My own thoughts are that you need clarity about several key elements as well as a solid narrative structure to tell the story of an organization.

  • Trouble
  • Transformation
  • Triumph

Told in order, you might have a story just by filling in the specifics of your organization using that list.  Then again, you may need to adapt each element.  "Trouble" could be related to funding, leadership, resources, public relations, etc.  "Transformation" may be mandated from the outside, designed from the inside, created in response to a crisis or natural disaster, or just a matter of understanding and articulating "mission drift" over time.  "Triumph" doesn't have to be triumphant; it may be lessons learned, things never to do again (these can be great stories for teaching a new staff member the culture of the organization), or simply an end point to a program that had to be retired as well as enduring through lean times, successful results, amazing outcomes that you didn't expect, and individual lives transformed.  The important thing about an organizational story is that it has a clear end point even though the organization itself goes on.  

There's nothing quite like an example to help fuel storytelling.  After all, we tell stories most naturally and easily when we are just sitting around with friends or family.  One person tells a story.  That story sparks someone else to remember a related story, in topic, setting, or time.  Another person chimes in an tells a third story.  A fourth person says "that's not how I remember it" and tells a different version of the last story.  You know that this can go on all night!

One of the best ways to get an expert member of an organization to tell a story to a non-expert or outsider to the organization is to ask:  would you tell me about an important time of change in your organization?

One of the best ways to get an expert to tell a story to a non-expert is to ask:  Tell me about an important time of change in your organization.  

With all stories, we long for the fresh and new, and we tire of cliche.  The founding story of an organization can be riveting, but we have to think creatively about how to convey the dates, facts, mission statement, professional best practices, etc. that are all important, yes, but are a list of accurate facts about an organization rather than a story.  Until we get to work.  Organizational story prompts include:
  • Why is the organization important?  To people outside, to the world?
  • What differences has this organization made in the lives of individuals?  Who are they?  How have they been transformed by this work?
  • How is the organization different today than it was when it was founded?  
  • When has the organization been under threat, and how has it survived?
In short, organizational stories need organizing.  They require careful thinking, fact-gathering, and fact-checking, but that's just the beginning of organizing a good story.  They require a strong plot and a resolution that ends the story clearly.  Telling and retelling your story to different audiences will help you to refine the story and also insure that you learn about whether the meaning you hope to convey is what your audience receives.  Always rehearse your stories with several audiences of individuals or small groups both inside and outside the organization before telling them for the first time.  

1.  Telling Your Own Stories by Donald Davis, 1993