Four missteps organizations make with storytelling


If you asked a variety of people in different roles across your organization – what’s our company story? –what kind of reaction would you get? Would your colleagues accurately tell the company story? Chances are you might hear them say something like: “that’s not part of my role” or “marketing is in charge of that” or “I don’t really know.”

It begs this important question about storytelling – whose job is it anyway?

The marketing department? C-suite? Management-level employees? Those working the front lines with stakeholders? Sales teams? People behind the scenes? Those with the longest history within the organization?

The short answer is – yes. Yes to all of them. Storytelling is everyone’s responsibility.

However, it’s not surprising to see most organizations delegate the role of storytelling to the marketing department.

This is misguided thinking and where many organizations miss the point of that all-too-trendy term – storytelling. Here are four missteps that organizations commonly make with storytelling.


1.     Confusing story management with storytelling

Someone or some assigned team needs to take the lead in unearthing and positioning the organization’s most important stories. It should be their task to write them down for the sake of sharing in-house with employees and externally/online for stakeholders and customers in a clear and consistent way. The marketing function is a logical choice for establishing these pieces and developing the repository where the organization’s history, key messages and must-share stories can be found.

But let’s be clear – this is simply the act of story management.

What we’re talking about is storytelling – the verbal articulation of something deemed important – and that should be everyone’s business.


2.     Failing to connect the story with actual storytellers

Most of us don’t like the idea of being marketed to or sold something, at least not until we are ready to engage on our own terms. That fact alone makes every other function outside of the marketing department, and the vast majority of employees in an organization, critical storytellers. When people within an organization are empowered to tell stories about the business and their business – what we do, why we do it (purpose), who we seek to serve, why it matters, how we’re different, and why you should care – it is no longer marketing or sales. It is the sharing of ideas and of a larger ideal. It is storytelling.  And this becomes immensely valuable in cultivating a desirable work culture, attracting and retaining new hires, and stirring the curiosity among people who become clients, customers and advocates.


3.     Overlooking the importance of empathy and delivery

Consider this excerpt regarding the nuance of story from the English novelist E.M. Forster:


“If I say to you the king died, and then the queen died, that is a sequence of events.

But if I said the king died, and then the queen died of grief, that’s a story. That’s human. That calls for empathy on the part of the teller of the story and on the part of the reader or listener of the story.”


Read this again:  “Empathy on the part of the teller of the story...”

That is significant.

If we rely on marketing for our stories but don’t have an intimate knowledge of those stories ourselves and how to tell them – with empathy – our attempt at telling stories becomes little more than a list of facts, talking points, or a sequence of events. Worse yet, if we rely solely on marketing to be the mouthpiece of our stories we miss untold opportunities to engage people on the importance of our purpose and our work.   

And there’s this:  “...and on the part of the reader or listener.”

This is an important reminder that our audiences will engage and process our stories differently.

Every time I deliver a messaging document to a client for the first time, I ask them if they will humor me as I read it aloud. They are perfectly capable of reading it on their own, but I know that people interpret what they hear differently from what they read. Inflection is added in the right places for needed effect, and my voice becomes the audible highlighter of words and ideas that they otherwise might skim over.

We need the marketing team’s help to craft stories and position them for a compelling read in all formats – from the tweet that piques interest, to the website copy, to tangible printed material that compels a stakeholder to slow down and sit with our words.

But we also need the c-suite to lead by example – to know and convey stories with the passion we should expect from leaders, so that managers and employees (as listeners) can make a personal connection and become storytellers themselves by following their lead.


Marketing has its place.

Content is valuable and can be readily accessible.

But there is no replacing the sound and impact of a point well-made coming from a leader. 


4.     Ignoring the history of a story and failing to pull from it

David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American author and well-known historian, said this about the importance of history and story in a 2004 commencement speech at Ohio University titled The Bulwark of Freedom:

We have to know who we are if we are to know where we are headed. This is essential. We have to value what our forbears did for us or we are not going to care about it very seriously, and it can slip away.”

While McCullough refers to the story of one’s country and the importance of knowing history as it informs the future of a nation, the same can be said for nearly any organization or institution. Past and present stories provide the factual and credible narrative needed to set us apart from others. It is what we must lean into, it is our compass as we seek to chart new and exciting futures. 

Is your organization recording the stories that matter by writing them down, reciting them and sharing them regularly?

Do you and the people in your organization know its rich history, its defined purpose and how it intends to make a difference?

This isn’t arbitrary work. Your organization’s reason for being is rooted in story.

If you don’t know the story, you can’t tell it.

And if it’s not seen as something to take seriously, then there’s truly a lot at risk of slipping away. 



Are you "shoehorning" or taking a road less traveled?

path less traveled (2).jpg

For many years my professional life was the equivalent of being a square peg being forced down the round hole. The truth is I did it willingly even when I knew deep down that I was in the wrong lane.

Today I call that shoehorning – doing everything possible to fit the mold or be found occupying the right space, no matter how crowded or uncomfortable that space might prove to be. It’s another way of trying to be all things to too many people. Many of us do this without giving it much thought because somewhere along the way we made the assumption that this is how it is; this is what we’re supposed to do.

This can feel counterintuitive for us as individuals, and it can be detrimental to organizations and brands.

Robert Frost’s famous poem The Road Not Taken is the antithesis of shoehorning. Although we know the closing three lines well, we don’t often heed the advice of poets. Instead, too many of us have bought into the belief that the well-worn path someone else blazed will somehow lead us toward similar success simply by staying the course. As a result, we avoid differentiating ourselves for fear that divergence leads to a dead end.

Taking calculated risks can help move us in a new direction. But what if that isn’t enough? When is it time to rethink and recalibrate your brand, your organization or even what you personally do around the those critical why and how questions? Here are few prompts to help:


What are you willing to own? When so much is already taken or spoken for, when so little looks different from one organization to the next, what are you willing to hang your hat on? What unique or radical aspects of your work are you willing to be defined by? You know the challenges as well as the glaring deficiencies in your industry. Are you willing to put your stake down where others are less comfortable or unwilling to commit? Taking ownership is bold if not a bit scary. Consciously choosing the other path instead of shoehorning into the same queue as everyone else creates needed separation.  

Who are you willing to invite in? Who do you trust to strategically question your motives? Who will have your back when challenges arise? Who will help you push things further than you imagined but also pump the brakes when necessary? It’s critical to assemble teams of people who think differently than you. Their nuanced points of view will challenge you, which is the litmus test you need before customers and clients bring their challenges.

What outcomes are you willing to accept? Nobody says “let me fail first then I’ll get it right.” But often we don’t know what getting it right truly looks like until confronted with things that are not quite right – which is still a distant cousin from wrong. Embrace course correction and iteration as necessity rather than nuisance — it will take the heightened fear of failure down a few pegs.

What are you willing to say? Articulating what makes you different can be hard. We all want to be liked right away, and because of that desire we can be wooed to say yes to circumstances that warrant a no. What we say matters. When you know what you’re willing to own, you need to have the confidence to write it down, share it, and articulate it — over and over. You and your team have to be aligned on what you’re communicating at every touch point. It’s the consistent message (followed by consistent action) that begins to make the difference.  


Few if any customers clamor for more options that resemble existing options. So, much like Frost’s familiar poem, consider leaning into a strategic approach to do things differently and avoid shoehorning yourself into well-worn spaces where everyone looks remarkably the same with comparable features.

This is what makes all the difference.


The Consensus Paradox

Seeking consensus among the masses is good when choosing a vacation destination (nobody wants to embark on new adventures with a disengaged or disgruntled traveler). It’s not particularly helpful when building brands. In fact, it can be detrimental.

Asking for a show of hands and getting less than 100 percent alignment does not constitute a trip back to the drawing board or appeasing every new idea. While thoughtful feedback is fuel for bettering just about anything, discernment on when and how to use that feedback is critical. The buck must stop with someone who is empowered to say – this is the direction we’re headed and why

Seeking consensus sounds noble and democratic in theory. In practice, it sounds flat and uninteresting – the very things that branding and messaging initiatives seek to avoid – or reverse – in an attempt to differentiate.

In your quest to stand out, get comfortable pushing the envelope and, when necessary, reining things back in.

Not everyone in your organization will love the logo, the colors or the choice of type. They may not embrace every word of your message – and that’s okay. It’s not designed for them. It’s for your customer. 

Your extended team can do amazing things when they help shape the brand rather than dictate it. Asking for or falling victim to the consensus paradox won’t create internal believers. To the contrary, it can create pockets of skeptics who can appreciate the attempt but can’t get over what the brand has become versus what it could’ve been. 

Perhaps you’ve heard that a brand is more than a logo – and even more than a message. It’s about consistently exceeding expectations, providing exceptional experiences and connecting with stories well told. That’s where people fall in love with your brand. Your team included.   


VW's latest problem: is it the message, the messenger or something else?

Volkswagen CEO Matthias Mueller .  Photo credit: Guenter Schiffmann/Bloomberg

Volkswagen CEO Matthias Mueller.

Photo credit: Guenter Schiffmann/Bloomberg

I feel bad for Matthias Mueller right now. The current CEO of beleaguered automaker Volkswagen is attempting to smooth things over with lawmakers this week in his first official visit to the U.S. However, he couldn’t hide from his off-putting comments on Sunday at the Detroit Auto Show. Remarkably VW dug a deeper hole for Mueller when it cast blame on the circumstances of the interview rather than the substance of his remarks.

Frustrating as this is, I don’t blame Mueller.

I don’t blame the former head of Porsche, who was appointed to CEO of VW and thrust into the smoggy limelight last September, for his overall tone-deafness, lack of urgency on the emissions scandal, or even the gulf of truth that lies somewhere between his “I apologize once again” and “we didn't lie” statements.

I don’t blame Mueller because so far he’s just been the messenger – a poor one perhaps (and that is fixable) – but a messenger nonetheless. And I hold true to the notion that we shouldn’t shoot the messenger.

While VW's communication has been anything but a well-oiled machine, the opportunity to reverse that trend starts this week. Here's what can be gleaned from VW's recent road bumps and how the company can get back on track.  


Mueller’s messages are crafted talking points designed to share VW’s point of view or story, which is key here: it's the story VW wants to share, which sometimes isn't the story that needs to be shared. Mueller is still in his infancy as CEO, so getting the story right every time can be challenging, especially when the story is changing, opinions are shifting and emotions are running high.

As hard as it may be for some leaders to tell the unvarnished truth, doing so invites transparency and simplifies things. But simply saying the right thing isn't enough. The right words only begin to mean something when they don't always require notecards and are followed up with meaningful action. This transparency also kills a deceptive form of creative storytelling, often designed to appease a niche audience, rather than getting on with the work of repairing broken trust. In his incredibly short tenure, there has been a repeated theme of ‘misunderstanding’ with his answers that needs to be resolved immediately.


Mueller’s counselors and advisors had to know that he’d get tough questions not only from U.S. lawmakers later in the week, but also from media at the auto show in off-the-cuff moments. Language barrier aside, a lack of preparation and ownership of the clear and concise story beyond the scripted moments is showing,  and it's reflecting poorly on him and the company. His response to NPR about ethical problems is an example of not being well prepared and inconsistent: 

MUELLER:  I don’t understand whether (why) you say that.

NPR reporter:  Because Volkswagen in the U.S. intentionally lied to EPA regulators when they asked them about the problem before it came to light.

MUELLER:  We didn't lie. We didn't understand the question first.    


There is no guarantee that Mueller will choose to do the right thing – or the wrong thing – when it comes to steering the company forward. But his recent statements regarding his desire to infuse fun back into the company hints at problems with VW’s culture, especially given the cover up and deception that put VW in this position in the first place. The leadership team that has been running VW prior to and through the emissions scandal also is responsible for anointing Mueller as chief messenger. Whether he emerges from this crisis as a transformational leader is yet to be seen – and it hinges on whether or not he can deliver truthful, transparent answers and simply do the right thing, no matter the short-term cost. That alone will signal a significant shift in corporate culture, which will help to repair its troubled reputation from the inside out.


Like any successful leader, Mueller needs good counsel and must surround himself with thoughtful individuals committed to bettering the company and exceeding public expectations. He needs to set a high bar regarding insights into all facets of the company and candor of how shortcomings will be addressed. However, if what we’re seeing is an eschewing of wise counsel, preparation and well-developed messages that have failed to be delivered with the sincerity in which they were written, then Mueller’s tenure likely will become a brief footnote in the company’s history.

Until now, VW has been its own worst enemy in the last several months, but this week Mueller has an opportunity to change that. While Mueller could benefit from a more thoughtful and concerned public persona that most people intuitively expect of chief executives under fire, there should be an undefined "grace period" for inheriting and cleaning up a mess not of your own making. And despite some foot-in-mouth moments and inconsistent messaging, I find myself rooting for Mueller to make the successful evolution from brand messenger to respected CEO, and here's why:

America loves a great comeback story – especially when one humbly accepts its wrongs and works with unmatched determination and transparency to right the ship or, in this case, the car.

It is without question the story that VW should be working tirelessly and without compromise to write.  

For nonprofits, winning by year's end needs to be a year-long effort

The “year-end ask” has been a staple of the charitable funding equation for years. Like retail, this is the season that can define the fiscal year. Black Friday – along with consumer-friendly initiatives such as Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday – has recently inspired Giving Tuesday. Noble as this giving initiative is, it also finds itself strategically hamstrung as it falls on the heels of the nation’s biggest retail spending days in hopes that there is something left in the consumer wallet to support the greater good.

And that leads to a bigger, more strategic question for the charitable sector:

How can nonprofits connect effectively with prospective donors who might already be suffering from seasonal spending and donor fatigue?

Nonprofits can benefit from some of the same separation strategies that entrepreneurs and startups need to apply with investors and venture capitalist firms to gain funding support. It also requires knowing your audience, compelling them to action, and not relying on the calendar to spark donor interest.   

Following are five ways nonprofits can better attract, and work to retain, a loyal donor base:

  • DEMONSTRATE CREDIBILITY & EXPERTISE. Entrepreneurs must demonstrate talent and expertise by identifying real business problems and offer solutions. Investors will admit that good ideas don’t get funded if the right people aren’t in place. If you’re relying on a track record of past successes or name recognition to carry your organization, it’s time to rethink how your people – your most valuable assets – are helping to drive successful outcomes.
  • BE OPEN & TRANSPARENT. Investors demand regular metrics and details from entrepreneurs to see if they are delivering on their promise – and donors should expect similar consideration. Are you making it easy for donors to understand your impact? Is data relegated solely to your annual report? Proactively share your impact on both the financial and compassion meter regularly with your audience and take ownership for all that you do – even as you grow and learn to do it better.
  • TELL COMPELLING STORIES – AND NOT JUST AT YEAR'S-END. What you do and why your organization is worthy of being funded needs to be part and parcel of every nonprofit story. It’s the organization’s responsibility to raise awareness as well as funding if meaningful change is to occur. So get personal. Share insights from individuals who benefit from or impact your organization’s work. Leverage video to bring those real stories to life for the donor. And strike a balance between successes and the emotional reality of what you’re facing. As you tell authentic and compelling stories, existing and prospective funders can see that progress is being made without losing sight of a need that demands greater attention.
  • EMPOWER YOUR DONORS TO SHARE THEIR STORY – AND YOURS. Leaders and development officers will always serve as chief fundraisers, but they also need to be relationally engaged and recognize how their donors are being transformed, and then identify the right avenues to have them advocate from the heart and personal experience. This third-party validation of your organization's work often can reach and inspire a group of prospective donors that may never appear on a prospect list.
  • BRAND PRESENTATION MATTERS. Donors will judge the book by its cover. Like it or not, perception matters. But today brand strategy and communication tools that enhance brand credibility are accessible to all, including those with limited budgets. If extreme frugality has been your branding and communication strategy, then carefully consider what your brand might be communicating before you ever get a chance to speak with a donor.    

While many charities hope to hit a home run on Giving Tuesday, some inevitably will strike out. But all can take a cue from Cal Ripken – baseball’s most reliable player to ever play the game – by showing up every day and finding ways to make an impact. In doing so, nonprofits can demonstrate to donors that they have compelling reasons to be charitable that trump the well-intended, once-a-year plea.    

Your organization’s story is unique. How are you making it compelling? And how is your year-long strategy taking the pressure off the year-end ask?


A version of this post first appeared on re:charity.