When a Business Needs a Mission Statement and Storytelling Strategy

From a Wall Street Journal review by Steven Poole of the book “The  Sea We Swim In” by Frank Rose:

A modern company should have values, a mission statement and a philosophy, but most of all it should be in the business of storytelling. So, at least, runs 21st-century wisdom. But what if your business has just leaked millions of gallons of oil into the sea? You’ll need a long-term “storytelling strategy,” according to “The Sea We Swim In: How Stories Work in a Data-Driven World” by Frank Rose, a veteran tech and media reporter who teaches a Columbia University seminar on the subject for executives….

The kinds of storytelling he admires are illustrated by companies such as nerd-cool eyeglass outfit Warby Parker, which “transform[ed] an old yellow school bus into a rolling eyewear boutique and [sent] it across America,” or tractor manufacturer John Deere, which set up a popular online hub offering practical advice for farmers. What these stories have in common is a feeling of authenticity—and, as the saying goes, if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

Part of the book’s purpose is to educate the reader in “the elements of story” themselves: components such as “journey,” “character,” “world, “voice” and so on, explained with an eye to the postmodern entertainment business in which narrative creations exist across media and leak out into real-world experiences….

It’s a zingier version, then, of the post-Aristotelian story-theory books beloved of screenwriters, with a rich range of reference that takes in the novels of Gustave Flaubert as well as the twists of ABC’s “Lost.” But the analysis has a wider salience for anyone who consumes media. Given how much the storytelling paradigm informs everything around us today—including, perhaps especially, the news—it behooves citizens to understand it better. That takes on a particular urgency when we’re confronted with the need to process a stream of information about, for example, a global pandemic. Even more concerning is the case of conspiracy theories. Hoaxes like the QAnon conspiracy, Mr. Rose shows, share many of the essential ingredients of good stories, including the carefully paced revelation of facts that creates a bread-crumb trail, luring the victim deeper into the dark forest.

What of the future of storytelling? There has been much blather of late about the “metaverse,” a term borrowed from dystopian science fiction (it first crops up in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel “Snow Crash”) to describe a dystopian reality in which, as Mark Zuckerberg enthused earlier this year, you could be wearing VR glasses during a meeting and “no one else is even going to notice” that you’re messaging someone else. Radical.

Storytelling in online worlds is itself nothing new—check out gaming sensations like Fortnite or Roblox. What the rebranding of Facebook as “Meta” most immediately represents is a desire to change the toxic media narrative around Facebook as a company. And “narrative” itself is, in a way, the most meta form of storytelling. “In one sense, ‘narrative’ is simply a five-dollar word for ‘story,’ ” Mr. Rose writes. “But as the sum of all your stories—as the product of a well-constructed and fully immersive narrative platform, in other words—it is much more than that. It is what you would have us believe. It is what you would have yourself believe.”

That is powerful, but it’s power that can serve the dark side as well as the light. So, Mr. Rose advises, we’d better understand it. He closes with a laudable plea for us all to become better at consciously choosing what to pay attention to and at breaking out from tech’s malign “compulsion loops.” It’s critical thinking for an age of pervasive media….

Bob Chapek, the chief executive of Marvel’s owner Disney, recently jumped on the meta-bandwagon, predicting a time of “storytelling without boundaries in our own Disney metaverse.” But maybe stories need boundaries. It might be, indeed, that the most powerful storytelling depends on finality, which is anathema to the urge to milk a franchise for all it’s worth. In this respect, then, Marvel might be like Facebook: It doesn’t have a moneymaking problem, but it does have a storytelling problem.

Steven Poole is the author of “Rethink: The Surprising History of New Ideas.”

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