Telling Stories, And Living Them

Fifteen years ago, a client called my bosses and asked to have me removed from their account. This was a big account for the firm financially, and one that was both demanding and challenging. It was difficult not to take it personally.

I was reminded of this “anniversary” recently when I read a short post on Seth Godin‘s blog, about a business relationship gone awry. This item was so short it’s easy to recount with a single quote: “When pressed, though, she couldn’t actually recall what the problem had been, or how much financial or project damage had been done. All she remembered was that she didn’t like him.”

Yes, well, that could apply to many situations—and probably many of us have been there.

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There are all sorts of ways to describe what I do as a communications consultant to cultural institutions. My colleagues and I help clients evaluate and set goals; we develop strategies to meet their goals; and we work with them to develop messages and create platforms for them to speak about or otherwise demonstrate what they do, whether that is through written materials, public programs and events, or tools like social media. (There are other parts of the job, too; harder to describe, and I often put them under the umbrella of “consigliere-psychologist.”)

But when it comes right down to it, once you push past the business jargon around “communications,” the thing that we help clients do is simple: tell their stories. The audiences for these stories may be external—journalists, or potential visitors—or internal, to help one part of the organization understand the needs of another. Ultimately, that’s what communication is all about: getting your story across as best you can, and hoping someone else finds it compelling. It’s definitely the part of my job that is easiest to explain or witness externally.

And you’re thinking: well, that’s fine, but how does that relate to this thing about relationships and getting kicked off an account?

Simple: relationships are also about stories. Whether business or personal, they are the things that we tell ourselves (and others) about how we feel about particular people or groups. In Godin’s example, the woman was essentially replaying for herself a particular narrative—a very broad one, without much detail, that always led to the same conclusion. Once these stories are written, they are difficult to re-write.

Fifteen years ago, I knew something had gone wrong in my relationship with this client, I just didn’t know what. I found out five years later when, under different circumstances, I met someone from my former client who had the details: I had shown up to a meeting carrying a backpack. To them, that said something about me that had nothing to do with qualifications, and created a narrative they couldn’t get over.

It’s easy to laugh now—especially since these days backpacks are de rigeur for many New York business men. But it’s why I think Godin’s post epitomizes the challenges and, more importantly, the opportunities of (business) relationships. When relationships are good, projects are often even more successful: the internal narrative we build for ourselves subconsciously will be better, and the work that we do and the client does will also be better. You get engaged, committed; you want the best for your clients, not just because that’s what they pay for but because you have invested in the relationship with them. Success (and sometimes failure) nurtures these relationships, but good relationships are about more than just success.

It’s also increasingly clear that these different levels of understanding are reached slowly, and often through indirect means. There are lots of news stories about social media tools being (mis)used and causing problems in the workplace, but they can be just as beneficial in helping people learn about and understand each other. These tools help people write their own public narratives, and they may be funny or boring, shocking or banal—but you learn something either way.

Commitment counts, of course. So do simple things like understanding each other’s working processes and goals. In my business, it helps to be smart, a nimble thinker, and to have a good understanding of human psychology. But the longer I work in this field, the more I find that it is often the internalized stories we have about our relationships that are as critical as the working processes or the external outcomes. Those stories are what drive emotional responses around whether we trust people or feel they understand our goals. And that is hard to beat.

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