Bards and Heroes: Why Storydoers (Not Storytellers) Make Epic Experiences For Your Business

At the King’s command, Ulric the Bard stood before the hall. The feasters fell silent as he strummed his harp and began to sing a tale of Conrad the Hero. He painted beautiful images in the minds of his listeners. How Conrad, in the armor he’d won from a goddess, strode into the castle of the enchanter. How he’d freed the slaves from their agony, tied the dragon in knots, and finally, tricked the enchanter into cooking himself as a soufflé. Feet tapped with the rhythm of the song. The warriors of the king were entranced. Ulric smiled. This audience hung on his every word. They needed him. They belonged to him.

A loud thumping at the door made Ulric pause in his song. The steward opened the door, nodded his head a few times, and then turned to the gathered assembly. “It is Conrad the Hero!” he proclaimed. “He requests lodging for the night, as he has recently returned from an adventure in the ice lands.” The king nodded. The steward threw open the door and the guests rose to their feet, stamping and applauding the new arrival. On the dais, Ulric the Bard stood forgotten as warriors and maidens mobbed the returning hero, desperate to sit in his presence and hear of his latest escapades. Sulking, the storyteller left the hall. In the scullery, he nursed his mead and strummed his harp disconsolately as the kitchen girls giggled and chattered about Conrad’s exploits. He needed to make a change. Otherwise, he’d always be living in the shadow of that ridiculous hero.

Why the Age of the Bards is Over for Businesses

In mid-twentieth-century America, consumers didn’t care about what a business did, they cared about what stories it told. Advertising ruled the airwaves, and bards controlled the advertising as they painted pictures of the perfect lives their products would create (think Mad Men). People knew that Maxwell House coffee wouldn’t immediately result in a calm house or perfect nails, but they didn’t care. They bought the story, not the corporation.

In today’s world, entertainment is more fragmented. It’s hard to reach all Americans with a single story: they’re too busy streaming cat videos on the Internet.  The Internet also gives consumers access to more information than their 20th-century forebears had. Suddenly, they no longer see the great and powerful Oz. Instead, they’ve glimpsed the man behind the curtain, with all of his dirt and patches. Now, a housewife can easily find out that, not only is Maxwell House unable to provide clean houses and nails, but that much modern coffee comes from sources that use child and slave labor. The myth of perfection falls quickly in the face of uncomfortable facts.  You can’t paint the picture of a perfect home when your dirty laundry is scattered on the floors.

Today, heroes matter more than bards. People don’t want to patronize smooth-tongued companies that sing sweet tales. They want to connect with actual heroes of business, people working to make the world a better place. They want Fair Trade coffee, not Maxwell House, and Tom’s Shoes, not Reebok. Researchers call these new, socially-conscious firms “Storydoers.” Storydoing firms live a set of ideals and try to make concrete changes in the world, as opposed to the storytelling firms of times past. They create their own stories, and make themselves heroes.

The Marks of the True Hero

In fantasy, there are usually marks that distinguish the true hero who is destined to save the kingdom from the powers of darkness. Things like humble roots, the patronage of a goddess, and magic swords help other people identify the hero who will change the world. Heroic, storydoing firms also have a series of marks that allow employees to see that they’re part of something bigger, and allow customers to feel that they’re part of a life-changing experience.

In 2013, a pioneering Harvard Business Review article identified the marks of a storydoer, and explained why these firms achieve heroic results: these firms want to improve lives, their leadership is committed to this goal, this story drives company policy, and embraces a cohesive worldview.  The four traits are specific enough to set storydoers apart from storytellers, but they’re broad enough so that every storydoing firm gets to be the hero of its own, totally unique, tale.

From Zero to Hero in Four Easy Steps

You’ve realized the bardic life isn’t for you. You’re ready to grasp destiny by the throat, draw your sword, and create a heroic, storydoing company. So how do you do it?

Step 1: Make improving lives your number one job.

Storydoers don’t simply define their mission in terms like increasing profits, providing value to shareholders, or expansion. Instead, they have a clear goal to improve the world and the lives of their customers. This goal doesn’t have to be a lofty, overarching one. For instance, analysts consider Target a storydoing firm, but their ‘story’ is “We bring well-designed, beautiful products to all classes of society with a great selection and affordable pricing.” Target achieves this goal by working with some of the world’s top luxury designers to create signature products for middle-class customers. For instance, Target has offered kitchen and home designs by Michael Graves, and is currently preparing for the premier of a clothing line designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. Affordable design (well, that and the new in-house cocktail bars) draws people to Target and creates legions of fanatical Target groupies.

Step 2: Believe in the story and live the story.

In a heroic firm, the story isn’t something that comes from the marketing department. It’s not simply parroted by low-level staff. In a heroic firm, corporate leaders believe the story and try to live it. For instance, Elon Musk of SpaceX clearly believes that humans were meant to explore the galaxy. His focus is geared toward getting us into space quickly and efficiently, and his employees are dedicated to the mission. SpaceX recaptures the heroic age of space exploration, because even corporate leaders are willing to take risks and dedicate their lives to the dream.

Step 3: Get your whole company involved in the quest.

Employees don’t think that the leaders of a heroic firm are crazy eccentrics who must be placated because they sign the paychecks. Instead, they buy into the story and it drives all of their actions at work. For instance, the Good Spread natural peanut butter company and its partner company Mana Nutrition attract and retain employees who are totally dedicated to the firm’s objective: ending world hunger by donating fortified peanut butter to starving children. Every corporate action, from interviews with media to the screening of new hires to college campus outreach, comes from a sense of mission: to be a part of the Good Spread story, you have to be dedicated to feeding the hungry.

Step 4: Use your story to build an entire world.

A heroic story has to engage in world-building—it needs to convey an appealing, convincing, and internally coherent worldview. It doesn’t have to be a static worldview, but it has to make sense. For instance, Toms Shoes began with a plan to give a pair of shoes to someone without shoes for every pair they sold. Customers love this story, because they’re able to take part in a heroic action by completing a mundane chore: the purchase of a new pair of shoes.

As time went on, Toms realized that shoes alone couldn’t improve the situation of people in poverty. So instead of limiting their aid to shoes, they now also provide people around the world with clean water, safe childbirth, and medical care for the visually impaired. While the scope of activity has grown, the focal point of their story hasn’t. It’s still “Buy a pair of shoes, help a person in need.”

Trading Your Bardic Pen for a Hero’s Sword

We all grew up hearing that the pen is mightier than the sword. However, that’s no longer true when it comes to storytellers and storydoers. Heroic firms triumph in today’s economic and cultural environment.

Storydoers develop a fanatical customer fan base. They get free exposure through social media. Their employees are engaged because of the sense of a bigger mission. They appeal to millennials who want to change the world through their choices. The combination of a loyal customer base, visionary leadership with a cohesive plan, and dedicated employees transform these corporations into powerhouses that exceed expectations and make a real mark on the world.

It’s time to become a storydoer. Don’t let marketing rule the roost. They should be reporting on your triumphs, not deciding your direction. Take careful stock, and figure out why you’re in business and how your company wants to improve lives. Create a new story and get your employees to buy in. Like the Wizard of Oz, you can come out from behind the curtain of your past, and soar into the air, ready for adventure and adored for your actions, not your illusions.

The Hero’s Return

The bard on the dais sighed as Ulric the Hero entered the hall. No story he could tell could compete with the one that the returning hero would weave.

Ulric pulled out his harp—even though he’d changed his business, he was still attached to the old thing. He told how he’d just returned from a voyage to the underworld. He’d rescued an imprisoned maiden with his music, made the Queen of the Dead weep bitter tears, and had returned to tell the tale. He told of how he’d sung a pack of wolves to sleep and saved the lost children of a village, how he’d earned a beggar woman money to dower her daughter, and how he’d at last returned home, ready to go wherever the king sent him. As he looked into the adoring faces of the crowd, he knew he’d found his true calling. After all, everyone loves a hero.



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