Last night I attended the launch of my latest “book” – this one, the story of the Victoria Cross with particular emphasis on the 22 New Zealanders who have been awarded the country’s highest military commendation. It was a commission for New Zealand Post, one of a number I’ve done for them over the years on a range of subjects.
In fact, last year was a bit of a year for these larger writing projects because I was also involved in a beautifully-finished corporate history of the Pryde Group, a Hong Kong based company which owns the world’s largest windsurfing and kitesurfing brands.
People have asked me over the years why I get such a kick out of this kind of work. It seems such a long way from the strategic and communications work that Audacity does. And I think it’s because projects of this scale require you to be so curious, to look for the smallest humanity in even the broadest story. You need to find a structure that is robust enough to hold all the vital information, but at the same time, open doors off the main corridor – just to take the reader on fascinating side-trips that are completely self-contained.
There’s a lovely side-story in the Pryde book for example about a man who somewhat foolishly pokes his finger into a cage with a hot-and-bothered ferret in it. Guess what happens next? And what does that have to do with building the Neil Pryde brand? Nothing. It’s just a very human tale built around a surreal situation – what were all those cages of ferrets doing stacked up in the sun outside a fish restaurant in a little factory town in China? We’ll never know. (And perhaps that’s just as well.)
I find stories are most powerful when they mix the chronological with the anecdotal, when they have a powerful sense of progress but then dart off down an alley just so you can have a quick peek. Those side-tracks are not distractions. On the contrary, they add an invaluable sense of dimension. What made the Victoria Cross heroes human was the little things they did or said. That’s what revealed them as men and as New Zealanders. That’s what someone reading the book will really identify with.
The principle of chronology/anecdote is actually much more broadly applicable. In the case of stories about brands, for example, chronology provides credibility, logic, structure and of course direction but anecdotes build legends. They are the high-touch, human side; the behind-the-scenes reveal on what really goes on.
As you shape the story of your brand, you need to allow both to flourish. It’s vital that there is a grounded, prosaic framework that keeps everything in place and that reports to your biggest plans. But remember, it is the anecdotes that foster engagement and humanity. They are the proof that you are keeping your humanity. They are the little jewels that foster recall and community in the tea-rooms across your organisation, and at the pub after work.
Without them, you will quickly lose your sparkle.