True Story: A book review by Bob Morris

True StoryTrue Story: How to Combine Story and Action to Transform Your Business
Ty Montague
Harvard Business Review Press (2013)

How to avoid organizational metastasis, especially during the Age of Connected Consumers

If you wish to create or increase demand for whatever you offer, prospective buyers will probably base their purchase decision on how you answer these three questions:

1. “Who are you?”: Are you reliable, dependable, ethical, etc.?
2. “What do you do?”: Can you solve my specific problem?

And most importantly,

3. “Why should I care?”: What makes you different? Better?

Most marketers are very adept when answering the first two but frequently stumble when attempting to answer the third because they lack the storyteller’s skills and thus cannot articulate what Ty Montague characterizes as “the four truths “of a metastory: the truth about the participants (your prospective customers), the truth about the protagonist (your company), the truth about the stage (the world your company shares with its customers), and the truth about the quest (“the aspirational mission of your company, brand, or product beyond making money…the higher ideal or human goal you have as a business”). These four truths serve as the pillars, the foundation of a metastory: not of what you have been or are now but what your company wants to become as a business. The ultimate objective is to achieve metacognition, a high level of “knowing about knowing.”

I first encountered the term in graduate school when exploring several of Aristotle’s works in which he shares his thoughts about metacognition, incubation, idea generation and association, creative problem solving, He was among the first to recognize the significance of intuition and self-actualization within the creative process. I was reminded of that extended encounter with Aristotle’s insights as I worked my way through Montague’s explanation of “how to combine story and action to transform your business.” It is at least as important for your people to gain and enrich metacognition as it is for your customers to do so.

There was a time, for example, when everyone who then worked for JCPenney knew about James Cash Penney and his first store, “The Golden Rule,” in Kemmerer, Wyoming. There was also a time when everyone who worked for McDonald’s knew about Ray Kroc’s first store in Des Plaines, Illinois. He cleaned all its windows inside and out each day and patrolled the immediate area to pick up any litter. The same can be said of Dave Thomas and Wendy’s. Yes, these are folk tales but they also have great power when affirming values of importance to employees as well as those whom they are privileged to serve.

These are among the dozens of passages of special interest and value to me:

o Metastory: A Definition, and, Why Does Metastory Matter in Business? (8-11)
o The Strange Tale of Hummer (25-29)
o The Story of De Beers and the Right-Hand Ring (46-50)
o The Four Truths and Metastory (50-56)
o Researching the Participants in Your Story (63-65)
o Looking at the Problem Through the Eyes of Participants 67-69)
o News Corporation Enters the Education Business (79-82)
o Big Challenges (84-87)

“Five Things You Need to Do to Discover the Truth About Your [fill in blank]

o Participants (74-76)
o Protagonist (103-108)
o Stage (126-130)
o Quest (154-159)
o Your Metastory and Create Your Action Map (192-194)

o Putting the “Doing” in Storydoing: Creating Your Action Map (167-169)
o Grind Action Principles (181-183)
o Storydoing and Leadership (202-204)
o Apply the Lessons to Your Business (205-208)

Montague correctly stresses the importance of both a compelling narrative and anchoring it in human experience with deeds as well as words. That’s what Thomas Edison had in mind when insisting that “vision without execution is hallucination.” When reviewing the Key Concepts to Take Away from Reading This Book, Montague observes, “Storydoing, not storytelling, is the most efficient way to tell your company’s story today — compelling stories are what people like to talk about to each other. A company that knows its own metastory and can translate it to action will thrive. Companies that don’t will struggle.” It is imperative to keep in mind that sharing a compelling and truthful metastory without bringing it to life with action is insufficient. Worse yet, sharing a compelling but dishonest metastory reveals or expedites organizational metastasis, especially now in the Age of Connected Consumers.

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