John Simmons - business writing legend, co-founder of creative writing for business courses Dark Angels, and good friend of The Table - talks to us about story. What it really means to brands, how our actions shape our stories, and the time he helped Guinness to tell their most important tale...
To pick up where you left off: we don’t shape our stories, our stories shape us. This is true but there are various subtleties at work here, because we are not simply helpless recipients of our own stories. The actions we take – perhaps driven by previous experiences – shape new stories.
I’ve explored this area for some time, particularly in the world of brands, and have grown ever more convinced by the need for stories – because they reveal a deeper truth – as well as more irritated by their misappropriation by those following the latest brand fashion. Stories are not leaden words describing mission, vision and values, tortured into a strangely shaped ‘brand model’.
“Brands are stories” my Guinness client observed many years ago after reading my book We, Me, Them & It. Indeed. So he asked me to find the stories that would demonstrate the essence of the Guinness brand. So began an exciting journey of research and discovery, involving talking to people with long knowledge of the Guinness brand as marketers. And, yes, it did involve some of the beery atmosphere you wrote about before, because you have to understand the product as a consumer. “Any excuse will do” as an old colleague of mine used to say. The journey also involved digging through archives, reading books, visiting Dublin’s Storehouse and realising that Guinness has an extraordinary history, a history that has shaped its development.
All this led back to the origins of Guinness and its foundation in 1759 by Arthur Guinness. He had quite a tale to tell but it had been almost lost in time. Now, as a result, you see 1759 associated with all things Guinness. Particularly important was the story of Arthur defying the Dublin Corporation who wanted to deny him the right to use Dublin’s water. So he leapt onto the barricades to stick up for what he believed in.
Victory came. Savour the moment. Triumphs, or even quiet moments of reflection, are worth the wait. Your Guinness will be ready soon. That story could be seen as one in a long line of stories that provided the brand’s narrative theme that has shaped Guinness, and we collected them in a book that was a great pleasure to write – and hopefully to read.
Fast forward to now. I’m writing this in Zurich airport on my way back from three days working with Swiss Films. Different brands have different stories and you need to find ways to tell them that are appropriate to the time and the context. One of the things I did in Zurich was get the team working on a particular form of storytelling, involving mobile phone cameras and single intriguing sentences, so that they could hone their storytelling skills.
Why? Because in the end we also have to shape stories, or at least use words and images to set them before readers and audiences. That process takes craft, it takes skill and you have to understand the creative demands of storytelling not simply be a supine channel for the stories that shape the brand. We all, if we work with brands, need to excel at storytelling so we have to practise and love the craft. That’s why I run Dark Angels courses to help people develop those skills – and why I keep pushing myself to write more fiction.
Actually ‘pushing’ is not quite right. I love doing it; I’m pulled towards it. My new novel Spanish Crossings comes out in April and I found the process of writing it completely absorbing and also enlightening in terms of the work I do with brands.