African Accessories, Inc. and the Story-Goal Memo: Business, narrative, and oral communication

Editor’s Note: This GWF2019 Advance Paper was written by the Catalysts for the Orality Issue Network as an overview of the topic to be discussed at the related session at the Global Workplace Forum 2019 held in Manila, Philippines. 

Tom set down the magazine article about Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO. Bezos had banned PowerPoint presentations from his executive leadership meetings in favor of narrative presentations.

Tom took another sip of coffee and thought, ‘Narrative presentations? Really? Why would someone as successful as Bezos opt for the meandering, indirect, rambling of a story when bullet points were so much clearer?’ Immediately, Tom thought of the play that had been recently performed at his local church. It has been a performance of God creating a wild and beautiful world, climaxing with man and woman. The play had been well done and seeing the familiar story acted out had impacted many people, from grandparents down to young children. But stories can be messy. Tom noted. He told himself that he much preferred bullet point presentations, which kept information nice and tidy. Tom sipped his coffee again. He needed to think this through for he had to admit Bezos was smart and furthermore, he had really enjoyed the play.

Tom could not help but musing as he walked over to his white board, ‘what was so powerful about a story?’ He loved using the white board for brainstorming ideas. The article on Bezos had shown that cognitive neuroscience claimed the human brain was wired for stories. Tom was thinking about human beings as homo narrens when Elizabeth walked in the door of his office.

‘Tom, we have a small problem with the recent Goals-Outlined memo.’

Tom raised an eyebrow as he took another sip of coffee, nodding for his colleague to proceed.

Elizabeth plunged on. ‘None of our selling agents can remember our quarterly goals except Stella. And Stella admitted that she did not fully understand the meaning of ‘Increase gross profitability by 12 percent within 180 days’.’

African Accessories, or AA as it was often called in-house, was the company that Tom headed. Elizabeth was one of the executive team members. AA often employed women, many of whom had previously struggled with various hardships, as agents for the company’s handmade crafts, handbags, and African jewelry. While the company carried a strong social-concern ethos, it was a for-profit business that had made in-roads into the higher-end markets and the women agents were making good money. Tom, Elizabeth, and the rest of the leadership team had really wanted the entire company, including the agents, to know the company’s recently refurbished vision and mission statement. Furthermore, everyone wanted to make more money. To cultivate this team enthusiasm, Tom was encouraging everyone to memorize the quarterly goals. The executive team had recently prepared a ten-page printed memo for everyone in the company that outlined and explained the goals.

‘Really?’ Tom looked across the desk at Elizabeth. ‘We didn’t make it too complicated, did we?’

It was a question, but something intuitively told him that the executive team may have overshot the rest of the company’s educational and communication preferences. Most of the selling agents had very limited, if any, education. AA provided extensive training for new agents so, regardless of their background, they could learn to handle numbers, inventory, and cash. There had been a few problem-situations, but the fact that AA was making money meant that agents worked hard to learn and keep their position.

‘It may not be a big deal, Tom but I thought you ought to know that Stella reported to me yesterday that she was not sure if anyone had read all the way through the Goals-Outlined memo nor did she know of any of the agents who could repeat all three of our quarterly goals.’ Elizabeth paused and raised her eyebrows. ‘How committed are you to every agent being able to recite AA’s company goals?’

Tom’s own eyes narrowed slightly as he answered. ‘Very committed. The more we share in this enterprise throughout the company, the more successful AA is going to be. The question is: how do we help our agents learn our goals?’

Elizabeth smiled a fake smile and added, ‘Tom, it’s not just the agents. No one in accounting knows them either, and I’d guess it’s the same in production.’ Tom sighed. He knew she was right.

Setting his coffee mug down on his desk he saw the Bezos article. Lifting his head, he smiled up at Elizabeth.

‘I think I have an idea,’ Tom said. He walked over to the whiteboard and wrote in big bold letters, Outline-Goals. Then he explained, ‘In spite of my preference for clear, crisp bullet points, not everyone loves a good outline presentation.’ He crossed out Outline-Goals and wrote Story-Goals. Setting the marker down, he looked at her and smiled, saying, ‘What if we story our goals?’

Elizabeth had a puzzled look on her face, looking at him and then at the board. Before she could ask her questions, Tom began to get a flash of inspiration.

‘Here.’ Scooping up the article, he handed it to her even as he politely ushered her to the door. ‘Let me work on it and I’ll get back to you by the afternoon.’

Tom skipped back to his whiteboard and began musing to himself. How could we write AA’s company’s goals in a story format?

He was not much of a writer, but he immediately thought of Beatrice Amuga’s story. She had a horrific personal story of domestic violence and abuse, but she had started coming to Tom’s church and eventually ended up as a selling agent. She had only been with the company for a year, but in the last two quarters she had outperformed her fellow agents by between eight to 13 percent. She could be aggressive but was always respectful, and she could intuit a sale. Tom had heard her tell her personal story and how Jesus has transformed her life. Furthermore, he had spent numerous lunches with her and Stella, the senior sales agent, trying to understand Beatrice’s surprising professional success story.

Shifting back to the computer at his desk, Tom began typing, surprised to find the narrative memo came easily. He weaved both elements of Beatrice’s personal story in with her success at AA along with the company’s intentional goals for improving sales. By lunchtime, he surprised himself by having the first draft of a narrative memo for AA and shot off a quick email to Stella to obtain Beatrice’s permission.

After lunch, he read the story to Elizabeth who suggested several adjustments, although overall, she was positive. After listening to the whole narrative memo, she leaned back in her chair and made a surprising comment.

‘You know Tom, it reminds me of the play last week in church.

Tom smiled and nodded. Elizabeth and her husband, Andrew attended the same church as Tom and his family.

She continued by saying, ‘Andrew and I were both so impacted by that performance. Of course we know the story but to see how they presented God walking and talking with Adam and Eve, it was like they were close friends. They had a real person-to-person relationship with their Creator. I don’t think I had ever thought about God just chatting the afternoon away with the first man and the first woman.’

Tom nodded again, reminded of how he had also been impacted by the conversational intimacy that had been portrayed between God and the first humans.

‘Do you think people can know God and even each other like that today?’ Tom asked quietly, almost to himself.

This time it was Elizabeth’s turn to smile as she got up and headed for the door, ‘Well, they kept saying that story was God’s story and our story is a part that story. So, I imagine so.’

By late afternoon, Tom had sent AA’s first Story-Goals memo out to the entire company, whether via email or hard copy. ‘Jeff Bezos is not the only one who can write stories’, thought Tom as he erased his notes off the white board. As he erased Story-Goals, he could not stop thinking of the idea that his story was a part of God’s great big story. He wondered if maybe there was something more to this story idea than just good business.

*****

Two weeks later as Tom walked out of a meeting, Elizabeth flagged his attention.

‘Tom, we have a new problem with the goals.’

Tom smiled a wary half-smile to his colleague as he ushered Elizabeth into his office. Elizabeth ignored both the offer of a seat and a cup of coffee.

‘Tom, the Story-Goals memo is a success. Stella told me yesterday how much she enjoyed it. She and Beatrice were so inspired, they are trying again to set up an appointment with BIGSHOP. They have a lunch appointment tomorrow with the VP of sales.’

‘BIGSHOP!’ Tom nearly shouted, spilling his coffee in excitement. BIGSHOP was a new, high-end shopping mall but had refused AA’s attempts to market their products as BIGSHOP had relied on another accessories dealer.

‘Wow!’ Said Tom. ‘That would be a game changer. If we got into BIGSHOP. . . .’ Tom trailed off, his mind running, before bringing his attention back to Elizabeth. ‘Do they want you to go with them?’

‘Tom, you are missing the point. No, I’ll go if there is a second meeting but what I am telling you is that your story version of the goals went over well. Stella and Beatrice were saying it has helped them imagine the future possibilities of AA but it also helped them imagine what needed to happen through their sales to make such a vision possible. Furthermore, Samuel from accounting and Scovia from production were talking about the story-goals this morning at break. I think it was a hit.’

Tom grinned widely, before frowning. ‘Three cheers for stories inspiring the imagination. So what is the problem?’

Elizabeth continued,Stella reported that most of the agents can’t read the story. So she and Beatrice are spending a lot of time reading and re-reading the Story-Goals memo and then answering questions.’

Tom twitched his lips silently as he thought. He walked over to his whiteboard, uncapping a marker. ‘So putting the goals into a story-format helped. It sounds like it did both with agents as well as even the more educated in-house staff.’

He wrote while he talked: Story-Goals.

‘The story had communicated in way the bullet point version of the goals had not. Maybe Bezos was on to something.’

He continued. ‘But some people do not feel comfortable reading.’ He wrote Printed in front of Story-Goals drawing a line through it: Printed Story-Goals. ‘The truth is that none of our agents would ever feel comfortable in Bezos’ exec meetings.’

Elizabeth interrupted his thoughts. ‘I can just assign Stella to read to all the agents at their meeting on Mondays.’ She kept talking but Tom was no longer listening.

He remembered reading the article on Bezos and how what popped into his mind had been the creation drama. ‘The story-goal format seemed to overcome the bullet point outline problem; but something else was needed to overcome the inability to read problem.’ He thought again about the creation play. ‘The play had been a story – that did not require any reading.’ Suddenly Tom wrote: Oral Performance.

A mischievous smile spread across his face as he turned to his colleague. ‘Elizabeth, the exec team is going to perform the story-goals next Monday at the seller agents meeting.’

It only took one look for Elizabeth to realize her boss was not joking.

*****

‘Tom, we have another problem.’ Elizabeth marched in without knocking on Tom’s office door. Tom knew his colleague well enough and something on her face told him that this was a good problem.

‘Oh,’ Tom said as he smiled, ‘please do tell.’

‘Both production and accounting want the exec team to perform the Story-Goals drama for them.’ This time, Elizabeth could not resist a smile.

Tom couldn’t help laughing. ‘Are you serious?’

‘I sure am. They all heard about the performance at the sellers’ meeting. Everyone’s talking about AA’s story-goals. I have heard the story at break, at lunch, and I even overheard two women discussing it in the bathroom. And, did you hear that this week’s sales are up eight percent?’

Tom tried to put on a serious face. ‘Well, that success may not necessarily have been because of the company’s story.’

‘Fair enough,’ Elizabeth played along, ‘but Stella said the agents have been talking and talking about the performance. It’s like for the first time, they all realized they have a pretty important part in AA’s story. They have been arriving earlier since the performance, and she said they are on track to break their store visit record this week.

Tom picked up his marker and walked back to the whiteboard.

‘So story communicates something that bullet points or propositional statements do not.’ He wrote the STORY in big bold letters. ‘That seemed to be what we learned first. Story captures the imagination.’ He wrote IMAGINATION in bold letters before continuing.

‘But story and imagination, when communicated through print, are not accessible to everyone in our company – perhaps not all our customers either. Nevertheless, when we orally performed the story, everyone understood.’ Tom wrote ORAL PERFORMANCE in bold letters as he kept talking. ‘Furthermore, there seems to have been a certain inspiration, transformation even within the company’s personnel that never has happened as a result of our printed Goals-Outline memos.’

Elizabeth stepped up so she could see the board clearly. The words STORY, IMAGINATION, and ORAL PERFORMANCE stood out. She tapped her finger on ORAL PERFORMANCE and said, ‘I think part of what makes the difference between this and a printed version of the story-goals is the physical body.’

Tom gave her a curious but confused look.

She explained. When people’s bodies are involved in communicating, it just impacts you more. It’s like you get the message in a different, more vivid way.’ She paused and then elaborated.

‘Remember how powerful the church Creation play was for all of us. We all knew that story but you could picture yourself walking and talking with God in a different way by watching it performed. Furthermore, last week Stella was traveling with three of the agents. She took the video of the story-goals drama and showed it to the agents on the trip at several points. This morning she made an interesting comment about how the agents, while appreciating her playing it off her computer, felt like it was not the same as seeing Mr. Tom in person pretending to be Stella. They liked it better in person.’

Elizabeth was gaining confidence so she continued. ‘I think the oral performance offers something that not even the digital technology can offer. The oral communication is embodied; it has a power because people are face to face.’

Taking the marker from Tom’s hand, she wrote in bold type: Body.

Now the board looked like this:

Story Imagination

Oral Performance Body

Tom spoke slowly, thinking as he spoke. ‘I guess what we are learning is that, while stories do not necessarily have to be written, when we get our bodies involved in the oral communication process, the imagination is affected in a different way than when I just read a message or even watch it on my screen. Therefore, something happens through oral, narrative communication that does not necessarily happen in the same way through using outlines or even printed texts.’

‘Tom, I think we need to perform the Goals-Memo drama at the second BIGSHOP meeting.’ Elizabeth spoke with an excitement in her eyes.

‘What?’ Tom asked with a surprised look on his face but even as he looked at her, a slow smile spread across his own mouth.

‘They would never expect that at a sales meeting. Do you think we can get the Beatrice and Stella in on it?’

‘No question. If narrative, imagination, and body are all a part of oral performance and we have seen how the oral communication impacts people, then why would AA’s story not impact its potential customers.’

Elizabeth paused, tapping the marker lightly against the white board as she thought. Slowly she spoke but her attention had shifted from BIGSHOP, ‘I am thinking about Beatrice’s story. Part of the reason the Story-Goals memo was so powerful was because we all know her personal story. And now, through AA, God is writing a new victorious story in her life. It’s like God’s story, and Beatrice’s story and AA’s story are all wrapped together. I wonder if that is what they were trying to communicate through the creation play. God is the Master Storyteller and he is wants to write our personal stories into his grand, master story of redemption and victory.’

Tom let out a low whistle before saying, ‘I had never thought about how a business story can intersect with our personal stories, all of which can be a part of God’s master story of salvation.’

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