Don’t just tell stories – create meanings and purpose


Human beings are creatures of tales and stories. Indeed, one of the most important measures of any leader or salesperson nowadays is storytelling ability. Stories motivate us and change us, their effect on our behavior and judgment far surpasses that of non-fiction: when we encounter a story, we let our guard down and become immersed in its world, allowing it to shape ours.

However, not all stories are equal. Some affect us for a short while, some end up doing more harm than good, while some bring about lasting change and purpose. When you tell a story, you are wielding a powerful tool, so wield it responsibly.

The small stories

Some stories are meant to cause you to do something right now. Advertisement and sales of small goods are typical examples of this. There is art in creating the fleeting emotion that separates you from your money, but these are not the types of stories I’m interested in, and even the most successful of them have hardly any long-term effect, not even when “I’m on a horse” remains a meme years after being invented.

These small stories usually do not create a sense of purpose, but rather rely on a less-lasting bit of emotion to motivate immediate action.

The stories that rationalize the status quo

There are stories that are downright dangerous. We have a remarkable ability to rationalize and explain our actions, and many companies have fallen to the stories that explain how the status quo is perfectly fine. Is your engineering prowess indeed all it takes to remain the best mobile phone maker forever? Is the recession really the only reason your company has not been able to get back on track after years and years of trying? Company turnaround projects typically start years later than they could, because we are so good at telling stories to hide real issues.

When the core of your story is how things are fine as they are, it is time to take a deep breath and think. Life is not about standing still, usually you are either progressing or declining, and satisfaction with the status quo usually already means that you are declining and need to find a new story to aspire to.

The stories that change the world by providing purpose

Finally, there are stories that change the world. Actually, these stories can be the most dangerous of them all. Religions and ideologies are stories full of purpose that have had both incredible and disastrous effects on the world.

Our beliefs are becoming increasingly fragmented as the common stories of our societies are dwindling, and we do not share the same meanings and purpose the way we used to. The great narratives are not shared the same way anymore.

However, there is a lot of room for smaller narratives, for smaller groups to create common meanings and to share a common purpose. A group with a shared purpose can be a single company, for example, even if it can no longer be an entire nation.

Perhaps the people at your company yearn for the vast and endless sea, or will put a man on the moon. With the right story, created together, you can share this purpose, strengthen its hold on your minds, and use it to attract others who want to achieve it to join your journey. There is a story about the purpose of every company – and realizing what it can be can also change your company.

Case study: The purpose of an automation company

I once worked on factory automation. You know, manufacturing is that dull little place stuck in time you go to in order to make a living. It’s not fancy like Apple, or video games, or advertising. It involves big machines, cutting metal, and it’s dirty at times. No one really cares about your work, it is just one of those relics of the past that we have not yet been able to rid ourselves of to fully focus on playing Pokémon Go.

When you work on factory automation, it’s even worse. You’re doing much of the same, but at the same time you’re taking even that livelihood from other people. Those darn robots, taking away jobs.

On the other hand, that’s not how it has to be. Those robots are not really taking jobs away. Manual labor will never be the cheapest in rich countries. Manual labor is not the cheapest even in China nowadays, it’s all Vietnam or Bangladesh or what not, and it will keep moving like an orchestra of crickets from one land to the next. Jobs based on manual labor alone are never safe, not even in the low-cost countries of today.

What if there was a way to keep manufacturing profitable, no matter where you are? There is! Through automation, it is possible to manufacture close to your customers, to manufacture where you want to, instead of where you have to. This is what work on factory automation is about. It’s about keeping those factories alive, keeping them as part of their communities, keeping jobs and livelihood where they are.

Instead of closing down the plants and moving them ever so often to wherever the cheapest labor is, automation makes it possible to keep the plants running where they are. You get to choose and not just follow the inevitable.

Automation also makes work cleaner and safer for the people. Let the machines do the dirty work while people control the machines and perform tasks that require judgment and not mere repetition.

It is this world – a world where manufacturing can prosper all over the globe and where people who work in manufacturing get to fully use their skills in safe, non-repetitive work – that I worked so hard to create. It’s not old-fashioned. It’s not stuck in time. It’s not Apple-level exciting – it’s better than that!

Stories change the way we look at our lives

As the above case study hopefully illustrates, stories hold a lot of power. Are you living a dull, old-fashioned life, or are you working to make the world a better place? A single story can change the meaning of what you do from one to another. Stories are too powerful tools to be wasted on simple emotional manipulation. At best, they can create a sense of purpose that can change the world.


Photo: Storytelling by Pedro @ Flickr (CC)

Author: Ville Kilkku

I run my own consultancy business, so if you find the ideas on this blog intriguing, contact me at or call me at +358 50 588 5043 and we can discuss how I can help you solve your business problems. I am currently based in Finland, but work globally.