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Barritt: From Shakespeare to Goldman Sachs: Characters Drive a Good Story

Hans Neleman | Getty Images

The very public resignationof a mid-level Goldman Sachs executive – which erupted on The New York Times Op Ed page Wednesday – has all the elements of a rippin’ good yarn.

Fans of both potboilers and highbrow drama need look no further than Page One to find the roles and techniques of classic storytelling, leveraged for generations by playwrights, novelists and filmmakers. The Goldman Sachs storyhas it all – a lone protagonist demanding accountability from a powerful entity, with a healthy dose of personal sacrifice, greed, bureaucracy, questionable ethics and dramatic revelations. Think Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Julia Robert’s Erin Brockovich or George Clooney’s Michael Clayton and you get the idea.

While we can’t begin to know the real details and motivation behind the Goldman Sachs story, it is clear that the major players have quickly fallen into defined roles in the daily drama the news media crafts each day. Complex narratives are distilled into broad concepts for easy audience consumption – black and white, good versus evil, guilty or innocent.

In reading the coverage, one can’t help but notice that the narrative offered by the individual employee is far more compelling than the corporate voice. It’s not surprising. More often than not, corporations will typically find themselves placed in the role of antagonist. The situation gets aggravated when the company defaults to “corporate speak” in press coverage. The audience automatically identifies with the individual and the emotional appeal of that deeply personal point-of-view. The corporation, by comparison, sounds cold and sterile. And, the classic roles of hero and villain are reinforced once again.

It’s too bad, because corporations are actually made up of individuals who believe in what they do and have a deep personal commitment to their work. But corporations need to realize that they are always speaking to an audience which seeks an emotional connection, be it in fiction, drama or the real-life media. A press statement does more to reinforce stereotypical storytelling archetypes than it does to advance the drama to a mutually satisfying conclusion. A deeply personal response does far more to captivate an audience.

If you find yourself cast in the next media drama de jour, which role would you like to play?

Tom Barritt is a partner at Ketchum and is managing director of Ketchum’s Communications Training Network. For more than 20 years, he has worked with brands and corporations to find their voice in all types of public communication interactions.

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