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The Secret Joy of Corporate Histories

By Steven Ujifusa

For me, one of the great joys of writing a corporate history is getting people telling funny stories about themselves. Usually, my interviews start with formulaic questions: "Tell me about how you got into the business?" "How did you see the organization evolve during your time with the company?" “Where did you grow up?” But an interview isn’t really successful until I’ve got my subject chuckling, remembering the time when. . . . That’s when I know we’re getting somewhere.

 

The trick of the corporate historian is to bring out the subject’s inner storyteller. Including these anecdotes is what makes the difference between a dry account of the company’s financial performance and a dramatic, gripping narrative. Statistics and formal history can be gleaned from company records and newsletters. The best interviews have jazz-like improvisation, when the true spirit of an individual—and their connection to the company and their colleagues—comes to light. Sometimes, what is meant to be a 10-minute interview morphs into an exchange lasting an hour or so.

 

The humor often comes from overcoming adversity, or being inspired by those who did. One prominent lawyer I interviewed loved using Israeli diplomat Abba Eban’s quip with his clients when they were feeling worn down by a formidable opponent: “They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

 

When thinking about commissioning a corporate history, ask yourself (and your employees): what were the moments of conflict, joy, adversity, and just plain silliness? How were they resolved, and how did they help the organization move forward? Of course, you want the interview subjects to be ready to talk at length about the long hours, the determination, the transformative initiatives, and the indisputable results. But also encourage them to share the silly stuff, especially from the times that tried their souls.

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