Stories before the fall

Stories are wonderful things. What sounds like a heroic quest can often turn out to be a tragedy, as the current unravelling of superstar blood-testing start-up Theranos has become. If you’ve been living under a rock reading those rare business publications un-obsessed with Silicon Valley, the sorry story can is summarised well in BBC article Bad blood: The rise and fall of Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes.

In The Financial Times, Andrew Hill notes the adoration by magazine cover that the company and its storytelling, story-embodying CEO attracted.

After decades of male dominance on the newsstand, Ms Holmes made an irresistible cover story. She was the bright young upstart disrupting an ugly oligopoly of laboratories that were allegedly blocking US citizens’ quest to find out about their own health. This tale, which she told repeatedly at conferences, on television, and in press interviews was one many people, journalists included, wanted to believe.

Hill points out that Inc magazine had a cover calling Holmes “The New Steve Jobs” in the same month that investigative reporters from the Wall Street Journal went public with an analysis of serious problems at the company.

Magazines don’t care if their cover-story coronation of the Next Great CEO, or The New Queen or King of Silicon Valley is prophetic or just plain wrong. The story is king. the story lives in the moment. And with the fall of Theranos, the story is still strong and the descent – as celebrity gossip writers know – is every bit as attractive to readers as the rise. Accuracy, while not irrelevant is secondary to that and as for considered analysis of what might actually happen. Then again, we’re less accurate than monkeys throwing darts at stock market data, aren’t we?

Inc. and its start-up cheering kind aren’t there to look deep into the dark hearts of businesses and tell us what might go wrong. They are bought by entrepreneurs – both actual and aspiring – to give them a shot of optimism.

Then again, maybe too much too much positive attention and media cheerleading could be a useful indicator that a company is doomed. Andrew Hill notes:

A 2007 study of two decades of Businessweek, Fortune and Forbes covers found positive stories presaged a fall in the company’s stock price, and vice versa

What is novel is the speed with which today’s cover stars rise and fall. In their haste to expand, companies cut corners or exaggerate advances. “Fast growth stresses processes, controls and the leadership itself,” says Matt Nixon, author of Pariahs, a book about hubris and organisational crises.

To a degree, she was only following the template for marketing success. “The well-told story erases scepticism by wrapping [its] meaning inside an emotion,” points out Robert McKee, superstar lecturer on the art of the story in filmmaking, in Storynomics, a new book about how to use storytelling skills in a “post-advertising world”.

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Antony Mayfield
I'm Antony Mayfield - to find out more about me take a look at my LinkedIn profile (see the button on the home page). You can contact me by email at antony [dot] mayfield [at] gmail [dot] com. Google