On Storytelling, Business, and Literature

This is an excerpt from Portrait of the Manager as a Young Author by Philipp Schonthaler. Portrait of the Manager as a Young Author, part of the MIT Press Untimely Meditations series, explores what happens to the relationship between business and literature when storytelling becomes a privileged form of communication for organizations.


At the Daimler AG annual general meeting on April 9, 2014 at the ICC exhibition center in Berlin, the chairman of the board and leader of Mercedes-Benz Cars gave a speech that lasted over forty-five minutes. The essence of the talk had much in common with the chairman’s legendary walrus mustache: its tremendous stolidity, the quintessence of intransigence. Dieter Zetsche’s appearance is disconcerting because it seems to contradict the company’s self-imposed cult of youth, embodied in the vehicles’ carnivorous design: his lectern is flanked by models that seem ready to pounce. Others prowl across the screen behind him as Zetsche drones on in perfect and uninterrupted monotony.

Those present are mainly of a generation for whom this brand represented the German post-war economic boom. Together with his mustache, the three-pointed star formed the one remaining link to a recent past in which it was still possible to conceive of automobility without dynamism. The new models have expunged all memory of the days when Mercedes dominated German streets with the art of downtempo driving; from the farmer in a forest green 240d to the head of state in a black sedan. Back then the Mercedes driver, so it seemed, steered their vehicle free of any prospect of a destination, and pulled their car out of the garage now and again only to show that they had already arrived.

By 2014, the retrospective only extended to the previous year, and along with the balance sheet and forecast, only the brand’s future viability seemed to be of interest. The futuristic design promised to successfully conquer new markets. However, only one moment proved memorable to those present. For the first thirty-two minutes of his speech, the head manager seems not to suspect that he might curry the shareholders’ favor through any other means than facts and figures — no jokes, no irony, no anecdotes. Even successes are rattled off with the same expressionless countenance, without even conceding a smile.

But now the chairman allows himself a theatrical interlude that is unique in the report, which so far has been free of rhetoric. The theme is safety, the core of the company’s brand. The vehicle safety studies are excellent, “but more impressive than any statistic are the many letters and emails that we receive each year from our customers on the topic of safety.” He’s brought one of these letters with him, he announces, his right hand sliding into the left interior pocket of his suit coat to pull out a folded letter, which he proceeds to read. Nothing about this moment suggests he’s a car enthusiast except the way he holds the letter-sized sheet on the left and right, as you would grip a steering wheel. Hardly has he finished the last line when the letter disappears back into his pocket, near to his heart.

The scene lasts 34 seconds. It is utterly unspectacular, and nonetheless noteworthy. Obviously the chairman could simply have continued reading out his speech, which is still lying before him on the lectern. The same lines he read from the letter are printed in cursive script at the point where the speech breaks off. By materially doubling the text, by reaching into his pocket, he made a leap that no one could have expected of him — stepping onto the stage of rhetoric, of theater, and of fiction. The scene is a simple one, but its efficiency, which puts any presentation of statistics to shame, is impressive above all because of the minimal means employed. The letter’s content is largely inconsequential. A customer “Joan” thanks the company because he and his wife survived a “terrible” accident for which they were not at fault, and walked away unscathed thanks to the new CLA. The story told in the letter only repeats what the chairman documented in general way just before by means of statistics (“the chance of getting in a bad accident in a C Class is forty percent lower on average than in another comparable model.”) Apparently, the letter was supposed to communicate something else.

His hand on the left side of his chest alerts us to the fact that we’ve come to the heart of the speech. All of the numbers, statistics, and strategies are necessary; the shareholders’ presence compels the manager to list them. But now he takes half a minute to share a heartfelt matter. That’s also why he puts the letter back instead of laying it on the lectern, where it might have slipped between the pages of the speech. The separation of the documents is categorical — and sacred. The one text has nothing to do with the other, although their words are identical. (Incidentally, with this gesture, he forces the attendees to guess what will happen to the letter after the meeting. Will he toss it in the trash? Will he show it to friends or perhaps his wife, or even keep it with other letters in his office or at home — and wouldn’t that suggest that he takes it out from time to time in a moment of euphoria or melancholia, and reads it again?) The company and shareholders’ expectations for profitability and the future are also forgotten at this moment, instead the focus lies on the all-too-human: following a decisive experience, one person turns to another out of gratitude. One of them happens to be the chairman of a global corporation, and we now learn first-hand that his heart is in the right place: with the customers, who are spread throughout the whole world. The business is massive, and in the next year it wants to gain a greater market share (the return on sales should be nine percent, the return on equity at least seventeen percent), but thanks to this bit of theater, we know that the customers are being heard. That’s why the chairman reads the letter. He doesn’t want to bring attention to “Joan”; his only concern is demonstrating to the shareholders his own limitless attentiveness, which takes even an individual, insignificant voice like that of “Joan” to heart.

One could write a swansong to the letter in the electronic age. But as early as the 1970s, the influential management researcher Henry Mintzberg had noted that managers aren’t fond of letters. As a means of communication, they’re too slow and unspecific in their directives, displaying “the dullness of a medium that lacks immediate feedback.” But in this situation, the antiquated medium is superior to any electronic means of communication. In the next phase, the chairman talks about the future of mobility, “Mercedes-Benz Intelligent Drive,” and the gradual introduction of autonomous cars. The way it looks, analog culture can celebrate another victory on the ICC stage in Berlin. That’s the significance of the letter that’s more moving than any email. It’s an artifact that’s passed through the hands of individual people to connect them in this unique way: the customer, probably Spanish or Mexican but perhaps American, with the chairman. By sharing the letter with the stockholders, they also become the audience and witness to an intimate event whose physical, presence-substantiating quality proves all the more effective in the digital era. The walrus mustache is just a banal stage prop, but during the reading of the anachronistic media, it’s suddenly just right, nearly making us forget that it’s theater we’re attending. The shareholders leave the scene completely alert, and with spontaneous applause.

To learn more about Portrait of the Manager as a Young Author, click here.