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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

THE POWER OF STORYTELLING:
WHY YOUR FAMILY’S FUTURE DEPENDS ON PRESERVING ITS PAST

What’s your story?

Storytelling has been part of human culture since the dawn of time. It has been used to pass on traditions, bind communities together, and warn of upcoming threats. But only recently have experts started to grasp its ability to power and preserve family businesses.

We are all too familiar with the dim prospects for sustaining a family’s wealth through multiple generations. However, few recognize that the hazards that many associate with squandering of money—reckless spending, poor investments, or questionable estate planning—rarely lie at heart of the demise.

However, leading experts and practitioners are now taking note. In their recent book Freedom from Wealth, Charles Lowenhaupt and Donald Trone dedicate a chapter to the importance of family legacy and values. “‘Legacy’ takes us together as a family through history, and ‘values’ bind us forevermore,” they write. “Those words give perpetuity to the family just as trust now give perpetuity to the wealth.”

In a research paper for clients, GenSpring listed communicating “family history and culture” as one of the 25 best practices of multi-generational families. Stressing the merits of family cohesiveness, GenSpring references James Hughes in noting that “Families who recognize with ritual the important passages in their member’s lives seem to fare better at overcoming the shirtsleeves proverb.”

Every family has remarkable stories: stories of success and failure, hardships and recovery, lessons learned and long forgotten. These are not just fanciful recollections of days gone by. As Charles Collier argues in Wealth in Families, the sharing of family stories is the first organizing principle to creating effective families. Stories “give meaning to the experience of the family,” Collier writes. According to Collier, there are many purposes to telling the stories: “To gain a sense of the family’s uniqueness, to connect with the source of the family’s financial wealth, and to deal with losses and transitions.”

I saw this first-hand last year. To honor my grandmother’s passing, my mother spent two months interviewing family members close and distant. She discovered new relatives, including Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. She heard stories about her grandparent’s origins in what is now Belarus. And she crafted the stories and photographs into a 30-minute film, which was premiered at my cousin’s wedding last summer.

Watching this film was a life-changing experience for me and for many in the room that
afternoon. It taught me a history lesson I will never forget. It helped me appreciate the struggles my ancestors went through to allow me to be where I am today. And it showed me that the true happiness comes not from giving material gifts, but by sharing stories and experiences with those who love you the most. I cannot recall another time in my life where the bonds across family members were so strong.

We all recognize that family history is important. And yet few families do much about it. Take a moment to think about it: How have you shared stories with your family? Do you have a system to record important family milestones? Are relatives encouraged to be open about their experiences, concerns, and shared values?

Chances are, you are thinking to yourself, “Sure, but where do I start?” I get asked that question several times a day, and my answer is the same every time. Start with three easy steps:

1) Share the stories you do know with family. If nothing comes to mind, you can conduct an interview between two family members. The interviewer should start with simple questions like “How did you first get involved with the family business?” As the conversation moves along, address more probing questions including “What do you regret not doing?” and “What personal values do you hold most dear?” Websites Including NPR’s StoryCorps provide questions that can serve as a starting point.

2) Record those conversations. There are plenty of options for doing this. You can use digital voice recorders or software such as GarageBand. You can write them down in a word processor or get more elaborate with a book from Blurb. Or, my personal favorite, you can record the stories with a video camera. Nothing compares to hearing the story as told by the family member who lived through the experience. The emotions are powerful when recorded in high-definition. And it’s the best format if you want future generations to actually pay attention to the stories.

3) Take the next step. Select someone in the family to be the “legacy keeper”. That person would determine what content can supplement the stories. Pictures from the early days of the company? Memorabilia from family retreats? Old home videos of milestone celebrations? As you start looking through these items, you’ll start to realize how rich of a story you can create when all these pieces come together.

Not sure when to start? Avoid the mistake of waiting until it’s too late. Celebrate your family and family business now, during happy times. Hardly a day goes by without someone lamenting to me, “If only I had met you 6 months ago, before my father passed away, I’d do anything to have him on camera.” Act now while your family is healthy, vibrant, and full of stories.

In fact, the holidays provide an ideal setting for storytelling. Go around the dinner table and ask each family member to retell a story that he or she cherishes. The time you spend collecting and recording these stories is worthwhile. In fact, it is the rare investment that will never depreciate in value as the years go by.

How many times have you said “I should record my life story for my children” or “I wish my mom and dad would write down their stories”? This holiday season, turn these wishes into reality. It will be the best gift you’ll give all year.

David Adelman is the Founder and CEO of Reel Tributes, the premier producer of personal history films. He earned his MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where he enrolled in a family business course which inspired him to help families and family businesses communicate effectively through the generations. Prior to founding Reel Tributes, David was a private equity investor and a strategic consultant. For more information, see www.reeltributes.com

reprinted with permission of the author- article first appeared in FOXConnects, a publication of the Family Office Exchange

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