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10 Tips to Writing a Successful Corporate History

Writing the history of a company, corporation, or other organization is not as simple as it might first appear. There are many pitfalls when it comes to producing a book that will represent you and your company. Get it right however, and the credibility a well-written book can bring you is invaluable.

Over the years, I have written many histories of organizations and am happy to share with you my top ten tips for producing a book that will actually be read rather than gather dust, one that will be treasured by all who receive it.

  1. Plan the book before you do anything else. Use a mind-mapping technique to lay your book out and come up with a table of contents. Histories are often chronological, but they don’t have to be – consider what the best approach is for your story. Be creative!
  2. Write in a readable, accessible, conversational style. Write in short paragraphs. History does not have to be boring – imagine you are telling the story of the company to someone at a cocktail party. Less is often more, you don’t have to write 100,000 words – it’s not an academic treatise!
  3. Discover what makes the company tick. What is its vision today? What was its founder’s vision? What makes the company vibrant – what gives it life? Focus on the company’s corporate culture.
  4. Don’t get bogged down in detail. It’s too easy to start telling the reader absolutely everything that has happened in the company in its history and boring them to death. Focus on the big stuff, not the minutiae. What have been the company’s greatest achievements? Not just in terms of big orders, ground-breaking products and best revenue years, but in its relationship to its industry, market, customers, suppliers and staff.
  5. Interview people who have made a difference in the company. Not just the founder, or CEO, but other key players and characters through the years – and make them human. Make the history as much about people as it is about events and achievements. An interview with a cleaner who has worked for the firm for 30-years can provide a powerful insight into the human aspect of the company. Anecdotes and memorable quotes can bring a book to life – they also bring the company to life.
  6. Tell the story in images as well as in words. A coffee table book approach is far more accessible than a dry academic work. Corporate histories are often given to visiting dignitaries, shareholders, and can find their way into reception areas where they will only receive a cursory view. A full colour, approachable volume is more likely to have an impact when it is easy to briefly flip through.
  7. Dig deep for archival documents, photographs and other ephemera. People are fascinated by old images and historical material and these have the power to draw people into the book. Think sepia shots of the founder in the company’s first vehicle, a company picnic 30-years ago, or the firms first purchase order or property lease.
  8. Break up the book with cameos of key individuals. During the research and interview stages, listen carefully for quotable moments. Gather them like valuable, exotic truffles and use them to season your pages with evocative surprises.
  9. Don’t just be the author take responsibility for how the book will look, from illustrations and overall design to format, paper and binding. Good writing is only one aspect of making a book readable and accessible.
  10. Finally, be authentic – people can see spin from a mile away. The more transparent, honest, open and forthright you are, the more fans you will have. That’s not to say that you have to air your dirty laundry in public, but if there a few skeletons in your closet deal with them appropriately and use the book as a way to clear up any misconceptions.

Writing a corporate history can be very labour intensive; if you don’t have the time or are not a proficient writer, it may be a good idea to consider using the services of a ghostwriter.

If you would like to learn more about the complexities of writing a corporate history contact me at mike(at); I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have.