Your Business Is Not Your Story: A Conversation with Murray Nossel, Co-Founder of Narativ

  • Private Banking
In this issue’s feature interview, we speak with Narativ Co-Founder Murray Nossel about his passion for storytelling, why it’s so important that people – especially business owners – record their stories, and how they can negotiate their legacies.

Murray Nossel is the co-founder of Narativ, a company centered around “the reciprocal relationship between listening and telling.” He is an expert on business communication, having written “Powered by Storytelling: Excavate, Craft, and Present Stories to Transform Business Communication. He has also performed his own story on London’s West End in the unscripted show “Two Men Talking” and was nominated for an Oscar in 2002 for his documentary “Why Can’t We Be a Family Again?”

Nossel understands deeply that everyone has a personal story to tell. You only need to learn how to tell it and for someone to listen. As a business owner, telling your story is a valuable way to ensure that your legacy – your stories and values, not only those of your business – survives and is carried into the future by younger generations. This process begins with looking at the human being behind the enterprise and examining their pivotal stories, including, but not limited to, those that had a bearing on the business.

We recently sat down with Nossel at our New York office to learn why it’s so important that people – especially business owners – record their stories and how to negotiate your legacy.

Tell us about Murray. What led to your focus on storytelling? Was there a specific event that drove your interest?

After working as a clinical psychologist in Cape Town, South Africa, and as a playwright in New York, I became interested in story-based community transformation. I decided to get my Ph.D. in social work combined with anthropology at Columbia University.

As part of my fieldwork, I worked with patients nearing the end of their lives. I quickly found that the therapeutic methods I’d been trained in were irrelevant to them because they didn’t have the time to deeply examine their lives. Their most urgent need was to leave their story behind, to tell it to someone who was interested.

No matter who we are in the world, we all leave behind a story. What we need, if our story is to go into the future, is somebody who’s willing to tell it. I took everything I’d learned as a playwright and started coaching my clients on how to tell a story about their lives in a dramatic and compelling way that people would remember and be able to retell.

What is a legacy story? Can it be summed up in a few words?

A legacy is the impact of a person’s life on the future. It’s what we leave behind of who we are.

But here we’re talking specifically about a legacy story. From the beginning of human history, we told stories to our next of kin to pass our wisdom down. Stories are the brain’s way of creating coherence, and our brains are hardwired for story. That’s why storytelling is the most powerful way to communicate a legacy.

What’s the value of creating and recording your legacy story?

In the moment of recording, you are writing your own history. Something about this idea is so uplifting and liberating: To be able to tell your story to someone who’s interested and have the feeling that your life and its impact are not just going to end here, but will go into the future. 

My origin story is inextricably connected to the power and importance of legacy. As I sit here now, I still carry all those stories of people I worked with who are long gone. They remain in my mind, my memory, and my heart.

No matter who we are in the world, we all leave behind a story. What we need, if our story is to go into the future, is somebody who’s willing to tell it."


It sounds like recording your story is as much for those who come after as it is for yourself. What does a legacy mean to the person who’s left behind?

It’s tremendously important for those who come after us. What do we want our family to say about us when we are gone?

I had a client who really wanted to hear his father’s story because he felt that there were aspects of the story that had never been told. I made a documentary-style legacy video of this man. Last year, he passed away, and they played the video at his memorial service. When that video of him telling his stories came on, it was as if his spirit was alive in that space.

This man had a large business empire, so there was the factual story of what he developed. But what this video of his legacy captures is who he was and how he came to be that way. What was the spirit that drove him? For me, this is what any legacy story has to communicate.

Helping Business Owners Navigate ‘What’s Next?’ and Legacy


At BBH, we have helped countless business owners and their families prepare for transition in the business and answer the question, “what’s next?” Often, we find that these business owners have tied their legacy to the business and need assistance identifying the path forward when it comes time to step down from leadership. If you need help navigating a transition in your business, as well as with shaping your legacy outside of the company, our Center for Family Business would be happy to help.

You’ve described a person’s legacy as a “negotiated story,” making the point that just because you tell people what you want your legacy to be, ultimately what people say about you will be what they believe to be true about you, not what you tell them. How can we shape our legacies? Is it as simple as “actions speak louder than words”?

When I talk about the negotiated aspect of a storytelling process, what I’m referring to is that the person who’s leaving the legacy behind is not doing it in isolation. They’re not simply sitting with a ghostwriter who’s writing their story out as they recite the many things that have happened to them in their lives.

I’m talking about a process in which the person leaving the legacy behind works together with the family, or whoever will bear the legacy. My job is to facilitate this. The person leaving behind the legacy asks his family, “What story would you tell about me if you had to tell that story right now?” The family tells him, he listens, and he fills in the gaps.

I’m there to coach the participants – to guide them to get out as many details as possible and make the story as rich as it can be. This moment of creation has so much meaning for the family. You’re doing it together. It’s a family ceremony, and it gives you the biggest chance of your legacy being carried. If the family members can’t be present, I can still solicit their questions and use those to guide the process.

My storytelling method is firmly founded on the reciprocal relationship between listening and telling. Your story is only as good as the person who’s listening to it, who’s curious to hear your story, who has real questions, and who genuinely wants to get to know you and access that spirit that has caused you to be so successful. My job is to listen openly to all the participants and to help the family create an optimal listening environment so the best story can come out.

Do people often struggle with communicating what they want their story to be?

People come to me because they want to tell a different story than the one that they’ve told before. They want to tell one that is more dimensional and that truly communicates who they are. The problem is that when we have told a story over and over again – whether it’s a personal story you’ve told for years, or a brand story developed by your marketing department – the repeated story becomes a habit, and people get sick of hearing it.

You want to reshape your stories and identify new ones so that people want to listen and are deeply curious – as opposed to forcing your story on someone. But let’s face it, sometimes families have resentment, and certain people may not want to listen. I work with those people to help them clear their minds and their hearts so that they can truly be there for the person who’s telling the story. This can become profoundly healing for everyone concerned.

The person telling the story needs to be able to answer a fundamental question: Why do you want to tell your story, and why now? If you know exactly why you’re sharing your story at this time, you will have a good foundation for being able to tell it successfully.

You’ve said that legacy stories have an everyday role, but also include a sacred dimension. What do you mean by this?

To understand the sacred dimension of stories, we first have to understand the ordinary, everyday dimension of stories.

I work with a lot of corporations, and one of the things that we really want to tell stories about in that environment is our mistakes. How did you overcome them? Where were the places where you failed that turned into major successes? Those stories contain so many lessons to be learned, and we need them in order to evolve our businesses.

But then there’s the sacred dimension, which boils down to the fact that when we die, all that’s left of us is our story. Everything that you’ve ever accomplished can only become a lasting legacy if there’s a story to go with it. You can have your name on a building, but with no story to go with it, it’s just a name on a building.

The sacred dimension of storytelling is that it gets to capture the life essence of a human being – their spirit. And insofar as life is sacred, stories are sacred.

[O]ne of the things that we really want to tell stories about in [the corporate] environment is our mistakes. How did you overcome them? Where were the places where you failed that turned into major successes?"

We touched on business ownership a bit earlier when discussing your client whose father was a businessman. For business owners, how does the business play into how they shape their legacy story?

The first thing that we have to remember here is that the business is not the story. A story is defined as something that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s a sequence of events that happened. Many people will mistake things for stories. But a business is not a story.

The story is about what the business meant to you. What happened to you in the creation of that business? What were the pivotal moments that happened to you as a human being during the course of creating, running, and maybe even letting go of your business? Who was this human being behind the enterprise?

It’s the characters that make up a story. Who were the important people? What were the important relationships? That’s what’s important. And then, what happened? To tell powerful stories, we’ve got to go to those moments that had the highest emotional flame – the highest points and the lowest points. How did we get there?

As for all the nitty-gritty details of the business – who it got sold to, and how products were developed – put that in the archive. That is not a story to be passed down to generations. In terms of family legacy, the business is simply a context. It’s not the story itself.

Do you have any final advice for someone looking to document their legacy story?

Don’t wait until it’s too late. It all boils down to the desire to tell your story and the desire of those you will leave behind to listen. You cannot legislate this. If you want to do it, and you truly want to experience the healing aspect of it, then we can go on a fun adventure together to get it.

Interview conducted by Kathryn George, Alison Hutchinson, and Jen Gilbert, and article written by Kaitlin Barbour and Madeleine McGrath.

If you have any questions about negotiating your legacy, reach out to a BBH relationship manager.

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