Ancient Techniques to Defeat the Dark Side of Corporate Narratives

Star Wars and Corporate Narratives

The Rise of Skywalker took a kitchen sink storytelling approach in an attempt to tie up an entire 40 years of mythology into a broadly cumbersome package that reflects the problem with most corporate narratives: ask ten people what company X is about and you’ll get ten different answers. Here’s how to simplify your narrative utilizing the ancient art of Japanese haiku poetry and develop something that gives every audience a relevant understanding of your company.

Amongst all Skywalker’s recycled tropes, intersecting story lines and meandering plots, lies one moment of authentic narrative clarity. In the midst of a battle with Kylo Ren (the film’s bad guy), Rey (the film’s good gal) blasts an overzealous and hapless Finn (another good guy) out of her way, demonstrating that the only action that truly matters in the story is the fight between herself and her chief antagonist. This is a starting point in developing a corporate narrative: It’s an exercise in finding what truly matters. Getting there involves taking away, drilling to the core, removing layers and shedding what doesn’t drive a story forward.

Getting lost with a compass

What is a “corporate narrative” anyway? Terabytes of clickbait business babble on mission statements, vision statements and strategic narratives indicate that the most commonly shared definition is this: a corporate narrative is a company’s raison d’etre that reflects buy in from the employees, the market and customers. The hard work involves aligning these multiple points of view into a clean string of meaningful words.

It only took Howard Schultz a trip to Europe to determine that the narrative of Starbucks was built on sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s concept of the “third place,” a location where people spend time between home and work. The coffee, the customer service and the meeting grounds (no pun) are all enablers of that concept and allow the company to market its stories accordingly. To find your own corporate narrative requires distilling a company down to its most basic essence and building from there.

Think Haiku

The spectrum of variables for developing a corporate narrative includes a dizzying array of elements: the company’s vision, ethos and founding principles, messages, themes, aspirational elements, products, services, customer opinions and actions. The task of deciphering all this material takes a village of experts, like the writers of Skywalker. But does it really have to? If the development of the narrative is such a cumbersome task, then a company’s story must be incredibly blurry, hard to decipher or buried somewhere between the reality of products and services and the adoption by the targeted market.

Instead of complicating the exercise, why not look for a corporate haiku, something simple and emotive, like the aforementioned third place. At the very least you’ll have a starting point for your story when the consultants show up. The essential elements of haiku include the use of nature as a setting, a snapshot of time, colorful, meaningful images imparting a sense of enlightenment and, above all, the ability to be read in one breath. How does this translate into an exercise for developing the core statement for your narrative?

Your “nature” element is found in the world in which your company functions. A snapshot represents what that world looks like now, from your perspective, and from the perspective of what your customers are experiencing. Can you tell your story in color and make it live and breathe? Try and avoid hackneyed shortcut statements like “creating efficiency,” simplifying” and everyone’s favorite (drum roll please) “adding value.”

The exercise begins with answering some fundamental questions: why is the company unique? What does it do and why does it matter in your universe? How does the company mesh with the customer’s universe? Can you bring the past into the present and project it to the future? Where did the company come from, how did it get where it is and where is it going? Add to this list as you bring more opinions into the mix. When you’ve built a universe of collective observations, start looking for meaningful themes and take out your paring knife.

Turning your narrative into an actual piece of art might make an interesting team building activity or corporate challenge.  A traditional haiku has a 5-7-5 three-line, seventeen syllable form. Here’s some inspiration from the world’s most famous  haiku by Matsuo Basho:

An old pond!
A frog jumps in—
the sound of water.

A corporate narrative is a critical shorthand device for understanding a company and forms the basis from which all marketing, product development and go to market strategies should flow. Getting from messy to simple is not an easy task, but it’s worth the journey, or as Yoda would say: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

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