Four Qualities of Strong Organizational Storytelling Language

I was in a meeting once with a senior HR executive from a major retailer, exploring the possibility of our team helping her company with some organizational storytelling. At one point in the conversation, we started talking about the importance of using real organizational storytelling language when connecting with employees, versus falling prey to the corporate buzz words and cliché phrases clouding so much employee communications.

She was lamenting how internal rallying cries had become so overworked and “slogan-y” that employees always try to decipher some deeper meaning behind them, even when faced with language that was genuinely chosen for its clarity and directness. To illustrate, she told me about a recent internal initiative at her company called “Assess and Fix,” designed to encourage people to evaluate a problem and then set about to efficiently resolve it, without over-complicating it.

She said that at one point, shortly after launching the initiative, she found herself in a discussion with a senior manager who said suspiciously, “Hmmm…so what does that mean exactly, ‘Assess and Fix’?” As she was recounting this experience (like the good storyteller she was), she let out a deep sigh, leaned into me as if I were that senior manager and said, “It means when there’s a problem, assess it, then fix it.” We both laughed out loud, as she went on to say, “It’s almost like we have to deprogram before we start communicating.”

How Organizational Storytelling Language is Typically Crafted

Her story reminded me of how critical language is in employee communications and organizational storytelling. More specifically, that language has to work not just for the people crafting it, but also and importantly for the people it’s meant to guide and inspire. Perhaps nowhere is this truer than in corporate vision and mission statements. These are often the foundation of an organization’s brand story, and too often developed through a process of collective composition by a group of senior leaders who lock themselves in a room for an afternoon to tackle this strategic work together.

This process typically starts with the group staring at a blank whiteboard while someone holding a pen asks, “OK…so what’s our vision?” Ideas are tossed around and loose phrases crafted. But eventually — after time gets eaten up by much discussion and little consensus — the group’s best strategic intentions give way to concern that they won’t finish the task at hand in the time allotted. And from that point forward, it becomes more of a practical (and harried) exercise of finding a collection of words that everyone can agree-on, versus finding the right words that reflect what your organization and brand are all about.

This is often why organizations end up with vision statements, mission statements and values that are reduced to their lowest common denominator and which sound like everyone else’s, with no uniquely galvanizing or differentiating ideas in them. Consider this mission statement from a Canadian fast food chain – “To deliver quality products and services for our guests and communities through leadership, innovation and partnership.” That is so wonderfully broad (and bland) that it could be for anyone — e.g., auto shop, pet groomer, hotel…and yes, even a cherished purveyor of coffee and donuts.

The key thing is, when it comes to organizational brand storytelling, language is important. Select the right words, you will not only get your employees speaking differently and cohesively, but also thinking and acting as such. Outlined below are four characteristics of strong language based on our years of experience helping companies and organizations articulate what their brand is all about and then engage and align their employees around it.

ONE – It is genuinely human

It needs to pass the test of one employee being able to share the statement with another, and keep a straight face while doing so. While the language might feel more philosophical and lofty than that used in day-to-day conversation, one should never be embarrassed in reciting it. Rather, one should feel proud in doing so, grateful for the opportunity to expound, if only for a moment, on what their brand is all about, the higher purpose driving its efforts, the role it plays, and the difference it strives to make. For example, consider Ikea’s IKEA’s vision statement of “To create a better everyday life for the many people,” that is not only lofty and altruistic in its intent, but perfectly reflective of the brand’s quirky personality.

TWO – It is honest, candid and pointed

It does not try to sugarcoat the brand’s view of the world or their mission within it. It openly and truthfully characterizes the nature of things versus hiding from it. And it portrays opportunities and potential, but also challenges and obstacles, which many organizations are hesitant to admit exist, much less incorporate into their organizational storytelling or corporate communications. For instance, I wonder if the leaders in the company referenced earlier in this piece had included the word “problem” in their initiative (e.g., “Asses a problem, then fix it.”), if it would’ve been more readily embraced and applied.

THREE – It inspires employees, but also makes them a bit nervous

In the same way organizational brand storytelling language should elevate an idea, it should also elevate employees, lifting them up mentally and emotionally to aspire to something greater, and making them feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves. At the same time, the language should push employees out of their comfort zone in that it calls upon them to raise not only their gaze, but also their game. It sets a bar by which all employees evaluate themselves and each other, and in this regard collectively hold everyone accountable, including (and most importantly) the most senior leaders of the company.

JetBlue’s mission is a great example of this: “To inspire humanity, both in the air and on the ground.” It’s an ambitious goal, to be certain; but one I could see any employee rising up to achieve, because — as anyone who flies regularly can tell you — it is so very much worth achieving.

FOUR – It differentiates your company and your culture

The language gets at the true essence of your brand and why it exists within the specific world it operates and for the particular people it looks to benefit. It moves beyond generic assurances of quality products and great service, both of which should be a given for any company or brand, not a promise. And importantly, the language should be unique to the brand and the company, with statements and stories that few (if any) other brands or companies could use.

Consider Tesla’s vision statement: “To accelerate the world’s transition towards sustainable energy.” While there might be a few renewable energy companies that could share this vision, there are no other well-known car companies that can. To test that proposition, try sharing that vision statement with ten people and ask them to identify the car company it belongs to. I’ll bet you a drink that at least nine of the ten answer correctly.

When it comes to organizational brand storytelling – and the vision and mission statements often included in it – words don’t just matter, words work. As my esteemed colleague and storytelling mentor, Paul Belserene, said to me, “You can generally tell when words work because they have a visceral effect on you, and on others. They create ground you can stand on, banners you can rally around, brass rings to reach for, vows to hold sacred, and promises to keep.” Now those are words one can live by!


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