them. These words don’t arrive in
a vacuum; they can be based on
real beliefs, founder visions, and
organizational philosophy. But the
words alone fall short for several
• Often this language is aspi-rational, describing what the
organization wants to be rather
than who they currently are.
• From company to company,
the language all sounds alike (for
example, most advertising agencies say they value creativity).
So the language does not help
differentiate the organization or
brand from any other.
• This language doesn’t seem
to help the people internally
make decisions, respond, and act.
• Last, the customer knows
the difference between talk and
action. Consumers in the information age are more knowledgeable and savvy, and they have
access to more information than
ever before. The wall between
consumers and the brand has
become much more transparent.
Consumers do not experience the
intention of the brand no matter
how honorable; they experience
what the brand does. So if a company says they are caring but
then underpay their employees,
the public will find out. Today a
brand is as strong as its relationship with its customers. To create a strong relationship, there
must be alignment between what
an individual, brand, or organization says and what it does, In the
end (as the saying goes), actions
speak louder than words.
We developed Story Plotter to
help the handful of our clients
who had realized fat words are
not enough. We worked with a
professional basketball organi-
zation that wanted to bring its
brand values to life by finding
distinctive actions to exemplify
these values throughout every
level of the organization. A few
years ago we helped a global
advertising agency that was interested in finding other ways for its
clients to communicate who they
are to their consumers, looking
beyond brand communication
and focusing on internal actions.
We worked with our friend and
collaborator Arnie Jacobson and
his research firm, QRC (they
bring to life a whole other set of
stories, that of the consumer), to
help a Hollywood studio find new
actions for its character-based
consumer products division.
To assist these clients, we
asked them to tell stories of
things that happen in the company. We heard stories of gritty
reality, stories illustrating failure,
communicating learning, and
acting as a warning. As these
stories emerged, we asked ourselves a question: Could there be
a simple, sensible way of organizing and classifying stories that
could be useful in helping organizations live their brand, find
alignment, discover new actions,
and look beyond language? The
Story Plotter, a taxonomy for
organizing stories, emerged from
this inquiry. We identified four
kinds of stories and designed the
Plotter to help organizations and
brands do the following:
• Talk about who they are by
telling stories of what they do.
• Learn to be more of a listening organization, by incorporating consumer stories and input
into company communication.
• Share knowledge internally
• Find meaningful new actions
for exemplifying values.
Our take on stories comes from the world of
improvised theater, where stories are made with no
script, plan, rehearsal, budget, or, on occasion, talent.
The job of the improviser is to instantly create stories
and scenes that engage and enthrall the audience.
One of the many skills that help an improv actor
survive under these seemingly impossible conditions
is an ability to create vivid and authentic characters. It
is vital that the audience knows as much as possible
about these instant characters so they can become
immersed in the story.
When I was first studying to be an improviser, I was
convinced the best way to tell a story was to tell the
audience all about my character; what was important
to him, what he wanted, and so on. I might start a
scene with another performer by proclaiming: “Hello, I
am the honest baker,” speaking more to audience than
to the other actor. “Welcome to the Honest Bakery.
Do you like our new uniforms with ‘HONEST’ written
across the chest?” I figured if I simply told people who
I was, then I could get on to the funny stuff. One of my
acting coaches pulled me aside and said:
“It’s not like your characters are an ad for floor
cleaner or running shoes. It’s not convincing or very
engaging to say you are honest, or reliable, or nimble,
or inspiring. Your characters need to communicate
who they are through what they do. If you are an
honest baker, then behave honestly, tell people what’s
in the muffins, return the wallet that was left on the
counter. Let the customer know that she has a piece of
spinach in her teeth. You don’t have to tell the audience
anything. They are smart. Simply be it.” —G.H.
STORIES OF ACTION
While waiting for luggage at the Phoenix airport, a
friend of mine had an encounter that inspired our
quest to find more stories of alignment. Here is what
he told us:
“At baggage claim I patiently watched the empty
carousel go around when I suddenly heard a ‘clunk’
behind me. I turned around to see a large surfboard
being unloaded at the oversize-baggage area. A
surfboard in a landlocked desert state? A gray-haired
older gentleman in a suit walked up to claim the
oblong baggage, and I asked him what he was doing
with the surfboard. He smiled at me and answered in
a thick Australian accent, ‘Oh mate, not sure where
I’ll surf but I’ll find someplace. I have to… it’s in my
contract.’ He went on to explain that he was the CFO
of an Australian surfboard company and it is written
into every senior executive’s contract that they must
surf at least once a month. This gentleman was on a
three-week business trip, so he took his board.