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Chapter 1

We live in stories

Your brand lives in the stories that are told and re-told inside your organization and across its ecosystem.

From the moment man first discovered words to communicate with the people around him, story telling became the focal point of mankind.  Over many millions of years, the art of story telling has become more sophisticated; and, story telling has become more complicated, more easily misconstrued and has a more dramatic impact if not properly communicated.


Every day of our lives, people tell stories.  There is a beginning, a middle and an end to each story that all relates to something important (or maybe not so important!) that a person wants to communicate.  Think about it.  Ask your blind date to tell you about herself and you will get a story.  Ask a potential employer to tell you about their company and you will get a story.  Ask a vendor about their products and services and you will get a story.  How well these stories are told will dramatically impact whether you schedule a second date, join the company or purchase a product. At the heart of every person’s life is a story, and the same is true for every corporation.

In today’s complicated and intensely competitive business world, the ability to accurately, coherently, and consistently present a credible story, or narrative, to one’s ecosystem – its executive staff, employees, financial and industry analysts, partners, media outlets and customers - can make or break a company.  Essentially, if the people in your company’s ecosystem don’t believe in or understand what your company is trying to accomplish, it won’t be long before you find your company in serious trouble – or even in danger of shutting its doors.  A company that is not able to tell a consistent, credible story cannot do damage control for very long. It may take a year or two before a company’s façade is revealed, but [1] it will happen because only successful companies with clear corporate narratives sustain through good and bad times.

The alarming fact is that very few companies do a good job of telling their stories.  A recent survey of analysts and investors revealed that they believe that less than 20 percent of corporate executives and managers have the ability to quickly and convincingly communicate the business problems they solve, how they solve it, and the benefits customers derive from the solution[2] . 


As a corporate leader, ask yourself these four questions and see how you rate in effectively communicating the vision, strategy and who you are as a company to your internal and external constituents: 

  • When holding company or staff meetings, do people in the audience look blank and/or puzzled when you talk about the company vision?  Are you consistently getting questions from employees that show that people just don’t “get” what the company is attempting to accomplish – both short-term and long-term?

  • Do financial and industry analyst conference calls and reports place your company in a sector, and with competition, that are not at all where your product fits or how you want to be perceived?

  • Is your company getting critical media coverage because your company representatives are communicating a confusing, inarticulate or just plain incorrect interpretation of the company’s vision and its tactical and strategic direction?

  • When you visit customers, do they think that your company and its products or services are something entirely different than what you’ve articulated to other constituents in your ecosystem?


If you said yes to even just one of these scenarios, your company is likely in a state of narrative dissonance. That is, throughout your company’s ecosystem, there are myriad narratives being communicated and myriad interpretations of those differing narratives. 

The people in and outside your organization don’t intentionally mean to disperse information about your company in differing ways.  Clearly, communication devices, such as e-mail, pagers, and cell phones, have vastly improved the ability for people to quickly communicate with one another.  That means that corporate information is disseminated more quickly among your employees; sales cycles are shorter; and public awareness and news about your company travels around the globe in a matter of days.  The downside to this is that it is much more difficult to control information and at any step along the way, the information may be altered in misleading ways.

Consider the game that you played as a child or at a party called “Telephone.”  Sitting in a circle, one person thinks up a phrase and whispers it to the person sitting next to them.  That person then whispers it to the person sitting next to them and around the circle it goes until it reaches the last person.  That individual then says aloud what he or she has been told.  With much laughter from the group, the phrase is always vastly different than what the first person had whispered to the second person.  So, the phrase “I took my Black Labrador dog to the park and she played ball with a Dalmatian and a German Shepard” can become “I took my date to see the 101 Dalmatians movie and then we ate dinner at a German restaurant[3] .”

At a party, this game has no consequences – it makes people laugh and livens up the atmosphere.  But, in the business world, this is no laughing matter. Misinterpretation of and misstatements about your company’s message as it passes from individual to individual within your company and around the world can have dramatic effects on the well-being of your company. 

Some of these ill effects simply cannot be controlled at the present time due to issues of technology.  Cell phone conversations, for instance, are often fuzzy or connections can be lost and lead to misinterpreted information.  And then there is the age-old problem of doing business internationally and nuances of different languages that can often change a company’s message.  These issues have to be dealt with on an on-going basis.  But, if you are using issues such as these, or any other relatively small issues, as an excuse for why your company is experiencing narrative dissonance, you are doing your company’s employees, partners, customers and shareholders a great disservice.

There are many reasons that narrative dissonance occurs in corporations.  New executive staff, mergers and acquisitions, changes in government regulations, entering new markets or launching a new company are just a few of the things that can send your corporate message into a tailspin.

The reasons above are very clear events that executives can identify as potential situations where narrative dissonance could become a problem.  By identifying these inflection points, you and your executive staff can plan for and head off any misinterpretation of the company direction.  In effect, you can devise a communications strategy, and story, that addresses how these events will affect the company in advance.

However, narrative dissonance does not always occur because of identifiable or anticipated events.

Every time the company interfaces with a member of its ecosystem, it’s an opportunity to tell the story.  However, the corporate narrative is essentially a blueprint that you use but each person in your company’s ecosystem tells parts of the story to the people he or she touches so that the collective ideas help reinforce the overall story.  Every time that something happens, it’s an opportunity for the company to tell its story.  Whether that is done well or poorly has a major impact on the short and long-term credibility of the company – and its bottom line.

Consider the situation that Johnson and Johnson faced when bottles of Tylenol were tainted with poison.  Clearly, this was an unidentifiable or unanticipated event.  What Johnson and Johnson did to address this crisis was to stick to its corporate vision that it is in the health management business and anything that might affect its corporate philosophy was its responsibility to address and fix.  In a matter of hours, the executive team had to devise a story, communicate that story and follow-up on what it had promised to do.   In the end, Johnson and Johnson was praised for its clear, consistent message that the company didn’t care how much money it would cost, it was going to pull every single bottle of Tylenol off the shelves across the world and protect its customers.  Because of Johnson and Johnson’s ability to tell its story and execute on that message, Tylenol is still the leading over-the-counter pain reliever and the company continues to thrive. 

In contrast, a company that touts open communication and says that this is a really important part of its corporate values and strategy but acts a different way when something crops up where open communication is critical.  For example, XX company…. (NEED EXAMPLE HERE) WORDY

These are two examples of situations that are extreme and may not happen very often.  What about less obvious situations where the company message ebbs and flows and sometimes change by virtue of the day-to-day events in a company that impact the company narrative? In other words, company stories fray over time due to the natural events that occur on a day-to-day basis.

For example, the executive team crafts a company message and vision and communicates it to the company as a whole and/or on an individual basis.  The marketing department then creates a template that contains this message and distributes it for use by many company departments – department heads, sales, product marketing, business development, public relations, and analyst relations. Corporate sales departments are the most likely area where the company messages are most likely to fray. The salesperson has an appointment with a large electric company and he takes the corporate template and customizes it to fit the needs of that customer.  In doing this customization, and in attempt to close the sale, the salesperson unwittingly alters some of the core ideas in the original narrative.  If one or hundred or more salespeople do this, there is no doubt that the corporate narrative is radically changed and essentially lost.  The corporate message and the behavior of the people in your ecosystem, especially employees, have to align in order for your corporate narrative to escape the “Telephone” game.

How can you tell when there may be a high degree of narrative dissonance in your company?


  • You’re losing deals because customers are getting a different message from varying sources of information.  For example, what the customer’s salesperson is saying about the company is different than what’s on your web site.  It’s easiest to evaluate the impact on your business in terms of revenue; if you’re losing ground in a good economy, something is wrong.

  • The company made a shift in its strategy and has re-crafted its corporate narrative and yet everybody is still telling the old story.  Nobody has hit mental reset to embrace the new corporate message.

  • You’re launching a new company or into a new market.  When you’re launching a new company, you have a clean slate to communicate your message.  Nonetheless, you’re unable to clearly articulate what you’re trying to accomplish and why it matters.  When a company gets into a new market, the overall corporate vision may be the same but the context in which it is interpreted has to change (NEED YOUR HELP ON RECASTING THIS GRAPH)

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