Building brand stories through group workshops

A funny thing happened on the way to a brand seminar a few years back. My creative partner informed me I'd be leading a few breakout writing sessions with 20 or so accountants each. Don't get me wrong--some accountants are fairly creative, but mostly in the world of numbers. And when the accountants learned that they'd be WRITING, they began to emote strange sounds I can only classify as moans. There were a few reasons. First, they were caught off guard. Secondly, they wanted to "practice," and were reluctant to share. But mostly, they'd reached the point in their lives where they were 100% convinced that they were absolutely, positively NOT WRITERS. So: I had apprehension, discomfort, and fear to work with: a perfect stew!

The business haiku model below is one example of the type of writing exercises I facilitate with business people to help crack the code of their organization's story.

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Can you write your business haiku?

Something I’ve been doing in workshops lately is asking business owners to write the haiku of their business. Why do I do this, and why does it matter? With regards to the content – the haiku itself – it doesn’t. The process, however, is another story.

A few simple rules:

Rule 1: participants must follow the American 5-7-5 model (three lines, five syllables on the first and third line; seven syllables on the middle line). I’ll make a note here that the 5-7-5 model is often mislabeled as “traditional”. In terms of Japanese haiku, it’s far from traditional. However, for most Americans that have gone through the public school system, unless they have become students of traditional Japanese verse, this is the form with which they are most familiar, so it’s an easier leap.

Rule 2: they can use the name of their business as the haiku’s title, but not within the body. This is because people with five-syllable business names were getting their first lines too easily.

Rule 3: they have 60-seconds to write the final draft. I’ve found that things get a little trickier when you slap a time limit on them. It’s when I announce the time limit that I begin to hear the most moans and groans from the audience, especially from those who were already teetering on old self-defeating patterns and beliefs about “not being a writer.”

You don’t have to be a writer to write.

That statement right there is enough to put me out of business. But it’s a mostly true statement and I don’t mind saying it. What makes it “mostly true”? If you read it again, it sounds a little negative. In fact, I’m more apt to say the following:

Everyone’s a writer.

When we started snowshoeing, my wife and I took a two-hour workshop to learn some of the ins and outs of the sport. Not sure what it would entail, one of the first things the instructor said was this: “If you can walk, you can snowshoe.” Since that time, I’ve had plenty of conversations with people who like to argue for their limitations where matters of writing are concerned. After a while I decided to tell them the truth:

If you can talk, you can write.

Maybe it’s even easier than that. Maybe it should be, “If you can think, you can write.” Because if the words flow into your mind, then surely they can flow into your pen and onto the page.

Back to the business haiku.

Whether it’s a haiku, a mission statement, home page copy or something else, the first place people get stuck is in their attempt to be perfect from the start. In acting it’s called rehearsing. In sports, it’s called practice. In writing, it’s called…writing, which tends to throw people, because they think that all writing, or all writing they do, must be equal, and therefore must be equally good.

You have to write the things you don’t want to write before you can write what you want to write.

The reason people struggle trying to write a mission statement, an “elevator speech”, or a meta description is because they are, in fact, trying to write those exact pieces.

If you don’t believe me, or if you’d still rather fall back on the belief that “you’re just not a writer,” then ask someone who makes a living from writing what his or her first drafts look like. First draft of what? Doesn’t matter. Maybe you’ve hired a writer to write a white paper for you. Ask for the first draft. I mean the very first draft – the rawest of notes, the scribbles they jotted down over dinner, the three pages of unlined paper they yanked from beneath the printer and dotted up in colored markers. I’m not saying they won’t let you see it – many will. What I’m saying is, you’ll be looking at a mess. A horrible, terrible mess. But a beautiful mess all the same.

Because somewhere within that mess is the final piece that you’ll eventually love.

Have you written your haiku yet? If you have, and if it was easy, then you clearly know your business, and know how to communicate what you do. But if you’re struggling, or if you’d like to get more into the mess, here are some questions to get you started. And don’t worry if at first they seem illogical – after all, we’re talking about a mess here.

OK, now for the leap from haiku to hero

Here's another short exercise to get business people thinking creatively. It starts with a simple question: What’s your favorite movie, book, or TV show? From there, name your favorite character in the movie (or book, show). What qualities about that character appeal to you? Why? What are the character’s imperfections? What holds them back?

How are you and your business somehow related to that character (both positive and negative)? How are you different? How would you like to be more or less like that character? Using characters with whom you’re familiar is a great way to begin decoding the greater story of your business.

Are you looking to crack into the story of your business, firm or organization?

Let's get started.