A great purpose statement is inspiring. I creates an asset for an organization that is unrivaled. With our client WaterEquity, the purpose was expressed like this:
We are on a quest to end this global crisis in our lifetime by scaling access to safe water and sanitation.
That is an impressive purpose. Everyone who hears it agrees.
Unfortunately, just because something is impressive at first encounter doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to stick and spread. Why is that? Because people are less likely to share what you’re all about. They’re more likely to share what you do that demonstrates it. Sure, we can share inspiring language. And people will say, “That’s awesome.” But it remains our language. How do we get them to make it their language so the purpose gets shared?
We tell stories.
Stories have the power to do things that a description or explanation simply can’t do.
- They remove any vagueness in the the expression of our purpose — a purpose is expressed in big and bold ways. That’s the magic of it. When we tell stories that illustrate the purpose, it becomes real and specific. It becomes concrete.
- They are emotional — we forget statistics. But we remember how we felt when we heard the story. That is what makes it unforgettable.
- They are human — when we see how a purpose makes a profound difference for another person, the idea is no longer just a lofty thought. It becomes about a person who we can empathize with. And because of that, it connects with us like a description or explanation can’t.
So what does all this look like in real life? Let’s go back to the WaterEquity example. Here is a real story from the organization tells to illustrate the purpose:
Manjula would start her day by going into a nearby field to find a private place to relieve herself. Then it was off to spend hours carrying jugs of water back to her house so her children could bathe, and she could make coffee for her husband before he left for his truck driving job. By the end of this routine, Manjula had been awake for five hours. And she still had to go to her job in the market, selling incense, candles, and flowers. It was just how life was. Until she heard of the loans made possible through the WaterCredit model. Manjula and her husband took out a small loan to get a household water connection and toilet. The change was life-altering. Manjula no longer had to go to work exhausted. In fact, she was able to open her shop sooner. That extra time at the market increased the family income so much that they are now saving to fund their children’s education. Manjula is living proof that safe water and sanitation can change lives. For generations.
What happens when we don’t have a story?
Sometimes we don’t have stories to tell. It happens with startups. And even with established companies that are rediscovering their purpose. So what do we do when we don’t have something real to share?
We can still use storytelling to help a purpose spread. Here’s an example from our client First Federal Bank. The organization was re-establishing its purpose. Through our purpose process, we helped define and express it through their manifesto:
At First Federal Bank of Kansas City, we believe no matter how much money someone makes or where they live, they can create a better financial future — for themselves, their family and the peoples’ lives they touch. We have an extraordinary opportunity to help them on their journey. Every day we wake up focused on guiding people down the path that leads to greater financial success. Starting with a strategy and savings. Building towards the home of their dreams. With them every step of the way. Because at First Federal, our purpose is bigger than profit. It’s about giving back to the people and communities we serve. So we can all prosper — together.
It is a big, noble idea. But in order for it to spread, we knew that we would need the power that stories bring.
Here’s how that happened. In order to fulfill the purpose, we knew we needed to make it simple for people to understand how to become better with their money. One of the ways we did that was to show people how to become emergency proof. Because when you’re emergency proof, you don’t have to panic when life throws you a curveball. You don’t have to stress. And you can make better decisions.
We didn’t have any real stories since this was a new initiative. But we knew we could still use a vivid tale to make sure the point stuck. Here is the story we created.
Meet Derrick and Janet. They’re the proud parents of three boys, who they frequently jet around to activities in the family’s SUV. Well, the boys were playing baseball in the front yard and the oldest kid hit a home run. Right through a passenger-side window. The cost to replace that window comes to a little over $300. But Derrick and Janet emergency proofed their family for speed bumps like this. Instead of worrying and putting it on a credit card, they used part of their $1,000 speed bump money. Now the window is fixed and the boys are still playing baseball in the yard — but with a few new rules.
A purpose is one of the most fundamental and powerful ideas any organization can adopt. When done right, it is impressive and inspiring. Add in storytelling and the purpose becomes concrete, emotional, and relatable. All the things that make a purpose unforgettable.
Dan is the creator of the Big Audacious Meaning. He is a founder at Will & Grail — a brand innovation company, helping organizations find their unique, undeniable and unshakable sense of purpose and create innovative experiences that bring it to life. He regularly shares his insight here on Linkedin and at dansalva.com.