Tell One Story, Not Two


In this article, we look at #4 of four songwriting hacks for a better mission statement. After #1 The Heart of The Story, #2 Meaning Trumps Cliché and #3 Make Us Sing Along, we conclude with a discussion of #4 Tell One Story, Not Two.

Conglomerates don't work in songs, and rarely for businesses. 

“I’m like a wrecking ball, because I’m happy, so stay with me or let it be Barbara Ann's stairway to heaven.” 

These are odd song lyrics. The material is enough to (literally) create six hit songs, but putting them together results in a storytelling mess. In contrary, a great song does focus and has a lot of repetition:

  • It's about relationship or parties or encouragement or boasting, but not about everything.
  • It's Country or Funk or R&B or Bossa Nova or EDM or Hip Hop, but not  all put together. 
  • It's performed in English or Spanish or Chinese or German, but not in Spangligermanese.
  • It's performed by Ariana Grande or Jason Derulo or Josh Groban or Bette Midler or anyone else, not by all together (OK, there is a famous exception).

There are amazing duets, and there are beautiful cross-overs in music, but  successful songs are almost never conglomerates of topics or styles. That's a medley of various successful songs then, with each song snippet from a memorable song, worth being included in such a summary.

The analogy in a business mission is simple: focus on one story, make it stand out, craft it as good as possible. It’s difficult enough to be great at one thing, and it’s even harder to succeed in various fields at the same time (there is a difference in getting bigger and getting stronger). General Electric is one of the few examples of a successful conglomerate. This can be seen as a medley of successful single businesses; GE's former CEO Jack Welch had his company be first or second in any industry it was operating - or otherwise sell or close this section.

The biggest danger of diversification lies in the loss of productivity and market position, which results in reduced success. The results of PIMS - the largest database containing the effect of business strategies on financial success measured as ROI - clearly show this connection. Investor Peter Lynch calls it “diworsification” when companies are jumping into businesses which are not in their area of expertise. And most multinational corporations focus on a specific industry anyway: Coca-Cola does non-alcoholic beverages, Disney does entertainment/information, and Volkswagen builds cars and trucks (though it also became Germany’s biggest producer of curry sausages because of their own canteen demand...).

As the failure of the Daimler Chrysler merger shows, it’s even more important to tell the same story than just to be in the same industry. Daimler Benz and Chrysler told different stories with different corporate cultures that didn’t fit.  Cultural differences can lead to inspiring results though - at least in music. Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett combined two distinct backgrounds in their album “Cheek to Cheek” which became No. 1 on Billboard. But it's not as different as it seems: both artists share their love for Jazz and respect for each other.


Good songwriters are able to tell a story in a short time (~3:40 minutes for a hit song). Every word counts and unimportant things are skipped. When things get too wordy, it's mostly a sign of not enough work spent – on a song or a mission.

Thinking from a songwriter’s and storyteller’s perspective helps reduce a story to the essential. There are analogies in other aspects of arts & crafts: the Picasso method of having a few brush strokes to draw a bull, or the Lego approach to build something recognizable with just a few bricks.

It's interesting to see that in the last years song titles have become shorter and more focused too. In the 2014 Top 40 Billboard charts, 95% of songs have a title of three or less words. Looking at Spotify’s US top 50 charts in June 2015, 52% of titles have 1-2 words, 22% have a word count of 3, and the remaining 26% are four and five word titles (plus one seven word title by Maroon 5).

BTW: Classic songs like “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” (Beatles) or REM’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” with an epic 10 (13) word count might be released as "Hold Your Hand", "Pepper" or "End Of The World" or something like that today.

A good mission is short and fits on a T-shirt, according to Peter Drucker. Obviously, we need more than just one word to explain our organization's right to exist. The Website lists 50 top nonprofit statements, with interesting results: The average length of a mission statement is ~15 words, ranging from 235 (UNHCRincluding goals) to two (TED). The latter is a great example of keeping it super short and delivering a powerful message: 

"Spreading Ideas." (TED Mission Statement)

It's also a great way to conclude this series of songwriting hacks. The TED mission statement clearly fulfills all four hacks, it's about #1 The Heart Of The Story, it is #2 Meaningful, Not A Cliché#3 It Makes Us Sing Along, and it transports #4 One Story, Not Two

Now it's your turn. Check, reshape, challenge, recreate or start your mission statement. Have fun, and stay creative!




Know someone who would be interested in this article? Feel free to share with friends and let us know what you think with a comment below.


Johannes FleckerComment