Thinkers and commentators on purpose spend a lot of time debating its merit, validity and, credibility, how useful it is as a tool, to boards and employees, and the extent to which it should become core to what an organization does.
Rarer though is the discussion about the language that these purpose statements are written in. Which for something so vital to getting things done in a business is an odd oversight. As a recent paper in the Academy of Management Journal suggests, part of the reason why vision and other corporate and organizational statements fail, or fail to gain traction, is the language that they are written in, using abstract terms rather than concrete metaphors, leading to what the authors call ‘the blurry vision bias.’1
So what does a brief survey2 of some selected current purpose statements reveal about the words used to craft them? With the allowance that this is necessarily a subjective, qualitative view, the sample that we looked at suggested that the tone of the language used can be considered to be one of: functional, simple, evocative and ambitious. Let’s consider those in turn.
The purpose statements that fall into this category are what we might consider ‘Ronseal’3 – they’re straightforward, leaving little doubt as to what the organizations do. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a loftier or more noble sense to be seen – note P&G’s “improve the lives of consumers.” But a neutral observer might suggest that can never be inspiring enough, or felt in the wider world, suggesting that they might not truly be purpose statements.
The ‘simple’ language in these purpose statements means that there’s no problem in understanding what drives these organisations – clarity is an under-rated virtue when it comes to corporate writing. And by using language that might be thought of as humble, what’s achieved are statements that, in their own quiet ways, are inspiring too.
It’s the addition of one or two words that are more ‘poetic’ in feel – and unexpected in appearance – that elevate these particular purpose statements beyond the functional and simple. What’s achieved are statements that not only go beyond what’s traditionally expected of a purpose, but actually articulate bold and compelling reasons for being for these organizations.
And in this final category are where we find those purpose statements which are lofty in scope and grand in tone. This is where the rhetoric reaches out beyond the corporate to try and be not just ambitious, but world changing. It’s not for the faint-hearted – but a critical voice would suggest it’s this very grandness that gives detractors of purpose as an idea their fuel: is it really the place of these organizations to indulge in this sort of language, especially if they’re heavy on abstracts that can never be delivered upon?
While it is useful to know that purpose statements can fall into these four categories, a more interesting question to ask is: are there other ways of writing purpose statements? Ways that might be more likely to deliver on the promise inherent within the concept? Is language that is functional, simple, evocative or ambitious likely to motivate and drive change, within an organization and the wider world? Or are there other aspects of rhetoric that we should be considering when drafting?
To understand that, in our next article we'll look at how language has been used to cultivate change in the past, by people who in their different ways, had a purpose.
2. Statements sourced from https://hbr.org/2014/09/your-companys-purpose-is-not-its-vision-mission-or-values and https://www.alessiobresciani.com/foresight-strategy/51-mission-statement-examples-from-the-worlds-best-companies/
3. Ronseal is a British manufacturer of stains and paints that preserve wood. Its advertising strapline, “Does exactly what it says on the tin”, created in the 1990s, has since entered popular culture, as an idiomatic synonym for ‘living up to its name’ and ‘being obvious’.
CEO Purpose Report 2020
For the second year in a row, we conducted the world's most comprehensive study exploring what today's CEO really thinks about purpose.Explore the full insights now