There is a very old story — first told in a Buddhist text — that goes something like this:

Six blind men spent a lot of their time arguing about what an elephant was like, even though they had never seen or touched one. To settle the debate once and for all, a friend arranged for the men to meet a real, live elephant. The men were thrilled to finally put the debate behind them.

One by one, they touched various parts of the elephant.

“Aha,” said one man, feeling the elephant’s sharp tusk. “Just as I suspected. An elephant is like a spear.”

“Oh,” said another, grabbing the elephant by the trunk, “An elephant is nothing but a large snake!”

The men quickly started fighting among themselves once again, until their friend pointed out that each of them was partly right. The only way to get a true picture of a beast as large as an elephant, he said, would be to put all the impressions together.

LRC and the Elephant

When we first meet with our clients, it can be a lot like talking to someone who is holding on to one part of the elephant.

For founders of small, nimble startups — particularly if they’re engineers — it can be hard to describe the company’s mission and vision because they’ve been so closely involved in creating the product or service. In fact, they’re too close to the thing they’ve created — which is why when they’re asked to describe their company, they start describing the features of its product, instead.

In other words, to the founder-engineer of a startup, the company may feel a lot like a spear, or a snake.

On the other hand, for someone in a big multinational company or a complex public sector organization, the problem may be exactly the opposite. Because the whole elephant is too hard to describe, they instead talk in vague terms about the elephant, without ever giving specifics on what it looks and feels like.

When we work with our clients to tell their story, we try to look at their organization from as many different angles as possible. As part of our early research into a company narrative, we interview leaders, workers, customers, supporters and suppliers of the organization — and listen to the way they describe what they’ve seen. Sometimes we do a handful of interviews — and other times, we do dozens.

In the end, we take those impressions back to our clients and show them — sometimes for the first time — what their elephant looks like.

Elephants and Narrative

Every time we’ve revealed the results of the “six blind men and the elephant routine” with our clients, it’s always been dramatic. One client literally slapped his forehead and said: “That’s exactly right. I can’t believe I missed what was right in front of me.”

The narrative process doesn’t end there, of course.

Getting a clear picture of the elephant is only the first step in creating a company story. And it’s a pivotal moment as we start to develop a fuller and deeper narrative that gets people talking.