Saturday, February 6, 2010

Rule #53: It's never the thing itself.

At the end of a meal at a Chinese restaurant, along with the check they present you with a fortune cookie. But it's not the cookie you're interested in--it's the little slip of paper inside. It's not the cookie, it's the fortune. But if they just presented you a slip of paper minus the cookie, that wouldn't work either. You need the cookie wrapped around the fortune so you can pretend that you're eating a cookie for dessert, when what you're really doing is reading a fortune for dessert.
In the world of script writing, they have a term for "the thing itself." They call it writing "on the nose." It's when you have your character announce to the audience exactly what he or she is feeling--the actual thing itself--rather than wrapping the feeling in a piece of behavior that enacts what's really going on inside. It's delivering the cookie, without the fortune.
This line of thinking comes up because this morning I was talking with the always-insightful Betsy Burroughs about the world of social entrepreneurship--and why even the term "social entrepreneurship" is so often a big turn-off. The problem is, it's all cookie, not fortune. It's so on the nose, it makes most people want to thumb their nose.
But what's at the heart of social entrepreneurship--the fortune in the middle--is the promise of a way of shaping the future. It's the opportunity for really smart, creative people to combine their entrepreneurial business skills, their technological smarts, their buiness model creativity with something that matters, something that's bigger than just making more money. It's money, but it's money plus meaning.
That's the excitement that's hidden inside the boring terminology of "social entrepreneurship."
It's a lesson I learned back in the early days of Fast Company magazine: the dirty little secret about Fast Company was, it wasn't a business magazine. Not really. Not in the old fashioned way. The business magazine part was the cookie, the delivery mechanism that made the real product legitimate. The real product? That was a new conversation about the future, about how individuals could make a difference by tapping into the best business has to offer.
The truth is, it's never the thing itself. It's always what's tucked inside.
So ask yourself: What is it that's tucked inside your business? What's the fortune around which you've wrapped your cookie?

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