Shooting Chekhov’s Gun in corporate storytelling

Chekhov’s Gun is a dramatic and narrative principle that states every element in a story must be necessary, and irrelevant elements should be removed. Elements should not appear to make “false promises” by never coming into play. It derives the name from Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, a famous Russian playwright and short-story writer. 

As an author I make sure that every element of my narrative has a role to play, no matter how insignificant, but it needs to play a role to justify its presence. So if I add an element to the storyline or a facet to the protagonist’s persona, that needs to play a role in taking the story forward. And if it doesn’t then, no matter how interesting it is or how close to the heart it is, it has to be surgically severed. 

The story is the same for every corporate storyteller — communicator, brand custodian or PR professional. As corporate storytellers they also need to be very careful of every element they add in a narrative. More often than not there is a tendency to add elements in a communication that are not linked directly to the story that one is trying to weave. The objective or rather justification may be to add facets or “colour” to the communication to enhance the image of the “protagonist”, which is a corporate leader or a company in this case. The “colour” element is usually appreciated by the protagonists, so it ends up staying in the communication. 

Now look at it from the perspective of a storyteller or better still a writer. If you let the protagonist decide on the narrative will he/she think about his/her image more or about the readers or about the balance the story needs to have? It is natural for any protagonist to want to highlight and focus on every element that enhances his/her image in the eyes of the readers or audience. For example, if in a story of a start up you add that the protagonist is a painter then Chekhov’s Gun dictates that this element needs to have a direct relevance to the narrative of the start up story. For example, he starts a designing firm for his love of art or starts an ecommerce platform to promote upcoming artists and popularise affordable art. His facet as a painter then becomes relevant to the reader. While the protagonist will insist that this facet is showcased because it is close to his/her heart, but as a corporate storyteller you cannot allow this element as it does not add to the story of how he/she made the fledgling start up on car rentals into a Unicorn. So it is the responsibility of the storyteller to control the narrative and only look at the interest of the reader or audience and no one else.  

Let me give you another example. Many media communiques carry multiple elements about the organisation that are, in most cases, not relevant to the news. 

A three-year-old start up getting fresh funding. Let us consider the following elements:

  1. Size of funding 
  2. About the start up 
  3. About the PE fund 
  4. Background on previous funding
  5. Some data on the market it operates and its market size
  6. Some numbers on growth, enterprise value, etc. 
  7. Background of the promoter – education/dropout, whether serial entrepreneur, his/her awards, contribution to society, etc.

Remember this is hardcore finance news of fund infusion. Therefore, elements 1 till 6 are relevant to the reader. The focus again is finance, along with every information that adds value to the deal. But element 7 is not. However, there is a pressure to add this line item from the protagonist — to tell his/her story or rather add the story to the main narrative. It is an understandable behaviour of the protagonist as there is a lot of passion and attachment to the main narrative. But as a communicator as a storyteller one has to only defend the interest of the readers. So this is where Chekhov’s Gun needs to be used to shoot down point 7 from the narrative.   

So this way you, as a corporate storyteller, need to give a hard look to every communication that they send. 

Chekhov’s gun is a weapon you must have in your arsenal.


The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Mahul Brahma
Dr Mahul Brahma is Chief Editor and Head of CSR, Corporate Communications and Branding, Publishing and Conferences for a Tata Steel and SAIL JV, mjunction. He has won several national-level awards in communications and CSR. He is a luxury commentator and author of five books – How to Communicate Strategically in Corporate World, the Luxe Trilogy (Decoding Luxe, Dark Luxe and Luxe Inferno) and Quarantined: Love in the time of Corona. He is an alumnus of Indian Institute of Management - Calcutta, St Xavier’s College, MICA, SSSUTMS, and University of Cambridge Judge Business School. He loves to play golf and paint.

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