Romeo and Juliet

2007

When William Shakespeare wrote Romeo & Juliet more than four hundred years ago, he could hardly have imagined that his star-crossed lovers would have something to say to a 21st century drinks conglomerate.

But as the internal communications team at Scottish & Newcastle plc , the an international brewing group, discovered recently, there's plenty for modern businesses to learn from the Bard.

In TheBard & Co (Cyan, £12.99), 26 business writers were each given a Shakespeare play and asked to explore what the play had to say about business life today. The project was devised by 26, the national organisation that promotes a more imaginative use of language at work, together with the Globe Theatre.

Romeo & Juliet was my play – and not, at first glance, the most obviously business-related of Shakespeare's works. It's not about power struggles or management, after all. Nor is it a tale of commerce or manipulation. It's a love story, isn't it? Well, yes - primarily. But it's about other things as well.

For example, two dysfunctional families locked in a feud so old they've forgotten what they're fighting about. Sound familiar? Dithering leaders, headstrong youngsters and self-serving middle-rankers. Ring any bells?

It's also about a catastrophic failure of communication – though at least people in modern businesses don't die when they get their wires crossed. And most importantly of all for professional communicators, it's about language.

At least people in modern businesses don't die when they get their wires crossed.

I had already run a creativity workshop at Scottish & Newcastle, so I suggested they might like to take part in the project as a kind of experiment. To my surprise, they signed up immediately.

There were eight members of the team. We divided up the principal characters among them, then sent everyone off to read the play. When we reconvened, a couple of weeks later, the first thing to surface was the difficulty people were having with the language.

Modern businesses write in a way that's flat, impersonal and colourless - at worst, almost meaningless. If a rusty filing cabinet could speak, that's how it would sound.

But Shakespeare uses language as an extension of every facet of his being - head, heart, limbs, senses. Reading Shakespeare, even to yourself, silently, is like hearing a great choir that tiptoes and thunders, tugs at your heart-strings, plays tricks with your mind, sings, whispers and howls. And at the heart of it lies meaning, layers of meaning that touch equally on the simplicities of life and the great universal truths.

Quite simply, Shakespeare has a power that most business communicators would die for. But you have to work at his words. As a mirror to the way we speak at work, Shakespeare is unforgiving - and we've grown lazy with language.

Nevertheless, by dint of midnight oil and furrowed brows, the Scottish & Newcastle team found a new window on language slowly opening.

The first part of the project culminated in a day's outing to Stratford to see the play performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. In part two, each person wrote about what they had learnt from their characters about their own jobs, about Scottish & Newcastle, and about the drinks industry in general.

Six weeks later we came together again and any fears I may have had that the exercise wouldn't bear fruit were thoroughly misplaced. It seemed that Romeo & Juliet was bursting with metaphors for modern business life.

Trust, loyalty, responsibility, moderation, foresight, co-operation, decisiveness, good leadership – or their opposites (in fact mostly their opposites) – were all there to be seen in the behaviour of the Montagues and Capulets.

Romeo homed in on the importance of market knowledge and branding, positioning himself as a new low-alcohol spritzer 'of complex character' for 18-30 year-old women. Juliet, the ingénue and a newcomer to the sales department, put her trust in the wrong person with disastrous consequences for the business.

Mercutio, Romeo's exuberant friend and the murderous Tybalt's victim, poignantly described the betrayal felt by a long-serving employee when a part of the business was sold off. The Nurse reflected on the fact that gossip is an inescapable part of life in large organisations. The Friar wrote about the virtues of perseverance and the ubiquity of incompetence and over-promotion in FTSE-100 companies.

Three of the team had two lesser characters each. The Prince and Paris, the figure of authority and Juliet's feeble suitor respectively, wrote about good communication, responsible leadership and the need to seize initiatives. Lord and Lady Capulet focused on conflict between old and new ideas and the dangers of taking one's eye off the competition.

And then there was the language. Gone were the turgid, impersonal convolutions of management-speak. In their place were emotion and humour, imagination and personality, a sense of pleasure in what was written.

It was hard to remember that these eight people were writing about that most potentially dreary of subjects, the daily business of a large 21st century organisation. But their writing was vibrant and alive. It made you actually want to read it.

We had put our trust in our imaginations and the powerful human urge to be playful with language, and we'd been vindicated. This was a project without a measurable outcome in sight. You can no more measure good business writing than the works of Shakespeare himself, because both are a matter of spirit. But once you've experienced the good, you can certainly measure the bad.

About The Author

Jamie Jauncey
Jamie Jauncey

Jamie Jauncey is a business writer, musician and co-founder of the Dark Angels programme of residential Creative Writing in Business courses.