Book review – The Invisible Grail: How brands can tell better stories

Helen Keevy

Copywriter & content designer - Marketing, UX, Technical | B2B and not-for-profit sectors


The Invisible Grail: How brands can tell better stories is the second book in The Writer™ trilogy of books about writing for business.  Originally published in 2003, the revised edition was released earlier this year.

As a copywriter, I loved We, Me, Them and It, the first book in the trilogy. It wasn’t the ‘how to’ book I had initially expected. As it says on the back: “In other times we might have called it a paean. Today, perhaps, a song of praise to the infinite power of words, a confession of a life-long love affair with language.”

John Simmons’ knowledge and love of language shines through in the second book too, and it repeats many of the assertions of the first book, such as that business writing needs to be more creative and make an emotional connection with the reader, and that employees should be given more personal creativity in their writing.

If you’re after a step-by-step guide on how brands can tell better stories, The Invisible Grail is not the book you’re after though, despite its subtitle.  It’s definitely about words and about stories, but it’s about how brands could use language better more generally, with perhaps a third of the book focused on stories. (The first edition went to print with the subtitle How brands can use words to engage with audiences.

Using ‘stories’ in the title of a business book would probably have made it a harder sell in 2003. Less so now.)  It doesn’t give you a plan on how to source and structure your brand stories. It doesn’t discuss story archetypes or how to plot. What it does give you is advice on what a good story contains – a core of truth – how you can use words to tell it well, and what you can achieve with a well-told story – commitment and loyalty from both your customers and your employees.

Simmons’ premise is that words “are a poorly used, misunderstood and neglected resource” in business. As such, they are the invisible grail in brands’ quests to win over their audiences. “We need time and space to enjoy words…[and] businesses consistently deny time and space to words. In doing so, those businesses become less likeable and they impoverish themselves.” He argues that words written with more thought, creativity, honesty, humanity and warmth enable brands to build better relationships with their customers and their employees. He has structured the book itself as a story, using one of the archetypal plots – the quest.

The quest is divided into six chapters. Setting out lays out the quest itself, the search for the invisible grail. How can brands use words to win affection at a time when many consumers see big brands as the bad guys?

Chapter Two, The map of the world, explores the English language itself, its richness, its potential, how it’s evolving around the world and what that means for multinational brands.

Chapter Three, Those already traveling, gives three examples of brands that Simmons believes have discovered the grail (Innocent, Lush and the former finance company, Egg) and are using it to engage with their customers really well.

Four, Stories of exploration, looks at how brands can use make better use of words and stories internally to motivate employees and empower them to do a better job. And then there’s Chapter 5 – Going underground – an A-Z of random thoughts about language, writing and brands. They’re seemingly united only in how they were written – on the tube on Simmons’ daily commute to work. There are some interesting thoughts and insights, but it does feel a bit like the hero on our quest got lost in the forest and ate a few dodgy mushrooms.

The story wraps up in the final chapter – Journey’s End – where the grail is more visible but still feels fuzzy around the edges.

I did enjoy the book, but not nearly as much as We, Me, Them and It.  It brims with humour, carefully crafted passages, inspiring quotes and sharp insights. Reading descriptions like these left me with a satisfied grin on my face.

Referring to jargon: “The main problems with these forms of language is that they provide voluminous cloaks underneath which they hid emaciated thoughts.”

Or with reference to the foreign words that we using unthinkingly in English:  “We don’t even need to italicize them to show they’re foreign. They now travel without passports.”

Am I glad I read it? Yes, absolutely. It’s now bristling with post-it notes and peppered with pencil stars and squiggles marking ideas for exercises and challenges, turns of phrase that delighted me, examples of good use, thoughts on what makes language great, and things to consider when you’re trying to make it better.

But I was irritated by the structure. It doesn’t work as a quest, and reading it, I never felt as if I was on one. In parts I felt I was hopping around in a circle or following a hero who was all too easily side-tracked.  Simmons does warn the reader that “The nature of a journey is that we seldom travel in a straight line.” That may be true, but I do like to have some sense of the road ahead or at least of the road I’ve travelled.

When I read a book like this, I want to be able to glance back over it and for the chapter titles or the sub-headings to jog my memory. Maybe I’ve just read too many American-style business books with their repetition, repetition, repetition of the key points and their tidy chapter summaries.

When I got to the end of The Invisible Grail, I was left with an overwhelming urge to chop it up and rearrange it – leaving out a few sizeable chunks. I liked the narrative concept, just not the execution. Perhaps it would’ve worked better as a series of short stories.

What do you think?

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