Your 3 Most Important Stories to Master

Not every story works for every audience. Everyone should have a library of narratives that speak to different groups. If asked, I would answer that all organizations, whether non profit or for profit, should have the following types of stories in their arsenal:

1. Origin story – Why are you here? Very specifically, what happened? What was the “a-ha” moment for your organization’s founding? This kind of story grounds people. Besides, it’s interesting.

President Roosevelt’s story of how he launched the national park program comes to mind.  Specifically, the most powerful part of his conservation origins is the story around when he refused to shoot a bear that rather misguided organizers tied to a tree for the President to shoot so he was guaranteed a trophy. The President’s refusal to do so, and subsequent epiphany that everyone should be able to enjoy nature, launched the greatest period of national park development and conservation that we have seen in the 20th century. This story also was the origin of the teddy bear craze as he became known as “Teddy Roosevelt.” What ephipany did your founders or executive leadership have that put you on your current path?

2. Signature story – What is one anecdote that illustrates your mission? What is the story that is unique to your organization? This helps people remember you, not to mention put them on the right path of understanding about who you are and what you stand for.

A story that has stuck with me is one that Ed Clark, founder and head of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, tells around how the Center has educated and impacted people’s everyday behaviors around wildlife. A man met Ed at an event where the conversation turned to how it is “okay” to throw bio-degradable food stuffs out the car window while driving. Ed gently corrected him saying that even an apple core thrown onto the side of the road can entice (and train) wildlife to the come to the roadside, where they are too-often hit by a vehicle. Years later Ed ran into that gentleman again and he said “you know, I haven’t thrown an apple core out the window since I met you.” What is a story that you can claim that may be simple but shows the impact you are making?

3. Participant story – What story can you tell that shows how people interact with you, use your products or services or gained something from being involved with you? What stories could your staff share that show they are “called” to this work? This story helps people see the relevance you have to them.

The Southern Environmental Law Center does this beautifully. Several of their attorneys have been videotaped explaining “why they do what they do.” They also are terrific at capturing testimonial stories from their donors, who talk very specifically about why they contribute to the organization. In particular, they are very good at capturing the childhood memories both SELC’s employees and donors had around some of the special, natural places in the southeast from fishing with their father in the rivers to walking down to the docks to meet the fishermen. It is these memories that not only spur them on to act but also connect them in a very human and real way to their audiences. What story do you have that shows the people you help and the people who work in your organization are “just like me?”


A Messaging Haiku (of sorts)

Much has been written about powerful messaging, corporate storytelling and boosting personal and business narratives. The business of messaging can sound complicated. I plead guilty to adding to the library of resources. But, if I were to boil down what makes someone internalize and act upon an organization’s or individual’s message, it would be because that message was:

  • Delivered with authenticity and with eloquence
  • About something that was relevant to them
  • Which set the organization (or individual or cause) apart from (similar) others
  • And, it was clear

Consider this a kind of haiku (albeit much longer than the requisite 17 syllables) against which you can compare your elevator pitch or other key statements.

Message Process. The External Look.

Once you have taken an internal look, which includes auditing your current messaging, interviewing staff, board members and other stakeholders, and analyzing your materials, you are ready to take the second step and look outward.

A proactive messaging process should include assessing competitors’ messaging. We’ve discussed analyzing your competitor’s messages extensively here.

But you also should conduct as much market research around your customer base as your resources allow. By checking in with your current and potential customers you will avoid developing your corporate story and messages in a vacuum.

First, do you know who they are? Identify as much demographic information as you can.

After figuring out who you are trying to attract investigate what influences them and why. Besides conducting customer surveys that ask what they thought of you be sure to ask them plenty of questions that get to the heart of their world. Hundreds of revealing questions exist, such as:

  • What tone of voice resonates with them the most? (e.g. humor, sincerity, outrage) And, why?
  • Who do they pay attention to? (e.g. celebrities, peers, academic experts) Who else is influencing them?
  • Do they use social media? (e.g. topical forums and message boards, Facebook, LinkedIn?) Or, are they more apt to use more traditional channels? (e.g. evening news broadcasts, radio shows, newspapers, trade journals)
  • What are their pain points? What do they wish was different, better, more?
  • Where do they spend their time, and why?
  • What are their values?
  • What causes them to part with their resources (e.g. time, money, attention, referrals)

Making sure your messages work means making sure they work for your audience and not just look good on paper.

One Basic Positioning and Message Process. Use, Copy, Consider…

We are committed to better storytelling for and by everyone, so we are freely sharing some of our Four Leaf positioning and messaging processes.

Many methods exist for companies and organizations to craft their stories and narratives. Below is one simple course that can put order to the process of developing more powerful messaging.

In the coming weeks, we will discuss various parts of this process in more detail. But, for now, consider asking are your messages working for you? When was the last time you took a deep dive into your messaging? And, when you did were your decisions based on research, analysis, anecdotal evidence or your gut feelings?

Positioning & Messaging: One Basic Process

Step one: The Internal Look. Who are you and what do you believe?

  • Conduct a current message audit. What are you currently saying or sharing with your audiences?
  • Engage in a self perception analysis. What do you believe, think and know about yourself?

Step two: The External Look. What does your audience hear or see? What are you up against? What is the noise we are trying to cut through?

  • Conduct a competitive message analysis. Who or what is your audience choosing over you and why? What are they saying that is so compelling?
  • Engage in target audience research. Who are your customers, anyway? What do they think or know about you?

Step three: Message Development. Develop a series of messages in a planned message summit or series of meetings, including:

  • Target audience description
  • Concept pyramid (What are you trying to get across and what are the priorities?)
  • Good word, bad word list (What words do you always want associated with you? Which ones, not so much?)
  • Positioning statement
  • Elevator pitch/10 second story
  • Tag line
  • Power bites. (Answers to the top 10 questions you know you’ll get asked.)
  • 3 Take-away statements
  • Corporate boilerplate
  • Value messages

Step four: Testing and refreshing. Spend a few weeks testing your messages with trusted and loyal customers. Do they resonate or fall flat? Revise as necessary.

Could You Describe Your Company in 6 Words or Less?

It is no secret that I am addicted to Honest Tea. In addition to it tasting really good, the inside of their bottle caps include interesting messages. Lately, they have been printing customers’ six word “memoirs.” Interesting exercise. Could you sum up the basis of your life in six words of less? Samples include:

• Born with big nose. Pursued comedy.
• Became an accountant but still can’t count.
• Cloudy with a chance of sun.

Could you sum up your company in six words or less? How about your company’s values? Your products or services? Your mission?

Here’s mine: Better Storytelling For More Influence.

Okay, it’s just five words. But, still…

What’s yours?

Message Differentiation. If you closed up shop today, what would your customers miss the most?


The three parts of a powerful message include

  • providing a truthful view of who you are,
  • differentiating yourself from the competition, and
  • speaking or writing in a compelling manner.

Most organizations – both nonprofits and corporations alike – are pretty good at describing who they are and what they do.  They should be given they live their products and services day in and day out. And, millions of dollars are spent each year at advertising and branding agencies and marketing firms to ensure messages sizzle.

However, too many businesses or nonprofits forget to make sure their story stands out from the competing stories that customers and stakeholders are hearing. Differentiating your narrative from others is an important part of whether or not you are remembered.

In order to start you on the path of differentiating your story from others’, consider the following questions:

  • What is the one thing you believe or think that is different from your direct competitors?
  • What do you do better than anyone else available?
  • If you closed up shop today, what would your customers miss the most?
  • What do your customers or stakeholders report to others about you the most? (Note: Answers to this question provide insight into what your customers believe is your differentiating point.)
  • What is the one thing you can count on your organization doing, saying and delivering to a new customer?
  • What galls your competition the most about you? (Jealousy is insightful, too.)
  • For what would your current customers pay a premium?

Analyze Your Competitors’ Messages Before Developing Your Own

Evaluating your competitor’s messaging before developing your own corporate messages is a key step in powerful message development. This isn’t so you can borrow their best ideas or just craft stories that are dead opposite. Rather, you should conduct a competitive message analysis so you know what your customers are hearing. How could you stand out from the crowd if you don’t know what the crowd is shouting?

Naturally, you don’t want to be chanting the same mantra as a competitor. In addition to differentiating language, you also want to select a unique tone, positioning and approach. A competitive message analysis helps you understand where you can be not only different, but more authentically yourself.

Five Steps in a Competitive Message Analysis

Step One: Determine your competitors. This seems like a no-brainer. However, do you know what or who your competition really is? Who is being chosen over you? What are your customers choosing to do that makes it hard for you to engage them, and why? One of our messaging clients (a foundation about to embark upon a capital campaign) identified their largest “competitor” as the financial press because of the negative economic messages being sent at that time. And, yes, it is possible to do a competitive message analysis on such a thing. We discovered what words were being used over and over again that would scare a contributor. Those were the sentiments that needed to be countered.

Step Two: Identify what you will review. Corporate web sites, Slideshare presentations, Linkedin Profiles, press releases, other google findings, press clippings and more are all available online. Choose channels to which your customers and stakeholders are paying attention . If your competition is another company, go to your competitor’s industry conference presentations. Monitor their media coverage. Follow them on Twitter. Watch what they choose to sponsor.

Step Three: What are the competition’s messages? This includes:

  • What is their tag line? What energy does it convey?
  • What position do they appear to take? This means, what are they hanging their hat on? For instance, GE’s positioning is clearly centered on “imagination.” I submit Nike is all about “sports playing in a no-whining zone.” Fidelity Investments wishes you to know they are “making it easy.”
  • What are their main messages? Identify specific statements used time and again. Identify 10 key themes.
  • What words do they appear to use over and over?
  • What advantages do you see in their messages? For example, they are very clear in their messaging. Or, they make widgets sound really, really interesting.
  • What disadvantages do you see in their messages? For instance, do they use a lot of jargon in their messaging? Do they sound too negative? Or unrealistic?
  • What characteristics of the organization are being spotlighted repeatedly?

Step Four: What do they appear to be ultimately “selling?” Choose one word, if you can. Are they selling being a one-stop shop? The best? The fastest? The most economical?

Step Five: Where are you different? Choose one word or statement that differentiates you from this particular competitor.

Once about five competitive forces have been analyzed, you will be in a much better position to craft messages that can cut through the noise and get the attention you seek.

Buzzwords and Blarney in Company Messages

Mynt Public Relations posted recently on the many “buzzwords” that too many public relations folks just can’t seem to let go of.

I would add a word to the list: delighted. This is especially true if is used in a quote. CEO Big Wig is delighted to announce….

(Full disclosure: You  may find press releases online with my name attached that use some of these words. Between client’s insistence and my own lack of time now and again, you will see that even the pros some time can’t get away from the blarney.)

But, at Four Leaf Public Relations we are working on getting away from using the tired old jargon.

What makes a buzzword? A word that has lost all its power due to overuse. Like the song that is played on the radio time and again, words that once held meaning no longer sound authentic when used. For instance, the word “solutions.” If you announce you are an integrated [[insert whatever]] solutions provider, what does that mean really? Other typically overused words include excellent, leader, and master.

What is your least favorite buzzword?

5 Self-Audit Questions to Ask Before Developing Your Corporate Story

Whether you know it or not, when it comes to describing your company or organization you are delivering messages that set people on a path to either include you or exclude you from their future. Knowing how you and your staff view your organization, its target audience and its competition is the first step in any proactive positioning and messaging work. By asking yourself and other staff members to answer the questions below, you will have a better understanding of your company’s beliefs and the default language they are currently using.

1. What perception challenges are we dealing with? If your employees or colleagues believe something is a challenge or problem, they are speaking directly to it whenever they talk about what you are doing. Ask your people to identify the top three public perception challenges that your organization is facing. Raise it this way: If these three viewpoints about you were changed, your goals and objectives could be met. What is their greatest area of concern around the company’s reputation?

2. Who is our target audience? Who do your people believe they are serving? From their job titles to what they read, from what keeps them up at night to what causes them to act.  What do they believe your customers, partner groups and other stakeholders consumed by? And, what do they say about you when we’re not in the room? Whoever they believe they are serving and why, colors their actions and, most definitely, their language choices.

3. What stands in our way? The answer to this question might surprise you. Ask your staff if they had a magic wand and could change anything within or outside the organization, what would it be? Be brave. Whatever answer is given will be a clue as to what they are raising (or not raising) with outsiders.

4. What are our advantages? Ask them to brag about themselves, their leadership, and the company. What do you have that is so special, again, according to your people? Whatever they say is what they are publicizing. Does it match with what you perceive to be your advantages?

5. If I could only tell a prospect or potential stakeholder one thing about us it would be, what? This gets to the heart of what they are “selling.” Understanding your people’s own narrative about your organization, its products and services is key to know where they will always “go” when asked, What is your company about?

A bonus question: Who are our competitors, and why? Identifying the opposition – and why we should be concerned — is key to messaging work, as well. What do your people believe is so special about the competition? What are they doing that you are not?

3 Parts of a Powerful Message

A few weeks ago I spoke to a leadership group for our regional Chamber of Commerce. The topic was crafting a powerful message and story and distributing it with impact. It was a good refresher for me just to prepare for the meeting.

Over the last 25 years as a communications professional, I’ve seen business leaders spend countless hours on ensuring their financial house is in order, their processes are efficient, and their employees are engaged and productive. Yet, when it comes to developing their organizational narrative, too many believe one afternoon – too often an hour during a board meeting – will produce an influential elevator pitch about who they are and what they are about.

The same holds true for a blog post about messaging. A few paragraphs describing the positioning and messaging a company should go through aren’t enough. But, at least below are a few ideas to get someone started.

Three basic elements of a powerful message:

  • It is compelling. Use a page turning, double-taking lead-in. Make your elevator pitch interesting to your target audience (not just to you).
  • If differentiates you. How are you unique, really? Excellent customer service is no longer a powerful differentiator. What do you bring to the table that only you may claim?
  • It is marked by truth and accuracy, which, by the way are not always the same. But, that’s another blog post. Ask yourself, what can you really deliver? What is believable? What can you say that tells the real story about you?