Getting Everyone on the Same Page With A Concept Pyramid

The concept pyramid is an exercise we’ve used to help get client’s employees on the same page. But, unlike the “good word-bad word” list exercise, which ferrets out default language your staff is using, the concept pyramid exercise helps set message priorities. It organizes everyone’s thoughts and ideas about who you are, what you deliver, and why.

It is important to note that the concept pyramid is meant to simply get ideas down on paper. It will not be the official language you use.

Similar to the “good word-bad word” list exercise, it starts with getting your key people around a conference room table (or take them somewhere where they can relax and be forthcoming). Now answer the following questions:

  • Who are you?
  • What do you do?
  • How do you do it?
  • Why do you do this?
  • Why would anyone care?
  • What else do you do that people would care about?

If you can’t answer these questions, you aren’t ready for messaging – yet. Get on the same page, conceptually, and then seek that scintillating copy to express it.

Punchy Infographics Made Easy

by guest blogger, Christine Hohlbaum

What is an Infographic? It is a story-telling image that conveys complex data at a glance. A good infographic tells a story using the visual medium. A bad one plunks down seemingly random data without an overarching narrative.

Essentially, there are four basic types of infographics:

1. The “state of” an industry/trend/idea: These infographics are great for celebrating a milestone or sounding a warning alarm. The best ones combine timelines with a vision of how fast the world is changing.

2. Viewer Resource: Great for building goodwill via “how to” resources, supplying a utilitarian bulletin-board “guide” to a topic, curating “sticky” experiences with interactivity or repurposing promotional items, these infographics can be posted on a wall and used as a guide.

3. Comparative Image: Comparative infographics can inject humor and levity into content with items that are clearly different, or can help extent a public debate, such as a Mac vs. PC infographic.

4. Evolution: Good for “food for thought” content, establishing authority, triggering deeper discussion or debate.

Before you can even put your fingers to the keyboard, you have to consider several steps first. Like a movie script, infographics require a certain level of brainstorming and sketching to plan out your storyboard before you get to the details.

Research. Decide what your subject is going to be and do some research. An infographic is not just a pretty picture: it says something. Avoid presenting stale, outdated information. Ask yourself, “What do I want people to know? What do I want it to say?” Hard data is essential. The more powerful statistics you have, the better. But don’t overload your infographic with random data as you might your plate at Thanksgiving dinner. The consequences are a jumbled image with too much information!

 Brainstorm. Once you have some hard data to work from, consider the layout and design. Infographics often work best when the graphics reflect the subject of the data, so let the data inform and drive the design. In this part of the design process, explore as many avenues as possible.

Develop Concepts. Once you have outlined your ideas into a storyboard format, identify several more coherent concepts. Get your business partner or friend to help bounce ideas around. Like a doctor’s visit, getting a second opinion can never hurt.

Pare it Down to One Idea. As you refine your idea, continue to draw the infographic. You can use index cards with each idea if you are a hands-on type of person to easily move the various parts back and forth. At this point, you should begin to see the finished product coming into form.

Finalize. Put on the finishing touches with any last-minute tweaking. With infographics this usually means adding highlights/textures to really make the graphics pop.

Best Practices 

  • Always include your sources, including your own Web site URL, somewhere on the image.
  • Use HTML for people to embed the image while linking back to your site (SEO-friendly solution).
  • Host the infographic on your Web site. Have people link to it. Some blog platforms ( allow you to post an image without having to upload it using the link itself.
  • Make it snappy. Snapshots are punchier than super-long images that require scrolling.
  • Add every image to your account.

Christine Louise Hohlbaum is a long-time consultant at Four Leaf Public Relations. When she’s not tweeting or posting an update, she’s thinking about her next blog contribution. Her motto? I blog, therefore I am.

The Most Overlooked Part of a Powerful Message

Nouns. I lead with the punch line.

Far too many companies and organizations lead with the benefits, the adjectives, and the scintillating catch phrases. They forget to do one simple thing: tell an audience who they are and what they do using simple-to-understand nouns.

How many times have you read: We bring unparalleled results to your most thorny problems instead of We can fix your computer?

Unless your brand is Apple or Dell or Google, no one can actually hear what you are saying (or read what you are writing) if they don’t hear a noun.

Your organization is an airline, a computer technology company, a retail store, a nonprofit association that represents lawn mower manufacturers or something entirely different. But, it is something. Say it. And, say it early.

Suzanne Henry Lends Her Creative Writing Expertise to Blogville 2012

April 25, 2012 – Charlottesville, VA – Suzanne E. Henry, an award-winning communications consultant, today shared her tips, tricks and secrets to overcoming writer’s block and fatigue to a gathering of local bloggers at the 2012 Blogville annual event, hosted by Cville Sheblogs, a Charlottesville-based blogging community group.

“As someone who needs to produce content daily, I have had my share of ‘hitting the wall’ when writing,” said Suzanne Henry, who has been a professional communicator and writer for 27 years. “But, any writer can find themselves with a case of writer’s block, whether they are someone who has to write for business or pleasure.”  She added, “blog writing is special, too. It’s relentless.”

Suzanne shared many of her favorite exercises collected from her many years of studying with writing masters, from her university days as an English and mass communications student to Grammy-award winning Rosanne Cash and screenwriting master Robert McKee.

Why You Need A Story Section in Your Communications Plan

As we continue to explore the various sections to include in the modern day communications plan, we turn to the heart of your effort: your story. Be sure to include a section in your plan that specifically references the main stories and messages you are going to use.

Of course, this will not include every story. You’ll be pitching unique ideas to the media, developing new content and crafting submessages along the way. However, you should have an inventory of “signature” stories and a high level message guide as part of your plan.

(What? You don’t have a message guide? We can fix that.)  We also can help you with your stories. Yes, there is a difference.)

Your message guide section should include all top level messages from your positioning statement and value proposition to a spotlight pitch and answers to frequently asked questions. It sets the message tone so everyone is clear on how you are going to position the organization at the most basic level. It provides the foundation on which all other messages are developed.

Your story section should include a short inventory of the various customer and client stories you can tell to illustrate what you do, the impact you have and how what you do is better, different and relevant to your target audience. It needn’t include the stories themselves, but rather give some sense of what is available to use. It also will showcase what you may need to develop. Hint: Take a look at your case studies, past media coverage, and customer testimonials to identify themes.

Does this seem like overkill?  You would be surprised at how many organizations do not have this section and then wonder why confusion exists in the marketplace about who they are and what they deliver. Or, why their employee base doesn’t seem to be on the same page. Know what you have to work with from the start. It will get you off on the right foot.

The Death of a Message: Parsing and Politics


There is nothing like watching a presidential run to see the best — and worst — of messaging. Let’s examine the brouhaha over presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s gaffe around saying how he “likes to fire” people. What he actually said to the Nashua, N.H. Chamber of Commerce audience that fateful morning was this:

“I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. You know, if someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I want to say, ‘You know, I’m going to get someone else to provide this service to me.’”

But, naturally the news (not to mention his opponents) jumped all over the “I like to” part. Anyone who likes to fire a person from a job doesn’t sound like someone we want to know, right?

But, if you see his full message, it makes sense. After all he was talking to an audience of people who have likely had to fire someone in their business.

But, here is the thing about messages. They can be parsed. A presidential candidate should know better. A business leader should also know this little fact. If it can be taken out of context, it probably will be.

Be careful when sharing an exciting soundbite that requires two or three more sentences to explain. The odds of your scintillating statement being taken out of context is high – even inside a small organization. People talk. And, they like to repeat things that are exciting. Make sure your electrifying message – especially one that is supposed to show off your character or how you might do something in the future — makes sense to not only who are speaking to immediately, but to anyone else who might hear it.


Note: Four Leaf PR is non partisan. We are not formally backing a presidential candidate.

Corporate Messaging & the Growing Loss of Credibility

Or, perhaps I should have titled this blog post – how too many organizations seem to believe their customer’s experience does not have to match their corporate messaging.

(Ed note: Warning: The following is a long post. But, anything dealing with showcasing the truth – or lack thereof – deserves some space.)

There are four enterprises whose messaging I have paid strict attention to recently – a bank, an online general merchant, a satellite TV company, and a major airline. These four organizations are the epitome of where business storytelling and messaging is succeeding – and where it is failing.

They are: Zappos, DirecTV, Wells Fargo, and Delta Airlines.

For more than a decade I have been applying some methodology to the magic of storytelling and messaging for clients. A bit of a formula exists. To be powerful, stories and messages have to be compelling, truthful and differentiating.

For years, I found the hardest part for organizations was trying to differentiate themselves from competitors.  In short, they weren’t very good at making themselves sound unique.

Today, we have another problem. And, it is the worst kind. We are steeped in a business world that is struggling with the truth.

As illustration, let’s pick on the bank. It was my last foray with Wells Fargo that I finally realized too many enterprises today are struggling with the truth in their messaging.

For instance, two days before Thanksgiving, as I was sitting under a Wells Fargo poster at my bank manager’s desk that read “With you when you want a head start on next year’s goals” I couldn’t help but ask why it was going to cost me $35 to get $51 wire transferred to Sweden. Or why it costs $16 every time a client wire transfers a payment to me. After all, they seemed to  have a lot of posters around that carried the “with you” theme. Their answer? “That’s just the way it is and we can’t do
anything about it
.” So much for the “being with me” advertising theme being more than a vacant slogan.

It made me wonder how much money they spent on posters, signs, copy and messaging, especially in light of the recent merger with Wachovia. Then, I noticed another interesting sign Wells Fargo seemed particularly proud of given the sheer size of it:  “We have one very powerful business rule. It is concentrated in one word: courtesy.” Hmmm. The definition of courtesy goes beyond just “being nice.” It means giving respect and consideration.  You know, like “being with me?”

Compare this to, an online retailer that started out as the for shoes. Now you can purchase clothing, jewelry, eyeware, household items and more.

Their tag line is “Powered By Service.” This is no empty slogan, as demonstrated by an order I made one night at 10:30 p.m. They wrote it would take a few days to receive the order. However, it arrived, via UPS, at 10 a.m. the next day. They also included instructions on how to return it – for any reason. Oh, and the shipping was free (both ways), and I had up to a year to return the item if needed. A year!? Unheard of. I would not expect this kind of service if they didn’t promise it. But, they do promise it in their messaging and they deliver.

Then, there was messaging I encountered on my business trip a few weeks ago. I was flying Delta Airlines between Richmond, Virginia, through Atlanta, to Louisville, Kentucky. As anyone who travels a lot, via air, will tell you, it takes all day to get  from point A to point B, even if it is only a state or two away. It also too often includes delays, security harassments, and bewildering rules. During this particular trip, as I found my way down a crowded jetway to get on the flight that was three hours delayed due to aircraft mechanical trouble, I had time to read the Delta posters.

It read, “We’re not just building a bigger airline, we’re building a better one.”  I had seen their commercials with this messaging over the last year. But, it didn’t really hit me until I was truly annoyed. After all, I am hours delayed. But, they were admitting they hadn’t figured it all out yet. And, you know what? It works. Their tag line, “Keep Climbing,” basically says they are trying and have a ways to go.

The next day I found an apology e-mail in my in-box because as they wrote, “someone in this industry still has the passenger’s back.” A day later they sent me a survey. Yes, the emails were both forms. But, they were actions of an enterprise at least trying. Another of their messages states “the next time an airline asks for your business, ask them first what they’ve done to deserve it,” and you know I just might do that.

Delta’s messaging and my experience with them is in stark contrast to my fourth example. Sorry, DirecTV, but you get an “F” in powerful storytelling and messaging. Despite their messaging that states “don’t just watch TV, DirecTV,” and “experience TV like never before,” if you can’t access the signal, get someone to show up, or get answers quickly and succinctly, no one is
directing anything.

Over the last three weeks, as my husband and I moved into a new house, we had two DirecTV in-person visits (after much begging and pleading) and six “phone sessions” (some lasting more than an hour) with technical support, yet only about 10 hours of service (at the writing of this blog post). It got to the point we had the local technician’s cell phone number, which we had to call many times because the service would just quit, and sometimes he just didn’t show up when he said he would. (I would tweet our frustration occasionally just to see if anyone from DirecTV was listening. They weren’t.) Add to the fact that we were outright lied to about what channels we would receive and would not, well, you are not even on the truth scale at all. Yet, they advertise that they are “the #1 in customer satisfaction of all satellite and cable providers.” We will see. We will see when we get the bill.

If you are going to advertise a message, be sure you can deliver. No matter how much money you spend on advertising, public relations, social media or clever storytelling techniques, if the customer’s experience does not match you have lost credibility. Nay, you have killed your credibility.

The New, Progressive “About Us” Page Uses Storytelling

Every Web site has an “About Us” page. Most follow the formula of opening with a corporate boilerplate or brief description, a list of key personnel, and contact information. It sometimes has the dreaded online form, which no one believes will ever reach a real person. And, perhaps the latest press release announcing the organization’s latest greatest work achievement will be posted. In other words, a static web page that does little to differentiate them from others, tell a compelling story or entices the viewer to actually learn something memorable.

However, a few progressive organizations are using their About Us page to share the story of who they are, where they come from, and what makes them special. A few examples:

  • Techsquare. They talk about their origins, the “priesthood,” the kind of people you’ll find at the company and more. They even interject a human voice. Check out their history section for a great example of telling the most important parts of your history without writing a coffee table tome.
  • Bentley. Their descriptions are the closest thing you’ll get to feeling the wind in your hair when driving a Bentley. Their passion shines in their About Us page, telling readers exactly what they stand for and what is important to them.
  • IndieBride. While this About Us page is a little “in your face,” organizations would do well to identify their voice as strongly as the author of this web page.

A quick Google search of  best About Us pages will point you to many more. Take an objective look at your About Us page. What is it saying to potential customers? Does it tell a story? Or just give basic facts leaving the readers to draw their own conclusions?

The Difference Between Storytelling and Messaging

Storytelling and messaging are two different communication disciplines. But, you need both to ensure communications effectiveness.

According to the National Storytelling Association, storytelling is “the art of using language, vocalization, and/or physical  movement and gesture to reveal the elements and images of a story to a specific, live audience.”

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, messaging is a communication in writing, in speech, or by signals.

Those are good starts in understanding the difference. But, there is more.

The trend in storytelling for corporate and nonprofit work is on the rise. There is a good reason. After all, who doesn’t love a good story? It makes whatever you are seeking to communicate interesting and sometimes even entertaining. “Messaging” on the other hand has gotten a bad rap with many people in the business and nonprofit world believing it is old-school, 1960s Madison Avenue hype where a company makes up what they want people to believe. Maybe bad messaging is that. But, good messaging is far from the old days of marketing manipulation. (See our formula for a powerful message.)

Messaging — the craft of determining what you want to communicate very specifically — is equally important to storytelling.

While stories give a framework or environment for what you are trying to communicate, messages are clear, specific thoughts on what you are seeking to deliver. To sum up, stories give context while messages provide a conclusion.

Conclusions are important. I recently worked with a company comprised of engineers. They were great at giving you all the data and backstory. In other words, they were terrific at telling the story of how they came up with their new technology. The trouble was they assumed whoever they were speaking to would arrive at the same conclusion they had. Some good messaging was needed to support their storytelling.

By all means, use storytelling for your communications endeavors. But, don’t forget the messaging. Again, storytelling adds interest to how you got where you are. But, let your audience know when they’ve arrived. Give them the ending with good solid messaging.

Why Spend A Whole Day Considering Your Business Story?

We have developed an entire process to help businesses and nonprofit organizations address their positioning, messaging and storytelling. In that process is a planned day-long, all-hands-on-deck summit.

The first response we get to this process is, A whole day, you say? We don’t have that kind of time.

If you are thinking about boosting your messaging or introducing storytelling to your sales and marketing plans, you know something is amiss. If something isn’t working well and you know there is an issue, you don’t have the time to not spend an entire day addressing it.

I hate to break the news, but a 2 hour session squeezed into an already-packed Board of Director’s meeting schedule won’t cut it. (Can you tell I have been asked to do this more than once?)

Your language helps creates who you are and what people believe. Unclear or stale messages with no story punch to them equal invisibility or worse: wrong ideas, which can be circulated far and wide in today’s world of online communication. If you are not communicating who you are, either someone else will (and, they will likely be wrong) or indifference sets in (which is hard to shake).

When your corporate or nonprofit messages are working well you will find

  • —Sales and marketing efforts resonate with whom you want to attract
  • People in general refer to you in good terms to others
  • Cohesion will exist among staff, board and team members
  • Your processes are simplified, which includes materials development, lobbying initiatives, media relations, and media work
  • The media and bloggers will pay attention and (should) write about you truthfully
  • Capitol Hill, policy-makers, legislators and regulators listen (if you are trying to get them to)
  • Your company or industry’s reputation is boosted with all target audiences
  • Appropriate partners and stakeholders are attracted

If you scored your organization against those outcomes above, how would you rate? Spending an entire day to make that list above workable would be worth it, no?