Job Number One In Storytelling & Messaging: Knowing Your Audience, Deeply

How much do you know about who you are trying to influence with your messages and storytelling? Do you know what they hear when you speak or write to them? Do you know when and why they vote you off the island or ask you to exit the dance floor?

You may believe you know them quite well. Sales force feedback, focus groups, surveys, and direct conversations give you good information. But, is it enough?

In today’s world, understanding who you are speaking to, including the things that have nothing to do with what you do or to what end you are trying to influence them, is not just important. It is expected.

For instance, do you believe the residents of Love Canal heard the news of the Japanese nuclear meltdown earlier this year the same way you did? I am sure you didn’t hear it the way I did, as I lived two hours from Love Canal when I was young. I heard about Love Canal incessantly until we moved to Virginia, where no one seemed to have heard of that terrible environmental tragedy. Of course, in the 1970s we did not live in a 24/7 news and information culture, so there were a great many people who did not hear much about Love Canal. But, our world is different now, where news of events spread as fast it happens.

You wouldn’t know how I would react to nuclear plant news unless you got to know my background and, on top of that, put “two and two” together about my childhood location and news of the day. This may not mean much if you are trying to sell me shoes. But, this information would mean a great deal if you were trying to get me to buy land, which just happens to be near a nuclear power plant.

Listening to who you are trying to influence is essential to communication success. The first steps are quite obvious:

  1. Put what you want to sell on the back burner for a minute and listen.
  2. Get honest about how much you know about their world.

But, a third step is less apparent: ask them about things that go beyond the immediate “sell.”

Tomorrow is part two of a four part series, which will address the 5 questions to ask your target audience.

The Difference Between Telling the Truth and Being Accurate

One of the main characteristics of a powerful message or story is that it is appropriate. This means telling the truth. But I often hear people mixing up being accurate with telling the truth. Let me explain.

I worked with an environmental law firm on their messaging a few years ago. What an interesting project. For one, working with attorneys brings a whole new perspective to what constitutes “accuracy.” For these legal minds, telling the truth about their firm and what they do meant having to give every detail, in chronological order, with many caveats including changing statements from “we did X” to “we helped with X.” And, in the process, the truth was too often lost.

This organization is one of the most successful environmental advocacy organizations in the country. They have more than 25 years of successfully “winning” (meaning progressing environmental cases to a better outcome) most of the time. But, few people knew of this organization.

No one has 20 minutes to hear the punchline. The truth of this organization is that they win – a lot. The accurate picture is that sometimes it takes them seven years and a trip to the Supreme Court to get them to agree with a lower court’s decision that then allows them to move on to the next level, which is just one step toward getting the energy industry to finally clean up those dirty coal-fired power plants.

While certain aspects of their longer story can be compelling (and should be kept), too often people are on to the next story before they get to the message that this organization is a good investment for donation dollars because they are able to turn those contributions into time well spent.

(Note: They have since changed their messaging and now are shining examples of what constitutes “just enough” facets to see the diamond that they are in all that coal dust.)

Ensuring your messages are appropriate does not mean they should be boring. But, rather they should tell the truth, be authentic, and with just enough elements to get people to stay with you as your explain why you are important to them.

As singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash one said in a songwriting seminar I took years ago, you’re trying to tell the truth in your songs, not every detail that got you there.

Does Your Story Sell? Does it Give Answers?

I stumbled across this post from JustSell on the “8 objections” to buying whatever it is you are selling. There is an interesting correlation between how well your business story “sells” and these common objections.

First, do you know when people are “objecting” to your story? Listening is the first thing to do when you begin to speak. Simple cues like eyes glazing over or darting around the room, fidgeting, and attempts to “escape” are all clues you’ve either hit them at the wrong time or what you are saying is not resonating. If you are giving a presentation, do you even notice these things?

Secondly, I’ll address one of the objections from the Just Sell article: Lack of perceived value in the product or service.

In Four Leaf’s formula for a powerful message, we talk about messaging being “compelling” (in addition to being differentiating and appropriate or truthful). If your audience isn’t riveted to your story you are 1) either telling your story to the wrong audience or 2) you aren’t focusing on what engages them. If they aren’t engaged, they won’t see the relevance and certainly won’t ascertain the value you hold for them.

In today’s world of storytelling and messaging you will need to tell them what they need, up front. No longer can you hide behind the curtain of “buy my services and products and then I’ll give you the answer you are seeking.” Rather, in today’s pay-it-forward  market you will need to at least give them a taste of what they will get from you. You cannot prove value otherwise today.

A long list of credentials, past client successes and case studies are terrific. But, they aren’t the only thing that will “sell” your story. You need to give away some samples to get them to buy.

Last week I blogged about TED talks. They are terrific presentations to model around being compelling and getting across value. Notice how often they give you answers. Notice how often they are compelling. Notice how often they hold real value.

What is a Compelling Message Anyway?

When developing a powerful message, there are three elements to include:

  • A compelling angle
  • A differentiating point
  • A truthful and accurate account

The one characteristic where I have found most people spend the most time is “being compelling.” After all, it’s the fun part. It is the element where you get to boast about the importance of your product or service and how exciting you are.

But, what does “being compelling” mean?

Hint: It’s not necessarily being flashy or having to set yourself on fire. Granted, showmanship may count during the Super Bowl, but during a normal business day as your customers and potential clients seek help or something to fit their needs, they are looking for relevance.

Providing a compelling angle means you can hold the interest of a potential customer long enough for them to understand where you fit into their world. It also should hold their interest long enough for you to have a conversation with them.

For example, the tag line of Earth Justice, an environmental organization, is: Because the Earth Needs a Good Lawyer. Not only does this point you in the direction of what they do (truth and accuracy) and how they might differ from, say, the Sierra Club, this message gives you a sense of their energy and how they feel about their work. This message would be interesting to anyone who believes the planet could use an advocate.

Think about when Apple’s Steve Jobs announced the iPad. His story was to the point, calling the iPad the world’s thinnest notebook. It differentiated the product from heavier, bulkier computer laptops and, as he held it up, you could see he was being truthful. It was pretty darn thin. But, also, how compelling is it to believe you could actually fit something in your briefcase besides your computer? He knows his audience – they want efficiency. They want “light” and productivity. And, he knew what would compel them to learn more about this new product from the beginning.

How compelling are your messages?

The Voice and The Power of the Origin Story

Tonight is the final night that contestants on the reality TV show, The Voice, get to strut their stuff on stage and have America vote for the winner. I’m not going to lie to you. I’m a little addicted to this show.

As the weeks have progressed the audience has gotten to know each contestant. It struck me last night how much storytelling has played a role in this show. It’s interesting to learn the back story around why certain songs to sing are chosen by the contestants (or their coaches). We also have learned quite a bit more about the origins of the contestants, particularly the final four — Javier, Dia, Vicci and Beverly.

We learned where they came from, some of their trials and tribulations, failures and successes and what they’ve had to overcome to get this far. Their personal stories have added to the show’s appeal.

We have learned that Javier Colon is a “really great guy” and has “been to the rodeo” as judge Adam Levine put it. (Javier once had a record deal with Capitol Records.) In fact, that fact had Levine vote a certain way so that Javier would be more likely to continue on. His talent made him a final contestant, but his personal story sold.

Dia Frampton, the shy and youngest contestant, has been singing much of her life. She and her sister, Meg, had their own band (aptly titled Meg and Dia) since she was 17 before she landed on The Voice. Her past also includes a failed record deal and time on the road. Dia also writes novels and children’s books according to her bio. Her talent is obvious and her rendition of Kanye West’s song, Heartless, was a top download on iTunes the day after she sang it live on the show. It sort of makes you want to know more about her, right? Her past coupled with her obvious current talent causes that.

Then, there is Beverly McLellan, the rocker chick who may be one of the few artists who can hold her own on a stage with Christina Aguilera (also a judge). More failed deals and lots of touring (20 years worth) mark her musical origins. What kept her going? How did she get started? We all want to know.

Finally, contestant number four, Vicci Martinez (all 5 feet of her) has already had one heck of a career by the age of 26. She has opened for or shared the stage with Sting, Annie Lennox, B.B. King, the Doobie Brothers, Etta James, and Jonny Lang. How did that happen?

Every organization and company is made up of people. They are at the heart of every endeavor. Letting your people add their personal origin story to how and why they do what they do can be a powerful tool of any enterprise seeking to be relevant.

Having talented people — your rock stars —  is good. Having rock stars who can share their journey with others is great. People want to know about other people — how they got to where they are today, what their journey has been like, what motivates them. It’s how we connect. Help your customers and clients connect better to you by letting your people be human. Let them tell their story.

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.

One Way to Confirm Your Suspicion Company Messages Are Being Ignored by Staff

Do you have a gut feeling that your team members have their own ideas about how they should describe your company, your products or service or your vision?

One quick exercise to get those disagreeing ideas out into the open is having staff contribute to a “good word-bad word” list. Laugh if you must. But, this very simple exercise will showcase opposing ideas quickly and efficiently. Nothing gets differing opinions on the table faster than to get people to admit what words they believe should always be associated with your organization and which words should never be associated with your company.

What to do:

  1. Get everyone around the conference room table. Or, bribe them with a free lunch or a late Friday afternoon wine and cheese party. But, get as many folks from your company around an easel or white board as you can.
  2. Draw a line down the middle of the blank space. Write “good words” on one side. Write “bad words” on the other side.
  3. Now ask everyone in the room to start calling out words that they believe everyone should use when sharing your company’s offerings (good words). Also, have them share words they believe should never be used (bad words).

Encourage people to avoid over used words such as “professional” and “excellent” on the “good word” list. Rather, seek more powerful, differentiating words like “formidable” and “catalyst.”

For the “bad words” encourage people to identify jargon (e.g. “solutions”). Have them identify words someone might use, but you would rather they did not (e.g. you are a nonprofit but people might assign you the “trade association” label and you’d rather they didn’t). Resist the urge to write down words that simply are opposite of what is on the “good word” list.

Now, watch the sparks fly as the Chief Marketing Officer throws out the word “creative” and your Chief Financial Officer’s eyes grow wide with surprise. Creative? Doesn’t that mean risky? the CFO may ask. The CMO may respond, it’s what sells. The CFO then retorts, There is selling and then there is staying in business. You get the picture.

Open the discussion to talk about why certain words are important to use and the words that are important to avoid. By having an open dialogue, you can get prejudices and default language out into the open. From there you can address disconnects and inappropriate language that may be causing confusion or a misinterpretation of who you are in the marketplace.

This exercise also helps boost your messaging by throwing out the old tired words and forces everyone to seek out some really differentiating and special words that only you can claim.

At first blush this exercise appears to be far too simple. It is simple. But, it could be one of the most eye-opening things you do around messaging.

How to Sell Proactive Messaging Work to the Upstairs

Having a hard time selling your boss on a proactive messaging effort?

First, find out what the objection is to spending time on determining your company story or corporate language. You won’t be able to counter or address objections if you don’t know what they are.

“Lack of time” is the objection we hear the most. But, we also often hear that the executive suite doesn’t always see the need. They don’t see the correlation between profitability and messages, between success and the corporate story, between the bottom line and how they are describing themselves.

Connecting corporate challenges to better messaging is needed.

Below is a list of challenges you may be experiencing in your company. Attached are

proactive steps you can take to show how better messaging might help remove (or at least abate) some of the obstacles you are experiencing.

  • Increasing competition. If your company is experiencing competitive pressure, consider doing a competitive message analysis to see how your company messages stack up against the competition. If you find your customer base is responding more readily to competitors over you, it’s time to address the effectiveness and power of your customer-facing corporate language.
  • Falling value proposition(s). Customer feedback may tell you that your products or services aren’t as relevant as they used to be. Consider surveying your customers asking them what is keeping them up at night. Your language should be addressing some of those concerns. If they aren’t, your messages need revising.
  • Lack of clarity around your mission. If you can’t succinctly tell your customers what you deliver and why, then you can bet your staff is delivering confusing messaging. Assess your employees’ perceptions. Ask them for their version of the company elevator pitch. Now, compare notes. If you get back 12 different answers, you are sending confusing signals to the marketplace. It’s time to get everyone on the same page with a proactive internal messaging effort.
  • General Invisibility. Has the phone stopped ringing? Did you take a break from advertising, public relations, marketing or other customer-communication action? If you haven’t changed the level of communication to customers, you need to see why your message isn’t getting through. A competitive message analysis coupled with customer check-in is needed. Also, a reality check on your service is key.

  • Negative customer feedback. Naturally you should first handle any customer experience that was negative. Make sure processes are in place to ensure better customer interaction, service delivery and other processes. But, do not fail to publicize what you are doing to help make customer’s experiences better. A customer survey after improvements have been installed should tell you if they heard you or not. If you get negative feedback then either the issue wasn’t resolved or your messaging around your offering isn’t feeling real to them.

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.

The Message Process. Looking Inward First.

The first step in our message process involves taking an internal look at the company or organization.

Knowing how you are currently portraying your organization and what you are saying will lead you to the reputation and image you have already created. You may find you’ll need to unravel, change or re-direct a perception that was self-created due to confusing or unclear messaging.

What messages do your materials send?
Audit your web site, printed materials, PowerPoint presentations, press coverage, even your e-mail messages sent to customers and other stakeholders. A few things to note include:

•  What is the overall positioning being delivered?
•  What are the top 5 main messages?
•  What is the tag line (including the informal ones that seem to crop up in e-mails and PowerPoint presentations because a staff member just likes it)

What is the common thread amongst them? Are those the message you wish to send? What is clear or unclear? What is compelling and what is not? What differentiates you from your competitors and what does not? What speaks the truth? Where are you stretching it?

What message is your staff sending?
Secondly, identifying what your people believe is key. Why? They are sending a message – whether or not they know it – about who you are and what you stand for. If you don’t know what your own employees or partners are saying, then you know only half the story that is being told about your firm. Your own people have default language and a default elevator pitch. Find out what they are.

This self perception analysis should include interviewing staff, board members, committee chairs and key partners, investors, and other stakeholders.

Ask them the following (and more):
•  What are the top three public perception challenges that your organization is facing? If these three viewpoints were changed, you would meet your goals and objectives. These barriers can relate to any of the organization’s functions or needs.
•  Who do you believe is our organization’s primary target audience (include qualities or characteristics)?
•  What do you believe is an untapped market for the organization?
•  What do you believe our customers and clients are driven by?
•  What do you think our customers and clients say about us when we are not in the room?
•  What barrier needs to be removed to meet our customers’ needs?
•  What qualities (e.g. creative, dedicated, etc.) would you assign to our organization?
•  If you could tell a potential customer or client one thing about us, what would it be?
•  What is your greatest concern about our reputation or image?