Communication Lessons from A Recent Speed Coaching Event

The other night, I joined four other communications experts to provide “speed coaching” on various marketing and PR topics at a joint UVA Innovations and Charlottesville Business Innovation Council meeting. Naturally, my topic was corporate storytelling and messaging.

Talking with business leaders and UVA Darden School students that night was a real pleasure. For one, it reminded me that not everyone thinks about language as much as I do! But, also their questions were very telling. Below are the top three questions received in the arena of messaging and storytelling.

1. Is my elevator pitch any good?

Answer: Sometimes. The most common mistakes I hear in elevator pitches include forgetting to tell people what you do upfront (hint: It usually involves a noun, like ‘I make widgets’), leading with benefits that sound jargon-y or like scintillating ad copy, and forgetting to differentiate the company, product or service from the competition. An elevator pitch should include:

  • what you do
  • what benefit is provided (that the customer cares about and can relate to, not just what sounds good)
  • something that backs up the benefit (statistics are great for this)
  • how you are different, more or better
  • a call to action

2. At what level should I differentiate myself in my messages? Wouldn’t I be boxing myself in by making it sound like I only handled a particular niche, and, therefore, send some potential customers away?

Answer: No. If you don’t take a strong position, people won’t understand why they should choose you over others. Also, don’t you want to send away those people who will never be customers and just suck up your time? Help them self-select themselves out. Differentiate yourself early and often.

3. How do I incorporate storytelling into my materials, such as press releases and my Web site?

Answer: Easily. Consider how the idea emerged in the first place. Why this idea? Who was involved? What colorful anecdote can you share? What lessons were learned along the way? Was the journey hard? Don’t bother with a boring CEO quote about how “delighted” he is to make this announcement. Rather, the CEO, in his or her quote, can introduce the “a-ha” moment around the new product or service. Or, perhaps a paragraph can be included about the journey it took to get to this point.

Also, to this last question, take a look at the About Us pages of the following companies: Dyson (the vacumn cleaner manufacturer), Nike and Adidas. They talk about their origins, how they came up with ideas, their mottos and why, where they are going and more. They read like stories, not a long list of statistics and corporate facts. (Leave that up to the Web pages aimed at investors.)

What are your burning questions about storytelling and messaging?

More than A Pretty Face: Using Pinterest to Tell a Story

Pinterest is the (not so) little online bulletin board social channel that has everyone talking, er, pinning. As of January 2012, 11.7 million users were using Pinterest, making it the third most used social network (mostly by women). Suddenly Pinterest is the new “It” girl in town.

It is going to be fun to watch Pinterest grow, work its way through some sticky wickets (copyright, anyone?) and keep itself relevant as mobile devices continue their takeover of all communication devices. In the meantime, not only is Pinterest literally fun, but it has vast potential for telling organizational stories.

How so, you ask? How could “pinning” images found online to personal bulletin boards for everyone to see help an organization share its vision and engage and influence customers?

Well, for one, Pinterest is more than just a pretty face. First, companies and non-profits can create boards that anyone can pin to. And, the quick and easy “repin” function makes images go viral very easily. Pinterest automatically grabs source links from images that you pin from a website so the original creator is credited. Therefore, clicking on that image allows web sites to be easily found. And, with our ever increasing visual world, the ability to give graphic representation to your image, opinions and viewpoints, and products and services can move you into a whole new level of storytelling.

If I were to counsel a non-profit in the environmental arena I would tell them to create a board of the places or wildlife they are seeking to protect. Get people engaged in the story by letting people pin images that are indicative of why they think the place or wildlife should be protected. Ask them to comment under their photos as to why they support the protection and what makes that place, bird, animal or whatever, special to them. Let the users tell the story of how important the work is.

If I were to advise a company that provides training programs to sales people, I would tell them to create a board of images of people who are great salesmen of both products and ideas, such as great speakers, book authors and political leaders. Who is selected to post on that board says a lot about the organization’s influences. Then, ask people to pin their favorite “sales leaders” to a public board. Oh, and while they are at it, be sure to post videos and infographics on topics relevant to what the company does. Become a curator of the best sales advice ever.

If I were to give advice to a book author, I would tell them to host a board of favorite books or writing mentors. Or, start the teasing process early for their new book, by having a board that contains images that were inspiration during the writing process.

Or, if I were to guide a restaurant in using Pinterest I might suggest they post pictures of their dishes and people enjoying them. Post “in the kitchen” pictures, showing people how the dishes are made (barring giving away any secrets, of course). Show off the wine list on a “favorite” wine list. Ask people to “like” their favorite dishes or wines.

And, while they are doing all these things, they should note who is re-pinning and liking pins. Consider it one piece of the market research function.

Most people talk about weddings, interior designers and landscapers making great use of Pinterest, enticing people to make “wish” boards where people can post pictures of their dream wedding, dream home or dream landscape, or women’s clothing and shoe stores showing off their latest offerings. But, there are many more creative ways to use Pinterest.

Now ask yourself, what story are you trying to tell? And, how can Pinterest help you and engage your customers and clients?

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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.

Is Media Relations Dead?

I interrupt our series of developing a modern communications plan, to bring you the following post. We will resume our communications planning series on Thursday, March 8.

I spent a great deal of my communications career, especially in the early days, pitching reporters story ideas. If I were to be completely honest it was meant to get my clients ink or broadcast. We in the PR field call(ed) this activity “media relations.”

This meant we were attempting to get a dialogue going with a staff reporter/editor, producer or paid freelancer. We would tell them a story idea and we hoped they would “bite,” causing them to want to learn more, write about it and quote (in a positive light) a client. Whole PR agencies dedicated themselves to this activity starting, oh, sometime in the late 1980s through, oh, about 2008 (give or take).

But, then something happened. The media as we knew it started to fade right about the time the Internet was taken over by the people (read: social media).

The demise of traditional media is well documented. Some declare it dead. Others say objective journalism will find a new home and rise again to new heights. Some say it’s making a comeback. But, regardless of the outcome, the question is still begging to be asked: Is media relations – as we know it – dead? 

With the rise of social media giving a platform for anyone and everyone to tell their own story directly to the masses, not to mention the rise of homemade video and infographics, is there room or even a need for that third party credibility that a professionally written story about you (or our clients) provide?

Why spend hours trying to convince a reporter to give you that one quote in a 1,500 word story (down from 3,000 ten years ago) that may or may not be read by anyone you need to see it because there is just so much out there to see, overall? Also, today we hear more reporters asking us to write for them. “Can you deliver 750 words on that by next week?” is heard far more often now than, “great, let me interview your CEO.” We also find it more difficult to know who is a staff reporter and who is a “guest columnist.”

It’s enough to make you question the activity altogether. But, perhaps we are just thinking about it all wrong. Perhaps the activity of spreading a story needs to be broadened and renamed.

Rather than media relations, how about calling it storyteller relations?

After all, the “media” can be almost anyone today. If we see everyone as a potential storyteller of our stories, wouldn’t we see more traction for them across all mediums? Attempting  to interest whoever is influencing our target audiences to help spread the word about us and what we’re up to might be the better path.

What do you think?

TEDTalk: The Problem With Stories

Professor and economist Tyler Cowen spoke about storytelling at TEDxMidAtlantic from late 2009. He talks about the problems with stories. There are some unique things in here, such as focusing on the stories where no one has an incentive to sell something. (Cowen holds the Holbert C. Harris Chair of economics as a professor at George Mason University and is co-author of the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution.)


Organizational Storytelling: A Synopsis

Over the last few weeks, I’ve shared the steps to organizational storytelling using the Hero’s Journey template. I have been asked to put the steps into one post.

The general pattern is from Joseph Campbell, the great philosopher and writer. He wrote extensively about the template, which goes something like this:

A hero is called to leave his common everyday life to explore the wonders of the world.  Mystical forces are there encountered and a conclusive victory over an adversary is won. The hero returns from this mysterious adventure – forever changed and more powerful – and with this new power, understanding and wisdom, can (and does) bestow benefits and gifts upon his fellow man and the Universe is now a safer place. The End.

There are 17 steps in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, but I boiled it down to four parts for the business world.

Step 1: The Call. This is the beginning. The hero of the story goes out into the new world responding to a call to action. There also is a sense of a resisting this call to action, as if he or she knew the journey was going to be hard.  What was wrong that had you believe something could be better? What idea did you have that could move the organization from point A to point B? What did someone say when they brought this idea to the meeting? There are a myriad of ways stories start. For more, including examples, read it here.

Step 2: The Journey. This is the largest part of any story and is generally considered the middle. It is what happens or the expedition. Often our hero quickly discovers the road really is harder than it seemed at first. He or she meets friends along the way, runs into obstacles, meets a villain or adversary, and there are twists and turns. Show how you thought how something was going to go one way and then it didn’t. That will make it more interesting. Read more here.

Step 3: The Achievement. This is where the hero slays the villain or adversary. The achievement is simple, really. What happened? Just say it. It’s the pay off. Give it to your audience directly and succinctly. Read more here.

Step 4: The Transformation & Return. This step is meant for the storyteller to share what was learned. How were you or the company changed? And, what does that mean? How is your department, company, industry better? How was that customer’s life changed? Also, share what it means and how life is better for others. A story that can convey a message, wrapped in a narrative with meaning, can inspire change in people just by them listening to it. Read more here.

Yet Another Hazard in Storytelling: Weighing It Down with Endless Detail

While there are many snares in organizational storytelling, a few have been worth noting: too much corporate jargon, nothing unexpected shared, and telling an irrelevant or even insulting story to an audience.  But one snag that trips up many presenters and communicators is making the story either too long or too short.

In our experience, too many business stories are too long.

Brevity is the soul of wit, wrote William Shakespeare. And one of the most famous stories of all time by Ernest Hemingway is just 6 words. “For sale, baby shoes. Never worn.”  But, what is too short, then? Be too brief in a business setting and the message gets lost.

A story is the right length when just enough detail is given – 2 or 3 small details – to paint the right picture of what happened.

Wanting to get in every detail to share an accurate account of what happened appears to be a strong pull. However, you should be striving to tell the truth of the story – not ever detail that got you there.

Another Storytelling Danger To Avoid: Predictability

If you are interested in adding the storytelling technique to your communications arsenal, good for you. Storytelling, the art and science of sharing information via narrative, is an ancient form of communication. Human beings around the world have used storytelling to get their ideas across for millennia. Over the ages, it has outlasted every fad, technique and notion around persuasion and discussion. And, there is a good reason for this. It works.

But, avoid the dangers that lurk. The last few day’s I’ve been blogging about some of the pitfalls. Here’s another: nothing surprising happens.

We all know that stories have to have a beginning, middle and end. But, they also need to have some air of unpredictability to be interesting. What do we mean? Having an ending that isn’t easily identified is good. But, hearing something in the middle that they weren’t expecting, as well, is even better.

Too many business stories do not have enough suspense or twists and turns. No need to turn your story into a saga with such details. But, do include soemthing that will perk the ears.

Be wary of adding something that is meant to trick, however. Audiences don’t like to be deceived. Film director M. Night Shyamalan is brilliant at his sudden twists. But, even he sometimes can miss the mark. The surprise introduction of new information worked in the Sixth Sense. (The psychiatrist was really a ghost.) It didn’t work so well in The Village, with critics (and viewers) feeling they had been duped. (The time frame of the movie went from years past to suddenly being in present day.)

Think of a twist along the veins of Mattel finally having to admit that their famous Barbie doll’s measurements were an impossibility. (Should she be a real woman, her original measurements would have been an impossible 36-18-38.) Or, how Walt Disney had numerous business failures and bankruptcies before finding his magical formula. In fact, he  was fired by a newspaper editor because, “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” Leaving those details out of their stories would have made their eventual success less interesting, no?


Yet Another Pitfall in Organizational Storytelling: Too Much Jargon

We are so fond of our big words and our intelligent phrasing.  We thinkmarketing speak” – the way of presenting products and services that is meant to convey that we are intellectual, smart and savvy – grabs attention.

Even when we tell a story the pull to throw in a few buzz words is strong. Because, we must create a sense of being so smart that you simply must listen to us, right?


If you believe your 24/7 enterprise solution brought that mission-critical project to fruition, adding to the corporate bottom line and realizing a greater ROI than the other guy down the street – and you tell the story that way – you have successfully put your audience to sleep. Or, running from the room.

You may have all the elements of a good story — the hero/main character, a villian or adversary, twists and turns, a big change for the person or organization. But, don’t forget that real world language is necessary to create a relationship between speaker and listener. If your audience is highly technical, of course, use the language of that audience. But, authenticity trumps jargon any day, no matter who is listening.

Too much jargon makes it appear you are trying too hard — trying too hard to sell. No one wants to be sold to. They want to willingly buy-in.

Lead your audience to somewhere new with your organizational storytelling. Don’t hit them over the head with how smart you are by trying to sound like it.

A Common Pitfall in Business Storytelling: Wrong Story Overall

Over the last few days I’ve written about the four major steps in organizational storytelling, modeled after Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. But, even with all the right elements in place, there are pitfalls to avoid.

For one, be sure you are telling your story to the right audience.  Or rather, have the right story for the audience.

Ensuring your story resonates with your listeners requires you know something about them. I am not talking about deep market research. Just some basic facts will do. If you are speaking before a group, are they from a particular industry? Have a common need, vision or issue? If it is an individual, do you know them personally? (If not, keep the story as universal as possible.)

For instance, if you are speaking to a group of people in the hospice industry do not tell a story about how your rock climbing injury kept you from reaching the top of Mount Everest. If you are a CEO and are lamenting about your contractor problems on your beach house before an audience that could never afford such a luxury, expect to miss the mark.

Universal themes are always the safest bet, unless you know the group or individual intimately. Being relevant is more important than being titillating.