Giving Life To Your Messaging With Storytelling

Why is it so hard to tell a business story? Because you can’t stop selling. There, I led with the punchline.

You’re trying to sell your products, services and ideas. That’s fair. But in order to get people to hear and remember you–to get your sales and marketing efforts to stick— engage in more storytelling and less selling.

Here’s how to move your communications to the next level with the art of storytelling. First, know what a story is. It’s the why, how and examples that showcase why your products are better than anyone else’s offerings.

A message simply states what you want people to know. Think of it like the conclusion of the story. You should definitely have messages. The story, however, gives life to your messaging. It leads up to that conclusion.

Stories have characters, a plot, conflict and resolution, a beginning, middle and end, and they leave the reader or viewer with something that makes their lives better or helps them feel connected in some way.

So, who are you characters? That one should be easy. Your customers, your employees and other stakeholders are all characters. What have they done with your company? (Big hint about storytelling: what do people like to hear about more than anything else? Something about themselves.)

What is the plot? This goes beyond “Customer A” bought “Company B’s” product and all was well. But what happened when “Customer A” really started to use the product? How is their life better? In fact, talk about how you identified the problem they needed solved to begin with. What conflict existed to get your product into their hands? Once they started using what you offer did the heavens open up and angels sing? Okay, that last question was a tad dramatic, but you get the point.

Be sure to organize your story logically, starting at the beginning (we had this great idea!), providing a middle (all was almost lost!) and end (we made it!). Ask yourself how did you identify there was a need for your product? Then what did you do to bring it to market? And how did you get it into customer’s hands? What did they experience once that happened?

Avoid the temptation of cramming in every virtue of your business and tell the story–the real story.

What’s This Storytelling Thing?

plato“Those who tell the stories rule society.” ~ Plato

Storytelling was considered the communications industry’s”hot thing” a few years ago. I say it never went out of style. Business communicators who use a narrative style in their communications, where they tell the story about their company, products and services, are just more interesting than those who spew a set of messages.

But what’s a story anyway? Isn’t just sharing what you’re doing a story? No.

Rather than spew a list of statistics and data about yourself and your offerings, engage people with a narrative that illustrates what you want them to know about you.

Who is involved with your organization? What are they doing that’s so interesting? Why does it matter? Where did you make a difference to them? What happened?  How did they start out one way but ended up differently once they engaged you? The answers to these questions are part of the larger story of why your organization matters.

The story of what you do provides context, paints the larger picture and evokes emotion, connection, understanding and action.

When you tell a great story, people connect what they are hearing to their own lives and experiences. They also retain what you’re telling them. Stories are stored in long-term memory whereas data is stored in short-term memory.

What to be memorable? Tell a story.

Three Hours and Three Exercises for Communications Success

Natural Stone LandscapingEvery company should go through three exercises annually to ensure their language is relevant, powerful and effective.

  1. Good word-bad word list
  2. Red dot/blue dot game
  3. The concept pyramid

Okay, laugh if you must. But these simple exercises will show where your team is disconnected and therefore saying different things about you which only breeds confusion among your customers. They also should show you where your communications efforts are working–or not.


First, the good word-bad word list. This exercise can easily be done over a lunch or one hour meeting. On a white board, have your staff list all the words they want associated with your products and services. Avoid cliches and jargon. Excellent, solutions and innovation lost their power years ago. Try to list things that you can truthfully “own” and which incite excitement. Propel, champion, advocate and other less-used words are far more powerful than tired language that everyone uses. Speaking of which, what are some phrases that your competition does not use?

Once armed with a good word list, move on to “bad words.” These are words you never want uttered when someone describes who you are and what you do. Also, don’t just list the opposite of the “good words.” Rather, select words, terms and phrases that someone could use when describing you, but you’d rather they didn’t. If you’re a nonprofit, do people call you a charity when you’re really not? Could someone label you as a web hosting company when you do so much more?


Now move on to the red dot-blue dot game. This exercise also can be done in about an hour. Plaster your conference room walls with phrases you’ve lifted from marketing materials, your web site, sales pitches and other collateral. Give your staff six stickers — three red and three blue. Ask them to put a red dot next to the three messages they believe are the most important for your organization to convey. Ask them to put a blue dot next to three messages they believe are the least important. Notice a pattern? Were you surprised by any selection? This will tell you much about how your team views the company–and how they are likely talking about it. Discuss why people chose certain phrases. Also, discuss what people viewed as the lowest priority message.


Now take your good words and your three winning messages and prioritize them in a pyramid. This exercise can be done in thirty minutes or three hours, depending on results of the first two exercises. See a story unfolding? If you don’t see a logical pattern emerging, you know you have some work to do around positioning, messaging and storytelling. Hopefully, you’ll see a clear path to the most powerful story you can tell about your organization. If not, call us. We’ll help sort out your communications.

More about our Messaging, Positioning and Storytelling work.

Messaging and Storytelling for Greater Influence

dreamstime_s_49594866One of Four Leaf’s signature services is helping organizations refresh and update their messaging and storytelling abilities. I often hear, “well, messaging and storytelling are kind of the same thing, right?” No, not at all.

To over simplify, a message is a specific idea you’re trying to get across. Storytelling is a way to get your ideas across.

In coming weeks, this blog will be dedicated to positioning, messaging and storytelling–what it is, how to use it for greater influence, and simple exercises you can do to refresh or heighten how you communicate.

Some thing we’ll go over:

  • Defining positioning and the three main components for a strong communications position in the marketplace.
  • The top three exercises every company should go through annually to ensure their language is relevant, powerful and effective.
  • Storytelling techniques that go beyond Mother Goose and make business communications head-and-shoulders above the competition.
  • The top mistakes made in business communications around messaging and storytelling–and how to avoid them.
  • The biggest changes in communications today and how to use them to your advantage.

Check back often, or better yet, subscribe to our RSS feed to bring these posts to you.

To learn more about Four Leaf Public Relations’ positioning, messaging and storytelling work, click here.

Part Nine of the Modern Communications Plan: Messaging, Positioning and Storytelling

Golden apple 3d render (clipping path and isolated on white)

Now we get to a fun part of communications planning: what you want to say.

Every modern communications plan should include a positioning, messaging and storytelling guide.

When you have a guide you are positioning your staff to be more successful in executing your strategies. It also brings consensus to employees, senior management, business units and divisions about where the organization is headed. Having an arsenal of messages to use is key to creating a strong brand and making your communications plan stay on target and be effective.

Note that I used the word “guide.” It should have enough detail to provide the right tone, top-level messages and language to help people be creative but not stray so far that they are making up their own ideas about what you’re trying to get across

It may include a positioning statement, value proposition and spotlight pitch to start, with an arsenal of anecdotes and proof points, to help the people tasked with executing the plan develop more specific and detailed messages for content and presentations.

Why is having a guide so important? Whether you know it or not, when it comes to describing your organization, products and services, you are delivering messages that set people on a path to either include you or exclude you from their future. People also naturally fall into a default way of speaking and writing. Without identifying your language, you’re leaving it up to their employees to describe the good works and products you offer in whatever way they choose. You wouldn’t leave your finances up to chance, so why treat your communications that way?

Four Leaf has a proprietary technique that involves a series of facilitated meetings with an organization’s leadership over several weeks in addition to background and intelligence-gathering about the organization, its market and its customers to help set the stage for educated message development.

Below are a number of exercises to get your started:

  • Develop a “good word, bad word” list: What words do you always want associated with you, and which words do you never want said about you? Dig deep. What powerful words, if spoken by a referral source, might get someone to act? Also, don’t just choose bad words opposite of the good words. What could people say about you, but you wish they didn’t? What buzz words in your industry have no power left in them? (e.g. solutions)
  • What is unique about your products and services that no one else can claim?
  • You started this communications planning route with an idea in mind. What was it? How would you prioritize your ideas? What’s the most important idea to get across?
  • If you could tell anyone about you and your products what would it be?
  • What is your origin story? How did the company start and why? What special ideas did the founders have?

Avoid language that states “buy my products.” No one cares. What they care about is how your product or service will make their life better.

When you go through these exercises (and there are many more), you’ll discover language, phrases and stories you’d like to get across. From there, a guide can be developed.

Read the entire template for the Modern Communications Plan here.

Four Leaf has taken about 40 organizations through its Positioning, Messaging and Storytelling process. Learn more here.


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?

Breaking Through Writing Fatigue, Blocks and Seemingly Cursed Moments

I had the esteemed pleasure of leading a creative writing session at a conference last week to a group of established bloggers. Oh, the joys of blog writing. It’s important. It’s personal. It’s influential. And, it’s relentless.

Blogs are one of the most unrelenting communication channels, requiring constant care and feeding. Whether you are blogging for personal or professional reasons, there also usually comes a time when fatigue develops, writer’s block rears its ugly head, and an overall lack of passion and creativity sets in.

What’s a writer to do?

If you are tasked with contributing to a blog, whether or not by your own accord or by your job, anyone can break through these barriers with a few proven strategies. Below are just some ideas to help move blog writing from the nagging to-do list back to the joy list.

• Identify your “best time of day” to write. Honor it.
• Identify your best structure. (Do you need an editorial calendar to stay on track? Or just have one day that you knock out all blog posts?) Work it.
• Keep an idea file, which could include just great titles, topics or other ideas for future posts.
• Write blog drafts when you need to, but build in room to revisit them. Come back to it a day or two later. You will hone your editing skills this way.
• Become a great editor. Don’t expect to write a brilliant post the first time you put your hands on the keyboard. Write. Then, edit and polish.
• Read…a lot! Read other bloggers, books, magazines, newspapers, online papers to glean ideas, keep your eyes on good writing (so you’ll know the difference), and keep you motivated.

Feeling tired?
• Develop an outline. Don’t bother to write paragraphs. Just get down fragments of ideas in a skeleton framework.
• Identify what you want to say, bottom line. If you don’t know where you are going, how will you get there? Know what idea you are trying to get across.
• Write as if you were speaking. This is harder than it looks. Read your writing out loud. Does it sound stiff or natural? Just write down what you want to say, as if you were really saying it.

Have writer’s block?
• Start talking. Call someone up and express your idea, verbally.
• See number one above: create an outline of one idea (any idea).
• Change the font, color or look of your screen.
• Write what you feel like writing (even if it has nothing to do with your blog’s focus).
• Review your past writing.
• Do a visual mind map of something you know a great deal about, such as your specific job expertise or a hobby.
• Visit Pinterest and write a story about the picture that catches your eye the most.
• Do a writing exercise of which there are hundreds. (More on those below.)
• Just do more research. Have a topic you need to write about? See what others are saying about it.
• Change locations. Go to a coffee shop, get outside, work at home.
• Get moving. This advice is not new. But, it is amazing how taking a walk really does clear one’s head.
• Read something else, such as other bloggers’ writing. You may find you have a different perspective on what another blogger wrote, and Voila! a new blog post is born.
• “Work” another social media channel, such as posting on Facebook or Twitter for a while to see what conversation perks people’s interest.

Lack of creativity, passion or just not feeling you are writing as well as you can? Try these exercises:
• The 5 Senses. Take your idea and write up one sentence about it related to each sense: smell, touch, taste, sound, and sight.
• Free writing. Take 5 minutes to just write anything, even if it’s just “I don’t know what to write. I don’t know what to write. I don’t know what to write.”
• Rewrite a really famous story. Choose your favorite story, such as Romeo and Juliet or Star Wars and change the ending.
• Your favorite/least favorite childhood memory. Write it up.
• Favorite actors. Write a scene for your favorite celebrity crush.
• Coffee house backstory. Go to a coffee house, pick a table where you can’t hear the conversation and write up what you think they are saying.
• Ideal life. Dream a little and write 4 paragraphs about what your ideal life looks like. (It works. Really.)
• Image imagination. Visit Pinterest, Tumblr or your favorite photography site. Choose a visual and write up a description of what is happening, what it means or who it belongs to.
• Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Visit Write up an (any) idea in the Hero’s Journey template.

What have you found that works well to break through writing obstacles?

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.)


The Final Step To Powerful Storytelling: The Real Payoff

The final stage in the four steps to powerful storytelling is the Transformation & Return. 

The most important part of storytelling — to keep it from being relegated to just an anecdote – is that you must share how someone changed. Someone was one way at the beginning of the journey and now they are another way. You have to share how a person or a set of persons is different and how that has meaning for whomever you are talking to. A transformation has to have occurred, and it leads people to believe they could change, too. Otherwise, what is the point, right?

Luke Skywalker found his courage and his place (not to mention his father much later down the road). Frodo’s quest lay in a spiritual awakening. The series of events I shared over the last few days about James Dyson could have been reduced to just a historical timeline by an inventor. But, in his story, he can say to this day, other manufacturers try to copy Dyson technology. It changed the entire vacuum cleaner industry’s focus. And, I am sure if he were here to tell you his story he would talk about epiphanies he had along the way, how he is different and what lessons were learned.

When you think of a story you wish to share in an organizational setting, think about what was transformed. How were you or the company changed? How is your department, company, industry better? How was that customer’s life changed?

But, it doesn’t end there. The final part of this step is to then share what it means and how life is better for others.  After their  journey where the hero achieves a victory, they return home not to go back to life the way it was. Frodo returned to the Shire forever changed and eventually passed on to the West. Luke Skywalker continued to fight the good fight with his friends. And, James Dyson, now successful, didn’t settle for just changing the vacuum cleaner industry. He birthed a foundation, the James Dyson Foundation, which seeks to inspire and encourage young people to study engineering so that they may bring the world better design and innovation.

This is where the story can be elevated from survival and individual gain to inspiration and community gain. A story that can convey a message, wrapped in a narrative with meaning, can inspire change in people just by them listening to it. And, we all know that — from the business world to the non profit world – we all could use a dose of inspiration right now.


Step 3 To Powerful Storytelling: The Achievement or So What?

The third step in telling a good story in a business or non-profit setting is to share the “win” or the Achievement. ” This is where you or someone slays the dragon. (Click here to read steps one and two.)

Every good story has a villian or adversary that puts up a roadblock. And, this obstacle must be overcome. Luke Skywalker blows up the death star. Frodo throws the ring in the fire (among other achievements along the way). And, for James Dyson, his story continued when he decided to keep his patents alive, paying the hefty royalties to do so, even while on the verge of early bankruptcy. He thought he might need it someday. And, he did. In 1999, he won a copyright infringement suit against Hoover, one of the largest vacuum cleaner manufacturers in the world. In essence, he slayed the copycats.

The achievement is simple, really. What happened? Just say it. We cut the head of the enemy off with our sword. We won the funding. We sold him the deal. We won the court battle. This could be the shortest section of your story. But, it’s the pay off. Give it to your audience directly and succinctly.

This step is where most action films stop. But, the ones who continue on to the fourth step are the ones who receive the accolades and awards. Can you guess what it is? On Monday, we will discuss the fourth and final step of the Hero’s Journey and how you may apply it to your own communication.