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.

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.

 

How Storytelling Can Help 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 a 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.

People are biologically hard-wired to respond to a good story. Neuroscientists have conducted brain scans on people while delivering information to them in various forms – facts, figures, stories, visuals. They discovered that facts – like product features described in a corporate binder — only reach 5 percent of a person’s brain. And, when information is shared in a narrative, it is transferred from short term memory to long term memory.*

Narratives also persuade and motivate people to act. Think about every car commercial you’ve ever seen – the sleek design zipping around a coastline with moonlight gleaming off the hood. They sell the experience of driving the car, not the new design of the steering wheel or the size of the tires. Or, what about news reports during a catastrophe like the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings, showing the local people devastated and in shock? They didn’t lead with how many classrooms were entered or the background of the shooter. Storytelling is powerful because narratives engage our robust capacity for imagination (Life could be better if I just had that new car.) and empathy (An elementary school massacre is unacceptable.).

But, how storytelling is going to help you? Whether storytelling is for entertainment purposes, educational purposes or persuasion, story is the most powerful communication tool you have. When trying to get across an idea, sell a product or service, or introduce a new strategy or way of doing something, a key question people often ask is “Why?” “Why should we do it that way?” “Why should we listen to you?” “Why are we offering that course in that way?” A story best answers these “Why?” questions because it tells us what caused the change and what’s going to happen next. A story provides context and makes it meaningful.

The more we identify with the characters and are familiar with the setting or events in a story, the more we absorb the meaning and remember the message or moral. (My Uncle had a car like that. I’ve always wanted to drive along the Pacific Coast. Maybe we should rethink how we approach gun control and mental health.) We even start thinking like the person who is telling the story. (Yes, I should have that car! I’m going to push for mental health care reform!)

Introduce storytelling into your communication and you will be heard more often, remembered, and create a greater connection to the people you are talking to. And, even more importantly, they will begin to think like you.

*John Medina, Brain Rules

 

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?

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.

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.

First:
• 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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth. Write up an (any) idea in the Hero’s Journey template.

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

Who Is Going To Implement Your Shiny New Communications Plan?

For the last few weeks, we’ve explored all the parts of today’s communications plan. As a plan is developing, we find somewhere around the strategy and tactical section a familiar feeling begins to set in. Panic. Who is going to do all this?

So, before you begin to launch a new plan (or sell it to the upstairs), be sure you know who (and how) you can enlist the help and support of others.

A former boss of mine once said “marketing is everybody’s job.” I submit communications is, as well. Everyone needing to be on the same page around messaging the organization or project is obvious. But, developing content, agreeing to agree on the “we won’t” list and the main communications channels you’ll focus on are less evident but equally important. Be sure to share your plan with a core team of fellow stakeholders. Focus on getting them excited about what can be accomplished with everyone’s input and contributions. Then, be sure to get their commitment to do something. A few ideas for getting buy-in and commitment:

  • Invite a larger group to go through media and presentation training to prepare them for what is possible.
  • Train people in social media to get them excited about the possibilities (and get them off on the right foot).
  • Consider developing an editorial calendar and “offering” an opportunity to own a topic or category: they develop content, help share it on various channels, and provide further ideas for distributing the message.
  • Ask people to share specific content or stories among their own channels. So, in other words, ask them to retweet, repost, start a discussion and more within their own networks.
  • Be sure to share communication “wins,” such as media hits, speaking engagements and more with the entire organization.

These are just a few ways to share the communications load. But regardless of how you enlist help, be sure to get it before you launch a new communications effort.

Anything to add to the list above?

 

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?