Three Mistakes To Avoid in Storytelling

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Storytelling is not all fun and games. Avoid these mistakes we see far too often in business communications–and how to avoid them.

  1. Don’t confuse a message with a story. In its simplest terms, a message is a conclusion you wish people to reach. A story is the journey that gets you to that conclusion with a beginning, middle and end. A message is the end.
  2. Don’t make your story all about you. Make it about your customer. People like to read about other people–unless that person is a narcissist. Don’t be that person Don’t only talk about how great you are. Share how great you are through the eyes of someone you pleased.
  3. Don’t confuse your fancy terms with clarity and understanding. The term, XYZ Company Advantage, may sound like a terrific name for a loyalty program, but would your customer automatically equate that term with such a thing? Label things for what they are: XYZ Customer Loyalty Program. (Okay, it’s oversimplified, but you get what I’m saying, right?)

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

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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.

 

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, forgetting to do one simple thing: tell your audience who you are and what you 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.

Why Virgin America Might Not Need PR

Business travel is no fun. The hassle of airline security, long lines at rental car counters and hotel check-ins killed the glamour of travel years ago. But recently I had the good fortune to fly on Virgin America cross country. It was my first experience traveling on that airline (sitting on hands to not make a bad joke here), and now I’m wondering what took me so long.

For those of you have flown Virgin many times will not find my experience particularly revolutionary. But for me that trip contrasted sharply with my usual travel experience. For days I reflected on why the experience was so much better than the “others.”

Was it because I could order food and drink at any time from my seat via my own personal embedded video monitor? No matter I paid $8.25 for a small fruit and cheese plate. I ordered it from my seat, when I wanted to. No food and beverage cart service.

Could it have been the catchy rap-fueled safety message also delivered via video? For the first time since I was twelve years old, I listened to the safety spiel because, well, it was fun.

Or could my great experience have been heightened by the modern music at the ticket counter? The red and purple neon lighting along the floor board? The extra seat room even in economy class?

Or the fact the pilot’s voice joked with us during a turbulent moment, asking us to fasten our seat belts — after we peeled ourselves off the ceiling, of course?

That was it. The people. From the person behind the ticket counter to the flight attendants I encountered real people—relaxed people. They were pleasant with us at the gate, during the flight, and even when we stood six people deep in the back, essentially blocking the crew’s maneuverability. Not once did I feel corralled like cattle going to auction. In fact, there was a notable lack of “herding.”

Virgin avoided regiment without forgetting there are still rules to flying. I felt like we were all in this together. We were all trying to get somewhere—passengers to destinations, and an airline to profitability. My experience tells me they are succeeding in every way.

I don’t know if Virgin has much public relations help, or even if they need it. But I do know, I’ll fly with them again, even when it means sacrificing frequent flier miles with another airline. Feeling like a human being who is dealing with other human beings is worth it.

Next time you think you have a public relations problem consider you might have a customer experience problem. Ask yourself, how do your customers feel when they’ve arrived?

The #1 PR Trend to Watch in 2014

Are we done with all the “top trends” and “top ten” lists for 2014 yet? I waited a few weeks to let the noise die down before putting forth our own predictions for 2014. Now, after talking to colleagues in the industry, as well as a dozen or so executives, one trend seems to be rising above all others.

Quality over quantity.

If you aren’t producing quality content, speaking to the right people in the right venues, and earning media attention that is seen by your most important customers, now and in the future, why bother? Gone are the days of scooping up a hundred earned media articles on you and your company and declaring success. What did that coverage do? Did it reach who you needed it to?

Ask yourself those last two questions when considering public relations strategies and tactics.

You might realize an enviable SEO position – for one day – with numbers. You might see a surge in phone calls or see your Web site visits rise for a time. But, none of it will sustain a business’s reputation and image without a fundamental commitment to quality. This means robust stories in media that make a difference to you. The right people as spokespeople who know how to engage audiences. Quality business values that connect with customers. Content that engages, gets passed around, discussed and kept for future reference.

(Oh, and it should go without saying you’re providing a superior service or product.)

Wise leaders not only know this basic tenet for longevity, they act on it. What are you doing in 2014 to boost the quality of everything you do — especially in the realm of public relations?

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Free PR Advice to lululemon from a Real Customer

Even if you’re not a person who works out regularly, you’ve likely heard the story about lululemon athletica and their “see through” pants. As a long-time customer, I followed this story with interest. For one, I just couldn’t believe the company whose workout pants I adore could have possibly sold a shoddy product. But, hundreds of longtime loyal customers (mostly women) have complained about the seat of their most popular workout pants being so sheer that their yoga mat neighbors could tell what color underwear they wore. Then there was the very public resignation of their CEO, Christine Day. This was followed by very public, unflattering soundbites from co-founder Chip Wilson. Then, more anger about see-through bottoms and, quite frankly, unsatisfying responses to those angry comments on Facebook.

What I don’t understand is why? Why would a company with a near-cult following fall into such a PR morass?

If they asked me (and they haven’t), this is what I’d tell them to get back on track.

1. First, conduct an honest assessment about the quality of lululemon products. If that’s not on your “do today list,” no public relations in the world will help. But, if it is, get your customers involved. Find the most brutally honest but seemingly fair customers and invite them to sit in on a few quality meetings, discussions about the quality they expect and more. You needn’t go farther than Facebook and Twitter for identifying these partners. Don’t just turn to your current ambassadors. But, hey, maybe team them up with a local ambassador.

2. Film a video of your manufacturing facilities. Show us how lululemon products are made, the people behind the products and the quality checks they go through. Share that video everywhere. Heck, invite your customer quality team (see number one) to be in at least one of these. Yes, you’ll want to do more than one.

3. Film testimonials of people who were once disappointed and now are overjoyed at the turnaround they experience in your newly-vetted product line. And, it should go without saying you’ll share these videos everywhere.

4. Invite anyone who was disappointed with a past product (and can reasonably prove they have the defect) to bring them to a lululemon store or ship it back. Let them download a free shipping label off your site. Replace the defective product along with an additional donation to lululemon’s Metta Movement, your grassroots community philanthropy program. Be unafraid to ask for this recall; if my dozens of lulu-loving friends are any indication, none of us would give up our lululemon pants if they were okay.

5. Mr. Wilson, say you are sorry for saying certain women “weren’t meant” for your products. I don’t care if you were misquoted, didn’t mean it like that, or someone impersonated you and really said it. Just apologize for the miscommunication, the carelessness, or the misquote. Explain what you’re going to do to next (see ideas above). Then, move on. The public has an enormous capacity to forgive in the face of sincerity.

Okay, I’m off to the gym now in my lululemon pants bought five years ago, and in which I am unafraid of bending over. I look forward to buying more of your products if their quality matches what I’m wearing right now. I also hope you’ll take my advice to heart. Because, there’s nothing worse than a company who seemed to be doing all the right things to lose a chance to correct their course when they went off the rails for a bit.

How To Be An Ideal PR Client

You want the best public relations and communications support you can get. As a communications firm, we also want to provide the best service and results as possible. Communications is a partnership business. To ensure your investment is put to good use, below are five ways to make sure your communications or PR firm is set up for success on your behalf.

  1. Be available. You don’t hire a PR firm and then walk away. Expect to hear from them a lot, especially in the first few months of the relationship. We need to know your unique stories, background, objectives, people, and culture in order to portray you in the best light. By communicating to us often, we are able to better communicate YOU to the external world.
  2. Ask us questions. If you don’t understand what we are doing or why, please let us know. Some of us have been in the business of reputation and image management a long time. We often instinctively take action given our experience. This means we are being efficient, but we also want you to be comfortable with our work.
  3. Share with us as much as you can. This means telling us about your business, your wins and successes, and, yes, even your failures. We can’t help you, if we don’t know what’s going on. I have yet to hear a PR person say a client gave them too much information. We are insatiable information consumers.
  4. Tell us how we are doing. We can’t fix problems if we don’t know they exist. Not getting along with a team member? Not happy with the way something is worded? Unclear as to why something happened the way it happened? Let us know and we can fix it. We’re problem solvers.
  5. Share your ideas. You know your business better than anyone. Have an idea that you think would positively impact your reputation, image or story? Let us know. We come loaded with ideas, but we want to do what works no matter where it comes from.

Proving Yourself In Messaging and Storytelling

Seth Godin is an inspirational guy on any day. But his blog post today hit a nerve. It was one line that encouraged me to write: “Proof is only useful if it leads to belief.”

His post made me think of the messaging and storytelling sessions I’ve had with clients over the last 27 years of being in the public relations business. This is what I hear (often):

  •  “But, the science proves they [insert nemesis of choice] are wrong!”
  • “Look at these statistics!”
  • “Those aren’t the facts. [Insert spreadsheet] are the facts.”

Instead of layering in those facts that you believe are so compelling — and therefore must be swaying people — know this: You can come armed with all your data crunchers, spreadsheets, experts and star witnesses, but that doesn’t mean whoever you are trying to influence believes you. They might stop arguing. But, that neutralizes the conversation at best. It doesn’t necessarily convert them into customers, advocates or allies.

This is why we urge organizations and professionals to incorporate storytelling into their communications mix. Storytelling puts those proof points into context. A straight fact may seem it’s better than any statement dripping with opinion, emotion and fun. But, if your proof point is so far afield of what they are hearing elsewhere, expect some disbelief.

Next time you are trying to influence someone, ask yourself this question instead: Will they believe what this piece of data says? If the answer is maybe not, there is more work to do.