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.

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.

 

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.

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?

Getting Everyone on the Same Page With A Concept Pyramid

The concept pyramid is an exercise we’ve used to help get client’s employees on the same page. But, unlike the “good word-bad word” list exercise, which ferrets out default language your staff is using, the concept pyramid exercise helps set message priorities. It organizes everyone’s thoughts and ideas about who you are, what you deliver, and why.

It is important to note that the concept pyramid is meant to simply get ideas down on paper. It will not be the official language you use.

Similar to the “good word-bad word” list exercise, it starts with getting your key people around a conference room table (or take them somewhere where they can relax and be forthcoming). Now answer the following questions:

  • Who are you?
  • What do you do?
  • How do you do it?
  • Why do you do this?
  • Why would anyone care?
  • What else do you do that people would care about?

If you can’t answer these questions, you aren’t ready for messaging – yet. Get on the same page, conceptually, and then seek that scintillating copy to express it.

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.

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?

Wrong.

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.