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.


Greatest Accomplishment, Goals and Objectives: The Second Steps in the Modern Communications Plan

Once you have determined your vision for your effort, identifying a “greatest accomplishment” and goals and objectives should be next.

The “greatest accomplishment” section is short. It could be one line or even one word. What is the single most important communication achievement that your organization or project can achieve?

An example would be for a business or industry is to have changed a particular conversation in its marketplace or introduce a new idea. But name the change or idea. Don’t let it remain nebulous.

If you are successful, what will have occurred very specifically? Make it achievable, but also hard. Contrary to popular belief, “hard” can be quite motivating for a team if they are given sufficient resources and structure. Identify a “holy grail” moment for your team and you will have incentivized the game.

Next, identify at least three goals and objectives.

We define goals as things you reach. They are milestones such as audience numbers, a specific partnership formalized or specific media attention. Again, how will you know you are successful? Where are you now and where do you want to be? How will you know you’ve “arrived?”

Objectives are things you create, such as introducing a new conversation that takes hold in the public discourse or a certain status for your organization. What will be different if you are successful? How will your organization, your industry, a certain audience or your team be changed?

One note: We realize some people have differing definitions of goals and objectives. But these work for us and our programs. As long as your team is on the same page, you’re golden.

Part Two of the Modern Communications

Public Relations Questions To Answer For Results in 2014

Yes, it’s been a while since I’ve added a new blog post. However, the reason is why this new post exists. We’ve been very busy at Four Leaf, readying several major client announcements for the Fall. What many business leaders may not realize is this: to announce something in October, you need to start in April. Hence, Four Leaf’s all-hands-on-deck craziness that ensued this summer to make sure everything goes smoothly for said clients in coming weeks.

So, want to start 2014 with a bang? Now’s the time to think about any initiatives you want to debut, make known or push forward in January. Below are five steps to take to make first quarter 2014 a time to remember.

1. How do you want people to think about you and your initiatives in January?

2. Who is going to be the most important person or group for you in 2014? Has it changed from 2013?

3. Do you know what makes your best customers sit up and take notice? (i.e. Your ability to provide a “personal touch,” your commitment to excellence, your price point, etc.)

4. What content (i.e. thought leadership, tutorial information, helpful messages) will they need to understand how you’re better and different? Are you prepared to deliver it by January?

5. How will you get the word out to them? No, really. How? Advertising, PR, social channels, marketing, direct sales, CEO-to-CEO*? Will that put you ahead of your competitors?

*Intrigued by CEO-to-CEO? We’ll blog on this soon.


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?

5 Things To Do When You Are Too Busy To Communicate

You haven’t heard from us in a while. We have been so busy with client work (Hello, Fall!) that blog entry writing, touching base with potential clients, networking and all the things people like me tell you to never, ever stop doing, stopped for us. Just call us the Cobbler’s kids. But, that’s no excuse. Here are 5 things to do when you believe you are too overwhelmed with “real” work to keep the marketing communications machine going.

1. Do not open your e-mail first thing in the morning. Rather, go to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or [insert communications vehicle of choice other than email) and post one line about why you are so busy. Done? (Okay, you can open your email inbox now. Once that Pandora’s box is open, it’s all over.)

2. With every customer or client you have, the next time you talk with them end your phone call or email with a thank you for allowing you to serve them. It’s a simple thing, but can be a powerful touch point right in the thick of frenzied activity.

3. At the end of the official work day, send an e-mail to thank someone who works with you for being there during a very busy time. These small acknowledgments can be the difference between someone wanting to work with you again during a particularly harried time or not.

4. Ask yourself who are the most important people to keep lines of communications open with today. Not everyone needs attention immediately. Limit your phone calls, emails, texts and posts to those who need to hear from you in that 24 hour period. (But, be cautious about putting tier 2 and 3 groups off forever. At some point they need to rise to the top or be cut loose forever.)

5. Increase the speed with which you communicate. Choose the fastest way to talk or write. Hey, it might be 140 characters on Twitter – or not. How can you get across what you need to in the fastest, most efficient way and not just your favorite or the way you’ve always done it? Sometimes talking live is the way to go. Remember the phone?

Also, remember that no communication is communication. You are telling people by your silence that they are not immediately important to your work and life.  Know how long you can live in the void before damaging your image and reputation.

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.

• 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?

Yet Another Part of Today’s Communications Plan: Choosing the Right Channels

This series exploring each section of the contemporary communications plan has forced me to think deeply about the way the world of image, reputation and visibility has changed in the last few years. One of the greatest changes has been in the number and quality of communication channels.

When broadband made audio and video possible, and platforms such as Facebook and YouTube became widely used, the communications game changed. Now, if it was possible, it was expected. We quickly learned we had to use (or at least explore) those channels or be left behind by competition or find the users themselves taking over the conversation about our companies, people and brands.

But, it also is not possible to do everything. How do you know where to put your energy?

Your choice of channel depends on who you are trying to reach, naturally. But, your decisions also must take into account your appetite and ability to manage interactive discussions, the complexity of your stories and messaging, and your capacity for developing content.

Now that the world has gotten used to such a rich and robust communications environment, it is a good time to pause and think. Which channels actively engage your audience in the way that you need and that will have active influence? (Active influence means you are causing a change and subsequent action. Passive influence means you may introduce them to new thinking but it doesn’t cause them to act – yet).

Three things to think about:

1. Start with the basics. Consider how your audience likes to get information. Through video, like YouTube? Via graphics, like infographics? Through editorial, such as peer-reviewed journals, traditional editorial media or other? Experientially, such as demonstrations at trade shows? From experts, like attending panels, speeches and other speaking venues? From their peers?

2. Make a list of all the channels that are possible. Traditional media outlets (trade, business, consumer), social media channels, industry trade shows and speaking venues, like TED, community events, and organizations, special events (that you organize), direct mail, e-mail, books, and more.

3. What do these channels require to be effective for you? Robust content in the right form and the right amount of interaction is key to making a channel work well. Be realistic about your capacity and resources. Identify where you may need more or where there are opportunities to remerchandise existing content.

This section does not need to cover every channel you may end up using. But, it should give some direction as to where you are going to spend your time and give guidance around what you will need to produce and manage.

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?

Developing A Content Strategy for Today’s Communications Plan

What is a content strategy anyway? This is a list of things you will do to ensure that what you have to offer in the way of content (information, data, video, audio, ideas, etc.) will reach all facets of your target audience in the way they want, when they want.

This is why you need to deeply know your audience first.

You must know how you will design content for all contexts via any device in use today: phone, computer, iPad, online, anywhere. Not only will you need to tailor your content this way, but you will want to be able to remerchandise it in various forms. This will ensure your messages and stories, news and product announcements, white papers and thought leadership and more will reach your audience and be well received.

Additionally, a content strategy should include some idea of how you will develop it, including workflows and responsibilities. Do you have the resources to offer content in the digital age? This often (but not always) means offering a multi-media, conversational, 24/7 experience.

What do you have to offer?

First, know what you have to offer and what you’ll primarily be using as content:

  • Original pieces, such as white papers, research studies, market data and more?
  • Product announcements, event announcements or the like?
  • Opinion and “think” pieces?
  • Other people’s research, writings, video and more?
  • Presentations, productions and performances?
  • Conversation starters from the position you hold, past experiences or an event?
  • “Reports from the field,” giving an eye level account of something happening?

What will your content reputation entail? Who will you “be” in this age of information?

  1. Content curator: collecting and passing on information from other sources, making you an expert on a particular topic, idea, industry or market? American express does this well with their Open Forum. And, Guy Kawaski with his AllTop service is another great curator.
  2. Original content generator: issuing original thought leadership, ideas and stories. Shel Israel of Global Neighbourhoods is one such content producer who provides practical, yet original thinking and ideas.
  3. Enabling and empowering user-generated content: inciting conversations among people that form new ideas, positions and philosophies. Many radio talk show hosts fall into this category, asking listeners to call in and direct the conversation.But, so does and, whose product review functions are  legendary for influencing and spurring (on or off) sales.

Most organizations will fall into the first two categories. Most companies and nonprofits engage in a mix of content curation and distributing original content. But, do decide. Also, have some sense of how you will be as a communicator:

  • “The first to know, the first to share” (breaking news)
  • The commentator? (adding to the conversation, bringing in a different angle or filling in holes)
  • The provocateur? (stimulating or debating?)
  • The objective source? (just the facts, please)
  • The correction agency? (dispelling myths)
  • The influencer (directing and guiding other’s thinking)
  • The expert (on a market, industry, product, service or other?)
  • The entertainment? (bringing in a pleasant, fun, humorous or other characteristic to a market or conversation?)

How will you design your content?

Is your audience highly mobile and need content in a variety of forms (phone, computer, iPad, and more)? In today’s multi-media world do they need visuals, infographics and video? Or, are they editorially focused, such as reading peer-previewed journals and reports? Your content should be able to be “remerchandised” to fit a number of channels. But, know the main channels that you need to fill, robustly. Just because you can deliver content in one form, doesn’t mean you should given your unique goals and objectives. (More on this tomorrow.)

How you will develop it?

Someone has to deliver this content. Do you already have a pipeline of material that is pretty full, just waiting to be shared? Or, will it need to be developed? Who will do this? What team do you need (help from creative, communications, marketing, online)?  Who will do the posting, tweeting, uploading, downloading, pinning, designing, writing, distributing, monitoring and tracking and reporting?

Once you’ve determined these things, develop your section of the communications plan that will:

  1. Declare who you’ll “be” in the way of content sharing and the reputation you want to build.
  2. Declare which channels will need to be filled and in what form.
  3. Identify where you can “remerchandise” your content (and where it makes sense to do so).
  4. Assign roles and responsibilities to the content generation, sharing and monitoring.