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.

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?)

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.

GOOD WORD-BAD WORD

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?

RED DOT-BLUE DOT

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.

CONCEPT PYRAMID

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.

Positioning Your Organization. What the Heck Is That?

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Positioning basically means where your organization stands against all the other choices your customers have. When someone needs to hire a service or buy a product, they are exposed to any number of options. If you have a good position, you will be considered in the running and have a good chance of being chosen as the winning provider. If you have a poor position, you are overlooked.

What does this have to do with messaging?

Every organization should have a positioning statement to showcase who you are and who you are not. The positioning statement leads people to either put you on their short list of who they wish to deal with or exclude you.

Below is an example of a positioning statement we helped develop a number of years ago for a venture organization seeking to attract more people to their events (their main product).

CVG: By entrepreneurs, for entrepreneurs.

Simple, direct and to the point. Why is this powerful? First of all, you know who you’ll meet at their events. Entrepreneurs. If you are one, you will meet like-minded people who will understand you.

It also tells you who they are not. They are not the Chamber of Commerce. They are not a technology council (popular back then). They are not a trade association.

When proactively positioning yourself, you’ll first want to identify:

  • the piece of the world you want to own (or at least where you can effectively compete)
  • how you stack up presently against all the other options people have
  • what you’re willing to do to get to where you want to be

It’s key to be honest here. You can’t reach your goals if you aren’t willing to take a hard look at where you stand and why you hold that position.

The next step is to identify how you are different, why someone should be interested in you, and, again, what is accurate about your products and services. You need to know this because a powerful positioning statement:

  1. Differentiates you (tells your audience who you are compared to everyone else)
  2. Is compelling to your audience (tells them something that is interesting to them)
  3. Is truthful (tells them what they will honestly get when doing business with you)

The positioning statement is just one message in your communications arsenal. But it’s powerful, and every organization should start here before developing an elevator pitch, soundbites, advertising copy…even your tag line (what many people want to start with).

After all, if you don’t know how you want to stand out in a crowd, all other messages and stories will be like shouting into the wind.

 

Part Ten of the Modern Communications Plan: How will you know it’s working?

Business leaders across the globe ask this question (nearly daily) of their team: how do we know our communications work? As someone who’s been in the communications field for more than thirty years, the answer is rarely cut and dried. But no effort should be embarked upon without having some idea of how you’ll tell how you are doing and how to share that with managers, executive teams and other stakeholders.

Measurement and evaluation are critical elements of every communications plan in order to validate results of your efforts, make course corrections, and develop better strategies and tactics.

Entire books have been written about communications measurement, but below are some thoughts to get your started.

Consider these five basic measurement points, liberally borrowed from the International Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communications framework.

  1. Exposure and Awareness: How will we know people viewed our messages at all? Are they aware of the issues and options we bring to them?
  2. Knowledge and Understanding: Do they understand what we are trying to say or do? Does it make sense to them?
  3. Interest and Consideration: Will people listen to our viewpoints? If given the choice, will our offering be considered?
  4. Support and Preference: Will our viewpoints and offerings be chosen? Will people reference us?
  5. Action and Real Behavior Change: Will our viewpoints and offerings incite specific actions, usually meaning will they buy our products and services or change the way they’ve done something in the past or take a different action.

Most communications efforts rely on simple metrics such as web site visits, social media ‘likes,’ ‘follows,’ and shares, email ‘opens’ and other number-based measurements to understand the above. But by adding a healthy mix of market research, polls and surveys, content analysis and share of discussion, and lead sourcing, you’ll be far ahead of your competitors in the measurement and evaluation game.

If you care about your return-on-investment for PR, advertising and other communications activities, you’d be wise to plan how you’ll measure before you launch any campaign.

Find the entire template for the Modern Communications Plan 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.

 

Strategies: Part Five of the Modern Communications Plan

The strategy section is usually where people start. Resist the urge! Start with the first four steps: Identifying your vision, goals and objectives and ‘greatest accomplishment,’ your target audience and main channels. If you don’t go through those steps first, you could waste a lot of time developing a beautiful strategy that misses the mark. After all, there is no sense in engaging in a high-level strategy like social media, if you’re trying to reach someone who doesn’t use it. (Yes, those people actually exist.) Or, if they use social media, it isn’t where they go to buy insert whatever you sell here.

Common strategies include:

  • conducting media relations
  • engaging in community relations
  • launching a new community (online or in person)
  • holding events
  • attending or producing trade shows
  • launching a new “theme” for your company or industry or re-branding
  • creating your own channels (i.e. launching a magazine)
  • engaging or launching social awareness, philanthropic and corporate social responsibility programs
  • engaging in customer recognition
  • creating an awards program

Hopefully, this short list got you thinking what is possible. Next up? Tactics.

The whole communications plan template can be found here.

 

How Well Do You Know Who You’re Talking To? Part 3 of the Modern Communications Plan

How well do you know your target audience? Really.

In the modern communication plan, you’ll want to include detailed information about who you are trying to reach. This section can include demographic data, market research, and other information that showcases who you are communicating to.

However, the deeper you describe them, the greater your team members will be able to work with your strategies and messaging. They can get more creative, knowing that what they are doing will resonate with who they are trying to influence.

So, what is “deep?”

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  • Where do they hang out online as well as in real life? That one may be easy to answer. But do you know when they are there? Pinterest attracts mostly women ages 18 to 35 and who spend an average of 80 minutes (!) with a penchant to buy (!!). They log onto Pinterest in droves on Saturday mornings. Are you there then? Online shopping has reshaped consumer-buying habits. Yet studies continually show that most people still like to visit brick and mortar stores. When does your audience do that? Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, was the largest in-person shopping day for decades. But in the last few years, Black Friday seems more like Black Anytime.

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  • What causes action? You know what you want them to do, but what causes them to click, share or buy? Better yet, what causes an “automatic buy?” Is it from peer pressure? And what does that peer pressure look like? A high number of “views” of a video spurs more sharing than a lower-viewed piece. Or is your product likely to be purchased or adopted because it has a long brand history? Older Americans tend to have strong brand loyalty. The younger generation hasn’t had time to establish brand preferences yet.

  • Speaking of age, what generation is your audience from? For the first time in history, the U.S. job force has four generations represented. The youngest, the Millennials, have completely different attitudes about work, friends and family, and community than Depression-era workers. They also want different things from life. Know these differences. Name them.

These are a few questions to ask. What else should we examine? Share in the comments section if you have more.

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

A Template for the Modern Communications Plan

Beyond the usual strategy and tactics (reaching out to reporters, attending trade shows, etc.), what are some of the things that need to be considered as part of today’s communications planning? Below is a template that we use for planning our client’s overall communications and special projects. Throughout the summer, I’ll blog about each part, including providing questions that need your answers, tips and techniques, and identifying the big changes taking place in the world of mass communications.

1. Vision
This section is a one paragraph answer to how the organization wants to be known. Or, if it is a project, what do we want to leave behind when the project is complete? An example would be for a nonprofit organization to be the “go to” source on all things related to their cause.

2. Goals and Objectives
This section differs from the greatest accomplishment in that goals are things you reach (milestones such as audience numbers) and objectives are things you create (happenings from new conversations and ways of thinking to a certain status).

2a. Our Greatest Accomplishment
This section highlights the single most important communication accomplishment that the organization or project can achieve. An example would be for an organization to have changed a particular conversation in its marketplace or to introduce a new idea.

3. Target Audience
This section can include demographic data, market research, and other information that showcases who you are communicating to.

4. Main Communications Channels
This section should describe the main channels (social channels, traditional, media outlets, events and shows and more) that you are going to use to push our your information, thought leadership and ideas.

5. Strategies
This section discusses the main strategies employed and why. Employing social media, engaging in media relations, community relations, holding events, launching a new “theme” for your industry — these are some tried-and-true strategies you’ll find in a plan.

6. Main Tactics
This section is the action plan. It answers what you are going to do on a daily, weekly and monthly basis to move the communications effort forward. Hold contests on Facebook? Develop a PSA series? Provide stakeholders with toolkits to help spread the word? this section houses the details.

7. “We Won’t” List
This section does precisely what the title says. Knowing what you will not focus your attention on (but could) is vital to ensuring focus.

8. Content Strategy
The section addresses how you are going to assess, develop and manage the ideas, thoughts and content you will use to direct conversations, viewpoints and reputation and image.

9. Positioning, Messaging & Storytelling
This section should include your message guide, from a positioning statement, value proposition to spotlight pitch on the organization or project. It sets the message tone so everyone is clear on what you are going to say and how.

10. Monitoring & Measurement
This section, one of the most well-intentioned but often ignored areas, will go into how to tell how you are doing and how to share that with managers, executive teams and other stakeholders.

11. Team Players.
This section will identify – by name – who is going to design and implement the plan.

12. Timeline.
How are you going to ensure your company will use it? There is no sense in having a communications plan if you aren’t going to use it, so plan out your activities. Set dates.

Lucky number 13: How much money are you willing to spend? The reason there is no formal section above is because, in my 30 years of experience, every organization is different around money. Some know exactly how much they want to spend and will tell you up front. Others wish to see a plan with a budget attached before making a decision. Regardless, began to talk about money early and as the above template unfolds. The plan will usually tell you how much you need to spend to be effective. Decisions can be made from there.