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.

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 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.

 

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.

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?”

Rail road moving throw the hole in the big green apple 3d illustration

  • 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.

iStock_red apple with heart.XSmall

  • 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.

Ami Neiberger-Miller Joins Four Leaf Public Relations as Senior Counselor

Ami Neiberger-MillerWe are a fortunate group at Four Leaf Public Relations. Today, we have the pleasure of introducing a new virtual team member: senior counselor Ami Neiberger-Miller, APR. A seasoned public relations consultant, Ami brings a strong background and more than twenty years of experience in helping businesses and associations take the next step in sharing who they are and what they want to do.

Ami’s areas of expertise include: designing and managing strategic communications and outreach campaigns; providing strategic counsel for tough situations and messaging development; developing and integrating content creation with media relations and writing for web copy, news releases, event scripting, educational curriculum, professional training, and more.

Ami has written for PRSA’s Tactics and other publications on news coverage and crisis. She has spoken at Columbia University and the Carter Center on media coverage and trauma. She has been interviewed by CNN, CBS Sunday Morning, ABC World News, and NPR. She’s been around!

Ami is also a public relations strategist, writer and consultant at Steppingstone LLC and a public affairs and media relations officer at Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS).  In the past Ami has been a special projects consultant and writer at National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC); a member of  the board of directors and chair of the public relations working group at Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter/Loudoun Citizens for Social Justice (LAWS/LCSJ) and the communications director at Sister Cities International.

Welcome, Ami!

 

 

 

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?