Why Spend A Whole Day Considering Your Business Story?

We have developed an entire process to help businesses and nonprofit organizations address their positioning, messaging and storytelling. In that process is a planned day-long, all-hands-on-deck summit.

The first response we get to this process is, A whole day, you say? We don’t have that kind of time.

If you are thinking about boosting your messaging or introducing storytelling to your sales and marketing plans, you know something is amiss. If something isn’t working well and you know there is an issue, you don’t have the time to not spend an entire day addressing it.

I hate to break the news, but a 2 hour session squeezed into an already-packed Board of Director’s meeting schedule won’t cut it. (Can you tell I have been asked to do this more than once?)

Your language helps creates who you are and what people believe. Unclear or stale messages with no story punch to them equal invisibility or worse: wrong ideas, which can be circulated far and wide in today’s world of online communication. If you are not communicating who you are, either someone else will (and, they will likely be wrong) or indifference sets in (which is hard to shake).

When your corporate or nonprofit messages are working well you will find

  • —Sales and marketing efforts resonate with whom you want to attract
  • People in general refer to you in good terms to others
  • Cohesion will exist among staff, board and team members
  • Your processes are simplified, which includes materials development, lobbying initiatives, media relations, and media work
  • The media and bloggers will pay attention and (should) write about you truthfully
  • Capitol Hill, policy-makers, legislators and regulators listen (if you are trying to get them to)
  • Your company or industry’s reputation is boosted with all target audiences
  • Appropriate partners and stakeholders are attracted

If you scored your organization against those outcomes above, how would you rate? Spending an entire day to make that list above workable would be worth it, no?

Part Four Of Knowing Your Audience: Their Spotlight Pitch

The final installment of our 4 part series around knowing your audience for better messaging and storytelling is the most simple and most complex at the same time. It will require extreme objectivity, a modicum of honesty and a tinge of bravery. Here goes.

What would your customer’s spotlight or elevator pitch about you say?

  • Take a moment to enter a mental place of objectivity about your products and services.
  • Write down three key points your customer would say about you if they were trying to sell a friend on getting involved with you. (If you answered the 5 questions posted on Tuesday and conducted some “fly on the wall” monitoring from yesterday’s post, you should know these.)
  • Take out anything that you wish they would say, but probably wouldn’t.
  • Write up a 4 sentence spotlight pitch.

Now, what aspects of it should be included in your organizational story or business narrative?

Part Three of Knowing Your Audience: What do they say about you?

This is part 3 of a 4 part series on the importance of – and exercises for – knowing your audience before developing your story. Yesterday we discussed the 5 questions to ask about your audience.

Part 3 to fully knowing your customer, member or client?  Know what your customers say about you to others.

Smart leaders know that what you hear on customer surveys and even focus groups isn’t always the whole truth. The subtle difference between what they say to you and what they really think and report to others can be the intelligence you need to make subtle shifts in your presentations, speeches or messages.

For many years, retail outlets have hired “mystery shoppers” where owners hired individuals to pretend to be a customer and then report back on their experience. (Did you know there is a Mystery Shopping Providers Association?) But, there are other ways to be the proverbial “fly on the wall.” A few include:

  • Monitoring social networks, forums and groups for your name or product name.
  • Setting up a Google alert on your organization (and yourself).
  • Monitoring the comments section on media and blog postings that discuss you and your organization or products and services.
  • Simply asking the people around them (other vendors and other customers or members) what they say.

Asking them yourself via direct visits and calls and market research activities is important. But, knowing what they say when you leave the room is priceless.

Part Two of Knowing Your Audience: 5 Essential Questions

Yesterday, I discussed how important it is to know your audiences deeper than ever before.

Today, could you answer the following questions about your prime target, your sweet spot customer, the group or person you need to influence?

  1. What are the top 5 things on their minds right now? What is keeping them up at night? (e.g. keeping their jobs, growing their company, completing a project? Something more specific?)
  2. And, what magic wand do they wish they had to resolve their concerns, issues or challenges?
  3. What are 3 things that motivate them? What is most precious to them (e.g. time, money, health/vitality, power, success/admiration, security, comfort, legacy, making a difference/contribution)?
  4. What tone of voice attracts them? (e.g. humor/entertainment, serious business/security, urgency?)
  5. What was their defining moment or defining experience that led them to possibly needing you and what you have to offer?

Whether or not you are about to make a sales pitch, are getting ready for a presentation or speech, about to launch a fundraising effort or other activity, knowing the answers to these questions will make your stories and presentations and messages much more powerful. Take the time to answer them.

Job Number One In Storytelling & Messaging: Knowing Your Audience, Deeply

How much do you know about who you are trying to influence with your messages and storytelling? Do you know what they hear when you speak or write to them? Do you know when and why they vote you off the island or ask you to exit the dance floor?

You may believe you know them quite well. Sales force feedback, focus groups, surveys, and direct conversations give you good information. But, is it enough?

In today’s world, understanding who you are speaking to, including the things that have nothing to do with what you do or to what end you are trying to influence them, is not just important. It is expected.

For instance, do you believe the residents of Love Canal heard the news of the Japanese nuclear meltdown earlier this year the same way you did? I am sure you didn’t hear it the way I did, as I lived two hours from Love Canal when I was young. I heard about Love Canal incessantly until we moved to Virginia, where no one seemed to have heard of that terrible environmental tragedy. Of course, in the 1970s we did not live in a 24/7 news and information culture, so there were a great many people who did not hear much about Love Canal. But, our world is different now, where news of events spread as fast it happens.

You wouldn’t know how I would react to nuclear plant news unless you got to know my background and, on top of that, put “two and two” together about my childhood location and news of the day. This may not mean much if you are trying to sell me shoes. But, this information would mean a great deal if you were trying to get me to buy land, which just happens to be near a nuclear power plant.

Listening to who you are trying to influence is essential to communication success. The first steps are quite obvious:

  1. Put what you want to sell on the back burner for a minute and listen.
  2. Get honest about how much you know about their world.

But, a third step is less apparent: ask them about things that go beyond the immediate “sell.”

Tomorrow is part two of a four part series, which will address the 5 questions to ask your target audience.

The Difference Between Telling the Truth and Being Accurate

One of the main characteristics of a powerful message or story is that it is appropriate. This means telling the truth. But I often hear people mixing up being accurate with telling the truth. Let me explain.

I worked with an environmental law firm on their messaging a few years ago. What an interesting project. For one, working with attorneys brings a whole new perspective to what constitutes “accuracy.” For these legal minds, telling the truth about their firm and what they do meant having to give every detail, in chronological order, with many caveats including changing statements from “we did X” to “we helped with X.” And, in the process, the truth was too often lost.

This organization is one of the most successful environmental advocacy organizations in the country. They have more than 25 years of successfully “winning” (meaning progressing environmental cases to a better outcome) most of the time. But, few people knew of this organization.

No one has 20 minutes to hear the punchline. The truth of this organization is that they win – a lot. The accurate picture is that sometimes it takes them seven years and a trip to the Supreme Court to get them to agree with a lower court’s decision that then allows them to move on to the next level, which is just one step toward getting the energy industry to finally clean up those dirty coal-fired power plants.

While certain aspects of their longer story can be compelling (and should be kept), too often people are on to the next story before they get to the message that this organization is a good investment for donation dollars because they are able to turn those contributions into time well spent.

(Note: They have since changed their messaging and now are shining examples of what constitutes “just enough” facets to see the diamond that they are in all that coal dust.)

Ensuring your messages are appropriate does not mean they should be boring. But, rather they should tell the truth, be authentic, and with just enough elements to get people to stay with you as your explain why you are important to them.

As singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash one said in a songwriting seminar I took years ago, you’re trying to tell the truth in your songs, not every detail that got you there.

Does Your Story Sell? Does it Give Answers?

I stumbled across this post from JustSell on the “8 objections” to buying whatever it is you are selling. There is an interesting correlation between how well your business story “sells” and these common objections.

First, do you know when people are “objecting” to your story? Listening is the first thing to do when you begin to speak. Simple cues like eyes glazing over or darting around the room, fidgeting, and attempts to “escape” are all clues you’ve either hit them at the wrong time or what you are saying is not resonating. If you are giving a presentation, do you even notice these things?

Secondly, I’ll address one of the objections from the Just Sell article: Lack of perceived value in the product or service.

In Four Leaf’s formula for a powerful message, we talk about messaging being “compelling” (in addition to being differentiating and appropriate or truthful). If your audience isn’t riveted to your story you are 1) either telling your story to the wrong audience or 2) you aren’t focusing on what engages them. If they aren’t engaged, they won’t see the relevance and certainly won’t ascertain the value you hold for them.

In today’s world of storytelling and messaging you will need to tell them what they need, up front. No longer can you hide behind the curtain of “buy my services and products and then I’ll give you the answer you are seeking.” Rather, in today’s pay-it-forward  market you will need to at least give them a taste of what they will get from you. You cannot prove value otherwise today.

A long list of credentials, past client successes and case studies are terrific. But, they aren’t the only thing that will “sell” your story. You need to give away some samples to get them to buy.

Last week I blogged about TED talks. They are terrific presentations to model around being compelling and getting across value. Notice how often they give you answers. Notice how often they are compelling. Notice how often they hold real value.

To Find Story Gold, You Have to Dig Through Some Dirt

As you can tell, I’ve been writing about the “origin story” quite a bit lately. This is an important tale to have in your story library. It gives context and usually reveals the passion behind your service and product offerings. But, there is an enemy in our midst when seeking the power in our origin story. It’s called perfectionism.

I was reminded of this enemy recently as I was reading Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott for, oh, the 15th time. (Quick tip: If you ever suffer from writer’s blog — even if you are just trying to write a news release or a very important memo — consider picking up this book. It works wonders. See link to it below.)

The problem with trying to write the perfect message, the perfect business narrative, the perfect story right away is this: You can’t do it. If you are trying to “get it right” straight out of the gate you will only immobilize your creativity. First drafts, reminds Anne Lamott, aren’t mean to be good. They are meant to get your started.

Perfectionism also is the enemy of getting the most out of your people.

When it comes to developing that elevator pitch, a corporate presentation, a nonprofit fundraising pitch or a talk, do you let your people play, dig, get messy and get it all wrong at first? If not, you may be leaving some valuable nuggets on the table. Here is a quick exercise for developing your origin story (or any other story or message) sans the perfectionism:

  1. Get everyone in the conference room (or the coffee shop).
  2. Tell everyone take a stab at your organization’s “once upon a time” story. Ask them to write down at least four sentences that describe how your organization or business started and why. Have them describe the moment it all came together that caused this enterprise to exist.
  3. Have them read their first drafts out loud.
  4. Identify the golden nuggets that tell the truth, show how you are different and are compelling to your audiences. They are there.

From this exercise, you not only will get your people on board to find the real gold for your origin story, but you’ll also help them understand where the organization or company has come from and why. You can do this with any of the stories that we recommend you have in your arsenal.

What is a Compelling Message Anyway?

When developing a powerful message, there are three elements to include:

  • A compelling angle
  • A differentiating point
  • A truthful and accurate account

The one characteristic where I have found most people spend the most time is “being compelling.” After all, it’s the fun part. It is the element where you get to boast about the importance of your product or service and how exciting you are.

But, what does “being compelling” mean?

Hint: It’s not necessarily being flashy or having to set yourself on fire. Granted, showmanship may count during the Super Bowl, but during a normal business day as your customers and potential clients seek help or something to fit their needs, they are looking for relevance.

Providing a compelling angle means you can hold the interest of a potential customer long enough for them to understand where you fit into their world. It also should hold their interest long enough for you to have a conversation with them.

For example, the tag line of Earth Justice, an environmental organization, is: Because the Earth Needs a Good Lawyer. Not only does this point you in the direction of what they do (truth and accuracy) and how they might differ from, say, the Sierra Club, this message gives you a sense of their energy and how they feel about their work. This message would be interesting to anyone who believes the planet could use an advocate.

Think about when Apple’s Steve Jobs announced the iPad. His story was to the point, calling the iPad the world’s thinnest notebook. It differentiated the product from heavier, bulkier computer laptops and, as he held it up, you could see he was being truthful. It was pretty darn thin. But, also, how compelling is it to believe you could actually fit something in your briefcase besides your computer? He knows his audience – they want efficiency. They want “light” and productivity. And, he knew what would compel them to learn more about this new product from the beginning.

How compelling are your messages?

Your 3 Most Important Stories to Master

Not every story works for every audience. Everyone should have a library of narratives that speak to different groups. If asked, I would answer that all organizations, whether non profit or for profit, should have the following types of stories in their arsenal:

1. Origin story – Why are you here? Very specifically, what happened? What was the “a-ha” moment for your organization’s founding? This kind of story grounds people. Besides, it’s interesting.

President Roosevelt’s story of how he launched the national park program comes to mind.  Specifically, the most powerful part of his conservation origins is the story around when he refused to shoot a bear that rather misguided organizers tied to a tree for the President to shoot so he was guaranteed a trophy. The President’s refusal to do so, and subsequent epiphany that everyone should be able to enjoy nature, launched the greatest period of national park development and conservation that we have seen in the 20th century. This story also was the origin of the teddy bear craze as he became known as “Teddy Roosevelt.” What ephipany did your founders or executive leadership have that put you on your current path?

2. Signature story – What is one anecdote that illustrates your mission? What is the story that is unique to your organization? This helps people remember you, not to mention put them on the right path of understanding about who you are and what you stand for.

A story that has stuck with me is one that Ed Clark, founder and head of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, tells around how the Center has educated and impacted people’s everyday behaviors around wildlife. A man met Ed at an event where the conversation turned to how it is “okay” to throw bio-degradable food stuffs out the car window while driving. Ed gently corrected him saying that even an apple core thrown onto the side of the road can entice (and train) wildlife to the come to the roadside, where they are too-often hit by a vehicle. Years later Ed ran into that gentleman again and he said “you know, I haven’t thrown an apple core out the window since I met you.” What is a story that you can claim that may be simple but shows the impact you are making?

3. Participant story – What story can you tell that shows how people interact with you, use your products or services or gained something from being involved with you? What stories could your staff share that show they are “called” to this work? This story helps people see the relevance you have to them.

The Southern Environmental Law Center does this beautifully. Several of their attorneys have been videotaped explaining “why they do what they do.” They also are terrific at capturing testimonial stories from their donors, who talk very specifically about why they contribute to the organization. In particular, they are very good at capturing the childhood memories both SELC’s employees and donors had around some of the special, natural places in the southeast from fishing with their father in the rivers to walking down to the docks to meet the fishermen. It is these memories that not only spur them on to act but also connect them in a very human and real way to their audiences. What story do you have that shows the people you help and the people who work in your organization are “just like me?”