Part Nine of the Modern Communications Plan: Messaging, Positioning and Storytelling

Golden apple 3d render (clipping path and isolated on white)

Now we get to a fun part of communications planning: what you want to say.

Every modern communications plan should include a positioning, messaging and storytelling guide.

When you have a guide you are positioning your staff to be more successful in executing your strategies. It also brings consensus to employees, senior management, business units and divisions about where the organization is headed. Having an arsenal of messages to use is key to creating a strong brand and making your communications plan stay on target and be effective.

Note that I used the word “guide.” It should have enough detail to provide the right tone, top-level messages and language to help people be creative but not stray so far that they are making up their own ideas about what you’re trying to get across

It may include a positioning statement, value proposition and spotlight pitch to start, with an arsenal of anecdotes and proof points, to help the people tasked with executing the plan develop more specific and detailed messages for content and presentations.

Why is having a guide so important? Whether you know it or not, when it comes to describing your organization, products and services, you are delivering messages that set people on a path to either include you or exclude you from their future. People also naturally fall into a default way of speaking and writing. Without identifying your language, you’re leaving it up to their employees to describe the good works and products you offer in whatever way they choose. You wouldn’t leave your finances up to chance, so why treat your communications that way?

Four Leaf has a proprietary technique that involves a series of facilitated meetings with an organization’s leadership over several weeks in addition to background and intelligence-gathering about the organization, its market and its customers to help set the stage for educated message development.

Below are a number of exercises to get your started:

  • Develop a “good word, bad word” list: What words do you always want associated with you, and which words do you never want said about you? Dig deep. What powerful words, if spoken by a referral source, might get someone to act? Also, don’t just choose bad words opposite of the good words. What could people say about you, but you wish they didn’t? What buzz words in your industry have no power left in them? (e.g. solutions)
  • What is unique about your products and services that no one else can claim?
  • You started this communications planning route with an idea in mind. What was it? How would you prioritize your ideas? What’s the most important idea to get across?
  • If you could tell anyone about you and your products what would it be?
  • What is your origin story? How did the company start and why? What special ideas did the founders have?

Avoid language that states “buy my products.” No one cares. What they care about is how your product or service will make their life better.

When you go through these exercises (and there are many more), you’ll discover language, phrases and stories you’d like to get across. From there, a guide can be developed.

Read the entire template for the Modern Communications Plan here.

Four Leaf has taken about 40 organizations through its Positioning, Messaging and Storytelling process. Learn more here.

 

The Most Overlooked Part of a Powerful Message

Nouns. I lead with the punch line.

Far too many companies and organizations lead with the benefits, the adjectives, and the scintillating catch phrases, forgetting to do one simple thing: tell your audience who you are and what you do using simple-to-understand nouns.

How many times have you read: We bring unparalleled results to your most thorny problems instead of We can fix your computer?

Unless your brand is Apple or Dell or Google, no one can actually hear what you are saying (or read what you are writing) if they don’t hear a noun.

Your organization is an airline, a computer technology company, a retail store, a nonprofit association that represents lawn mower manufacturers or something entirely different. But, it is something. Say it. And, say it early.

Another Storytelling Danger To Avoid: Predictability

If you are interested in adding the storytelling technique to your communications arsenal, good for you. Storytelling, the art and science of sharing information via narrative, is an ancient form of communication. Human beings around the world have used storytelling to get their ideas across for millennia. Over the ages, it has outlasted every fad, technique and notion around persuasion and discussion. And, there is a good reason for this. It works.

But, avoid the dangers that lurk. The last few day’s I’ve been blogging about some of the pitfalls. Here’s another: nothing surprising happens.

We all know that stories have to have a beginning, middle and end. But, they also need to have some air of unpredictability to be interesting. What do we mean? Having an ending that isn’t easily identified is good. But, hearing something in the middle that they weren’t expecting, as well, is even better.

Too many business stories do not have enough suspense or twists and turns. No need to turn your story into a saga with such details. But, do include soemthing that will perk the ears.

Be wary of adding something that is meant to trick, however. Audiences don’t like to be deceived. Film director M. Night Shyamalan is brilliant at his sudden twists. But, even he sometimes can miss the mark. The surprise introduction of new information worked in the Sixth Sense. (The psychiatrist was really a ghost.) It didn’t work so well in The Village, with critics (and viewers) feeling they had been duped. (The time frame of the movie went from years past to suddenly being in present day.)

Think of a twist along the veins of Mattel finally having to admit that their famous Barbie doll’s measurements were an impossibility. (Should she be a real woman, her original measurements would have been an impossible 36-18-38.) Or, how Walt Disney had numerous business failures and bankruptcies before finding his magical formula. In fact, he  was fired by a newspaper editor because, “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” Leaving those details out of their stories would have made their eventual success less interesting, no?

 

How About A New Year’s Resolution Related To Word Choices?

Happy New Year! ‘Tis the season to make new resolutions to bring about positive change in our lives, right? How about a language overhaul for starters? There are three words that I use fairly often but which I going to try to strike from my vocabulary in 2012. They are:

Busy. How often do you answer the question, how are you? with the word “busy?” Aren’t we all? This answer basically says you have more to do than you believe you have time to do it. But, I believe it causes a self fulfilling prophecy. What would life be like if you didn’t think you had too little time? Besides, the word “busy” isn’t very interesting. And, therein lies the second word I am going to attempt to abandon in the new year.

Interesting. What does this word say, really? I believe we use it when we have nothing else to say. So, why use it at all? Searching for a suitable substitute is not only good for the mind, but also will make our speech more precise. And, it might make you more interesting in reality.

“Like” (the valley girl version). I am ashamed to admit (as any adult should be) that this word has crept into my speech far too often. Like, I have such an interesting and busy life that I am just so, like, amazed, right? I am astounded at how many adults — even in corporate boardrooms – say this in the middle of their sentences. It doesn’t add anything of substance. I say adding “like” is the mark of someone who is not paying enough attention to how they speak.

What words are you committed to eliminating from your everyday conversations?

What ‘Showing’ Versus ‘Telling’ Looks Like

A big sin in storytelling is to “tell” rather than “show.” Screenwriting master Robert McKee calls this habit of using exposition, “furniture dusting.” Have you ever seen a play that starts with the “servants” coming out at the beginning to dust the furniture in the “parlor,” all the while talking about the master and mistress of the house and what’s been going on? This is intended to get the audience up to speed and share the back story. It’s downright lazy, says McKee. He’s right.

Sure, some “telling” is necessary. But, it should never be in replace of using other creative ways to show what you are committed to.

A good example of how to show off your commitments is through corporate social responsibility programs. For instance, take the Dyson company, known for their innovative vacuum cleaner technology. We recently bought a new Dyson vacuum cleaner. On the box we found a story of the James Dyson Foundation. It reads:

In schools and universities, the James Dyson Foundation North America encourages young people to realize their engineering potential. It could be prototyping new environmentally responsible designs, disassembling everyday applianaces or tackling fun, practical tasks. As well as inspiring tomorrow’s engineers, the foundation also supports medical and scientific research projects around the world.

What do you think they are dedicated to? Beyond just selling vacuum cleaners and parts, clearly they support innovation and engineering breakthroughs overall.

What stories do you have that show off your commitments?

Book Recommendation: MicroStyle: The Art of Writing Little

I literally just put down my iPad, from which I read the book, Microstyle: the Art of Writing Little by Christopher Johnson. I read many books on communication, and it has been a long time since I read anything really new about how we get our ideas across, what resonates with people overall and how we can ensure our message is not only remembered but shared.

Microstyle is entertaining and enlightening. The opening line to the introduction is intriguing: “This is the age of the Incredible Shrinking Message.” Yes. He goes on to explain how we go to this point of “miniature messages” (and you can’t blame it all on Twitter, though it may have speeded up the process a bit).

I don’t want to spoil the book for you (because I am recommending you read it), but here are some nuggets that caught my eye:

  •  “Micromessages often feature the formal traits of poetry: rhyme, alliteration, assonance, structural parallelism.”
  • “So, how do you pack a lot of meaning into a little message? You don’t. . . A message isn’t a treasure chest full of meaning. It’s more like a key that opens doors.”
  • “Clarity  means finding the right level of detail for the circumstances.”
  • “The main function of a brand name…is to add conceptual and emotional depth to people’s ideas about a product, company, or service.”
  • “Baldly descriptive names are like a trip to the grocery store: they’re short, and you don’t see anything very interesting along the way. Suggestive names, on the other hand, lead you through exciting mental territory…”
  • “We don’t live ideas, we live situations. So, insert your reader into a situation.”
  • “What makes a micromessage successful is often the same thing that makes a comment stand out in a conversation: unusual perspicacity or wit.”
  • “Voice is what the recipient of your message infers about you solely from your communicative choices.”

These statements are taken entirely out of context. This is another reason to pick up the book. But, you get a flavor for what Johnson seems to be saying: Challenge “Big Style” and make your own style. It will determine much about you.

 

The Difference Between Storytelling and Messaging

Storytelling and messaging are two different communication disciplines. But, you need both to ensure communications effectiveness.

According to the National Storytelling Association, storytelling is “the art of using language, vocalization, and/or physical  movement and gesture to reveal the elements and images of a story to a specific, live audience.”

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, messaging is a communication in writing, in speech, or by signals.

Those are good starts in understanding the difference. But, there is more.

The trend in storytelling for corporate and nonprofit work is on the rise. There is a good reason. After all, who doesn’t love a good story? It makes whatever you are seeking to communicate interesting and sometimes even entertaining. “Messaging” on the other hand has gotten a bad rap with many people in the business and nonprofit world believing it is old-school, 1960s Madison Avenue hype where a company makes up what they want people to believe. Maybe bad messaging is that. But, good messaging is far from the old days of marketing manipulation. (See our formula for a powerful message.)

Messaging — the craft of determining what you want to communicate very specifically — is equally important to storytelling.

While stories give a framework or environment for what you are trying to communicate, messages are clear, specific thoughts on what you are seeking to deliver. To sum up, stories give context while messages provide a conclusion.

Conclusions are important. I recently worked with a company comprised of engineers. They were great at giving you all the data and backstory. In other words, they were terrific at telling the story of how they came up with their new technology. The trouble was they assumed whoever they were speaking to would arrive at the same conclusion they had. Some good messaging was needed to support their storytelling.

By all means, use storytelling for your communications endeavors. But, don’t forget the messaging. Again, storytelling adds interest to how you got where you are. But, let your audience know when they’ve arrived. Give them the ending with good solid messaging.

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 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.