Getting Everyone on the Same Page With A Concept Pyramid

The concept pyramid is an exercise we’ve used to help get client’s employees on the same page. But, unlike the “good word-bad word” list exercise, which ferrets out default language your staff is using, the concept pyramid exercise helps set message priorities. It organizes everyone’s thoughts and ideas about who you are, what you deliver, and why.

It is important to note that the concept pyramid is meant to simply get ideas down on paper. It will not be the official language you use.

Similar to the “good word-bad word” list exercise, it starts with getting your key people around a conference room table (or take them somewhere where they can relax and be forthcoming). Now answer the following questions:

  • Who are you?
  • What do you do?
  • How do you do it?
  • Why do you do this?
  • Why would anyone care?
  • What else do you do that people would care about?

If you can’t answer these questions, you aren’t ready for messaging – yet. Get on the same page, conceptually, and then seek that scintillating copy to express it.

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.

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?

The Death of a Message: Parsing and Politics


There is nothing like watching a presidential run to see the best — and worst — of messaging. Let’s examine the brouhaha over presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s gaffe around saying how he “likes to fire” people. What he actually said to the Nashua, N.H. Chamber of Commerce audience that fateful morning was this:

“I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. You know, if someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I want to say, ‘You know, I’m going to get someone else to provide this service to me.’”

But, naturally the news (not to mention his opponents) jumped all over the “I like to” part. Anyone who likes to fire a person from a job doesn’t sound like someone we want to know, right?

But, if you see his full message, it makes sense. After all he was talking to an audience of people who have likely had to fire someone in their business.

But, here is the thing about messages. They can be parsed. A presidential candidate should know better. A business leader should also know this little fact. If it can be taken out of context, it probably will be.

Be careful when sharing an exciting soundbite that requires two or three more sentences to explain. The odds of your scintillating statement being taken out of context is high – even inside a small organization. People talk. And, they like to repeat things that are exciting. Make sure your electrifying message – especially one that is supposed to show off your character or how you might do something in the future — makes sense to not only who are speaking to immediately, but to anyone else who might hear it.


Note: Four Leaf PR is non partisan. We are not formally backing a presidential candidate.

Corporate Messaging & the Growing Loss of Credibility

Or, perhaps I should have titled this blog post – how too many organizations seem to believe their customer’s experience does not have to match their corporate messaging.

(Ed note: Warning: The following is a long post. But, anything dealing with showcasing the truth – or lack thereof – deserves some space.)

There are four enterprises whose messaging I have paid strict attention to recently – a bank, an online general merchant, a satellite TV company, and a major airline. These four organizations are the epitome of where business storytelling and messaging is succeeding – and where it is failing.

They are: Zappos, DirecTV, Wells Fargo, and Delta Airlines.

For more than a decade I have been applying some methodology to the magic of storytelling and messaging for clients. A bit of a formula exists. To be powerful, stories and messages have to be compelling, truthful and differentiating.

For years, I found the hardest part for organizations was trying to differentiate themselves from competitors.  In short, they weren’t very good at making themselves sound unique.

Today, we have another problem. And, it is the worst kind. We are steeped in a business world that is struggling with the truth.

As illustration, let’s pick on the bank. It was my last foray with Wells Fargo that I finally realized too many enterprises today are struggling with the truth in their messaging.

For instance, two days before Thanksgiving, as I was sitting under a Wells Fargo poster at my bank manager’s desk that read “With you when you want a head start on next year’s goals” I couldn’t help but ask why it was going to cost me $35 to get $51 wire transferred to Sweden. Or why it costs $16 every time a client wire transfers a payment to me. After all, they seemed to  have a lot of posters around that carried the “with you” theme. Their answer? “That’s just the way it is and we can’t do
anything about it
.” So much for the “being with me” advertising theme being more than a vacant slogan.

It made me wonder how much money they spent on posters, signs, copy and messaging, especially in light of the recent merger with Wachovia. Then, I noticed another interesting sign Wells Fargo seemed particularly proud of given the sheer size of it:  “We have one very powerful business rule. It is concentrated in one word: courtesy.” Hmmm. The definition of courtesy goes beyond just “being nice.” It means giving respect and consideration.  You know, like “being with me?”

Compare this to, an online retailer that started out as the for shoes. Now you can purchase clothing, jewelry, eyeware, household items and more.

Their tag line is “Powered By Service.” This is no empty slogan, as demonstrated by an order I made one night at 10:30 p.m. They wrote it would take a few days to receive the order. However, it arrived, via UPS, at 10 a.m. the next day. They also included instructions on how to return it – for any reason. Oh, and the shipping was free (both ways), and I had up to a year to return the item if needed. A year!? Unheard of. I would not expect this kind of service if they didn’t promise it. But, they do promise it in their messaging and they deliver.

Then, there was messaging I encountered on my business trip a few weeks ago. I was flying Delta Airlines between Richmond, Virginia, through Atlanta, to Louisville, Kentucky. As anyone who travels a lot, via air, will tell you, it takes all day to get  from point A to point B, even if it is only a state or two away. It also too often includes delays, security harassments, and bewildering rules. During this particular trip, as I found my way down a crowded jetway to get on the flight that was three hours delayed due to aircraft mechanical trouble, I had time to read the Delta posters.

It read, “We’re not just building a bigger airline, we’re building a better one.”  I had seen their commercials with this messaging over the last year. But, it didn’t really hit me until I was truly annoyed. After all, I am hours delayed. But, they were admitting they hadn’t figured it all out yet. And, you know what? It works. Their tag line, “Keep Climbing,” basically says they are trying and have a ways to go.

The next day I found an apology e-mail in my in-box because as they wrote, “someone in this industry still has the passenger’s back.” A day later they sent me a survey. Yes, the emails were both forms. But, they were actions of an enterprise at least trying. Another of their messages states “the next time an airline asks for your business, ask them first what they’ve done to deserve it,” and you know I just might do that.

Delta’s messaging and my experience with them is in stark contrast to my fourth example. Sorry, DirecTV, but you get an “F” in powerful storytelling and messaging. Despite their messaging that states “don’t just watch TV, DirecTV,” and “experience TV like never before,” if you can’t access the signal, get someone to show up, or get answers quickly and succinctly, no one is
directing anything.

Over the last three weeks, as my husband and I moved into a new house, we had two DirecTV in-person visits (after much begging and pleading) and six “phone sessions” (some lasting more than an hour) with technical support, yet only about 10 hours of service (at the writing of this blog post). It got to the point we had the local technician’s cell phone number, which we had to call many times because the service would just quit, and sometimes he just didn’t show up when he said he would. (I would tweet our frustration occasionally just to see if anyone from DirecTV was listening. They weren’t.) Add to the fact that we were outright lied to about what channels we would receive and would not, well, you are not even on the truth scale at all. Yet, they advertise that they are “the #1 in customer satisfaction of all satellite and cable providers.” We will see. We will see when we get the bill.

If you are going to advertise a message, be sure you can deliver. No matter how much money you spend on advertising, public relations, social media or clever storytelling techniques, if the customer’s experience does not match you have lost credibility. Nay, you have killed your credibility.

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.


3 Pitfalls to Avoid in Corporate Storytelling

Want to include storytelling in your corporate communications? Avoid these three common pitfalls.

1.     Good story, wrong audience. Or should we write, good audience, wrong story? If you are speaking to a group of people in the hospice industry you would not tell a story about your rock climbing injury that keeps you from reaching the top of Mount Everest. That may be an obvious example, but don’t forget the more nuanced scenarios.

2.     Not enough suspense or twists and turns. Stories have to have a beginning, middle and end. But, they also need to have some air of unpredictability to be interesting. Catch your audience off guard and you will have caught their attention. But, remember number one above. Make sure the twist is appropriate.

3.     Too much corporate jargon.  This goes for marketing speak, too. Because if you believe your 24/7 enterprise solution brings mission-critical projects to fruition, adding to the corporate bottom line and realizing a greater ROI than the other guy down the street – and you describe it that way – you have successfully put your audience to sleep. Or, running from the room.

Develop your story and then check to see if they fall into these traps above. Edit and repeat. The world loves a good story. Be sure your attempts at introducing storytelling stay out of the snares.

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.