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.

Who is that Masked Writer? The Disappearing Professional Journalist

Thank you Internet and social media for turning the world of media relations on its ear in the last five years. It was time for such a communications upheaval. It is creative and exhilarating.

But, this revolution has not been without consequences. And, we have seen something new emerge, which has us a little perplexed and unsure of how we should feel about it.

First, know that we are unafraid of new trends (we’ve seen quite a few come and go). You could say we are “well-seasoned.” Four Leaf is comprised of PR professionals who have all used a typewriter for work (not at a museum just to see what it feels like), can recall when a two day turnaround at a mail house was considered fast, and can tell you what a color separator used to do.

We have watched the world go from a one way street where you could only go 35 miles an hour to an information superhighway (remember that phrase?) where you have to go the speed of light just to be seen or heard.  You could say the world has grown into Audrey, the flesh-eating Venus flytrap from the Little Shop of Horrors, crying out Feed me! Yet while the world’s insatiable appetite for information, entertainment and material has grown, one little wrinkle formed: not enough people to fill the content hole.

In fact, today’s media outlets are so hungry for content that we hear more questions more than answers to our media pitches. We used to  hear, I liked the idea. Let me get back to you after I’ve talked with my editor. Today, we most often hear, Sounds great. Can you produce a 1,000 word article on that topic for us?  

But, that’s not the trend we’re noting today that has us scratching our heads. It’s this: we have seen an increasing number of “journalists” who, well, aren’t. They aren’t even close. These writers, who clearly have good backgrounds in their topic, come from anywhere: from non-media companies, from non-profits boards, from the blogosphere, from twitter (because they were prolific there?), from PR firms.

The surprising part of this is that we didn’t know they weren’t a card-carrying journalist until we did some digging. It wasn’t apparent that these were not “media people.” They were hired to write. There is a difference. Journalists aren’t supposed to have an agenda except to write an unbiased account of what happened. Writers from a non-media source can cross the opinion line.

We’ve run into writers for Forbes, CNN, Psychology Today and more who own PR firms, are book authors, or own software companies and other non-media businesses. Hiring writers from non-media sources is not uncommon. But, the fact it’s not transparent that they aren’t on the media’s payroll is what has us wondering what has happened.

Have you noticed this? What do you think of this trend? Smart and savvy? Or, dishonest and scary?

Yet Another Hazard in Storytelling: Weighing It Down with Endless Detail

While there are many snares in organizational storytelling, a few have been worth noting: too much corporate jargon, nothing unexpected shared, and telling an irrelevant or even insulting story to an audience.  But one snag that trips up many presenters and communicators is making the story either too long or too short.

In our experience, too many business stories are too long.

Brevity is the soul of wit, wrote William Shakespeare. And one of the most famous stories of all time by Ernest Hemingway is just 6 words. “For sale, baby shoes. Never worn.”  But, what is too short, then? Be too brief in a business setting and the message gets lost.

A story is the right length when just enough detail is given – 2 or 3 small details – to paint the right picture of what happened.

Wanting to get in every detail to share an accurate account of what happened appears to be a strong pull. However, you should be striving to tell the truth of the story – not ever detail that got you there.

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.

Getting Pushback On Using Storytelling? What To Do About It

Say the word  “storytelling” and usually two images arise — mothers reading storybooks to children and an older person sitting around a campfire spinning a tale. While most people today recognize that stories are infinitely more interesting than a stale marketing message, the idea of using this concept makes many business leaders roll their eyes as if to say, tell a story? really?

But, if your job is communications, then you owe it to your organization to explore this communications tool. Below are some of the most common objections to using storytelling in business along with some ways to counter these prejudices.

Objection #1: If I talk about myself, I’ll be labeled a narcissist or worse, a marketer. The truth is that people are interested in other people. If you think about your latest case study or customer testimonial, wasn’t it all about how someone was affected? By telling a story that talks about the change you or someone near you experienced, you are actually creating the highest form of relevance.

Objection #2: I will sound too emotional or unprofessional. Make sure your stories are relevant to your audience. So, this means if you are speaking to someone who takes action because of an emotional appeal, by all means, throw in some of that. But, if your audience is seeking something more academic or bottom line-oriented, then it is all a matter or choosing the right tone, including the language, the setting, the lesson learned, and the characterization of the people in the story.

Objection #3: I can’t get my story into 5 sentences! Who says your story has to be that short? But, if it is long, then be sure to throw in some interesting anecdotes, colorful characters and actions that bring people along. Remember, there is a difference between telling the truth and being accurate to the point the truth is lost. What you must do is tell a complete story. Identify: the characters, the setting, the action, the change that occured, and the lessons that were learned.

Objection #4: My story’s not that great. Are you sure? Again, what happened? To whom? What happened along the way? What was interesting? What would be interesting to your audience? The idea is to describe something in a story format.

Objection #5: My story won’t sell. You won’t know until you try. What are you trying to “sell?” Your journey? The lesson learned? The end result? The people? Identify what you are trying to accomplish and stay true to that goal. You have to believe in your story for it to resonate.

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.

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?