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?)

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.

 

Part Four of the Modern Communications Plan: How will you get the word out?

When planning how you’re going to share your story, products and services with the world, it’s imperative to choose the right channels to do so. What channels will have the greatest probability of reaching your specific audience?

Do not be seduced by a shiny new social media platform or distribution service without understanding who it will reach.This is where the “we won’t” list comes in handy. (More on that section later.) It’s tempting to do or at least try everything—and keeping tabs on “the next big thing” is important—but you want to focus on what is working right now with your audience.

For instance, a major Facebook strategy may not be necessary if your audience is Generation Z (think current tweens and high school students). But you better familiarize yourself with Snapchat and Instagram to reach this audience. Or perhaps, you’re trying to reach Generation Y or Millennials. This also may mean you’d have to revamp your content strategy—get away from white papers, trade shows (unless you’re going to Comic Con) and print advertising and move to digital mediums like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. Baby boomers? Try Pinterest, community media outlets, and targeted advertising.

Conduct a “deep dive” into where your target audience goes online, what they watch or monitor, and where they get their information. Then devise a strategy to use those channels.

Next up? Developing strategies and tactics.

Read the entire modern communications template here.

 

 

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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 Storytelling Can Help 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 a 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.

People are biologically hard-wired to respond to a good story. Neuroscientists have conducted brain scans on people while delivering information to them in various forms – facts, figures, stories, visuals. They discovered that facts – like product features described in a corporate binder — only reach 5 percent of a person’s brain. And, when information is shared in a narrative, it is transferred from short term memory to long term memory.*

Narratives also persuade and motivate people to act. Think about every car commercial you’ve ever seen – the sleek design zipping around a coastline with moonlight gleaming off the hood. They sell the experience of driving the car, not the new design of the steering wheel or the size of the tires. Or, what about news reports during a catastrophe like the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings, showing the local people devastated and in shock? They didn’t lead with how many classrooms were entered or the background of the shooter. Storytelling is powerful because narratives engage our robust capacity for imagination (Life could be better if I just had that new car.) and empathy (An elementary school massacre is unacceptable.).

But, how storytelling is going to help you? Whether storytelling is for entertainment purposes, educational purposes or persuasion, story is the most powerful communication tool you have. When trying to get across an idea, sell a product or service, or introduce a new strategy or way of doing something, a key question people often ask is “Why?” “Why should we do it that way?” “Why should we listen to you?” “Why are we offering that course in that way?” A story best answers these “Why?” questions because it tells us what caused the change and what’s going to happen next. A story provides context and makes it meaningful.

The more we identify with the characters and are familiar with the setting or events in a story, the more we absorb the meaning and remember the message or moral. (My Uncle had a car like that. I’ve always wanted to drive along the Pacific Coast. Maybe we should rethink how we approach gun control and mental health.) We even start thinking like the person who is telling the story. (Yes, I should have that car! I’m going to push for mental health care reform!)

Introduce storytelling into your communication and you will be heard more often, remembered, and create a greater connection to the people you are talking to. And, even more importantly, they will begin to think like you.

*John Medina, Brain Rules

 

Proving Yourself In Messaging and Storytelling

Seth Godin is an inspirational guy on any day. But his blog post today hit a nerve. It was one line that encouraged me to write: “Proof is only useful if it leads to belief.”

His post made me think of the messaging and storytelling sessions I’ve had with clients over the last 27 years of being in the public relations business. This is what I hear (often):

  •  “But, the science proves they [insert nemesis of choice] are wrong!”
  • “Look at these statistics!”
  • “Those aren’t the facts. [Insert spreadsheet] are the facts.”

Instead of layering in those facts that you believe are so compelling — and therefore must be swaying people — know this: You can come armed with all your data crunchers, spreadsheets, experts and star witnesses, but that doesn’t mean whoever you are trying to influence believes you. They might stop arguing. But, that neutralizes the conversation at best. It doesn’t necessarily convert them into customers, advocates or allies.

This is why we urge organizations and professionals to incorporate storytelling into their communications mix. Storytelling puts those proof points into context. A straight fact may seem it’s better than any statement dripping with opinion, emotion and fun. But, if your proof point is so far afield of what they are hearing elsewhere, expect some disbelief.

Next time you are trying to influence someone, ask yourself this question instead: Will they believe what this piece of data says? If the answer is maybe not, there is more work to do.

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?

5 Things To Do When You Are Too Busy To Communicate

You haven’t heard from us in a while. We have been so busy with client work (Hello, Fall!) that blog entry writing, touching base with potential clients, networking and all the things people like me tell you to never, ever stop doing, stopped for us. Just call us the Cobbler’s kids. But, that’s no excuse. Here are 5 things to do when you believe you are too overwhelmed with “real” work to keep the marketing communications machine going.

1. Do not open your e-mail first thing in the morning. Rather, go to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or [insert communications vehicle of choice other than email) and post one line about why you are so busy. Done? (Okay, you can open your email inbox now. Once that Pandora’s box is open, it’s all over.)

2. With every customer or client you have, the next time you talk with them end your phone call or email with a thank you for allowing you to serve them. It’s a simple thing, but can be a powerful touch point right in the thick of frenzied activity.

3. At the end of the official work day, send an e-mail to thank someone who works with you for being there during a very busy time. These small acknowledgments can be the difference between someone wanting to work with you again during a particularly harried time or not.

4. Ask yourself who are the most important people to keep lines of communications open with today. Not everyone needs attention immediately. Limit your phone calls, emails, texts and posts to those who need to hear from you in that 24 hour period. (But, be cautious about putting tier 2 and 3 groups off forever. At some point they need to rise to the top or be cut loose forever.)

5. Increase the speed with which you communicate. Choose the fastest way to talk or write. Hey, it might be 140 characters on Twitter – or not. How can you get across what you need to in the fastest, most efficient way and not just your favorite or the way you’ve always done it? Sometimes talking live is the way to go. Remember the phone?

Also, remember that no communication is communication. You are telling people by your silence that they are not immediately important to your work and life.  Know how long you can live in the void before damaging your image and reputation.