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?

When You Should Avoid Hiring a PR Firm

I know it sounds odd for a PR person to write that there may be a time with hiring PR counsel is a bad idea. But, having been in the business for 27 years has shown me that there are situations where public relations will not help you but rather just frustrate you. Below are some of those scenarios:

  • Your staff doesn’t care. I don’t mean they aren’t on the same page or have their own ideas about the correct business strategy.  I mean, they don’t believe in your organization or your products and services. You’ve already  lost the battle here. Work on them first.
  • You are in a leadership transition. Your key staff people have left and you are in a significant hiring mode. This doesn’t mean you don’t continue to communicate with your publics. In fact, you need to increase the level of communication to your stakeholders, customers and others during this time. But, hiring a new firm should wait until you have key people in place.
  • The CEO or executive team doesn’t believe in public relations. If you don’t think we can help you, why hire us? Having your PR firm spend endless hours “justifying” their existence is a waste of your investment dollars. Unfortunately, I have been in those meetings where it comes up, spent hours on reports to just “prove a point,” and talked my team “off the ledge” after being told again and again that what they do “doesn’t matter.” It is a fruitless activity for both of us. Either your reputation matters to the C Suite, or it doesn’t.
  • You have no spokesperson and aren’t interested in having one. Public relations is a partnership, where we tell your story on your behalf. But, this does not exclude you from telling it, either.  When the Wall Street Journal or NBC Nightly News calls, someone from your company has to be able to face the microphone. They should be articulate, well steeped in the messaging, sound human, and be passionate about the company and what it does. It helps if they have the “right” title for the messaging, too. (More on that later.)
  • Your issue is asking a lot of society, and you want to rely on a PR firm to make it happen. This last one is tough. I almost didn’t write it. But, it has to be put on the table. PR people won’t ever be able to adopt the level of passion you  have for your work. We get pretty enthusiastic. But, if you believe passionately that the public is wrong about its perception or ideas or something needs to change at a society level, you need to lead the troops. PR people aren’t mercenaries (as much as we’ve been called that).I realize the women’s suffrage movement, Planned Parenthood, The Civil Rights movement – they were all pushing rocks up hills, right? Yes. And, they won because the people who took those ideas on were the people who had the most at stake. If your issue is that charged – be willing to take it on, directly, and not have a PR firm be your front line. Use us as support.

I expect to get push back on this last one. Feel free. I would love to hear what you have to say in the comments section.

 

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.

Why You Need A Story Section in Your Communications Plan

As we continue to explore the various sections to include in the modern day communications plan, we turn to the heart of your effort: your story. Be sure to include a section in your plan that specifically references the main stories and messages you are going to use.

Of course, this will not include every story. You’ll be pitching unique ideas to the media, developing new content and crafting submessages along the way. However, you should have an inventory of “signature” stories and a high level message guide as part of your plan.

(What? You don’t have a message guide? We can fix that.)  We also can help you with your stories. Yes, there is a difference.)

Your message guide section should include all top level messages from your positioning statement and value proposition to a spotlight pitch and answers to frequently asked questions. It sets the message tone so everyone is clear on how you are going to position the organization at the most basic level. It provides the foundation on which all other messages are developed.

Your story section should include a short inventory of the various customer and client stories you can tell to illustrate what you do, the impact you have and how what you do is better, different and relevant to your target audience. It needn’t include the stories themselves, but rather give some sense of what is available to use. It also will showcase what you may need to develop. Hint: Take a look at your case studies, past media coverage, and customer testimonials to identify themes.

Does this seem like overkill?  You would be surprised at how many organizations do not have this section and then wonder why confusion exists in the marketplace about who they are and what they deliver. Or, why their employee base doesn’t seem to be on the same page. Know what you have to work with from the start. It will get you off on the right foot.

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.

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?

The Message Process. Looking Inward First.

The first step in our message process involves taking an internal look at the company or organization.

Knowing how you are currently portraying your organization and what you are saying will lead you to the reputation and image you have already created. You may find you’ll need to unravel, change or re-direct a perception that was self-created due to confusing or unclear messaging.

What messages do your materials send?
Audit your web site, printed materials, PowerPoint presentations, press coverage, even your e-mail messages sent to customers and other stakeholders. A few things to note include:

•  What is the overall positioning being delivered?
•  What are the top 5 main messages?
•  What is the tag line (including the informal ones that seem to crop up in e-mails and PowerPoint presentations because a staff member just likes it)

What is the common thread amongst them? Are those the message you wish to send? What is clear or unclear? What is compelling and what is not? What differentiates you from your competitors and what does not? What speaks the truth? Where are you stretching it?

What message is your staff sending?
Secondly, identifying what your people believe is key. Why? They are sending a message – whether or not they know it – about who you are and what you stand for. If you don’t know what your own employees or partners are saying, then you know only half the story that is being told about your firm. Your own people have default language and a default elevator pitch. Find out what they are.

This self perception analysis should include interviewing staff, board members, committee chairs and key partners, investors, and other stakeholders.

Ask them the following (and more):
•  What are the top three public perception challenges that your organization is facing? If these three viewpoints were changed, you would meet your goals and objectives. These barriers can relate to any of the organization’s functions or needs.
•  Who do you believe is our organization’s primary target audience (include qualities or characteristics)?
•  What do you believe is an untapped market for the organization?
•  What do you believe our customers and clients are driven by?
•  What do you think our customers and clients say about us when we are not in the room?
•  What barrier needs to be removed to meet our customers’ needs?
•  What qualities (e.g. creative, dedicated, etc.) would you assign to our organization?
•  If you could tell a potential customer or client one thing about us, what would it be?
•  What is your greatest concern about our reputation or image?

Could You Describe Your Company in 6 Words or Less?

It is no secret that I am addicted to Honest Tea. In addition to it tasting really good, the inside of their bottle caps include interesting messages. Lately, they have been printing customers’ six word “memoirs.” Interesting exercise. Could you sum up the basis of your life in six words of less? Samples include:

• Born with big nose. Pursued comedy.
• Became an accountant but still can’t count.
• Cloudy with a chance of sun.

Could you sum up your company in six words or less? How about your company’s values? Your products or services? Your mission?

Here’s mine: Better Storytelling For More Influence.

Okay, it’s just five words. But, still…

What’s yours?