Messaging and Storytelling for Greater Influence

dreamstime_s_49594866One of Four Leaf’s signature services is helping organizations refresh and update their messaging and storytelling abilities. I often hear, “well, messaging and storytelling are kind of the same thing, right?” No, not at all.

To over simplify, a message is a specific idea you’re trying to get across. Storytelling is a way to get your ideas across.

In coming weeks, this blog will be dedicated to positioning, messaging and storytelling–what it is, how to use it for greater influence, and simple exercises you can do to refresh or heighten how you communicate.

Some thing we’ll go over:

  • Defining positioning and the three main components for a strong communications position in the marketplace.
  • The top three exercises every company should go through annually to ensure their language is relevant, powerful and effective.
  • Storytelling techniques that go beyond Mother Goose and make business communications head-and-shoulders above the competition.
  • The top mistakes made in business communications around messaging and storytelling–and how to avoid them.
  • The biggest changes in communications today and how to use them to your advantage.

Check back often, or better yet, subscribe to our RSS feed to bring these posts to you.

To learn more about Four Leaf Public Relations’ positioning, messaging and storytelling work, click here.

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.

 

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?

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.

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.

Organizational Storytelling: A Synopsis

Over the last few weeks, I’ve shared the steps to organizational storytelling using the Hero’s Journey template. I have been asked to put the steps into one post.

The general pattern is from Joseph Campbell, the great philosopher and writer. He wrote extensively about the template, which goes something like this:

A hero is called to leave his common everyday life to explore the wonders of the world.  Mystical forces are there encountered and a conclusive victory over an adversary is won. The hero returns from this mysterious adventure – forever changed and more powerful – and with this new power, understanding and wisdom, can (and does) bestow benefits and gifts upon his fellow man and the Universe is now a safer place. The End.

There are 17 steps in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, but I boiled it down to four parts for the business world.

Step 1: The Call. This is the beginning. The hero of the story goes out into the new world responding to a call to action. There also is a sense of a resisting this call to action, as if he or she knew the journey was going to be hard.  What was wrong that had you believe something could be better? What idea did you have that could move the organization from point A to point B? What did someone say when they brought this idea to the meeting? There are a myriad of ways stories start. For more, including examples, read it here.

Step 2: The Journey. This is the largest part of any story and is generally considered the middle. It is what happens or the expedition. Often our hero quickly discovers the road really is harder than it seemed at first. He or she meets friends along the way, runs into obstacles, meets a villain or adversary, and there are twists and turns. Show how you thought how something was going to go one way and then it didn’t. That will make it more interesting. Read more here.

Step 3: The Achievement. This is where the hero slays the villain or adversary. The achievement is simple, really. What happened? Just say it. It’s the pay off. Give it to your audience directly and succinctly. Read more here.

Step 4: The Transformation & Return. This step is meant for the storyteller to share what was learned. How were you or the company changed? And, what does that mean? How is your department, company, industry better? How was that customer’s life changed? Also, share what it means and how life is better for others. A story that can convey a message, wrapped in a narrative with meaning, can inspire change in people just by them listening to it. Read more here.

Yet Another Pitfall in Organizational Storytelling: Too Much Jargon

We are so fond of our big words and our intelligent phrasing.  We thinkmarketing speak” – the way of presenting products and services that is meant to convey that we are intellectual, smart and savvy – grabs attention.

Even when we tell a story the pull to throw in a few buzz words is strong. Because, we must create a sense of being so smart that you simply must listen to us, right?

Wrong.

If you believe your 24/7 enterprise solution brought that mission-critical project to fruition, adding to the corporate bottom line and realizing a greater ROI than the other guy down the street – and you tell the story that way – you have successfully put your audience to sleep. Or, running from the room.

You may have all the elements of a good story — the hero/main character, a villian or adversary, twists and turns, a big change for the person or organization. But, don’t forget that real world language is necessary to create a relationship between speaker and listener. If your audience is highly technical, of course, use the language of that audience. But, authenticity trumps jargon any day, no matter who is listening.

Too much jargon makes it appear you are trying too hard — trying too hard to sell. No one wants to be sold to. They want to willingly buy-in.

Lead your audience to somewhere new with your organizational storytelling. Don’t hit them over the head with how smart you are by trying to sound like it.

Step 1 of the Hero’s Journey for Organizational Communication

Yesterday I wrote about the Hero’s Journey and how using this simple pattern can elevate your ordinary communication style to one that is more powerful and effective.

Joseph Campbell, the great philosopher and writer, identified the pattern:

A hero is called to leave his common everyday life to explore the wonders of the world.  Mystical forces are there encountered and a conclusive victory over an adversary is won. The hero returns from this mysterious adventure – forever changed and more powerful – and with this new power, understanding and wisdom — can (and does) bestow benefits and gifts upon his fellow man and the Universe is now a safer place. The End.

Step one of the pattern is The Call. The hero ventures forth into this new world after hearing a call to action.

Because, really, something had to start this whole story. Gandalf shows up at Frodo’s house looking for the ring. R2D2 shows up at Luke Skywalker’s ranch with a message that he accidently encounters.

There also is a sense of a resisting this call to action, as if you know the journey you are being called to is going to be hard. For instance, Frodo and the other Hobbits didn’t want to leave the shire. Luke Skywalker felt there was more but he couldn’t leave his aunt and uncle.

But, they all felt like there was something more. Frodo was given the ring and enticed by Gandalf. Or, in Luke’s case, his Aunt and Uncle were killed. In a business setting, it might look like the following.

In 1978 James Dyson, now founder of the Dyson vacuum cleaner company, noticed how the air filter in a spray finishing room was clogging with powder particles. So, he designed and built an industrial cyclone tower, which removed these particles by exerting centrifugal forces greater than 100,000 times those of gravity. And, he thought – could the same principle work in a vacuum cleaner? That was his call.

(Note: You can read this on their version of an “About Us” page. Brilliant communication move on their part.) 

Every story you want to tell in business had a beginning. What was wrong that you believed could be better? What idea did you have that could move the organization from point A to Point B? What did someone say when they brought this idea to the meeting? There are a myriad of ways stories start. But, they all have a call, a beginning.

Tomorrow I will write about part two of the Hero’s Journey for organizational storytelling: The Journey.

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.