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.

 

How To Be An Ideal PR Client

You want the best public relations and communications support you can get. As a communications firm, we also want to provide the best service and results as possible. Communications is a partnership business. To ensure your investment is put to good use, below are five ways to make sure your communications or PR firm is set up for success on your behalf.

  1. Be available. You don’t hire a PR firm and then walk away. Expect to hear from them a lot, especially in the first few months of the relationship. We need to know your unique stories, background, objectives, people, and culture in order to portray you in the best light. By communicating to us often, we are able to better communicate YOU to the external world.
  2. Ask us questions. If you don’t understand what we are doing or why, please let us know. Some of us have been in the business of reputation and image management a long time. We often instinctively take action given our experience. This means we are being efficient, but we also want you to be comfortable with our work.
  3. Share with us as much as you can. This means telling us about your business, your wins and successes, and, yes, even your failures. We can’t help you, if we don’t know what’s going on. I have yet to hear a PR person say a client gave them too much information. We are insatiable information consumers.
  4. Tell us how we are doing. We can’t fix problems if we don’t know they exist. Not getting along with a team member? Not happy with the way something is worded? Unclear as to why something happened the way it happened? Let us know and we can fix it. We’re problem solvers.
  5. Share your ideas. You know your business better than anyone. Have an idea that you think would positively impact your reputation, image or story? Let us know. We come loaded with ideas, but we want to do what works no matter where it comes from.

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

 

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.

Breaking Through Writing Fatigue, Blocks and Seemingly Cursed Moments

I had the esteemed pleasure of leading a creative writing session at a conference last week to a group of established bloggers. Oh, the joys of blog writing. It’s important. It’s personal. It’s influential. And, it’s relentless.

Blogs are one of the most unrelenting communication channels, requiring constant care and feeding. Whether you are blogging for personal or professional reasons, there also usually comes a time when fatigue develops, writer’s block rears its ugly head, and an overall lack of passion and creativity sets in.

What’s a writer to do?

If you are tasked with contributing to a blog, whether or not by your own accord or by your job, anyone can break through these barriers with a few proven strategies. Below are just some ideas to help move blog writing from the nagging to-do list back to the joy list.

First:
• Identify your “best time of day” to write. Honor it.
• Identify your best structure. (Do you need an editorial calendar to stay on track? Or just have one day that you knock out all blog posts?) Work it.
• Keep an idea file, which could include just great titles, topics or other ideas for future posts.
• Write blog drafts when you need to, but build in room to revisit them. Come back to it a day or two later. You will hone your editing skills this way.
• Become a great editor. Don’t expect to write a brilliant post the first time you put your hands on the keyboard. Write. Then, edit and polish.
• Read…a lot! Read other bloggers, books, magazines, newspapers, online papers to glean ideas, keep your eyes on good writing (so you’ll know the difference), and keep you motivated.

Feeling tired?
• Develop an outline. Don’t bother to write paragraphs. Just get down fragments of ideas in a skeleton framework.
• Identify what you want to say, bottom line. If you don’t know where you are going, how will you get there? Know what idea you are trying to get across.
• Write as if you were speaking. This is harder than it looks. Read your writing out loud. Does it sound stiff or natural? Just write down what you want to say, as if you were really saying it.

Have writer’s block?
• Start talking. Call someone up and express your idea, verbally.
• See number one above: create an outline of one idea (any idea).
• Change the font, color or look of your screen.
• Write what you feel like writing (even if it has nothing to do with your blog’s focus).
• Review your past writing.
• Do a visual mind map of something you know a great deal about, such as your specific job expertise or a hobby.
• Visit Pinterest and write a story about the picture that catches your eye the most.
• Do a writing exercise of which there are hundreds. (More on those below.)
• Just do more research. Have a topic you need to write about? See what others are saying about it.
• Change locations. Go to a coffee shop, get outside, work at home.
• Get moving. This advice is not new. But, it is amazing how taking a walk really does clear one’s head.
• Read something else, such as other bloggers’ writing. You may find you have a different perspective on what another blogger wrote, and Voila! a new blog post is born.
• “Work” another social media channel, such as posting on Facebook or Twitter for a while to see what conversation perks people’s interest.

Lack of creativity, passion or just not feeling you are writing as well as you can? Try these exercises:
• The 5 Senses. Take your idea and write up one sentence about it related to each sense: smell, touch, taste, sound, and sight.
• Free writing. Take 5 minutes to just write anything, even if it’s just “I don’t know what to write. I don’t know what to write. I don’t know what to write.”
• Rewrite a really famous story. Choose your favorite story, such as Romeo and Juliet or Star Wars and change the ending.
• Your favorite/least favorite childhood memory. Write it up.
• Favorite actors. Write a scene for your favorite celebrity crush.
• Coffee house backstory. Go to a coffee house, pick a table where you can’t hear the conversation and write up what you think they are saying.
• Ideal life. Dream a little and write 4 paragraphs about what your ideal life looks like. (It works. Really.)
• Image imagination. Visit Pinterest, Tumblr or your favorite photography site. Choose a visual and write up a description of what is happening, what it means or who it belongs to.
• Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth. Write up an (any) idea in the Hero’s Journey template.

What have you found that works well to break through writing obstacles?

Yes, You Can Measure Communications Against Specific Objectives. Here’s How

On Tuesday, I wrote about communications measurement and how influence, attitude and behavior change should be measured in addition to eyeballs, butts in seats, clicks and follows. Number of followers, re-tweets, event attendance and web site spikes are all well and good. But, to sustain any real impact from a communications effort, you need to know how much your communications are influencing an audience’s way of thinking and acting. Below are just a few ways to measure against the top 6 communications objectives.

Objective 1: Visibility (positioning and awareness)
Ways to measure:
• Before and after surveys
• Focus groups
• Social media conversations, particularly changes in message, penetration and sharing
• Media coverage analysis (before and after campaigns), including competitors’ placements and messages, message penetration, tone, and coverage compared to competitors
• Blog and article comments
• Web site statistics

Objective 2: Influence and persuasion (issues management, attitude and behavior changes)
Ways to measure:
• Before and after surveys
• Focus groups
• Social media conversations, particularly changes in message, penetration and sharing
• Blog and article comments
• Comparisons of competitor services and products to yours
• Media coverage analysis (before and after campaigns), including competitors’ placements and messages, message penetration, tone, and coverage compared to competitors
• Opinion polls
• Rulings, policies and legislation on issues
• Sales of services and products in your industry, overall

Objective 3: Volume attention (sales, attendance, web and social media traffic)
Ways to measure:
• Sales volume (spikes or dips before, during and after campaigns)
• Incoming calls and e-mails
• Event attendance
• Web and blog traffic
• Sudden increases of fans, followers and subscribers of social channels
• Media coverage analysis (before and after campaigns), particularly in trade niches
• Google statistics

Objective 4: Recognition & Appreciation (kudos, awards, sales support)
Ways to measure:
• Number of new, warm leads
• Sales force feedback
• Unsolicited RFPs earned
• Number of referrals
• Media coverage analysis (before and after campaigns), particularly in trade niches
• Media coverage analysis (against competitor media coverage)
• Key message delivery through media and social channels
• Number of “shares” of presentations, PowerPoints and slide shows via online channels

Objective 5: Employee recruiting and retention/employee communication
Ways to measure:
• Number of unsolicited resumes and outreach received from potential employees
• Number of resumes and outreach received from job postings
• Employee surveys
• Comparison of media and social channel coverage of organization (particularly employee sentiment)
• Awards for “best places to work” and the like
• Media coverage analysis (before and after campaigns), particularly in trade niches
• Overall retention rates

Objective 6: Investor perception (stock value, investor and analyst attention)
Ways to measure:
• Stock trading volume and activity in relation to communications campaign
• Analyst and adviser recommendations
• Analyst surveys
• P/E multiple in relation to peer group and competitors
• Stock price volatility relative to peer group and competitors
• Media coverage analysis (before and after campaigns), particularly in business and financial press
• Media coverage analysis of analyst commentary

How do you measure the effectiveness of your communications?

Who Is Going To Implement Your Shiny New Communications Plan?

For the last few weeks, we’ve explored all the parts of today’s communications plan. As a plan is developing, we find somewhere around the strategy and tactical section a familiar feeling begins to set in. Panic. Who is going to do all this?

So, before you begin to launch a new plan (or sell it to the upstairs), be sure you know who (and how) you can enlist the help and support of others.

A former boss of mine once said “marketing is everybody’s job.” I submit communications is, as well. Everyone needing to be on the same page around messaging the organization or project is obvious. But, developing content, agreeing to agree on the “we won’t” list and the main communications channels you’ll focus on are less evident but equally important. Be sure to share your plan with a core team of fellow stakeholders. Focus on getting them excited about what can be accomplished with everyone’s input and contributions. Then, be sure to get their commitment to do something. A few ideas for getting buy-in and commitment:

  • Invite a larger group to go through media and presentation training to prepare them for what is possible.
  • Train people in social media to get them excited about the possibilities (and get them off on the right foot).
  • Consider developing an editorial calendar and “offering” an opportunity to own a topic or category: they develop content, help share it on various channels, and provide further ideas for distributing the message.
  • Ask people to share specific content or stories among their own channels. So, in other words, ask them to retweet, repost, start a discussion and more within their own networks.
  • Be sure to share communication “wins,” such as media hits, speaking engagements and more with the entire organization.

These are just a few ways to share the communications load. But regardless of how you enlist help, be sure to get it before you launch a new communications effort.

Anything to add to the list above?

 

Measurement: The Most Ignored Section of the Communications Plan?

This section in your communications plan is one of the most well-intentioned but often ignored areas. You may be saying to yourself, of course we’ll be watching what we’re doing and see how well it’s going. But, do you know how you will go about monitoring and capturing the results from your communications work? And, once you see the outcomes, will you understand what they mean and the influence they are having? How will you track the results against your goals and objectives?

First, know how you would know you’ve reached your audience and reached them well. If your communications effort is a success, what will your audience learn from you, what will they understand and believe, and how will they act from now on?

From there, you can identify what is important to measure:

  • actual traffic, such as how often people visited your Web said or other online channels (social or otherwise), how many people attended your speaking engagement or stopped by the trade show booth and more,
  • level of engagement, such as number of comments on blog posts, retweets on twitter, questions at events, conversations going “viral” online and more,
  • extent of interest in your stories, which is often measured by media attention, attendance at speaking engagements, sign-ups to blogs, RSS feeds and more, and
  • a change in attitude or behavior among your target audience members, most often measured formally via market research or sales cycle changes.

Then, set up a monitoring system to track those results. A myriad of online tools exist for tracking traffic and engagement levels. But, we believe it takes a human being to monitor both offline and online conversations and messaging to see if the work is “taking hold.” Someone should be in charge of actively participating in the channels being used to communicate.

If I were to be asked for an ideal measurement scenario, it would include formal market research. Budgetary concerns often make the ability to conduct surveys, studies and focus groups difficult. But, by measuring attitudes and behaviors of your target group via formal market research before the communications plan is executed and then again after the effort, the level of change affected in your target will be much more apparent than just counting up number of media hits and retweets (as important as doing those things are).

Regardless of the measurements you will use, benchmark the results gathered against the milestones you’ve identified for the plan (in addition to goals and objectives) and see how results track over time. In general, communications activities do not produce results over night even in our fast-paced online world. Be sure to set up realistic goals for seeing results.

If you know your target audience well, you should be able to see if the results the communications effort produced are a substantial change or shift in your audience’s understanding about you (and their actions) or not.