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?)

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

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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.

 

Strategies: Part Five of the Modern Communications Plan

The strategy section is usually where people start. Resist the urge! Start with the first four steps: Identifying your vision, goals and objectives and ‘greatest accomplishment,’ your target audience and main channels. If you don’t go through those steps first, you could waste a lot of time developing a beautiful strategy that misses the mark. After all, there is no sense in engaging in a high-level strategy like social media, if you’re trying to reach someone who doesn’t use it. (Yes, those people actually exist.) Or, if they use social media, it isn’t where they go to buy insert whatever you sell here.

Common strategies include:

  • conducting media relations
  • engaging in community relations
  • launching a new community (online or in person)
  • holding events
  • attending or producing trade shows
  • launching a new “theme” for your company or industry or re-branding
  • creating your own channels (i.e. launching a magazine)
  • engaging or launching social awareness, philanthropic and corporate social responsibility programs
  • engaging in customer recognition
  • creating an awards program

Hopefully, this short list got you thinking what is possible. Next up? Tactics.

The whole communications plan template can be found here.

 

Greatest Accomplishment, Goals and Objectives: The Second Steps in the Modern Communications Plan

Once you have determined your vision for your effort, identifying a “greatest accomplishment” and goals and objectives should be next.

The “greatest accomplishment” section is short. It could be one line or even one word. What is the single most important communication achievement that your organization or project can achieve?

An example would be for a business or industry is to have changed a particular conversation in its marketplace or introduce a new idea. But name the change or idea. Don’t let it remain nebulous.

If you are successful, what will have occurred very specifically? Make it achievable, but also hard. Contrary to popular belief, “hard” can be quite motivating for a team if they are given sufficient resources and structure. Identify a “holy grail” moment for your team and you will have incentivized the game.

Next, identify at least three goals and objectives.

We define goals as things you reach. They are milestones such as audience numbers, a specific partnership formalized or specific media attention. Again, how will you know you are successful? Where are you now and where do you want to be? How will you know you’ve “arrived?”

Objectives are things you create, such as introducing a new conversation that takes hold in the public discourse or a certain status for your organization. What will be different if you are successful? How will your organization, your industry, a certain audience or your team be changed?

One note: We realize some people have differing definitions of goals and objectives. But these work for us and our programs. As long as your team is on the same page, you’re golden.

Part Two of the Modern Communications

Public Relations Questions To Answer For Results in 2014

Yes, it’s been a while since I’ve added a new blog post. However, the reason is why this new post exists. We’ve been very busy at Four Leaf, readying several major client announcements for the Fall. What many business leaders may not realize is this: to announce something in October, you need to start in April. Hence, Four Leaf’s all-hands-on-deck craziness that ensued this summer to make sure everything goes smoothly for said clients in coming weeks.

So, want to start 2014 with a bang? Now’s the time to think about any initiatives you want to debut, make known or push forward in January. Below are five steps to take to make first quarter 2014 a time to remember.

1. How do you want people to think about you and your initiatives in January?

2. Who is going to be the most important person or group for you in 2014? Has it changed from 2013?

3. Do you know what makes your best customers sit up and take notice? (i.e. Your ability to provide a “personal touch,” your commitment to excellence, your price point, etc.)

4. What content (i.e. thought leadership, tutorial information, helpful messages) will they need to understand how you’re better and different? Are you prepared to deliver it by January?

5. How will you get the word out to them? No, really. How? Advertising, PR, social channels, marketing, direct sales, CEO-to-CEO*? Will that put you ahead of your competitors?

*Intrigued by CEO-to-CEO? We’ll blog on this soon.

 

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?

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.

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.