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?

UVA and Bad Public Relations From Someone Who Lives Here

As a long-time public relations counselor, it is painful to watch the PR debacle around the ousting of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan by its Board of Visitors. As a long-time “C-villian,” it is agonizing.

When blunders are obvious to the man on the street (poorly worded public statements, the media reports around hiring of a PR firm to “burnish” an image, secret meetings and seemingly blatant truth hiding), you know you’ve got trouble. And, the PR gaffes seem to continue. The damage done to the reputation of UVA will take years to overcome.

But, something else pains me about this whole PR nightmare. The impact it is having on Charlottesville, overall.

I am not a UVA graduate. I have not worked for the University. But, I am member of this community. I grew up just 25 miles outside of Charlottesville, and returned in 1999 to make this town my home. I remember the days when UVA was “just a school” and not considered a top school to attend, as it is now. I remember the days when Charlottesville would never have landed on the lists of  “best places to live in the United States” as it so often does now. I remember the days when the Charlottesville downtown mall — lauded as one of the most successful walking malls in the country — was crime-ridden and lined with abandoned store fronts. Today it is now a thriving destination for the arts, dining and shopping. In fact, I am often told by UVA graduates — my stepson included — once they get to Charlottesville, they never want to leave. I understand.

But, the utter lack of transparency and authenticity displayed bu UVA’s Board, and the disrespect shown to the larger community by an institution, which calls itself a cornerstone of our economy, history and population, boggles the mind. Why can’t they just tell their community what is really happening? And, why continue to keep the doors closed?  It would do well for the Board of Visitors and Rector Dragas to remember what Thomas Jefferson, founder of UVA, said: “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.”