The Power of Story


The Power of Story


Years ago, before we were married, I took my wife to a very fancy restaurant. This was the kind of place where you try for months to get a reservation, then feel fortunate and special when they let you in the front door. As our elegantly dressed waitress glided ahead of us, steering us towards a candlelit table in the corner of the room, I felt a rush of gratitude and excitement. I am so honored that you are allowing me to spend my money here.

That place blew out our budget for fancy restaurants for years. And you know what? It was worth it. It was worth it not just because the food was amazing, but because everything was so distinctive and memorable. And at the heart of that experience was something unexpected. Storytelling.

As each course made its appearance at the table, our waitress would gesture reverently at the food, lean in towards us, and deliver in hushed tones an amazing story about the dish.

The butter course: For years, our master buyer has feverishly searched the world for the perfect butter. Finally, he found a small farm in Pennsylvania Dutch country, run by an elderly Amish couple who feed their cows a diet of wild flowers, flax, and honey...

The dessert course: Our berry tart is a triumphant marriage of the old and the new, of tradition and innovation. The berries are picked in the mountainside Swiss village of Vilmon-St-Croix by schoolgirls specially selected for their small hands and delicate fingers…

You might think we would get tired of all this exposition before every phase of our meal? We loved it. Fascinating! Tell us more about this butter. SO MUCH MORE BUTTERY THAN REGULAR BUTTER. I think I detect top notes of lavender!

Now, years later, I remember the stories even more than I remember the food. In fact, I think I remember the food as well as I do because of the stories.

That is the power of storytelling.


Storytelling: the future of corporate communications

It is no accident that my encounter with storytelling came at an expensive restaurant. Anyone selling luxury items must learn how to tell a story about their product. If you are going to ask someone to shell out $100 for a bottle of wine you had better be able to say something other than, A whole lotta folks really like this here Chardonnay.

Lately, storytelling has been gaining traction in the rest of the business world. There is a reason that storytelling is being recognized as a critical skill for business leaders and entrepreneurs. If you are pitching a new product or business, you need more than just a great idea and a winning value proposition. You need a story, a frame that helps your thing stand out from everybody else’s thing.

Storytelling has long been the domain of startups and entrepreneurs who needed to inspire and engage investors and customers. It has not often been a focus for communications from larger, established corporations. Big companies have a lot of messages, but few stories to tell. Instead of weaving together a narrative, they tend to put out flat, loosely connected messages about their products and their business.

What is the story of most press releases? Here is something new that we are doing.

What is the story of most product launches? Look! Here’s a new product. It is somewhat better than our last one.

In a loud world, stories are the way to get break through and get heard. While other messages fade away, stories stick with us. They deal in struggle, adversity, opportunity, and sometimes, triumph. They have a dramatic arc – a beginning, a middle, a resolution of some kind. They include people, not faceless organizations. Most of all, they involve tension and transformation. For there to a be story – for there to be something engaging, interesting, human – there must be change.


Storytelling brings new focus to content marketing and social engagement

Stories are more critical to corporate communications than ever. Communications teams are focusing ever more on content marketing and social engagement. They are building longer, more complex content pieces, like white papers and e-books, that can be broken into components and used as fodder for cross-channel social engagement campaigns.

The content is getting deeper. The social engagement is getting better. But often, the story across it all is weak or missing.

If you focus on the content, but forget the story, you limit your results. A good story frames and colors everything you say to your customer. It helps your audience understand and place your actions in the context of a larger narrative. It makes it much more likely that they will care about what you have to say, remember it, and have a sustained positive reaction to it.

If you want to understand the relationship of story to content, consider the world of politics. Political campaigns create plenty of content – brochures, position papers, policy statements, and so on. That detailed content is important, but it only serves to advance the big narrative that the campaign wants to promote.

A good political marketer will not tell you about complex strategies, or five-year plans, or economic forecasts. They will tell you a simple story that is carefully designed to be memorable and relatable:

Growing up on his granddad’s hog farm, Thurston “Thirsty” Hawxley learned to work hard, overcome adversity… and he’s not afraid of getting dirty to get things done.

Or possibly:

Thurston Hawxley is an out-of-touch Washington insider. The only thing he’s “Thirsty” for is more big dollars from special interest groups.

Political candidates do not win or lose because of the strength of their content. They win or lose based on how effective their campaigns are at getting people to accept their simple (sometimes, cartoonishly simple) story. The content is just a means to push that narrative forward.


Find your story

Look around. You will find that the best brands and companies – the ones that are most effective in engaging their audiences – wrap their messages and content in a memorable story. If your company is not already doing this, then you need to find your own story.

While your story should be unique and authentic to your company, you can draw inspiration from a few classic structures that work very well for corporate narratives.

The fighting-for-a-better-future story

This type of story is important in the technology industry, where it often takes the form of a vision statement. A vision is the story of why your company exists, of the change it will make in the world, and how people will benefit as a result.

Probably the most well-known vision in the world of corporate communications today is Google’s commitment to “to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.” That is a very compelling, elegant frame. Think about what it does:

  1. Helps the company explain its enormously complex business in simple terms.
  2. Unifies activities and investments that might otherwise seem random and disconnected.
  3. Puts a disarming, positive spin on a company that could easily come across as menacing (think about it: we’re coming for your information!).

Google is far from the only company that understands the value of telling a big, transformative story of social impact. Consider LinkedIn, whose CEO recently gave the following comment:

We are in the process of asking ourselves what it would take…to create economic opportunity for the 3 billion people in the global workforce.
— Jeff Weiner, CEO, LinkedIn

LinkedIn has plenty to talk about – growing subscribers, new offerings and products, and so on.  To gain the attention and interest of the marketplace, however, they are reaching for a larger, more aspirational story. We are not just a successful business networking site. We are the company that is trying to get a job for everyone in the world.

Now that is a powerful vision. And a provocative and engaging story.

The upstart-vs-established-player story

There is a core principle of storytelling. First, find yourself a villain.

That is why Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, gleefully skewers HBO at every opportunity. In a very real sense, Netflix needs HBO – and the rest of the entertainment industry – as a foil. Hastings wants his company to be seen as a disruptive force tearing down a creaky, outdated industry.

Not so long ago, HBO was seen as the innovator, pushing out edgy content on a subscription basis that challenged the traditional entertainment model. So the company makes a perfect target for Netflix, which wants to seize the role of disruptor for itself and recast HBO as the face of the establishment.

The story of an innovative rival fighting against the industry champion is a powerful frame. This narrative is working. The companies are constantly being compared by the press and the industry, a comparison that works entirely to the advantage of Netflix.

The back story

Beginnings matter. There is a reason that every good superhero has a great origin story.

If you want me to care about where you are now, it helps if I know where you began. The right back story can put a compelling, human face on a large, impersonal company.

Think about Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard in 1939, beginning a lifelong partnership and friendship that would make turn a small, nondescript Palo Alto garage legendary.

Think about Dee Hock, the founder of what would become Visa, a man committed to the idea of a universal currency that would transcend national boundaries, organizing fiercely competitive banks into an unlikely coalition that would usher in the age of credit cards.

Think about Jeff Bezos in 1994, fresh from quitting his comfortable job as a Wall Street executive, flipping through a dictionary to find the name of the online store he wanted to make the biggest in the world and stopping on the word “Amazon.”

Your own origin story may be far more humble, but it need not be less interesting to your audience.

I believe in the power of stories. I believe effective storytelling is the answer – the only answer – to making corporate communications memorable and engaging.

What is your story? And how will you use it? Answering those questions has a lot to do with how effective and focused your corporate communications will become.



Putting Your Executive Communications In Focus


Putting Your Executive Communications In Focus

Do you manage executive communications for your company? If so, sometimes you might feel like the quarterback, helping the team move down the field. Sometimes you might feel like the coach, setting the strategy and calling the plays.

A lot of times, you probably feel like the football.

Executive engagement is among the most important and, at times, frustrating aspects of corporate communications. Today, when every company is trying to get ideas and messages into the marketplace quickly, executive spokespeople must play a huge role. At most companies, however, executive communications is surprisingly limited in its impact. In fact, it’s hard to think of another area of communications where companies leave more on the table.

What holds executive spokespeople – and the communications people who support them – back?


1. They don’t put themselves into the story

I’ve seen executives communicate memorably and effectively on stage, in writing, and in person. I’ve seen them act as powerful advocates for their companies, sharing their vision and persuading their audience of the value of their ideas.

I’ve seen that. You probably have, too. What I see more often, however, is executives taking a neutral, careful approach to their story and delivery. I see tamped-down, sanitized, muted communications delivered without passion or power. I see no highs or lows. I see no color, just a lot of shades of gray.

Executive communication is different from everything else your company puts out in one important way… It goes through a person. The message can’t be separated from the messenger. The ideas they are talking about need to seem like their own. Do they believe it? Do they care? Can they make us care? They can’t stand up there and try to be the human equivalent of a press release.

Sometimes the lifeless, flat quality that many executive leaders bring to their communications is easily explained. They are communicating someone else’s ideas and words, which is extremely difficult to do with any degree of credibility. (There is a word for people who do that for a living: “actors.”) Often, though, that impersonal aspect is the result of something that comes from within the executives themselves. Many are simply very conservative about their public communication. They have learned to present themselves in a very neutral way and are reluctant to change.

I hear this a lot from executives:

  • “I don’t want to make this about me.”
  • “I don’t want to come off as flashy.”
  • “That’s how everyone does it here.”

There are many personality types among business leaders, ranging from complete introverts to raging extroverts. A few are amazing natural communicators, who are willing to put their personal stamp on their message, but many need help putting themselves into their own communications.


2. They don’t organize as a team

When done right, executive communications should be a team sport. It involves the contributions of a lot of individuals – executives, their immediate teams, and usually a small army of supporting communications staff. Their efforts should be linked and aligned, with everyone working together towards a larger message and goal. It should feel like a connected system, tightly connected to the needs of the business, and managed to clear long-term objectives.

That’s the ideal. The reality of executive communications at most companies, even the ones that are advanced in their use of spokespeople, falls far below that standard. Often there is no single person who is responsible for the executive communications function across the company. Very often, there is no long-term plan in place for what each executive will say and do as a spokesperson.

Organizing executives and their communications support people for collective action is hard. They are almost always split into various business units, carrying various agendas and priorities. Driving any sort of cross-company, integrated executive communications system requires a lot of patience, tact, and delicate diplomacy. It’s a bit like herding cats, only some of the cats have the ability to fire you. Exciting!

Remember, you are talking about the most senior people in the company. The overwhelming temptation will always be to let each of them make their own decisions regarding the focus and frequency of their communication. I see many executive communications teams that give up on the notion of orchestrating their executive engagement to some master plan. They end up focusing on the traditional Golden Rules of Executive Communication:

  1. Get through the next event.
  2. Keep the executives happy.

If this is how you define success in executive communications, the job becomes a lot easier. The problem is that if you keep things at this extremely basic level, you end up with executives speaking at cross-purposes, missing or even contradicting each other.


3.    They don’t improve

If you don’t organize and manage your executive engagement as a system, then you can’t improve and scale it as a system. Individuals can get better – executives can become more comfortable and effective, and members of your communications team can grow in their jobs – but you can’t easily capture and sustain gains across your entire communications organization.

I’m constantly seeing communications teams that struggle to share content and best practices. Someone might have discovered a great new way to structure an all-hands employee meeting, but that knowledge will stay trapped in one part of the team. Someone else might have developed a great customer-facing presentation, but no one outside of a small group will know about it.

If your “executive communications team” is really a loose, cross-functional alignment of spokespeople and support staff, the bottom line is that they will develop and scale in their own way. You will have limited ability to shape and direct the team. And since there is no clear common definition of success, and usually very few tracked metrics, you can’t easily measure progress.

Success and growth is not an accident. If you want your executive spokesperson team to become more effective over time, it requires conscious focus and collective will. That desire to improve together is simply not there at most companies.

The best executive spokesperson teams are just that: teams. They think and act collectively, recognizing that they can be much more effective if they engage together. At the same time, they each tell their own story in their own way. To get that balance right, and to create a strong team around the leaders to help them shine, requires strong leadership and a commitment to building up the executive communications function. 



Playing the Wrong Game

Photo by Design Pics/Design Pics / Getty Images
Photo by Design Pics/Design Pics / Getty Images

It comes before the advertising, the packaging, and the press releases. Before the media interviews, before the slick launch party kicks off, before your CEO steps up to give the big speech, there is the moment. The moment when someone at your company asks the question that will go a long way to determining the success or failure of your new product.

“So what are we going to say about it?”

This is where things often start going wrong. It isn’t because brand owners don’t care enough to find the answer. I do messaging work for a living and I find that most clients really want to develop the best message. They believe deeply in their company, and their product, and what it can do for the customer. They badly want to get their message just right.

So what goes wrong? How do smart, well-meaning brand owners end up creating the complex, muddled messages that we see at most product launches?

They are playing the wrong game. They have core misconceptions about how people will process their message. As a result, they limit the power and reach of their new product message.


1. They assume a receptive and curious audience

If you want to appeal to real customers, you have to start by understanding a simple reality. The world is not holding its breath waiting to hear your product message.

Think about two customers. First, let’s meet Fantasy Customer – the customer that many companies seem to be thinking about as they design their message.

Fantasy Customer is patient, open-minded, curious, and logical. He (or she!) loves trying new things and making decisions based on every piece of available information. Most of all, he is deeply interested in what you have to say. You and your company are a source of endless fascination to Fantasy Customer.

What! You have a new product? THIS IS SO EXCITING. Tell me all about it. Let me read everything you have on the package… I can’t wait to buy this and tell everyone I know about it.
— Fantasy Customer

Now let’s meet Real Customer. He is indecisive, scattered, and skeptical. Most of all, he is distracted and impatient. He is bombarded with information and doesn’t have the time or energy to listen to what you have to say. Real Customer has the attention span of a kitten playing in the park.

Wait, what is this? Don’t I have something that does this already? I don’t want to think about this OOOOOH LOOK AT THE PRETTY LEAF!
— Real Customer

There are exceptions. You may have a product or brand that carries so much intrinsic interest in the marketplace that people are anxious to hear from you. There are entire online fan communities dedicated to parsing through Apple marketing statements for hints on future products, or speculating over the release date of the next Tesla electric car.

Most of us, however, have to assume an indifferent and skeptical audience. Design your message accordingly.


2. They make excessive claims

 Saying “they make excessive claims” is just short of saying: “they lie about their product.” There is a distinction there, but it’s a pretty fine line. The point is, if your message exceeds what your product can deliver, you are breaking trust with your customer. And no surer path exists to damage your credibility and business.

 Remember the Windows Vista launch? The master tagline – in other words, the “big idea” – for that product at launch was “The Wow is Now.” If you know anything about Windows Vista, you know that the Wow was most definitely not Now, or Later, or Ever.

 You can just feel the excitement.

You can just feel the excitement.

Changing the positioning would not have saved Windows Vista. No message, no matter how carefully crafted, can overcome a weak product. By dialing up such an aggressive message for a flawed offering, however, the company made its situation much worse. Together with the sustained hype built around the much-delayed release of Vista, it created negative perceptions that caused immense damage to Microsoft and the Windows brand.


3. They believe complexity is attractive

Messaging matters because human beings are wired to process information through frames. We experience new things differently depending on how they are presented to us. Your message is the frame you put around your product, the way in which you ask customers to consider and discover this new thing you are giving them.

The frame colors our perception. That frame needs to be in simple, powerful ideas that can be communicated and understood quickly. No matter how complex your product, the story you tell must be simple.

 Not everyone likes making simple claims about complicated things. I work with clients that produce immensely complex, sophisticated technology products. They have armies of engineers and designers who work very hard to create these technical marvels. Often, some of those people are in the room when are talking about what to say about the product.

I’ve noticed something interesting over the years. Many clients, particularly those with a technical background, struggle to let go of the complexity during the message development process. They love the sophistication of their product and hate the idea of reducing its value to a few words. They embrace its complexity and enjoy the feeling of “getting” something that is hard for others. This is difficult and tricky and we are the only ones who understand it.

The role of messaging is not to convey how your product works. It is to catch the interest of your customer. Keep it simple if you want anyone to listen.

Keep these lessons in mind as you work on your product messages. Remember, your messages aren't competing with those of your competitors. They are competing with everything else that is trying to take the time, attention and memory of your customer. They are competing with the noise and chaos of the modern information marketplace.