marketing

Four missteps organizations make with storytelling

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If you asked a variety of people in different roles across your organization – what’s our company story? –what kind of reaction would you get? Would your colleagues accurately tell the company story? Chances are you might hear them say something like: “that’s not part of my role” or “marketing is in charge of that” or “I don’t really know.”

It begs this important question about storytelling – whose job is it anyway?

The marketing department? C-suite? Management-level employees? Those working the front lines with stakeholders? Sales teams? People behind the scenes? Those with the longest history within the organization?

The short answer is – yes. Yes to all of them. Storytelling is everyone’s responsibility.

However, it’s not surprising to see most organizations delegate the role of storytelling to the marketing department.

This is misguided thinking and where many organizations miss the point of that all-too-trendy term – storytelling. Here are four missteps that organizations commonly make with storytelling.

 

1.     Confusing story management with storytelling

Someone or some assigned team needs to take the lead in unearthing and positioning the organization’s most important stories. It should be their task to write them down for the sake of sharing in-house with employees and externally/online for stakeholders and customers in a clear and consistent way. The marketing function is a logical choice for establishing these pieces and developing the repository where the organization’s history, key messages and must-share stories can be found.

But let’s be clear – this is simply the act of story management.

What we’re talking about is storytelling – the verbal articulation of something deemed important – and that should be everyone’s business.

 

2.     Failing to connect the story with actual storytellers

Most of us don’t like the idea of being marketed to or sold something, at least not until we are ready to engage on our own terms. That fact alone makes every other function outside of the marketing department, and the vast majority of employees in an organization, critical storytellers. When people within an organization are empowered to tell stories about the business and their business – what we do, why we do it (purpose), who we seek to serve, why it matters, how we’re different, and why you should care – it is no longer marketing or sales. It is the sharing of ideas and of a larger ideal. It is storytelling.  And this becomes immensely valuable in cultivating a desirable work culture, attracting and retaining new hires, and stirring the curiosity among people who become clients, customers and advocates.

 

3.     Overlooking the importance of empathy and delivery

Consider this excerpt regarding the nuance of story from the English novelist E.M. Forster:

 

“If I say to you the king died, and then the queen died, that is a sequence of events.

But if I said the king died, and then the queen died of grief, that’s a story. That’s human. That calls for empathy on the part of the teller of the story and on the part of the reader or listener of the story.”

 

Read this again:  “Empathy on the part of the teller of the story...”

That is significant.

If we rely on marketing for our stories but don’t have an intimate knowledge of those stories ourselves and how to tell them – with empathy – our attempt at telling stories becomes little more than a list of facts, talking points, or a sequence of events. Worse yet, if we rely solely on marketing to be the mouthpiece of our stories we miss untold opportunities to engage people on the importance of our purpose and our work.   

And there’s this:  “...and on the part of the reader or listener.”

This is an important reminder that our audiences will engage and process our stories differently.

Every time I deliver a messaging document to a client for the first time, I ask them if they will humor me as I read it aloud. They are perfectly capable of reading it on their own, but I know that people interpret what they hear differently from what they read. Inflection is added in the right places for needed effect, and my voice becomes the audible highlighter of words and ideas that they otherwise might skim over.

We need the marketing team’s help to craft stories and position them for a compelling read in all formats – from the tweet that piques interest, to the website copy, to tangible printed material that compels a stakeholder to slow down and sit with our words.

But we also need the c-suite to lead by example – to know and convey stories with the passion we should expect from leaders, so that managers and employees (as listeners) can make a personal connection and become storytellers themselves by following their lead.

 

Marketing has its place.

Content is valuable and can be readily accessible.

But there is no replacing the sound and impact of a point well-made coming from a leader. 

 

4.     Ignoring the history of a story and failing to pull from it

David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American author and well-known historian, said this about the importance of history and story in a 2004 commencement speech at Ohio University titled The Bulwark of Freedom:

We have to know who we are if we are to know where we are headed. This is essential. We have to value what our forbears did for us or we are not going to care about it very seriously, and it can slip away.”

While McCullough refers to the story of one’s country and the importance of knowing history as it informs the future of a nation, the same can be said for nearly any organization or institution. Past and present stories provide the factual and credible narrative needed to set us apart from others. It is what we must lean into, it is our compass as we seek to chart new and exciting futures. 

Is your organization recording the stories that matter by writing them down, reciting them and sharing them regularly?

Do you and the people in your organization know its rich history, its defined purpose and how it intends to make a difference?

This isn’t arbitrary work. Your organization’s reason for being is rooted in story.

If you don’t know the story, you can’t tell it.

And if it’s not seen as something to take seriously, then there’s truly a lot at risk of slipping away. 

 

 

PROMOTE OR INSPIRE: which will you choose to do?

Casey Neistat at the STORY Conference watching one of his videos from behind the on-stage podium. PHOTO CREDIT: Jeremiah Warren @jeremiahjw

Casey Neistat at the STORY Conference watching one of his videos from behind the on-stage podium. PHOTO CREDIT: Jeremiah Warren @jeremiahjw

I had the opportunity to hear from Casey Neistat last Friday at a conference in Nashville. I was aware of Casey, but not fully dialed in to his body of work, his life story, and certainly not his telling of leaving an HBO series to focus on creating no-frills YouTube videos.

He was funny, engaging, and even a little brash but in a charming kind of way, and this video about bike lanes in New York City seemed to perfectly punctuate who I thought he was.

And then he chose to show us a vastly different video.

One that made me pause and ask:

What do we really want to convey to our audience?

Or maybe the better question to ask is:

What are we afraid to share with our audience?

In this age of story, products and services are becoming less interesting on face value. Yet the words on the wall – mission, vision, values – those things we say we stand for and that matter most, too often serve as business prerequisites rather than ideals to live out every day. It begs me to want to ask:

To the nonprofit, how are you serving your audience beyond the dollars of the coveted donor?

From the toothbrush maker to the business incubator, how are you really making lives better?

To the inspirational speaker who shares the remarkable experiences of others, will others point to your experiences as a source of inspiration?   

To the CEO and the chief marketer of AnyCompany USA, are you willing to break the rules? Will you give people a powerful reason to believe in you – not because the marketing is stellar and the plea suggests it’s worth the risk, but because you’ve continually taken the risks to prove you’re worth it?

To all of us who are confined by the built-in metrics of the tools we use, and fear to step out and do things that aren’t easily measured, isn't it time we swerve outside of the lane we’ve been traveling?

These are not criticisms of what we've done, but challenges to all of us about what we might consider doing differently. Each day we have the opportunity to promote our work. We also have the opportunity to inspire others through the work we do. The choice can be as subtle or dramatic as we see fit, but the choice is our ours.

Kudos to Casey for the having the audacity to lay out a vision that inspired before it promoted, and that cut against the grain of conventional wisdom. And kudos to Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation for making the right decision. Film trailers are to be forgotten, but the way we impact and inspire others through our intentional actions... that's worth remembering and, every now and then, becomes the stuff of movies.        

POSTING & PUBLISHING: confronting the challenges we all face

As a content creator, I am aware that I am in constant violation of many of the rules that lead to success: what to post, when to post, how often to post, the right channels to post on, visual vs. text, and if the latter, knowing how long is too long and what is too short. 

Here's a confession: I struggle with this notion of posting and publishing.

It's not just about keeping up with the frequency demand and aligning with these purported best practices, but also the content merit of any post. Do I really have something that interesting, that urgent, or that profound to share with the world? I doubt I'm alone in my uncertainty. But one thing is certain: I don't bemoan anyone who is nailing the aforementioned rules and enjoying wild success. I'm just not on that page yet, and I question when or if I will.  

I'm also confronted with this reality: as a writer and a communicator, and as a strategist with marketing sensibilities, is it blasphemous to avoid (or recommend avoiding) publishing and posting on social? Wouldn't that be socially unacceptable in any 2016 marketing strategy? And, by the way, shouldn't I do a better job of leading by example? 

Before answering those questions, consider these thoughts from an interesting interview with contemporary American writer George Saunders where he responds to a variety of societal hot-button issues, including his decision to refrain from on social media. Here's a relevant excerpt from that interview:  

"I’ve found that my first drafts are not so special. But the more I work on them, the better they get. They are more unique and defensible. So that makes me averse to jotting things down and sending them out, when I know that my only chance at any kind of depth or profundity is to linger within the story, trying to make it distinguish itself. I’ve also found that trying to be active with social media changes my moment-to-moment perceptions. Instead of feeling, “What’s the deepest version of what’s happening here?” I start to feel, “How can I use (or “claim”) this?”

"The bottom line for me is that life is short and art is long — and I don’t love the way that being engaged in social media makes me feel, or the way it seems to shape my thinking."

Let's be honest: few of us are novelists or essayists. We're often writing copy about services and business solutions, not books. Some of us wouldn't dare claim our work as an art form. The approach Saunders takes is unique to him and by no means are hard and fast rules for, let's say, the OEM supplier or the not-for-profit organization. But Saunders hits on things that resonate with me as a strategist who leverages the power of words and ideas. In particular, this: 

"The more I work on them, the better they get. They are more unique and defensible."  

Isn't this what developers of content, consultants and agencies should strive to deliver on behalf of clients? Shouldn't we be in constant pursuit of those clutter-cutting ideas, those anti-listicles that impart more than a checklist?

So back to the earlier questions:

  • Is it blasphemous to avoid publishing and posting on social? There's a place for all of us to utilize our voices for good on social. I embrace the power of compelling storytelling, so there's always opportunities to utilize these platforms we've been given. I would like to believe that when I publish and post, it's because I have something to say that might provide a different perspective or point of view. 

  • Shouldn't I do a better job of leading by example? Indeed I could, but can't guarantee I will.  

Because, like Saunders, I find that the longer I linger with the story (e.g., the client's story, my own story), the more clarity and focus I get. The stronger the word choices become. This only happens when you and I invest the time and become deeply familiar with our subject matter, seek out points and counterpoints, and stew over the myriad of ways to say it -- whatever "it" may be.

Not everything benefits from hours of wrestling with what to say. The point isn't to navel-gaze, but to take the time to hone your thinking, know your voice and be true to it.  

Audiences rarely care that we miss a regularly scheduled Tuesday post or bi-weekly update. They care when they realize they miss the meaningful content we're providing, not the date or time it arrives. By easing our self-imposed time constraints, we afford more time to focus on creating better content.  

When we choose to publish and share our thoughts, we should slow down and take inventory. In doing so, we are banking on thoughtfulness and contemplative work over immediacy, of writing and refining versus the mere act of posting and sending, of eschewing the easy post for the one that requires more of us.

The end result isn't perfection or guaranteed success via likes and shares. It is the knowledge that the contribution is purposeful and hopefully unique. The belief that it matters and we will not regret the post at some point in the future. And the hope that perhaps we've found a way to say the interesting thing, the urgent thing and, if we're fortunate, the compelling thing. 

"Likes" and "shares" are nice. They're measurable and a quick barometer of interest. But analytics cannot measure the heart.

Perhaps the more heart we put into our work, the more likely our content will resonate with others -- which may or may not translate into a metric-measuring action. The question we must ask is: can we live within that reality and outside of the vanity metrics?

If so, cut yourself some slack. Take a bit more time if necessary. Be intentional. And if you feel so bold, embrace a positive definition of what it means to be socially unacceptable with your content strategy. 

 

Eventually, we all need help (how we ask for it matters)

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I know this firsthand: asking for help can be a hard thing to do. Admitting that I don’t have all the answers or the capacity to accomplish what needs to be done can be challenging, sometimes defeating, and almost always humbling. But I’ve also discovered it’s among the best ways I learn and grow – personally and professionally – if I’m being genuine with my ask.

What to ask for

It has me thinking about how I can best offer my help as well. Usually it comes down to having to interpret what the ask is for. I’ve realized through my own “bad asks” that how you ask for help matters, and it starts with clarifying exactly what you’re asking for:

  • Am I interested in insights or just implementation?
  • Do I need advisors/experts to help guide the work or assistants to follow my lead?

Knowing what to ask for brings clarity to the need. Knowing who to ask for help brings focus on the right skill sets and fit. 

Certainly there are tasks that just need to get done. In those situations, there’s nothing more helpful than sets of extra hands. But sometimes more digging and legwork is necessary, especially when it comes to issues of branding, messaging and marketing.

When your brand isn’t performing or its purpose, promise and message are unclear, insights from the outside are going to be helpful. This is where that old adage rings true – sometimes you’re just too close to the work.   

Yet the business of branding and messaging all too often slips into that implementation part of the ask when insights could prove more helpful. But that's what happens when some fast-on-the-horizon marketing opportunity looms.

The benefits of outside expertise

Few of us would be foolish enough to advise our physicians on how to cure what ills us without their expert evaluation, or advise our attorneys how to structure a business deal without their thorough assessment of the terms. Yet with issues of branding, marketing or communication, self-diagnosis and proposed solutions are what usually greet outside counsel. This is what makes the marketing or branding RFP nearly obsolete for thoughtful creatives who place extraordinary value on their relationships, their time and their craft.

Being open to the full potential of collaboration   

Like many of the partners I choose to work with, I’m drawn to the genuineness of connections over the binding of contracts. This is where expertise gets leveraged, trust and potential is realized, and how the best (and sometimes unexpected) work gets accomplished.  

While current challenges might be unique to your brand – they are not unique in general. That’s good news for any organization. Those current challenges likely resemble scenarios that outside experts work through day in and day out. They have familiarity in this territory. There is a knowledge of which questions to ask. And there is a recognition of what works and what doesn’t.

By clarifying the kind of help you’re asking for, you’ll have a stronger likelihood of saving time and, budget while also avoiding the difficult dance of finding the right partner to help.

The perils of not asking  

I’m more accustomed to asking for help these days – creative help, mentoring help, financial help and additional brainpower help – even though it didn’t come natural at first. Better yet, I no longer see it as a sign of weakness or personal failure, but rather a desire for something greater when my own perspectives and talents just aren’t enough.  

Nobody outright asks for trouble. However, there's one clear takeaway I have learned: by not asking for help and clarifying my ask, by default trouble is essentially what I'm asking for.  

Your brand needs internal feedback, not consensus

While it’s tempting to think that coming to consensus represents good brand ideas and communication concepts winning out and a team fully aligned, it’s often the case that consensus is a way to politely sidestep what people truly fear – conflict. But healthy debate should always trump the pursuit of benign alignment. It’s how you make the good idea better.

A COMMITMENT TO LISTEN

Leaders who value input do themselves a favor by asking others to voice their opinion and then listening carefully. In particular, people outside of their area expertise can provide helpful insights as they’re not immersed in the details of the work. These ‘fresh eyes’ can reveal a lot. Or sometimes nothing.  

However, leaders are not obliged to interpret this feedback as fact. And this is where many of us run afoul – attempting to adjust and please everyone at the expense of doing what’s best, right or strategically sound.  

Like it or not, we all come to the table with our own biases and preferences. We bring strong personal opinions that seep over and taint our professional judgment. As we evaluate marketing and communication initiatives, seeking consensus can be problematic as it can dilute the way the brand is positioned, how it communicates, and how it is perceived by the audience.

Perhaps you've had conversations around communication topics with this type of pushback:

BRAND DESIGN: “I don’t like that color.” “The typeface is too modern, too big, too small, too _______.”

MESSAGE:  “Do we have to say it this way?” “We’re too stodgy.” “We should be more playful.” “We should talk more about X and less about Y.”

MARKETING: “I don’t like our ads.” “We should be advertising more.” “Our website needs more videos.” “Our competitors are on Instragram so we should be there, too.”

I’ve seen brands lose their punch, watched messages get diluted of their power, and observed marketing campaigns that fell flat because consensus prevailed. The real problem with consensus is that customers are the ones who lose out. They don’t get to see, hear or experience unique brands being bold and memorable. Instead they encounter another brand that lacks differentiation in a crowded market.

Any strategic communication approach should come equipped with thoughtful rationale for brand development, messaging and content marketing, and the most effective ways to reach the target audience.

AN OBLIGATION TO LEAD

As leaders we must ask ourselves:

  • Is this feedback pivotal or is it personal preference?
  • Do we have a strong case for 'why' that can turn skeptics into believers?

For today’s leader to be an effective chief brand ambassador, there needs to be equal parts business acumen, deft communication skills and social psychology at work. Introduce something new, bold or challenging and rest assured it will take time for everyone to embrace it.   

So take all the feedback you can get. Sift up what’s valuable and adjust as appropriate. Lead with conviction and confidence. And then give it time.

Dare I call it consensus, but you just might be surprised how big the bandwagon gets when people see all of the brand pieces coming together.