strategy

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. 

 

 

Are you "shoehorning" or taking a road less traveled?

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For many years my professional life was the equivalent of being a square peg being forced down the round hole. The truth is I did it willingly even when I knew deep down that I was in the wrong lane.

Today I call that shoehorning – doing everything possible to fit the mold or be found occupying the right space, no matter how crowded or uncomfortable that space might prove to be. It’s another way of trying to be all things to too many people. Many of us do this without giving it much thought because somewhere along the way we made the assumption that this is how it is; this is what we’re supposed to do.

This can feel counterintuitive for us as individuals, and it can be detrimental to organizations and brands.

Robert Frost’s famous poem The Road Not Taken is the antithesis of shoehorning. Although we know the closing three lines well, we don’t often heed the advice of poets. Instead, too many of us have bought into the belief that the well-worn path someone else blazed will somehow lead us toward similar success simply by staying the course. As a result, we avoid differentiating ourselves for fear that divergence leads to a dead end.

Taking calculated risks can help move us in a new direction. But what if that isn’t enough? When is it time to rethink and recalibrate your brand, your organization or even what you personally do around the those critical why and how questions? Here are few prompts to help:

 

What are you willing to own? When so much is already taken or spoken for, when so little looks different from one organization to the next, what are you willing to hang your hat on? What unique or radical aspects of your work are you willing to be defined by? You know the challenges as well as the glaring deficiencies in your industry. Are you willing to put your stake down where others are less comfortable or unwilling to commit? Taking ownership is bold if not a bit scary. Consciously choosing the other path instead of shoehorning into the same queue as everyone else creates needed separation.  

Who are you willing to invite in? Who do you trust to strategically question your motives? Who will have your back when challenges arise? Who will help you push things further than you imagined but also pump the brakes when necessary? It’s critical to assemble teams of people who think differently than you. Their nuanced points of view will challenge you, which is the litmus test you need before customers and clients bring their challenges.

What outcomes are you willing to accept? Nobody says “let me fail first then I’ll get it right.” But often we don’t know what getting it right truly looks like until confronted with things that are not quite right – which is still a distant cousin from wrong. Embrace course correction and iteration as necessity rather than nuisance — it will take the heightened fear of failure down a few pegs.

What are you willing to say? Articulating what makes you different can be hard. We all want to be liked right away, and because of that desire we can be wooed to say yes to circumstances that warrant a no. What we say matters. When you know what you’re willing to own, you need to have the confidence to write it down, share it, and articulate it — over and over. You and your team have to be aligned on what you’re communicating at every touch point. It’s the consistent message (followed by consistent action) that begins to make the difference.  

 

Few if any customers clamor for more options that resemble existing options. So, much like Frost’s familiar poem, consider leaning into a strategic approach to do things differently and avoid shoehorning yourself into well-worn spaces where everyone looks remarkably the same with comparable features.

This is what makes all the difference.

 

The biggest problem facing content creation today

Content is king. Long live content.

If you buy into this mantra, then you already know there is a daily scrum playing out across every conceivable media platform among content creators. They are pitted in a continuous battle for eyeballs, influencers and customers in hopes of grabbing those brass rings of conversation and conversion.

But here’s the rub: for too many content creators, creating exceptional content takes a backseat to creating an exceptional amount of content – even when we know that, in most cases, less is more. A few great posts will outshine a bunch of mediocre ones every time. But still we feel compelled to churn out thoughts and ideas because our content calendars and social strategies demand it. After all, we must feed the beast, right?

 

The biggest problem facing content creation today isn’t a lack of new content, the need for more boundary-pushing thinking, or getting content to audiences faster.

The biggest problem is the absence of good editing.

 

Without good editing you jeopardize your credibility and the brand you represent. Poorly conceived content often falls on deaf ears and a quickly fleeing audience. When that happens, the “Content is King” mantra can suddenly become “The King is Dead.”

You can avoid that outcome by embracing a few basic “truths” to ensure the content part of a content strategy works as it should.

  • Writers create better than they refine. Writers seek to articulate ideas through explanations, narratives, characters, examples and analogies – sometimes all in the same piece. Writers also can justify a dozen different ways to say the same thing. Truth be told, undisciplined writers can take a good story or message and make it confusing, exhausting and even complicated – and that’s not a strong value proposition for building an audience. But first, allow the creators create. Refinement is what follows. 
  • Writers need content editors. Content editors find the essence of the story and cut the extraneous stuff and fluff that doesn’t add value or paint a clearer picture. They uphold clarity and conciseness. Through their work they make writers better, which is why writers need to consider them as their most trusted allies. Perhaps you’ve noticed that more of your favorite or trusted sources for news are publishing content riddled with typographical errors. The rush to "break the news" has always been there. But with the steady decline of copy editors, writers and the brands they represent look sloppy in the process – and that works to erode confidence.
  • The self-sufficient writer/editor is a rare species. Writers can wear the content editing hat to a point, but eventually they become too close to the subject matter to be critical. This clouds objectivity and a willingness to be brutally honest about the content. Writers need objective content editors who embrace the red pen.
  • Self-editing is an oxymoron. The knee-jerk reaction is to get those comprehensive ideas out there in all of their informed glory – right now. In contrast, few individuals and organizations are willing to chew on those ideas, let them percolate, and hone their potential through rigorous editing. Because writers know what they intend to say, it leads to reading over how things actually appear during the self-editing process. Self-editing is no substitute for a second set of eyes.

 

Six considerations for your content creation process

As a content creator, you need a process to develop your best work. These six content creation considerations help us get better and they can do the same to improve any piece of content you create.  

  • Write. Then walk away. Get your ideas down and then walk away. Engage your mind on other work and return to it later so the ideas become fresh again. A refreshed eye will reveal what ideas are worth keeping and expanding upon, and those that just aren't clicking. If you’re working against a content calendar, don’t wait until the day of publishing to start writing. Give yourself some space to contemplate what you've developed.
  • Edit. Then edit again. Slash unnecessary descriptors. Remove extraneous metaphors. Limit your number of examples. Look at each sentence and ask – What must stay? What can go? If it’s helpful, set word count limits to help rein you in.
  • Ask for input and seek out a proofreader. These are two different exercises. With input you’re asking for a critical read about the content (content editing) from someone who is knowledgeable about your subject matter and can ask probing questions. In doing this, you’re helping the piece better resonate with your target audience. Finally, ask someone to proofread for grammar, punctuation, syntax, sentence construction, and so on. You don’t need to be an expert grammarian, you just need to have one on your team.
  • Focus on being better, not first. Looking to be the first to provide insight on a breaking news story? Good luck. There is a finite window for responsive content in relation to breaking news and a mad rush to be heard. As readers, we quickly reach a saturation point. So ask this instead: what perspectives aren’t being talking about? – and take that angle. You’re more likely to stand out in a sea of sameness that way.  
  • Not everything is meant for publication. The process of writing has a funny way of revealing interesting truths. Sometimes that truth is – this isn’t very good or I have nothing new to add to this conversation. Better to keep this work on the shelf than part of an online library that makes it difficult for your audience to find your best work. And who knows, after several good edits and a new angle at a later date, perhaps you can salvage elements of that effort.
  • Post and share with confidence. Realize nothing is perfect. There will be ideas and elements you wish you would’ve approached differently when you review your post months from now. But keep this in mind: when you’ve considered your steps to creating better content and remained true to your intent to be helpful and shed new light on a subject, allow yourself to be feel confident knowing that you’ve put forth your best thinking at the time. Your audience will benefit from that kind of effort.    

When pressed with the proposition of creating more content or creating better content, pause and take a look around at what’s being published in your field. Then decide what camp you want to be in and the type of audience you want to cultivate.

 

 

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. 

 

On Message (vol. 1)

Recently someone share with me what they thought ratchet was all about – and for the most part they were spot on. But the analogy that was used to describe the work really struck a chord:  

Message is to a brand what location is to real estate.

Indeed, it is that important. People don’t make real estate investments without carefully weighing all the issues of location and, for a business, audience. Yet for some reason many brands jump headlong into identity work, marketing, sales, further product development, and even social media, without giving much thought to developing a concrete and easily understood message. 

Building stuff and focusing time on brand design, marketing, advertising, creative and the potential of social engagement – these are the shiny new things that many of us get excited about. This is the fun and sexy stuff, and we would agree. But there is a caveat. 

Among all this creativity, our job is to pause and ask: What will you say? Why should anyone care? This is creative work. It is a critical part of the creative process.

Don't forget the message ...

Don't forget the message...

Shiny things have the potential to blind us from the proven and somewhat pedestrian ways of success – which starts by articulating the why, the how, and the what. 

Not many people get excited about words on a page. But words do matter. When chosen judiciously and with intention, their impact can be far-reaching. Messages give rationale to our purpose for being and why others should take notice. Stories, which are examples of our messages in action, have the power to connect, ignite, transform, inspire and best of all – linger. The greatest stories are timeless and shared with conviction. They also contain conflict, which is something we shouldn’t shy away from either. That vulnerability is both real and relatable.

Does your brand have a clear message? Do your stories have power? If not, keep in mind that you have the ability to refine, rethink and recreate. 

To borrow from the textbook real estate perspective and a friend’s analogy, perhaps the most important thing about your business and your brand is – message, message, message.  But unlike a piece of real estate, your brand is not stuck on the same plot.