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business storytelling

6 Tips for Business Storytelling

6 tips for business storytelling are detailed at the end of the article but first, let me explain where I am coming from here.

I was talking to a PR person at the weekend about her job hunt and she wanted to include ‘great storytelling’ as one of her key skills.

Now, I totally agree with her: both that storytelling is super important in PR and also that she is very good at it. But I am not sure she should mention it unless her potential employer indicates they think this way too.

business storytelling

Business Storytelling BS

The problem is that there has been a lot of BS about storytelling – fanciful executive courses that have people playing with bean bags and rewriting fairy tales. We all know the sort of thing. The result is there is a lot of scepticism about storytelling as a professional skill.

This and a couple of other conversations with clients set me thinking again about storytelling and how it relates to the communications work we do: media training, presentation training and messaging.

Why Storytelling works

I should say at the outset that I am absolutely one hundred per cent certain that stories work because of the way the human brain is wired. This is almost certainly dictated by evolution. I came to that conclusion many years ago and long before I started reading about the subject.

But don’t take it from me. Here is a serious and beautifully written article in Scientific American. It includes a quote from Professor of Ethical Leadership and Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt…

“the human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor”.

While Professor Haidt has research and learned tomes to evidence his belief, mine is based on my own observations; that people remember stories much more easily than they remember facts.

And it is not just that people remember: if they hear a story they are more likely to connect.

A simple example that we can all relate to is the difference between walking around a stately home or museum looking at things, compared to walking around looking at things with someone telling you the stories that go with the inanimate objects.

Storytelling and the value of things

But it is also clear to me that stories increase the value of things, literally the monetary value. Pictures, furniture and jewellery where the story is known have a higher value. Here is an article about this on an antiques website.

And another delightful bit of evidence – the Significant Objects Project. You can read the full details here but in summary: In 2009 Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker bought a whole bunch of tat; chipped and tasteless ornaments etc. They then commissioned a bunch of writers to produce a short story about each object and then sold the story and the object together on eBay. In their own words, they sold $128.74 worth of thrift store (charity shop) junk for $3,612.51. This exercise has been repeated several times since and there are books of photos and stories that raise money for charity.

business storytelling

And my final bit of personal evidence is that stories help people fall in love. I have seen it and experienced it myself. The back story of a person or a family can have a profound impact on a potential partner. I am not aware that this has been explored anywhere but it would make a very interesting book.

6 Tips for Business Storytelling

So here are my 6 tips for using stories in business.

First – be clear on your objective. Boring but true. Don’t create great stories that somehow leave a different message than the one you wanted to communicate.

Second, business stories (anecdotes or examples) need to be carefully prepared, almost scripted. They are so powerful it is crazy to wing it and risk throwing away the benefits.

Thirdly – as you describe this story, anecdote or example use tangible language. Create pictures in people’s minds. There is a world of difference between;

The child loved dogs.

and

George had loved dogs ever since he was 4. His family had visited a distant uncle who kept two black Labradors. George had played with the dogs all day and during the night he crept downstairs to sleep with them in the kitchen – where he was found curled up in the dog bed the following morning.

Fourthly, use emotion – even just a little – and you increase stickiness (the hip word for memorability and engagement). You may be talking about a business problem rather than dogs and children, but briefly describe the frustration, annoyance or fear felt before the denouement and you will make the story more memorable.

Next, if possible craft what is called in the trade a narrative arc that includes conflict or other nasty or bad stuff and has a point of transformation from bad or uncertainty to good. That can be boy kisses girl, missing child is found, accused is acquitted or the tractor part supply line problem is solved! The conflict and subsequent resolution will increase stickiness.

Finally, finish off with a feel-good scene in which the moral of the story or the point of the story is clearly stated. Don’t leave the audience to work it out unless you are absolutely sure they will.

If you can’t deliver the full suite above, at least use some of it: a bit of tangible language, a bit of tension.

Of course, your story may need to be very short if you are using it in a presentation, speech or media interview, and that is another skill.

Just remember the power of story-telling and go practice!

 

 

 

 

Answer the question

Answer The Question! A Media Training Basic

Answer the question! A phrase that must be shouted at the radio and television hundreds of times a day. It is also a plea used by many a frustrated political interviewer. But last week interviewer Richard Madeley (of Richard and Judy) went one step further and after several attempts to get Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson to answer a question announced ‘interview terminated’ – out of sheer frustration.

I must admit I missed this storm in a teacup initially but by the end of the week, everyone was talking about it. And since then Madeley has written about it in The Guardian  (apparently it was the most popular thing he has ever done on television) and Charles Moore in the Spectator has stepped in to suggest that Madeley was in the wrong, not Williamson.

Just in case you like me missed it, here is the end of the Good Morning Britain interview. (The elephants in the background were explained earlier – Williamson was doing the interview from a Safari Park.)

This ruckus highlights something that has puzzled me for a very long time. Why have our politicians all been taught (and surely they must have been taught this) not to answer a question?

In our sort of media training, there is very strong guidance against ignoring a question. It is bound to lead to the journalist obsessing about the point and often prompts downright aggression. Much better to answer it and then also add something you want to say.

[I blogged here in September 2016 about the Prime Minister Theresa May’s mistake in constantly refusing to answer a question.]

In last week’s case, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson was being asked by Madeley whether he regretted his ‘Trump-like’ choice of words when, back in March – in the aftermath of the nerve agent attack on the Skripals – he said ‘Russia should go away, it should shut up’.

Had Williamson anticipated this question he could have had a prepared phrase (or what we call a reactive line) such as:

“With hindsight, the choice of words was perhaps injudicious but people will have understood my frustration and anger at the attack on British soil…”

Or he might have chosen:

“No, I don’t regret the choice of words. There are times when straight talking is the right thing to do. But I don’t think the exact choice of words is the important issue here…”

Either way it is difficult to see what the long-term damage would have been and in fact, it would have been less of a news story than the actual refusal.

When we run message building sessions it is the preparation of arguments that takes the time. Preparing short responses to possible tough questions is usually fairly quick and straightforward. The trick is to try not to be quotable in your response. That can be hard if you are a high-profile politician (either of my suggested responses from Williamson could have made a news story but with little long-term impact) but much easier for everyone else.

The important thing is not to just ignore a question. A frustrated journalist who thinks he has the audience on his side is a dangerous thing.

Latte-levy, message building

Latte-levy is my phrase of the week!

Latte-levy was a phrase that popped up everywhere last Friday and will continue to be written about for weeks if not months to come. It is the name given to a proposed 25p tax on disposable paper cups. I love it! The phrase that is, not the proposed tax. I have been unable to find out who coined the phrase latte-levy but if someone can let me know I will definitely credit him or her.

Latte-levy, message building

Latte-levy is a clever phrase that has become shorthand for a tax on paper cups.

You can find references to the latte-levy from the BBC here, from the New York Times here and from the Telegraph here. But there are plenty more to choose from.

Latte-levy makes a ‘sticky’ message

Latte-levy is a beautiful illustration of two of the key elements used to create ‘sticky messages’. (I have written about this many times previously, for example in this piece about the phrase muddle-headed mugwump‘.)

Why do I love this phrase? Firstly, latte-levy alliterates. Anyone trained by me knows that I am often searching for alliterative phrases to make a business idea more quotable. Alongside ‘polluter pays’ and ‘precautionary principle’ to name but two – latte-levy will enter the public zeitgeist as the shorthand for an argument about using tax to change behaviour and culture around our current use of these plastic-lined, difficult-to-recycle, disposable cups.

Secondly, it is a clever name. I often say to clients – can’t you give that idea, solution, app or gadget a sexy or catchy name. There is nearly always push back.

I know there are sometimes good reasons for this but it constantly frustrates me. Why throw away the PR potential of something?

I have had fun imagining what might have gone on behind the scenes in some eco-agency or MPs closed-door committee meeting from which this phrase emerged.

Latte-levy, message building

Imagined conversation between PR experts and policy experts

‘We need to persuade the government to tax the consumer for using paper cups and persuade the consumer this is reasonable. Then we can use the money to pay for more recycling and at the same time encourage people to use their own reusable mugs.’

‘Okay, what are we calling this idea?’

‘It doesn’t really have a name, it’s just a proposed 25p tax on plastic-lined paper cups used by retail coffee outlets.’

‘It would be good if it had a catchy name. You’ll get more coverage and people will remember it.’

‘Hmm, there are no catchy names for taxes’

‘Well, actually there are. Remember the poll tax – oh and stealth taxes, Robin Hood taxes, tampon tax….’

‘Oh well we don’t want anything like that, it’s all very negative. Someone called it a latte-levy but we can’t use that because it sounds like it only applies to one type of coffee!’

‘Actually, latte-levy is great. We should use that.’

‘But it’s not accurate.’

‘Does it matter?’

‘Yes, it matters. We are a serious policy organisation/committee and we need to demonstrate we understand the issues and not mislead the public.’

‘Well, I think the public will understand that it doesn’t just apply to paper cups used for latte. Shorthand phrases are all around us. ‘Energy efficiency’ could be very misleading if you took it to mean people’s own energy levels. ‘Nodding donkey’ bears absolutely no relation to a beast of burden and how many ‘Dunkin’ Donuts’ are actually dunked?’

‘Yeah – and tampon tax is about all sanitary products right, not just tampons.’

‘Well, how about we call it the paper cup tax’.

‘No let’s be brave: go with latte-levy…’

One week later …

And dear reader the outcome was …

‘Look Latte-levy makes the headline!

And again. And again. And again. Who’d have thought it!’

The principle is; use a great phrase to spike people’s interest, then attribute a clear meaning to that phrase as the second step.

The Media Coach regularly runs message building sessions for its clients. If you would like help working out what you want to say about a product or an issue do give us a call +44 (0)20 7099 2212. (Clients tell us we work out cheaper than a PR company.)

professional communicators

8 tips for professional communicators

Professional communicators, whether writing or speaking, need to remember these basic rules to ensure what they say is remembered by the audience.

A client asked me at lunch the other day to just give her the top 5 things we say when trying to help people communicate better. I couldn’t stop at 5 and ended up with 8 but this is what I said.

1. Speak in simple language

This is the key universal challenge. It is the one thing high-powered professionals struggle with most. But it is essential to work out how to tell your story in layman’s language.

professional communicators

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” – Albert Einstein

2. Be tangible

This is the advanced version of keeping it simple. It is much easier for people to understand and remember what you are talking about if you explain it in words that create a picture in people’s minds. Here are a few examples:

Rather than ‘access to financial services’ – say ‘open a bank account, take out a loan etc’.

Rather than ‘leveraging our resources’ – say ‘using the people, the money and the knowledge we have to do more …’.

Rather than ‘influencing health outcomes in a population of lactating women’ – say ‘improving the health of breastfeeding mums in a way that can be measured from month to month’.

3. Use metaphors, similes and analogies

All professional communicators will use metaphors, similes and analogies. Here are a few that have stuck in my mind over the years:

professional communicators

Economist Andy Haldane once delivered a speech about banking regulation entitled ‘The dog and the frisbee’.

In 2012 the economist and regulator, Andy Haldane, delivered a speech entitled ‘The dog and the frisbee’. He was drawing a comparison between catching a frisbee and preventing a financial crisis: his takeaway message was that writing down heaps of detailed regulation will not help anyone prevent a crisis. Here is a snippet:

Catching a frisbee is difficult. Doing so successfully requires the catcher to weigh a complex array of physical and atmospheric factors, among them wind speed and frisbee rotation. Were a physicist to write down frisbee-catching as an optimal control problem, they would need to understand and apply Newton’s Law of Gravity. Yet despite this complexity, catching a frisbee is remarkably common. Casual empiricism reveals that it is not an activity only undertaken by those with a Doctorate in physics. It is a task that an average dog can master. Indeed some, such as border collies, are better at frisbee-catching than humans. …
Catching a crisis, like catching a frisbee, is difficult. Doing so requires the regulator to weigh a complex array of financial and psychological factors, among them innovation and risk appetite. Were an economist to write down crisis-catching as an optimal control problem, they would probably have to ask a physicist for help.

And here are a couple of shorter ones:

Love is like the wind, you can’t see it but you can feel it.
– Nicholas Sparks, A Walk to Remember

We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.
– Maya Angelou

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.
– Albert Einstein

4. Throw in well-rehearsed hard evidence

I have a simplistic approach to this. For the media, three numbers make an argument. When I was on the board of the National Association for Gifted Children* we used something like this:

On a normal distribution curve of intelligence, the top 3% of children can be considered gifted. That is three in every hundred, which means there are more than 10 gifted children in your local primary school. If you, as a teacher or a mum, do not know who they are – it’s because they’re hiding.

Notice that in this case it is not three different numbers but the same number stated in three different ways.

[*NAGC has now changed its name to Potential Plus]

professional communicators

Jeremy Hunt will often line-up detailed numbers when explaining the challenges faced by the NHS.

You can often list your key numbers. Here is a passage from a speech by Jeremy Hunt UK Health Minister :

We have not stood still: compared to six years ago, our remarkable professionals are treating 1,400 more mental health patients every day, 2,500 more A & E patients within 4 hours every day, doing 4,400 more operations every day, 16,000 more diagnostic tests every day and 26,000 more outpatient appointments every single day.

This is the sort of paragraph, familiar to professional communicators, that is the filling in the sandwich between the first articulation of an argument and the second – as in the technique Point-Evidence-Point.

In a speech, you can include more numbers but too many and the audience gets bored. For an interview stick to three or four, neither you or the audience will remember more.

5. Tell stories

Stories, anecdotes, examples or case studies are by far the most memorable elements of any communication. Our brains are hard-wired to remember stories over facts. We have blogged about this extensively already, for example here and here.

6. Make sure what you are saying is interesting and credible

Sounds obvious doesn’t it but you would be surprised. In both presentations and interviews, even professional communicators will say things they know sound stupid but feel it is expected of them by their company or organisation. Never turn off your own judgment.

7. Have a clear argument

If you are a professional communicator you will know that you have to check and check again that your argument is crystal clear.

8. Craft then rehearse all the above

Your presentations and your messages for any interview should be rehearsed aloud. There is no substitute. Think you don’t have time? I can assure you it will be quicker to edit, improve, commit to memory and correct if you say it aloud.

If you would like help with your messages The Media Coach can facilitate bespoke message-building sessions for your organisation.

 

All images from Pixabay.

Message building brexit shows how quotes are crafted image

Message building and the art of the quote

Message building is an art not a science but one of the key elements is being able to find quotable language. For students of message building and the crafted quote (or ‘sizzle’ as we call it), the Brexit referendum in the UK is proving a wonderful real-time case study.

Message building brexit shows how quotes are crafted

The UK is in the middle of a campaign about whether to stay or leave the EU

Message building is art not science

Coming up with great quotes day after day must be keeping the spin-doctors and speech writers very busy but here are a few of our favourites.

George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer
Brexit would cause ‘profound economic shock’.

Chris Grayling, Cabinet Minister
‘The Commission’s locker is full of new ideas and new plans. If we vote to remain, the door of that locker will be opened wide the day after.’

David Cameron, UK Prime Minister
Brexit would be the ‘gamble of the century’.

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London
‘Let us say knickers to the pessimists and the merchants of gloom’.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party
Corbyn warned that a Conservative government would take the opportunity of Brexit to slash protection for workers, in a ‘bonfire of rights’.

William Keegan, Guardian writer
Brexit would be ‘a messy divorce and very hard on the children’.

Stephan Crabb, Cabinet Minister
Brexit would amount to an ‘act of self-harm’

Message building with numbers

Gisela Stuart, Co-Chair of Vote Leave
‘Every week we send £350m to Brussels. I’d rather that we control how to spend that money, and if I had that control I would spend it on the NHS.’ Note that here Stuart goes for the numbers rather than the quotable language. The Leave campaign has had a lot of success with the £350m a week figure; even though it has been debunked several times (as here), it continues to be used repeatedly.

Message building: use judgement and caution in crafting the quote

Boris Johnson
Earlier he used the quote that leaving the EU would be ‘like a prisoner escaping jail’. Boris also often uses expletives that others in public life avoid as here in the Express. He is one of the most quotable politicians but it has got him into deep trouble in the past. He once had to apologise to the whole of Liverpool after accusing them of ‘wallowing in grief’ over the death of a local man beheaded by militants in Iraq. Nowadays, he is more disciplined and uses his flowery language to more strategic political effect.

George Osborne
The Chancellor has also dubbed Pro-Brexit advocates as ‘economically illiterate’. Earlier he said leaving the EU would be ‘political arson’. We are watching Osborne closely. He used to be an unimpressive media performer but, presumably as part of his preparation to be a contender for Prime Minister, he has put a lot of effort into improving his communication skills. He is much better at the crafted quote than his boss and ex PR man David Cameron.

IMF
This august body claimed the UK’s exit from EU could cause ‘severe regional and global damage’. Here we see a ‘serious’ international organisation being cautious with its language but as a result most people will have missed their important intervention.

Aaron Banks, Leave campaigner
‘Freedom has never been so cheap’. He was commentating on the Stay campaigns figure that the cost of leaving the EU would amount to 21p per household per day.

Metaphors widely used in message building

Put them all together like this and firstly you can see how spin doctors love metaphor and simile. Second, it looks idiotic and superficial but remember these phrases were just one element in a wider interview or speech. It is the element designed to be quoted by the journalists. These phrases are the sign-posts in the argument. There is plenty of detail out there to substantiate the headlines. While the quotes may annoy the academically minded purists we should not kid ourselves that people would choose, without them, to wade through the IMF or Treasury reports on impact of staying or going.

Learn to craft a good quote and as a PR or speech writer you will go far.

Message building and The Media Coach

We run message building workshops to help organisations plan external communications. We also have a twitter account @mediasizzle that just picks up examples of quotable language.

Image used under Creative Comms Licence credit “Descrier” descrier.co.uk