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stay alert feature

Stay Alert – A Perfectly Good Message

‘Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives’ is the UK government’s update to ‘Stay at Home, Save Lives, Protect the NHS’ … and political opponents from all quarters have orchestrated a loud furore about the ‘confusion’ caused by this message.

Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland was quick to complain and refused to adopt it north of the border and the Welsh government quickly follow suit. They complain that no one will understand what ‘stay alert’ means.

What poppycock.

‘Stay alert’ is perfectly clear (in context) and a perfectly good message.

stay alert

Stay Alert: The Role of a Top-Line Message

Short pithy phrases make good ‘top-lines’ for messages. They rarely encompass the whole story. In fact, it is often better if they don’t. So long as they are memorable and relevant then it is often useful to spark some discussion about the detailed meaning. I think of it as opening the door to an argument. In time the top-line phrase may become the shorthand for the whole argument or narrative. Think ‘shielding’ in the COVID context. Think ‘a dog is for life, not just for Christmas’; think ‘keep calm and carry on’; think ‘dig for victory’ and so on. I suspect all my readers could explain the thinking behind each of these phrases. But anyone working on a literal translation would probably struggle to understand.

The tricolon ‘Stay Home, Save Lives, Protect the NHS’ was similarly incomplete. For example, what does ‘protect the NHS mean’? Should we arm ourselves and stand in front of hospitals? No, of course not. Government spokespeople needed the top-line ‘protect the NHS’ to open the door to understanding the importance of ensuring the health service was not overwhelmed as had been seen in Italy. Everyone got it.

‘Stay alert’ as an update to ‘stay home’ is not at all confusing. It obviously means you no longer need to stay home but things are far from normal. In the detail there is stuff that needs to be explained; new rules about what we can and cannot do.

Of course, the government could have said instead ‘be careful’ or ‘stay aware’ or ‘be vigilant’ or ‘pay attention’ or ‘keep your wits about you’ and so on. But ‘stay alert’ would be my favourite of all those.

So why the loud complaints and sniping from the side-lines? The answer, I think is that there are political opponents who want to ensure they are seen to be active. But of course, it is very difficult to criticise too heavily when, to do so, might risk the current compliance and the life-saving consensus. Simply put: they have to find something to complain about.

For students of PR, it is worth understanding that even when people criticise a message – it doesn’t necessarily mean it is not effective. To take a controversial example from history (which I strongly disapprove of), Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ phrase was massively criticised. But it was also hugely influential. The Brexit campaign’s £350 million a week claim was again hugely criticised, for good reason, but undoubtedly influential.

Top-line messages need to be short and memorable and open the door to an argument. As anyone who has worked with us knows, we favour metaphors, similes and analogies in this role but the important question is does it do the job? And here is why this is important. If, as a spin doctor or slogan writer you are too cautious, you will end up with something wordy and worthy that everyone can agree on, but no one remembers.

There are many things the government – perhaps most governments – have got wrong in this crisis. Mistakes that have cost lives. Bitching about the message is just a distraction.

coronavirus messaging feature

Coronavirus Messages Are Missing The Under 30s

Guest Blogger : Raff Marioni

Coronavirus messages are not reaching people under 30. At 23 years old, I’ve obviously had a lot less experience than a Whitehall spin doctor; but I can say with total confidence that the government isn’t speaking young people’s language and they are not finding me or my friends online.

Raff photo coronavirus messaging

Meet Guest Blogger Raff Marioni. He says government messages about COVID 19 are not reaching his generation.

Looking at my Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feed – the most important gauges of what my friends are talking about – Covid-19 is still considered only a danger to old people and there’s minimal government-led messaging on important details we should know.

The Media Coach asked me to share my thoughts on this problem. I am 23, in my first year of working for a PR firm. Before that, I was president of Newcastle University Students Union. I was introduced to the world of messaging and media management when – while at Newcastle Uni – I was trained by the Media Coach’s Jon Bennett. Jon, who is a Newcastle Uni alumni and a trustee of the SU, recently asked me if I thought young people were ‘getting the message about COVID’ and my answer was an emphatic no.

Coronavirus messaging

Coronavirus Messages Generation Gap

What is clear to me is that for my generation there’s a gap: coronavirus messages are not cutting through. Under thirties are not changing behavior. And I blame that on old fashioned comms that are completely unsuited to a digital world.

It’s as if the government dusted off a pre-internet pandemic media strategy from the 80s and put it into action, focusing on adverts in papers, TV news interviews and marathon daily briefings. That might be what you need to reach the over-40s, but it’s totally outmoded for my generation.

For me and my friends, the idea of buying a newspaper is about as foreign as the idea of ever owning our own home. We also don’t tend to have allegiances to traditional outlets either; there’s rarely such a thing as a Guardian or a Mail reader. My mates are much more likely to self-identify as a Twitter or a Facebook user.

So if you want to talk to us, you need to go to where we are – and young people consume their media almost exclusively digitally. And they want something fresh and authentic.

A really notable example of where old media jumped the divide into new media was Emily Maitlis’ opening monologue on Newsnight on 9th April, it went viral across UK social media because it departed from the usual safe bi-partisan format.

 

Social Media Timelines Keep Us Informed

It’s not that my generation never watches TV or cares about news, in fact, I’d argue the appetite for information is huge. It’s just that – because we have social media timelines, live updates from news apps and friends sharing links in group chats – by the time the evening news comes around we already know what’s happened throughout the day.

It means we also want something more than just an old-fashioned bulletin. We want news and views and I think broadcasters are starting to realise that.

Aside from getting the traditional headlines pinged to us on our phones, we’ll actively search Google or Twitter for what we want to know. A scan of the first few results on each usually provides us with the nuggets we need. We’ll only click for more detail if our interest is particularly spiked.

Another key source of information is the shared or sponsored articles on Facebook or Twitter timelines. To illustrate how times have changed, LadBible – a source of news, viral videos and funny stories – has 37 million Facebook followers, while The Sun has 3.3 million.

If the government wants to talk to us, they’ll find us online. But it’s a noisy space and in an age of relentless scrolling, we need something that will make us stop and listen.

If someone asked my advice – I would suggest designing a targeted campaign that outlines that young people are still dying from Covid-19, combined with stark, sponsored ads explaining how ignoring the lockdown means we could kill our loved ones. It shouldn’t take losing a grandparent (or a job) to have grasped the severity of this pandemic, but for many young people, it has.

My Generation Grew Up on Spin

I am from a generation attuned to, and drained by, spin. We’re massively cynical about government soundbites because we grew up with Blair and Iraq, the tuition fee fiasco and the Brexit bus farrago.

It’s why we’ll listen to Chris Whitty, but when Johnson or Hancock muscle their way into frame, we return to scrolling.

Ultimately, young people are used to looking ahead, but we’ve suddenly lost momentum in our lives. Tell us what the future can look like if we all get this right. Just do it clearly, concisely and in our language. Oh, and don’t expect us to spare you an hour.

Photo: Image © Acabashi CC-BY-SA 4.0
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:One_form_of_exercise_social_distancing_Tottenham_style_Covid-19_pandemic_7.jpg

preparing for media interviews Feature

Preparing for media interviews: don’t overlook the obvious question

Preparing for media interviews is essential. You need messages, and you need to think about the tough questions. But we see people tie themselves in knots trying to anticipate all their nightmare or crisis issue questions: developing complicated answers to each and every one. Then in practise, the one question that really trips people up is nothing more complicated than “What does your business do?”

preparing for media interviews

Preparing for media interviews: Can you articulate the basics?

It sounds a simple enough question but failing to find an effective and memorable answer to describe what their business does, is a trap into which many interviewees fall into head-long.

[I have recently presented a webinar on this subject for the IOD. It’s free and you can find the link at the bottom of the page.]

Despite corporate jargon frequently being cited as one of the most annoying business habits, too many people still fall back on phrases such as “end-to-end solutions”, “digital platforms”, “vertical markets” and “leveraging synergies”. The digital and tech sectors, in particular, often over-estimate the understanding of their audience.

Can you ditch the jargon?

I hit this problem head-on recently, when training some otherwise impressive young entrepreneurs. Their descriptions of what they did were peppered with just these sort of phrases and it took numerous attempts of asking; “but what does that actually mean?”, “how does that work on a day-to-day basis?” to get an explanation from them along the lines of “we help our clients to use social media more effectively so they can raise their profile and win more business”.

Of course, it is not just media-novices who fall into the trap of thinking that complicated language or industry jargon makes them look clever. Last year Ocado included the following paragraph in a press release to explain a change in business strategy:

“The centre of gravity at Ocado Group has shifted from our heritage as an iconic and much-loved domestic pure-play online grocer to our future as a technology-driven global software and robotics platform business, providing a unique and proprietary end-to-end solution for online grocery, and an innovation factory, applying our technical expertise to adjacent markets and verticals.”

The howls of derision, particularly among journalists, were loud – just one example from the FT is linked here.

Preparing for media interviews: Not dumbing down is really dumb

Rather than impressing an audience, this sort of language merely alienates people. During training sessions, when we are helping to develop messages, participants sometimes question the use of simple language, as they feel it is dumbing down their work too much. In response I quote Albert Einstein who said:

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

The fact is that if your audience doesn’t understand what you are talking about, they will tend to think worse of you, not of themselves!

Make it real. Relate to something people recognise

preparing for media interviews

Lord Browne
The former CEO of BP, understands the benefit of clear communication using layman’s language

When preparing for media interviews you could do worse than look to the example of Lord Browne, the former CEO of BP and an engineer by profession who, when asked what an engineer does, answered:

“Engineering is about creating practical solutions to humanity’s most pressing challenges – whether it’s building a bridge, finding new treatments for cancer or tackling climate change.”

preparing for media interviews

Warren Buffett
The legendary investor has a legendary way with words

Business guru Warren Buffett is another communicator who revels in the use of simple colourful language. For example:

  • “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”
  • “If you aren’t willing to own a stock for ten years, don’t even think about owning it for ten minutes.”
  • “Buy a stock the way you would buy a house. Understand and like it such that you’d be content to own it in the absence of any market.”

More of his best quotes are linked here.

So, when preparing all your messages – whether for media interviews, presentations or simply for a networking meeting – think about the following three things:

  1. Mind your language! Keep it simple and avoid jargon.
  2. Make your answers memorable: use word pictures and metaphors which bring what you are saying to life for your audience and can effectively explain difficult concepts.
  3. Make your answers real: give examples which people can relate to so what you are saying becomes human and tangible.

For more advice on how to use simple and effective language, listen to my recent Webinar for the Institute of Directors ‘Bin the Babble: How to win more business with better communication’.  (You don’t have to be an IoD member – just chose the ‘Not yet’ option when asked if you are a member.)

More Info

Here are links to some other posts on messaging and language that may be of interest:

Developing Messages: Are you guilty of navel-gazing

Great media quotes

Using pictures to make your ideas memorable

 

Photo Credits:
Word Cloud – CC Gavin Llewellyn, Flickr
Lord Browne – CC Suzanne Plunkett, Flickr
Warren Buffett – CC Wikimedia

 

 

using pictures

Using pictures to make your ideas memorable

Using pictures will help make your message memorable. This is a known and understood statement of fact. Advertising, speech writing, politics and data science all apply the idea that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. And yet this simple concept is so often left on the shelf when it comes to business communication.

I am thinking about his because I recently watched a documentary about the World Memory Championships and had a bit of an ‘a-ha’ moment. I had heard of memory palaces but I hadn’t quite got it all clear in my mind. Here is a trailer for the documentary which explains it pretty well.

 

As a result of watching the full documentary, I am currently trying to learn ‘The Major System’ so I can remember numbers more easily. I am doing this for fun but it is an interesting exercise in using pictures for memory.

Here is another really simple but helpful Ted Talk which is misleadingly titled but is about the power of pictures.

I have some other tips for using pictures for communication.

In presentations:

  1. Take the bullet points off the slides and use pictures instead.
  2. There are myriad of sources for pictures you can acquire for free or cheaply. We use Pixabay and Flickr – both free, but also Istock. I have recently discovered beautiful.ai which is all about online slideshows but has a vast library of great pics.
  3. Use your own photos. In professional life, I think there is vast scope for whipping out the phone and taking photos of your team, your projects, your commute or something else that just speaks to you. Using these in your presentation in a considered and logical way can make the whole thing fresh and inclusive.
  4. Use photos but draw on them or annotate them. (You can buy software that adds speech bubbles. although there are cheaper ways to do this.)
  5. Childish sketches or hand-written diagrams can also work if you dare to share them.

 

using picturesusing pictures

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In conversations or interviews:

Create a picture in people’s minds. If you do this your idea will be remembered. All you have to do to do this is to use tangible language.

If you talk about ‘the discomfort of public transport’ you will not create a picture. If you say ‘standing in the rain waiting for a bus’ or ‘squashed into a commuter train with someone’s backpack in your face’ you are creating pictures.

I remember someone talking to me about ‘data cleansing’ for a pension fund. It was all rather dry and unmemorable until she spoke about her first ‘data cleansing’ job which started in a dusty room full of hand-written ledgers. She didn’t actually show me a picture – I created the picture in my mind, and several years later I remember it well. Below is exactly as I imagined it.

using pictures

I am always interested in good sources of pictures or fresh ideas of how to use them so please feel free to share.

message building

A Minute With The Media Coach: Message Building

As we continue our summer holiday mode, instead of bringing you our usual blog this week we bring you number four in our series ‘A Minute With The Media Coach’, where fellow trainer, Eric Dixon and I discuss message building. This is the one to show those senior executives suspicious about ‘being told what to say’.

 

Great Media Quotes

Great media quotes are often carefully crafted and designed to catch the headlines – but not always.

The MD of The Media Coach, Lindsay Williams, likes to remind her clients that speaking at the top of the ‘Language Ladder’, as she calls it, won’t get you quoted in the press and might actually lead to distrust. Whereas speaking at the bottom of the ladder – in simple colloquial language – has the opposite effect.

Great media quotes take a local story international

I was reminded of this in a story that started as local news and eventually received international attention. You may remember the Market Deeping Model Railway Club who had their exhibition at Stamford in Lincolnshire, vandalised a few weeks ago. The story first appeared on Twitter, quickly spread to the local paper (Stamford Mercury) and then within a few hours it hit the BBC, Guardian and Daily Mail websites. An online crowdfunding appeal was also launched.

Great media quotes

I think the story spread so quickly for two reasons – photographs and good quotes. There were a couple of pictures showing what looked like a tornado had torn through the school hall leaving once detailed layouts, model stations and engines smashed into matchwood. Without these pictures, I doubt the story would have spread as quickly as it did. But the thing that really made this story stick for me was the quotes from the model railway club members.

Great media quotes: metaphor, alliteration and emotion

These were people with no PR advice and probably no knowledge of the importance of having a couple of clear, thought through messages to hand. The club chairman Peter Davies spoke from the heart when he said, “We are devastated and distraught. Can you imagine your life’s work wrecked? They left it like a bomb site”.

He continued, “I have never experienced anything like it, a hurricane would have done less damage”.

Finally, talking of the loss of years of effort in making detailed model trains he said, “There were grown men with tears in their eyes because of what had been done, and I was one of them.”

The directness of the language, the constant use of the first person ‘I’ and the colourful use of what we would call picture words such as: ‘bomb site’ and ‘hurricane’ all made for quotes that would be repeated again and again across many news channels. There was even a bit of alliteration with ‘devastated and distraught’. All of this came from a man who did not have experience in crafting quotes but instead found himself speaking from the heart at a time of great stress. The lesson here is not to overcomplicate our quotes but simply to try getting the colour and grit of straightforward language into our messages. It really does hit home with just about any audience and we should all think about using it more often.

In this case, the extensive media coverage led to a happy ending: so far more than a £100,000 has been donated to the club by well-wishers.

 

misspeak

Another Misspeak: Strachan Reminds us that Stream of Consciousness is Dangerous in a Media Interview

Another misspeak this week has landed a respected former football manager in hot water.

Strachan’s Confused Misspeak

If you watch TV sport, you are probably aware that Gordon Strachan, a former Scotland and Celtic manager, has been dropped as a pundit on Sky Sports after drawing a comparison that has infuriated many. He has apologised but the story is still running after several days.

misspeak

What actually happened? Well early in the Thursday night programme, The Debate, panellists had been discussing the problem of racism in football, prompted by Spurs and England defender Danny Rose, considered to be one of the most talented players of his generation. He said he couldn’t wait to see the back of football because of the racist abuse he suffers – and because of the lack of action taken against offenders.

Later in the same programme, the discussion turned to whether Adam Johnson, a footballer who has been released from prison after serving 3 years of a sentence for child sex offences, should be allowed to play again. He was found guilty of having sexual contact with a 15-year-old fan.

Strachan, who has said he would be happy to sign Johnson given that he had served his time, appeared to draw a comparison between the racist chants and the potential for abusive chants if Johnson appeared back on the pitch. He posed the question:

“If he (Johnson) goes on to the pitch and people start calling him names, have we got to do the same as it is to the racist situation?” Strachan said. “Is it all right to call him names now after doing his three years – have we got to allow that to happen?”

Misspeak trouble can come from nonsense

It’s a fairly non-sensical sentence and certainly not a thought out position. The nub of the argument is that many believe Johnson deserves abuse while (clearly) black players do not.

Whilst Strachan’s comments were ill-advised, and clearly not well thought out – the sentence barely makes sense – it is clear to me that it is extremely difficult to pick wise words all the time. It is extremely easy to say something stupid, or non-pc or just plain wrong in a longish conversation, in which you are being treated as an expert. We see it time and time again. It is not easy to be a professional pundit and in the age of Twitter, it is easy for anyone to misspeak in public or in the media, and kick up a hornet’s nest of fury.

misspeak

Misspeaks: a Long List

So next time someone tells you that they do not have time to ‘work on their messages’ ahead of a media interview, and they do not need Media Training, remind them of this long list of people who misspoke in an unguarded moment. Some just had an uncomfortable few days, others lost their jobs or ended up in court.

If you can remember some I can’t, please do share.

 

Is your message boring image

Is your Message Boring but Important? Important but Complicated?

Is your message boring or overly technical? What can you do to make it more digestible?

Making the Boring Digestible and Memorable

Those of us who care about communication –  and who work with businesses or organisations –  are constantly challenged to make something inherently complicated, easy to understand. It is not unusual to find organisations who have struggled for years with this core problem. Sometimes the spoken word really is just not enough and there is a need to be more creative. Here are some random examples of clever ideas, which I share, hoping they will provide all of us with inspiration.

BA Comic Relief Safety Video

I have been doing a bit of travelling recently and one cannot but admire the brilliance of the British Airways Comic Relief Safety video. Trying to get frequent fliers to pay attention to flight safety (whilst also getting them to donate money to Comic Relief) must be one of the biggest message challenges there is – particularly as the obvious option of scaring the bejabbers out of passengers – is not available. If you haven’t seen the second edition of this, the Director’s Cut is here:

Information is Beautiful

Information is Beautiful by David McCandless is a fabulous coffee table book which I think I must have lent to someone (if it’s you can I have it back please). It has literally hundreds of examples of different ways to present information visually. To reach the standards of ‘beauty’ demonstrated in the book would require a designer and a reasonable budget, but if you are just looking for inspiration for the latest PowerPoint presentation, you might find something you can replicate.

Is your message boring image

Is your message boring image

Of course, there are many other sources of inspiration for graphics. Infographics have come of age in recent times and can be a great way to get a message out. It seems to me you will still need a creative designer and a budget, but they can certainly have an impact. Although the word inforgraphics is modern, the idea has been around hundreds of years. This is a blog about graphics that changed the world – including the Florence Nightingale one pictured below. Nightingale’s charts illustrated month by month, the overwhelming number of deaths in Military Hospitals caused by preventable diseases. It changed hospital practice forever.  Others mentioned in the blog are Mendeleev’s 1869 Periodic Table and Harry Beck’s 1931 London Underground Map.

Is your message boring image

Tell a Story

I am not going to reiterate all I have said before about story-telling and how important stories, examples and anecdotes can be in message building. But there are people out there who are going one step further: weaving important information into a fictional story. This strikes me as being very hard work but is something of a specialism for the author Patrick Lencioni. He writes about business management and teams and I have read and enjoyed ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team – A Leadership Fable’.

Is your message boring image

 

Most of the book is the fable or fictional account of the challenges faced by a new CEO tasked with turning around a cash-burning start-up. In the end, there is an analysis of the story explaining the ‘best practice’ that can prevent or deal with the problems faced. It’s clever and makes the otherwise dull topic, very digestible.

Another clever person trying to make learning easier is Matteo Farinella. He combines storytelling with comic style drawing using fantastical drawing to explain neuroscience in his book  Neurocomic.

In this example of his style covered by a creative commons licence, he is illustrating the water cycle.

Is your message boring image

The Humble Metaphor

It is not possible to leave out from this list my old friends – metaphors, analogies and similes. So often they explain things very well, either verbally or visually.

When Sir Ian Cheshire, Chairman of Debenhams wanted to kill a story that the company was insolvent this is what he said.

“The only analogy I can have to it is like having a bunch of nosy neighbours watching your house…Somebody sees somebody in a suit going into a room. The second person concludes it’s a doctor, the third person concludes it’s an undertaker and by the time it gets to the end of the day you’ve got the cause of death and everyone’s looking forward to the funeral.”

Social Media Videos

Finally, let’s return to videos but with rather lower production values than the BA example, we started with. I am a huge fan of the World Economic Forum’s bite-sized videos that appear on LinkedIn. An archive of them can be found here. As you can see they are very simple but very effective.

Here are five cognitive biases that could be holding you back at work

Studying your subconscious mind. 📕 Read more: http://bit.ly/2Hk9OSN

Posted by World Economic Forum on Friday, March 8, 2019

So now all we need is a story, or a novel, a graphic or a video, to explain the difference between World Trade Rules, Canada +++, Norway style deal etc. – just in case we have to vote on which one we, in Britain, want.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.