Category : Point of View & Messaging

Storytelling needs a narrative

I’m kind of sick of everyone in business talking about storytelling.  It’s become a buzzword that people don’t truly understand or know how to use.

If you’re in marketing or corporate communications you’ve been in that strategy meeting where someone inevitably says, “We need to do more  storytelling.”

But most leaders, marketers and communicators don’t really know what to say when they’re told to “tell a story.”

“About what? To what end?,” many wonder. Others push back, “Oh, I don’t like telling stories about myself.”

Here’s my take.  Before telling useful stories,  organizations need a narrative, the reason for being.  The uber purpose.  The big picture context.  Then it becomes much easier for people to share anecdotes and stories that support  that narrative. More importantly, it helps the people —  citizens, employees, customers  — understand what’s important and  how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

A narrative is like a clothesline,  and you hang your policies from it, says David Gergen, communications adviser to four U.S. presidents. Similarly, companies hang its products and services from the clothesline.

Narratives are simple explanations.  You shouldn’t need training for people in the organization to “get it.” (A communications executive of a global company told me that his company has a narrative, but I’d have to read the PowerPoint deck to really understand it.  Sounds like there’s more work to do.)

Here are a few examples:

  • The narrative of the United States has been about exploring.  For Israel it’s protecting and defending.
  • For Nike it’s about serving and honoring the inner athlete.  Patagonia is about doing no harm to the environment.
  • Southwest Airlines’ makes it simple and fun to fly. FedEx absolutely, positively delivers the best customer experience.
  • My company’s narrative is about creating clarity from complexity.  The Rebels at Work movement is helping corporate rebels inside large organizations be more successful in creating positive change. An executive coach friend is about helping strong leaders become better people.

These narratives can be like North Stars — a fixed point in the sky that can be used to guide decisions, serve as a organizing prompt for telling relevant stories, open up thinking about new products or ways to work.

Narratives can also be a quest.  I like John Hagel’s view in this Forbes article:

Story chronicles the path and progress of a limited set of protagonists – from the beginning, through the middle, to the end of a story arc.  Narratives, in contrast, are designed for a growing number of protagonists — many of whom are yet to be defined — who share a common quest or journey that is yet to be fully resolved or completed.

How do we find our narrative?

To help companies find their narrative, I invite people to think of their organization as a cause or movement and speed write a rallying cry, starting with a verb.  Or  quickly write many responses to the “I believe that ….” prompt about their organization or company. No over-thinking, self-editing or  corporate speak.  Just ideas, beliefs and aspiration, from the gut.

I’ve also been suggesting to marketing and corporate communications executives that they NOT make this a formal process.  Take some narrative possibilities and insert them into casual business conversations. Then into some presentations as a way of setting context to your ideas.  See how people react. Ask them, “Does this help you better understand our strategy?  Do you see how this new product line fits with our overall business?  Can you imagine how this policy falls outside of our focus?  Is this something you’d like to be part of?”

See how well the narrative serves you. If it works,  quietly seed it so it can grow and serve others without bringing in committees, copywriters, lawyers or naysayers.  Insert it into the CEO’s talking points.  Use it to frame the next acquisition or product launch.  If it helps, then make it better known and  part of the company’s leadership strategy.

And if it doesn’t resonate? Keep experimenting.

Finding a narrative gives your organization meaning.

And meaning changes everything.


Additional reading:

“Still Waiting for the Narrator in Chief: Why the president lost his ability to tell a story,” by Matt Bai, New York Times Sunday Magazine, 11/4/2012.

“The Pull Narrative: In Search of Persistent Context” by John Hagel









Are you holding back?

Making things happen is as much about how we express our ideas as the ideas themselves. If you want to get people to believe in your ideas, show your conviction.  Enthusiasm and belief are contagious.  “Safe” business proposals, presentations, sales pitches are often so boring that no one pays attention to you. It’s no longer safe to play it safe.  When in doubt, watch this video.


Have I got a story for you

“I’m so tired of  hearing about corporate storytelling,” a corporate communications manager confessed to me recently. “Really, what does “storytelling” mean for businesses? What am I suppose to do to create “stories.”

“There are nine story themes that people like hearing about from companies,” I explained. “If you create content  based on those themes you’ll  be turning your messages into stories.”

I introduced these nine story themes four years ago when I published the book Beyond Buzz. This simple model is used around the world by companies and agencies of all sizes to get unstuck and come up with fresh ways to connect with customers, employees and analysts.   Guy Kawasaki included these themes in his new book “Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions,” writing,

“These story lines from Lois Kelly, author of Beyond Buzz, will help you craft a story that does your cause justice.”

Sean Moffit and Mike Dover also include them in their excellent new book “Wikibrands: Reinventing Your Company in a Customer-Driven Economy,” saying:

“People love to tell stories. When repeated they reinforce a message; when told well they become viral. Lois Kelly suggests nine types of stories in her book Beyond Buzz that get talked about.”

The 9 themes

  1. Great aspirations (Patagonia believing a company can grow big and sustain the environment in innovative ways)
  2. David vs. Goliath (Southwest Airlines taking on the big, established players)
  3. Personal stories (Fred Smith on why he started FedEx, and why investors funded the company after they met the janitor)
  4. Contrarian/counterintuitive (BestBuy deciding to fire some of its customers. What? A company doesn’t fire customers?!)
  5. Avalanche about to roll (Spotting, forecasting early trends before they’re big and in the mainstream)
  6. Anxieties (Does your child have what it takes to get into a good college?)
  7. How-to (How to do things related to your service/product to help customers)
  8. Glitz and glam (What you can learn from Sara Jessica Parker about investing money)
  9. Seasonal/event related (Financial and tax advice leading up to April 15; vacation deals just before he summer)

Download the eBook, check out Guy Kawasaki’s post

Not in the mood for reading books to learn more?  Click here to visit the Foghound resource center, and download a copy of the eBook, “Beyond Buzz: Let’s Talk About Something Interesting.” Or check out Guy Kawasaki’s post, “How to Change the World: The Nine Best Story Lines for Marketing.”



Open workshop: discovering a shared vision

Uncovering and articulating an organization’s vision and mission for the future can be an exhilarating or depressing experience.

Want to learn how to make it exhilarating? Want to be part of a powerful visioning process, learn for free and/or see my approach in case you want to hire me in 2011?

I’m leading a series of workshops in the coming weeks for Trinity Rep theater in Providence, RI. (Uncovering a shared vision is part of the strategic planning process, and key to our capital campaign. Disclosure: I’m a Trinity board member.)

If you’ve been to at least two performances at Trinity and want to roll up your sleeves for an intense and exhilarating three-hour workshop, please consider participating in one of the following sessions, all of which are being held in Trinity’s rehearsal studio in downtown Providence.

  • Saturday, Dec. 18: 9 a.m. – noon
  • Friday, Jan. 7,  5:30 – 8:30 p.m.
  • Saturday, Jan. 8: 9 a.m. – noon
  • Monday, Jan. 10: 1:30 – 4:30 p.m.
  • Saturday,  Jan. 15: 9 a.m. – noon

Others participating in the workshops  are actors, theater subscribers, high school students who have been part of Trinity’s Young Actors Studio, Project Discovery teachers, board members, donors, and people who just like going to the theater at Trinity. It’s bound to be serious fun, for a seriously great arts non-profit.  (But the lessons you’ll learn can easily be applied to the for-profit world as well.)

If interested in participating or learning more, please drop me a note at

Uncovering your vision vs. creating your vision

The process you’ll be part of is based on my belief (and experience) that the vision of most organizations lies within the people who are most passionate about the organization. Articulating the vision is more about uncovering the hopes, dreams, and views of these passionate people, and far less about “expert” wordsmithing.

Yet uncovering these views isn’t a direct process. Asking people, “what should our mission statement be?” usually freezes us, and asks us to use too much of our head and not enough of our heart.

A far more effective process is to engage people’s heads and hearts in a playful, guided way that helps them find the feelings, words and images to express why the organization they love so much matters so much, and what its intent, or mission, is – or should be.

Hope to see you.

This RFP question matters

Last week I received an RFP  with a key question: what is your organization’s mission and beliefs? I love that question because it will help the evaluators get a sense of the firms  in a way that the factual questions can not.

However, many firms struggle in answering this question. Or they play it safe. Or answer in bland language.  Having reviewed hundreds of RFPs my advice is to answer this question passionately and genuinely, in language you would use in talking with someone.

This RFP question is designed to help the evaluators get to know the personality, people and passion of your firm. Don’t waffle.  Be bold, be true to who your organization is, and use language that brings you beliefs alive.

Also, make sure your Web site includes your belief ( or purpose, or mission, or point of view; they’re really the same)  And that everyone in the firm knows it and understands how it guides your work every day.

Stuck?  Get your people together and have a thoughtful conversation around this question: why does the world need our organization now more than ever?

What's your marketing soundtrack?


I help companies uncover what they love about their businesses and show them how to use that to create pretty fascinating sales and marketing strategies.

The first step in our discovery process is asking a few questions, like “if you were having dinner with an old friend,  how would you  brag about your business?” The answers to this question are usually dull, dull, dull. But it helps me get to know the people.

The second question always uncorks the creative juices.  Please take it and use it. It is simply this:

If you could pick one song as a theme song for  your organization, what would it be?

The ideas are usually hilarious, hold a thread of truth and possibility, and loosen people up in new ways.   A couple of weeks ago I heard some some great responses from a consulting firm with deep analytics expertise:

  • Beat It by Michael Jackson
  • White & Nerdy by Weird Al Yankovich
  • Marching Through the Wilderness by David Byrne

Let the marketing brainstorming begin….

If you think your company is boring…


‘Tis the season for marketing planning, which can be painful if you’re in a rut. From many years of experience I believe every company has remarkable ideas to talk about, but finding those ideas can sometimes be challenging.

This week I talked at the Word of Mouth Supergenius conference about how to shake things up and find those ideas. Thanks to Merritt Colaizzi of SmartBlog on Social Media for her post that sums up those ideas. You can find it here.

Finding those interesting ideas to talk about is well worth the work. Consider:

  • What do sales reps to say to engage prospects?
  • What makes your proposals and RFPs stand out?
  • Social media only works if you have interesting ideas to talk about
  • How do CEOs get employees’ attention?

To get more interest, you have to be more interesting.  It doesn’t mean you have to be cool like Apple. In fact, much of my work has been with “boring” B2B companies.  Everything in marketing and sales gets much easier when you find the “talkable” ideas.

If you get stuck, call me to help jump start your thinking. If your company is really stuck, let’s do a workshop in 2010  to uncover those amazing ideas just waiting to be found.  While I am slightly biased, this is the best marketing investment you can make next year.

Putting social media to work: Publicity Club workshop

Here’s the presentation from last night’s workshop at the Publicity Club of New England in Boston. Great group and lots of fun doing conversational writing and community building workshops. Creativity is everywhere; we just have to ask new questions and collaborate in new ways to get at it.

The one-line: what marketers can learn from screenwriters

The secret to selling a screenplay in Hollywood is writing a great one-line, says screenwriter Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat: the Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need.

Creating a great one-line is invaluable for marketing anything, whether it’s a company, product, service, book proposal, online community, a vacation spot or professional services.

You see, the one-line tells people what the product/service/screenplay is so they can quickly decide if they’re interested or not. Make it too hard for them to understand the “what it is” and they’ll simply ignore you, no matter how brilliant the product and supporting marketing programs.

Snyder says that a great one-line:

  • Hooks your interest
  • Helps you see the whole movie in it
  • Makes your imagination run wild with where the story is likely to go
  • Has a built-in sense of who it’s for
  • Is somewhat unexpected or ironic
  • Is emotionally intriguing
Aside from the primary benefit of selling your product, creating a great one-line helps you better develop the product or service or book proposal because you’ve focused the concept.
“Concentrate on writing one sentence. One line. Because it you learn how to tell me “What is it” better, faster and with more creativity, you’ll keep me interested. And incidentally, by doing so before you start writing your script, you’ll make the story better too,” advises Snyder.
I read the one-liners in the N.Y. Times Sunday Book Review every week to practice my one-line writing. This one-line writing is the hardest writing I’ve ever done. I think it’s easier to run a business than write the one-line about the business, easier to write a book than write the one-line about the book. BUT without the one-line answering, “what is it?”  developing your services and products and running your marketing will be much, much harder than if you had sat down and written the one-line to  begin with.

Give me the same thing only different

The second most important screenwriting lesson that also applies to marketing: tell people what your product/service/book is most like and how it’s different.

In screenwriting, the more you understand the genre of your concept, the more likely you are to sell the script and write a great movie. Ditto for marketing. Help customers understand where you fit into categories that they understand — and then tell them how you’re different.

While creating new business models or wildly innovative products is admirable and noble, most don’t take off because the buyer can’t understand “what it is.”  And those that do, have brilliant one-lines, like Salesforce in the early days — software you can rent instead of having to implement.

Another example is Communispace, one of the most successful private online community companies. In  the early days of the company, long before terms like social media or Web 2.0 were around, Communispace CEO Diane Hessan explained that their communities were “like focus groups on steroids, only different.”  Marketing decision makers got it, and bought. While many other early community pioneers no longer exist. People couldn’t understand the “what it is.”

I’m working on some new concepts and starting with my one-lines. Who knows maybe someday I’ll even be able to pitch a screenplay.

PS — thanks to the wonderful book marketer Nettie Hartsock for turning me on to Save the Cat.

Context is everything

It’ no surprise that the diverse plays that were awarded Tony awards last night all share one thing: a context that people today can relate to. In accepting the award for best musical revival for “Hair,” Oskar Eustis, the N.Y. Public Theater’s creative director, summed it up:

“If the theater is going to matter, it has to talk about things that matter to the people.”

Whether marketing art or widgets, the need for context and relevancy is huge, but often overlooked. On Friday a firm called me to discuss their marketing needs.  As they explained their business, I realized that what they do is in the collaborative innovation and enterprise 2.0 space, concepts they were aware of but hadn’t really given much thought to.

Because the firm isn’t marketing within the context of today’s corporate decision makers, their sales and marketing messages just aren’t resonating. Nor are they in the right marketing conversations that can result in leads, nor are they getting invited into big deals for which they’re qualified.

For people to find your company and consider your services, you need to market within their context.  Of course, this isn’t essential, but you’ll spend far more on marketing and sales if you try to create a new category or context of understanding.

8 ways to "social mediafy" marketing, PR campaigns

Creating marketing and public relations campaigns within a social media context requires some new steps– and greater attention to steps that hopefully have always been considered.

Here are eight ideas to “social mediafy” your campaigns.

1. Know what’s relevant and current: First, know what your audience cares about. What issues, topics, ideas are front of mind.  Not what your company wants to talk about, which is usually your own products and service features/functions (boring), but what people are already concerned about and interested in. Do this by analyzing the digital ecosystem for your category — blogs, tweets, news articles, YouTube videos,  Digg posts/rankings, Google searches, etc. What’s most popular, triggers the most responses?  If you have a corporate blog or a customer forum — what are the most popular topics?

2. What’s the business goal: Before doing anything, clearly understand the intention of the campaign. Is it to develop preference for your brand vs. another? Change a perception about your company? Make people more aware of the company’s expertise in a particular area? Help people understand an issue that is an obstacle to sales? Generate leads? Make your brand more likable?  The more specific you can be, the more effective your program will be — and the easier it will be to measure it.  I see far too little time spent on this important step. “General Awareness” is too superficial — nor does it guide how to execute.

3. Formulate a provocative point of view: What’s your take on a topic of current interest to your audience — and how does your point of view connect with your goal? Make the point of view is fresh, thought-provoking and even provocative.  As word of mouth author Emmanuel Rosen points out in an interview with Sean Moffit of BuzzCanuck, one of the worst practices in marketing is having nothing interesting to say. My research has found that there are nine themes that people like to talk about; here’s more on “The Nine Best Story Lines for Marketing” from Guy Kawasaki’s blog.  My favorite is taking a contrarian or counterintuitive view. Done right, this approach creates interest, debate and longevity — and can help address a number of goals.

4. Put that point of view together in a shareable form: Take your point of view and develop it in a form (or multiple forms) that people can easily share with other people — eBooks, videos, ChangeThis manifestos, blog posts, presentations, white papers. And put those not just on your own site but where people are browsing — YouTube, SlideShare, Delicious, etc.  Some recent examples of content easy to share: Disney Park’s “make your own personalized video,” which you can then share with friends. IBM’s “Art of the Sale” mainframe videos by Tim Washer. And a great white paper, “EMC/One: A Journey in Social Media” by Chuck Hollis. Having some thing makes it easier to share. Of course, it needs to be interesting enough that you want to share it with your colleagues and friends.

5. Get your views out into the ecosystem: Now stir things up and let people know about your point of view– and where they can go to learn more.  Use Twitter, Facebook, blogger outreach,, YouTube, Digg, Sumbleupon and all the many, many other places out there.

6. Stay in the conversation: As people start talking about the topic, stay in the conversation, adding new perspectives, answering questions, providing other people/places about the issue. Set up Google alerts at a minimum to keep up with the conversation and post responses to what;s being said. The days of dropping a press release, talking to some media, and calling it a campaign are over.

7. Repackage: Take the highlights of what ensued and repackage them to further achieve your goals — use for customer newsletters, sales presentations, management reports, in employee communities/Intranets.

8. Measure what sticks: Lastly, learn from all the issues you initiate. Which garnered the most interest — and why? What fell flat? Was it the topic — or was it the execution. This execute-and-measure-and-learn is the only way to find what works for your audience — and is an ongoing education for you.

Simple social media predictor

Why do some ideas catch in social media and others go no where? Why do some videos get passed around and reach that coveted “viral” status? Why do some crisis issues have a blip and disappear and while others keep getting talked about?

One of the simplest and best indicators is this: the more widely and/or deeply felt the issue or topic, the greater its life and “social effect.”

One big reason the Ketchum @keyinfluencer Twitter gaffe this month was a big deal was because of the extraordinary growth of Twitter, and the equally extraordinary skepticism about the role of Twitter in business.  There’s no denying the widespread interest in seeing a Twitter “business case study” played out before our eyes. It’s a widely felt issue.

Tim Washer’s hilarious IBM Mainframe videos were such a hit because so many of us have either worked for an incompetent boss or we’ve sat through painful sales meetings, like the ones depicted in the video.

Jeff Jarvis was able to light up Dell Hell a few years back because so many people shared similar frustrations about Dell.

Think about other popular issues — some positive and helping a company’s reputation, others hurting — and you’ll see the pattern. Deeply and widely felt. The Motrin Moms. Obama’s change platform.

As you look at how to “social mediafy” your marketing and communications, a helpful first step is asking: “what do our customers deeply and widely care about?”

Marketing News Radio

Next Wed., Jan 28 at noon EST, I’ll be interviewed by David Kinard on Marketing News Radio, AMA’s online talk radio program.  I’m kind of tired of all the hype and buzz around social media so you won’t hear much of that.

But I do want to share observations about the big challenges people in companies are wrestling with in creating new types of marketing strategies, and offer pragmatic ideas on where to focus and what to forget about (for now.)  A big part of the radio show is call in questions, so fire away.

Container Store guiding principles

I’ve been collecting examples of companies’ beliefs, values, guiding principles and the like. All are meant to serve as a sherpa-like guide to the organization’s culture, decisions and behavior. The ones I like best go beyond the usual blah blah — quality, integrity, customer-first — and connect with people in their guts and in their heads. Here are The Container Store’s six principles:

  1. Fill the other guy’s basket to the brim. Making money then becomes an easy proposition
  2. Man in the desert*
  3. One great person equals three good people
  4. Intuition does not come to an unprepared mind
  5. The best selection anywhere plus the best service plus the best or equal to the best price in our market area
  6. Air of excitement

*Container Store employees are told the story of a man crawling through the desert gasping for a drink of water. He finds an oasis, where an ordinary retailer gives him water. If it had been a Container Store retailer, employees are told, he would have been told “Here’s some water. Do you also want something to eat? And I see from your wedding ring that you are married. How about we call your family and let them know you’re here.” The principle is that you’re cheating the customer if you are not offering them the opportunity to buy more.

Learn From My Life on Friday

On Friday, June 27 at 1 p.m. EST, I’m going to be sharing what I’ve learned so far about marketing, social media and word of mouth marketing over at Learn From My Life. (And answering calls and email questions.)

There are some great interviews over at Learn From My Life from people like free-agent author Daniel Pink, former CNN reporter Daryn Kagan, legendary basketball coach Dale Brown, and Dan Ariely, author of the must-read new book, Predictably Irrational.

Hope you can make it!

Beliefs more useful than mission statements

Naming your organizations’ beliefs can guide decisions and inspire talent much more effectively than the traditional mission statement, which is usually pretty flat, descriptive and, well, boring.

Here are some examples of organizations’ beliefs.



1. Focus on the user and all else will follow.
2. It’s best to do one thing really, really well.
3. Fast is better than slow.
4. Democracy on the web works.
5. You don’t need to be at your desk to need an answer.
6. You can make money without doing evil.
7. There’s always more information out there.
8. The need for information crosses all borders.
9. You can be serious without a suit.
10. Great just isn’t good enough.


  1. Deliver WOW Through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More With Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

And my firm, Beeline Labs:

  1. Deliver the wow and the whoa
  2. Activate change
  3. Go fast
  4. Try new things; OK to fail
  5. See new possibilities early
  6. Don’t compromise; the work needs to be meaningful
  7. It’s all about delivering business value
  8. Bee vs. me
  9. Integrity rules

What are your organization’s beliefs? Please share!


Sun's Schwartz: not about blogging, but what you say

[photopress:Schwartz_1_2.jpg,full,pp_image] The novelty of blogging is about to wear off, said Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz at this week’s Web 2.o Expo in San Francisco. It’s becoming just another way to communicate.

The bigger point, said Schwartz, is having something provocative to say.

“If you say undifferentiated things that are expected, then you shouldn’t expect anyone to care.”

Amen. So many businesses are obsessed about how to use blogs or social networks that they overlook the fact that you have to have something interesting to say. The point of my book Beyond Buzz is just this:

in today’s “talk” world — online and in person — having an interesting or provocative point of view is as essential, maybe more so, than traditional marketing and communications “messages,” elevator statements, value props, etc.

A provocative point of view gets attention, gets people involved, and speeds understanding. As Schwartz knows, if you want to get interest, be more interesting.