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.