Tag : 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









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 lkelly@foghound.com.

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.

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.

Auto marketing messages as weak as their business

Why do some advertisers treat people as if we had no brains?  One example of misplaced messaging is GM and Chrysler’s recent ads assuring people people about their business. Duh! You have to live in a cave to not know that these companies are in big trouble. Plus, don’t we all realize that “employee pricing” is a joke; it’s code for “we have a lot of inventory to move so we’re really cutting prices.”

This new Chrysler “assurance” spot even goes so far to end with this tag line: “At Chrylser the future is not only bright it’s electric.”  Oh puleeeze. We know you’re future isn’t bright, even with Fiat.

Ad Age’s Jonah Bloom wrote a great editorial on how these auto companies are mis-spendng millions on the wrong message.

Ads for assurance programs may seem soothing and may even increase foot traffic to some degree, but they strike us as pointless and the consumer as completely out of touch with reality. For instance, how can Saturn promise to make your car payments for up to four months when the brand itself is slated for disposal?…So however well those ads may be executed…they ring false.”

Bloom suggests, instead that these auto makers promote “deals of a lifetime” and use plain English to do so.

Excellent advice.

The emotional detachment problem: CEOs, sales, marketing messages and Democrats

Who are many CEOs and sales executives most similar to?

a) Al Gore

b) Bob Kerry

c) Bob Dole

The answer is all of the above. The reason is that most CEOs and sales executives, like unsuccessful political candidates, present litanies of facts, figures, and rational reasoning to try to persuade people, and they overlook (or dismiss) the power of emotions.

They rely on dispassionate logic. Yet, neuroscientists and psychologists have proven that the more “rational” a message, the less likely it is to trigger the emotional circuits in our brains that activate behavior and decisions.

The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of a Nation by psychologist and political scientist Dr. Drew Westen is a fascinating read about the science and practice of persuasion in American politics, particularly about how the Democrats, with the exception of Bill Clinton, have blown it so many times by relying on dispassionate reasoning and policy discussions rather than connecting with people on an emotional level.

People decide by how they feel about you. (Or your company or party.) Republicans and many consumer products marketers are masters at this; most Democrats, business-to-business and professional services are not.

Aside from being a political junkie from a communication strategy perspective, I found the book interesting because the principles of political persuasion are the same for business, and are becoming even more relevant in our video, podcasting, blogging world. Most companies obsessively talk about their products, capabilities, roadmaps, strategy du jour ( Six Sigma, anyone?), and obvious trends (“we’re all about helping customers reduce risk and cut costs.”). But they fail to first connect with people, be they customers or employees, in an emotional way that engenders feelings of competency, trust, and liking.

In my book Beyond Buzz, chapter 3 (“Make Meaning Not Buzz”) explores why emotion is the superhighway to making meaning and understanding. Westen’s exploration of scientific research goes much deeper in showing why the mind is hardwired to tune into emotionally compelling appeals vs. rational reasons, and offers strategies on how to appeal to that neural network of often unconscious decision making.

Here are some takeaways from the book that I found especially interesting for those of us in in business.

On getting attention

“We do not pay attention to arguments unless they engender our interest, enthusiasm, fear, anger or contempt. We are not moved by leaders with whom we do not feel an emotional resonance.”

On driving behavior

“Emotion is one of the most potent sources of motivation that drives human behavior. It is no accident that the words motivation and emotion share the same Latin root, movere, which means to move.”

Thinking beyond the message itself

“The implications of these findings suggest that the choice of words, images, wounds, music, backdrop, tone of voice and a host of other factors is as likely to be as significant to the electoral success of a campaign as content.”

The right feelings vs. the best argument

“As decades of survey research demonstrate, people are driven in the voting booth by their feelings, and these feelings reflect the extent to which they believe a party of candidate is attending to their interests and values.”

“The data form political science is crystal clear: people vote for the candidate who elicits the right feelings, not the candidate who presents the best argument

Beware messaging by focus group

“Virtually every word that came out of his mouth [Gore, 200 presidential campaign] had been market-tested using focus groups and hand-dials indicating when listeners liked and didn’t like what he ways saying in practice debates. Unfortunately, the more his words seemed market-tested, the less genuine they seemed. And the less genuine he seemed, the less likable

The appeal of being clear

“Political scientist Larry Bartels found, as expected, that voters prefer candidates whose values and policies match their own preferences. But he also found that voters prefer candidates who are clear on what they believe, even if it is not what they believe.

4 questions that matter in deciding

“Voters tend to ask four questions that determine who they will vote for…Candidates who focus their campaigns on the top of this hierarchy and work their way down generally win.

  1. How do I feel about the candidate’s party and its principles?
  2. How does this candidate make me feel?
  3. How do I feel about this candidate’s personal characteristics, particularly his or her integrity, leadership, and compassion?
  4. How do I feel about this candidate’s stands on issues that matter to me?

Now, take a look at the sales deck your sales reps are using, the speech your CEO recently gave to employees or partners, the marketing messaging “playbook,” the “look and feel” of your company’s PowerPoint style .

  • How do they make people feel about your company?
  • Do they tell a compelling story in words and images – or are they a rationale laundry list of capabilities, products, competitive advantages and other dispassionate facts and figures?
  • Do people like telling your story? Or are they dispassionate and not genuinely engaged with the ideas?

Message Madness: Catholics & Democrats Struggle for Relevancy


Forget March Madness. It’s Message Madness time.

Still smarting from November’s loss, the Democrats know it and are stuck. In wake of the Pope’s death Friday, the Catholic Cardinals are tackling it. How to articulate a clear message that is relevant and influential to your audience.

Consider the advice that’s being published:

  • “If we want to make progress we need to focus on constructing a set of clear and concise principles and values that centralizes and homogenizes our message, but not our members.” Letter to the editor, New York Times, Sunday, April 3, 2005
  • “The church is self-consciously struggling to make its message relevant.” Page one article, New York Times, April 4, 2005
  • “The major challenge facing the church is to articulate the message of the faith in a way that’s actually influential and convincing to people.” Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tuscon, New York Times, April 4, 2005
  • “Democrats Getting Lessons in Speaking Their Values.” Democrats believe that the
    absence of a unifying theme or clear message cost them the election last November. New York Times, Feb. 11, 2005

Overcoming the obstacles to great messages

Creating relevant and influential messages is hard work, which is why so few organizations and companies have effective ones. My advice to the Catholics, Democrats and anyone in the corporate world wrestling with a “message makeover” is this:

Do a listening tour among your most influential and committed members. Then talk with influential former members. Ask for their advice and opinions. Really listen to their words and emotions. Why do they still belong? Why did they leave the flock? Tape record the conversations so you can go back and listen again for the nuances and language. That the Catholics are locking up Cardinals in the Vatican to select the new Pope and discuss associated implications to the Church’s messaging is a bad sign. That the Democrats are enlisting a bevy of diverse consultants and perspectives is more hopeful.

Beware of copycats and fraidy cats. When you’re losing votes, members and revenues, it’s time to take calculated risks to turn around the situation. Don’t try to copy your competitors’ messages. They’ll still be their messages and not yours. Ban fraidy cats from the messaging process. At best they’ll support incremental change; more likely they’ll suck the energy out of the process. (Note to Democrats: Beware of quoting the Bible and talking about moral values – despite some of your consultants’ advice. That’s the Republican angle. You need your own platform. I vote for “Personal Freedoms. Community Responsibilities.”)

Go to the organizational attic and review the founding vision and values.
You just may find some insights worth re-exploring in context of what’s most relevant today. While my religious training was quite limited having preferred Carol Ann’s donut shop to Sunday school, I do remember being taught that Jesus was forgiving, nonjudgmental, and lived by few rules. Maybe there’s an angle here for the Catholics if the Unitarians and Congregationalists haven’t already co-opted that message. As for the Democrats, remember that Thomas Jefferson founded the Democratic Party in 1792 to fight for the Bill of Rights.

Take a hard look at the issues that are most relevant to your members today.
Map them out to really see what issues are increasing (or decreasing) in relevancy, and take a look at what issues are most closely connected. A visual view may help you see informative, new patterns. Then adapt your message – without altering your values – to today’s context. (Note to Catholics: preaching against birth control and condom use makes your organization appear outdated and highly irrelevant –even in areas like Africa where membership is growing.)

If your message isn’t relevant, it won’t be influential. As Louis B. Mayer once said, “If people don’t want to come, there’s nothing that we can do to stop them.”