Why storytelling is the perfect way to fly under the radar

It’s the oldest trick in the book – so use it

[Image courtesy of Alan Levine at Flickr Creative Commons]

Have you heard the one about the man with a surgical glove trapped in the most embarrassing place you can think? Neither had I until this week.

It’s not a joke in dubious taste, by the way. It’s the story of a guy who found blood in his stools and went to the doctor. The examination didn’t go exactly according to plan – hence the latex crisis.

And the most remarkable thing is that he chose to share this experience standing on stage in front of an audience.

It’s all part of a storytelling craze that’s sweeping the world and encouraging ordinary people to share extraordinary stories. They’re sometimes funny, frequently embarrassing and always interesting. And it seems that anything goes in this world of confessional storytelling.

There are stories like the teenager who told her boyfriend she wanted to become a nun, a woman who falls in love with a man 10 years younger than her, and the chap who set out to cross the English Channel in a bathtub.

If you’re thinking TED, think again. There isn’t always that feel-good factor, the sense that anybody can do anything if they put their mind to it. Instead, there’s a sense of unburdening and finally revealing deepest, darkest secrets and connecting with the audience.

And all through the power of storytelling.

Permanently on transmit

Many years ago, I went to a nightmare networking event. It was like having a room full of people all doing elevator pitches to each other, all at the same time.

Nobody seemed to be listening, yet everybody was talking. And every so often, they’d abruptly end the conversations and move to somebody else. Clearly, they’d all read the same tip about ‘working the room’.

I was reflecting on this over a glass of cheap white wine with a fellow networker, and noticed that she was different from the rest. And then I saw why that was.

She was listening to me really intently, focusing on what I was saying, and weaving her comments in and out. She was also putting a lot of herself into what she said, with not an elevator pitch in sight. Instead, she drew on personal experience and shared her thoughts without any hesitation or embarrassment.

Then she moved on, and so did I. But of everybody I met that evening, she’s only one I remember after all these years.

Because she created a connection, shared her emotions – and told a story.

Tell me a story

Corporate storytelling is no different, and yet time and again, corporate storytellers fall back on the elevator-pitch approach.

They sanitise the story so it’s devoid of emotion. They throw out facts without organising them in a logical order. They get the message across, but it’s not memorable.

And that’s a big mistake. Because stories, especially stories with emotion, are hugely powerful. Why?

  • They tell the listener something about you and how you see life.
  • They pull the audience in, and keep them interested. Who doesn’t want to know how a story ends?
  • You can use them to get across messages in a subtle way.
  • Stories often bypass the rational brain – and most buying decisions (despite what we might say or think) are actually based on emotion.
  • They allow you to directly involve the reader or listener, by letting them identify with you or your story. If you know who they are and the sort of thing that will appeal to them (and you really should) you have an immediate way in.

If you’re thinking this is all a bit to touchy-feely, triumph-over-tragedy for marketing, think again. Stories are everywhere, from case studies to testimonials, from blog posts even to product and solution pages.

Everything is a story, and every story is an opportunity to connect with a reader.

And it doesn’t need to include latex gloves – unless you really want it to.

What's your biggest fault? And what are you doing about it?

Why a little-self analysis is always a good thing

[Image courtesy of Simon Cunningham at Flickr Creative Commons]

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to give advice than to take it? The thing about dispensing words of wisdom is that (a) they don’t cost you anything and (b) you’re often stating what’s obvious to you but not to the other person, and (c) it’s not personal. 

And (c) is what it’s really about.

Because when it’s not your life, our your loves, or your business, you can see more clearly and be more objective. But when the spotlight is turned on you, the view is very different. 

I recently saw a SWOT analysis carried out by an agency I work with on a client of theirs. It was brutally honest, laying bare the weaknesses of the company, its service and its competitive position. At times, it made for uncomfortable reading. 

On the plus side, it was unashamedly upbeat about strengths, and concluded that on balance, the organisation was in a strong position.

We’re all happy to blow our own trumpets, but highlighting our faults is a bit more of a challenge. But if we don’t identify and acknowledge them, it’s difficult to address them.

And when I say ‘we’ here, I’m thinking more professional than personal. That said, if you’re a small-to-medium business, it often still feels personal. 

So how do you go about finding your faults and fixing them? Here are some ideas to get you started: 

  • Dare to compare. If critiquing yourself in isolation is too much to contemplate, then take one of your competitors and do a side-by-side comparison. Take your website and theirs, and create a grid with form, content, approach, tone, structure and so on. Some things you do will be better, others will fall short. The same is true of your competitor. And if they tick all the boxes and you don’t, then at least you have a standard to aim for. 
  • Press the button. You know that elevator pitch you’ve always meant to write? Do it. Sit down and write something that you could deliver in 60 seconds or less. You’ll end up with very few words, but it’ll probably take you a considerable time to arrive at them. That’s because you’ll be forced to focus on the absolutely top-line things, which can often get lost in the detail of everyday busyness.
  • Outsource – but accept the outcome. A friend of mine is a management consultant. She the nicest, friendliest, chattiest person you could hope to meet. In a social setting. But when it comes to business, she morphs into another being entirely: someone who’s dispassionate, objective and unemotional. She’s able to bring her steely gaze and unforgiving approach to bear on the knottiest of problems. But here’s the thing: she always prefaces the process by telling clients that they’re going to find out things that will not be easy to accept. But accept they must. In business as in life, without acceptance there’s no moving on. 
  • Start small. This works for everything, whether it’s overhauling your marketing or changing your diet. If you look at the problem as a whole, it seems big and unwieldy. If you break it down into chunks, it suddenly becomes manageable. Fix the tagline. Rewrite that email. Update your segmentation regularly. Improve your response time to customer emails. Rethink your newsletter, so the content isn’t just me-too recycled factoids. But what about an overarching plan, I hear you say? Yes, that’s fine. But not the point where the hunt for perfection actually prevents you from taking the first step.
  • Focus on the journey, not the destination. Finding and fixing faults isn’t a one-time exercise. It’s an ongoing one, because the competitive landscape is constantly changing. Just last month, I was talking to somebody who said he’d let his lead in the market slip because he’d got complacent. “When you’re number 1,” he said ruefully, “there’s only one way to go.”

And do I practise what I preach? Sometimes.

Because I’m as guilty of the next person of dispensing advice that I don’t take myself. But it’s right at the top of my list of things to address.

Just before the one that says I should stop making lists, and actually start doing what’s on them.

Give something away that's free - but not worthless

Getting the balance right between value and cost isn’t always easy

[Image courtesy of Ryan at Flickr Creative Commons]

Have you discovered Udemy yet? If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that back in January, I decided to splash out on lots of online courses to skill myself up.

My super-memory isn’t quite there yet, partly because I’ve forgotten to put the techniques into practice as often as I should have done. But my coding skills are coming along nicely.

Yes, that’s right. Like just about everybody nowadays, I’ve been bitten by the coding bug.

Well if truth be told, I was bitten by it long ago, but haven’t seriously pursued it. I know my way around HTML and CSS, and have picked up enough survival PHP to hack WordPress. But serious coding has always been at the back of my mind as a project I should pursue one day. 

Now that day has come, and Udemy was my first port of call.

There are all sorts of courses on every imaginable subject, and I snapped up a whole host of them at the bargain-basement price of $10. One was a heavy-duty Bootstrap and WordPress course, which assumed a certain knowledge of PHP. So before tackling that, I thought I’d make sure my PHP skills were up to snuff.

And as chance would have it, there was a free PHP course by the same instructor.

Now in this day and age, free anything usually comes with an asterisk: either a real one (endless terms and conditions apply) or an implied one (free means worthless). So I was a little circumspect about the quality of the course. But since it was free, what was there to lose? 

Well apart from my time, nothing much. So I took the plunge.

I’m happy to say, the course was excellent. Paced fast enough to be interesting, but not so fast it lost you at every turn. It was practical, focused and easy to follow.

The instructor, a genial Canadian called Brad, kept it lively and entertaining. And at the end, I felt I had a thorough grounding in PHP – enough to tackle his Bootstrap and WordPress course.

For once, free didn’t mean cheap – or worthless. He’d obviously spent a huge amount of time and effort developing, writing and filming the course (in case you didn’t know, Udemy courses have hours and hours of video).

So it was a major undertaking on his part, and the end result was something of undeniable value. 

Brad is my new best friend. And I’ve been singing his praises to all and sundry. People only have to mention the word coding to me, and I’m unstoppable. And I’m sure the army of students he has around the world have been spreading the word far and wide too.

And all because we got something of value at no cost to us. 

Give and you shall receive

The key word here is value. Nothing irritates a reader, a student or a prospect faster than having the promise of a freebie turn into a bait-and-switch operation.

You give all your contact details, and find that the free e-book is just a collection of recycled factoids. You sign up for a free trial, only to discover that you don’t have access to all the features. Or you take a free course, and realise too late that you’ve wasted your time on low-level knowledge combined with a sales pitch for its expensive counterparts.

If you are going to give away something for free, try applying these simple guidelines and it’ll be a better experience for you and your prospect: 

  • Do it without any ulterior motive. Impart knowledge because you enjoy doing it.
  • Don’t worry about them not signing up, or buying the paid version, or becoming a high-grossing client.  Focus on what you hope will happen, not the downside of nothing happening. 
  • Put as much effort into it as you would into something you’d charge good money for. And if that’s too much of a leap, then take something you sell and give it away for free for a limited period. 
  • Don’t forget the knock-on cost of a freebie that doesn’t live up to the promise: you’ve disappointed a prospect (or worse, an existing client) and caused reputational damage. 

So what’s free and worth it?  

You could offer a how-to guide that’s practical and achievable (How to simplify your document management in just 2 hours).  Or a thought piece that talks about the issues your prospects face (Why technology is transforming small businesses, and how you can ride the wave).  Or a quick-reference guide that they can print out and consult (10 copy tips for busy people). 

Or a targeted course that’s waffle-free (Business writing bootcamp for marketing professionals) and skills people up for their job.

Name your own priceless

The common denominator for all of these ideas is value. But it’s more than just what people would have paid for the course. It’s showing them that you’ve put thought, effort and time into the freebie. And that their time and effort won’t be wasted if they download the book or take the course. 

So it should be valuable, real and useful. And one last thing: shareable.

Because if it’s one thing people like more than finding a freebie, it’s telling somebody else about it. Why? Because they get the gain (here’s something for free) without the pain (somebody else did it). 

Much as I’ve done with my Canadian chum. 

So what are you waiting for? Get creating, give it away, and wait for karma to do its thing.

Want to connect with your reader? Here's how...

Bicycles, hot-water taps and changing your point of view

[Image courtesy of Mark Nicolson at Flickr Creative Commons]

Close your eyes and remember the last time you had a difference of opinion with somebody. Or a full-blown argument, for that matter.

Were you convinced you were right? Probably. And was the other person similarly convinced that they’d seen the light but you were stubbornly hanging onto an indefensible position?

Again, probably. And all of this hinges on one thing – as does almost all marketing.

Point of view.

I quietly cursed a cyclist the other day for threading through cars and cutting in front of me – even though I was stationary. And then, I began to laugh. For I remembered that when I’m on two wheels, it’s exactly what I do, blissfully unaware of cursing motorists.

So it really depends which side of the glass you’re on. And if you can get to this realisation, it transforms everything.

It’s something I learned when I read in a self-help book (if you’re a regular, you’ll know I’m something of an addict) about ‘reframing’.

That person isn’t angry with you in particular; they’re just under a lot of pressure and you happened to be in the line of fire. Your friend didn’t mean to snub you; they were just so pulled in all directions they didn’t remember to put you on the To line of the email. The world hasn’t conspired against you and your emailshot; 2% really is the response rate, and even then, you’ll be lucky.

Reframing allows you to take the facts and see them in a new way. And usually from somebody else’s point of view. So you can move from cyclist to motorist just by flipping a simple mental switch. 

And if you can do that, you can write like a reader.

Technical tangles

Imagine you’ve created a software solution (I hesitate to call it app, and program doesn’t quite cover it, so the ubiquitous solution it is, though it raises some people’s hackles).

It’s built on cutting-edge technology, and is robust and reliable. You’re proud of your baby, and you can’t stop talking about it. It has lots of bells and whistles, and you want to ring and blow all of them. 

And the people who will ultimately use the software are quite technical too, so you think tech-speak is the way to go.

And maybe it is. But only after you’ve carefully positioned it. Why? 

Because the people who are using it won’t necessarily be the ones making the buying decision or signing the cheques. They’ll need to persuade those who do of the business value of your solution. They’ll need to convince them that the savings justify the initial outlay, and that the short-term disruption isn’t going to outweigh the long-term benefits.

So when you produce your marketing materials, they really do need to be marketing materials. Yes, the tech needs to be there, but it also has to convince non-technical decision makers. 

And there’s another consideration: techies may well be technical (the clue’s in the name) but they’re also ordinary people, just like you and me.

They’re influenced by the the same words and phrases as everybody else – even if they say they’re not. They’re hooked by headlines, and captivated by stories. They’re also busy, and pulled in all directions, so promising to make their lives easier is a surefire way to get the attention.

So thinking like a reader doesn’t mean making general assumptions (they’re technical! they want to see tick-boxes of technologies! they don’t want marketing fluff!). Thinking like a reader means picturing where they’re coming from, and trying to imagine what they’re looking for from somebody like you.

It’s like creating word-picture of what it’ll be like once they’ve bought from you. And word-pictures can be hugely powerful. 

Tapping into emotion

A friend told me a few months ago about his instant boiling-water tap. At first, I was sceptical and failed to see why he couldn’t wait a few minutes for the kettle to boil. The cost – close on £2,000 – seemed disproportionate to the benefit.

And then he did something wonderful.

He created the most vivid word-picture I’ve heard in a long time. (He’s not a copywriter, but maybe he should be.)

It was early in the morning, I was in my dressing gown, walking across the kitchen in my bare feet – with underfloor heating, of course. Birds chirping, sun rising. Only thing missing was a piping-hot cup of tea to ease me into the day.

You get the picture. And so did I. In fact, I felt as if I was actually there.

You see what my friend did?

Knowing my aversion to shelling out hard-earned cash on pointless gizmos, he went in under the radar and appealed to my senses. He knows that I don’t function without a cup of tea in the morning.

He also knows I like to understand how things work, so the technology might also interest me. But it was the sensory experience of a mug of English breakfast – accompanied by a good book – that he chose as a way to penetrate my defences.

And it worked: I was almost ready to fork out the two grand for the tap. Until I remembered that it was a tap, and we weren’t in Kansas anymore.

So here’s the takeaway: if you want to connect, stop being you. Be them. Forget about the technology and the price tag, and focus on the experience – whether it’s boiling water or a whizz-bang CRM.

If you want to be in the driving seat, get out of the car and start pedalling.

It’ll get you where you want to be a whole lot faster. 

10 marketing tips to make you more like Dave

Spinning a story, finding a fix and keeping a smile on your face

[Image courtesy of Robert Sharp at Flickr Creative Commons]

I’ve almost finished Call me Dave, the unauthorised biography of David Cameron that came out last autumn. You may remember it caused quite a stir at the time, relating as it did the dodgy initiation ceremony he was supposed to have been involved in at Oxford, quickly dubbed ‘pig-gate’.

But it wasn’t the porcine pranks that caught my attention (or at least, not only).

It was the picture that emerged of Cameron as a slightly wishy-washy, middle-of-the-road type who has no strongly held political beliefs. By the time he was elected leader of the Conservative party, he’d only been an MP for four years. 

So what accounts for his success? Some will say it’s his public-school charm and his privileged background, combined with an address book to die for. Certainly there is an element of that, it seems to me.

But it’s also his relentless focus on solutions, his attention to detail and his positive, can-do attitude. Even as a special adviser (or ‘spad’) back in the 90s, he mastered briefs faster and better than anyone, and always came up with a definite course of action.

His years spent in PR at Carlton didn’t do him any harm either, as he learned how to spin a story and always focus on the upside. 

As I read, I thought about how presentation is so important. You may not be the best, or the brightest, or the fastest, or the cheapest. But if you make the right moves and send out the right signals, you can streak ahead.

Here 10 Dave-like things you can do today to change how people see you: 

  1. Laugh at yourself. Recently I was buying something in Holland & Barrett. I gave the chap my loyalty card, then paid using my debit card. As I was putting in my code, he asked me if I had an H&B loyalty card. “Yes, I said,” slightly shortly. “I just gave it to you.” “Sorry,” he replied with a smile. “Memory of a fish.” We both laughed and my irritation disappeared.
  2. Admit your mistakes. Last weekend, I got an email from Pure Gym telling me about restricted access to my club at Canary Wharf. Just one problem – I live in Cambridge. I rolled my eyes heavenwards. And then, an hour later, came a self-deprecating email apologising for their error. Just like the Fish Man, they’d won me back. 
  3. Say it like you mean it. “All I can say is I’m sorry,” said somebody to a friend of mine by way of apology for a customer service #fail experience. He told me this actually made it worse – as if she wasn’t really sorry. It was almost as if she was minimising the problem and throwing in a meaningless apology to appease him. “If only she’d just said ‘I’m sorry’, that would have made all the difference,” he moaned. 
  4. Be unprofessional. Nobody likes corporate speak, and yet we all use it. And the bigger the organisation, the worse the problem. And yet they’re the ones that most need to connect with their readers, users and prospects. So drop the corporate mask, and be yourself in everything you say and do. Challenge the stereotype, just as Dave did, detoxifying the Tories, rewriting the right-wing script and connecting with voters.
  5. Go off-message. “It’s crazy,” said the meter reader to me a couple of months back. “It’s Health & Safety gone mad.” He was talking about the rule that says he and his colleagues aren’t allowed to take off their shoes before entering a customer’s house. Which means sometimes, they’re refused access. As he joked about the rules-is-rules craziness, he kicked off his shoes and read my meter. Off message, but on form. 
  6. Communicate enough – but not too much. Cameron knows all about getting your message out and making sure it’s heard. But it’s a fine line to tread between communicating regularly and bombarding people. The frequency and detail are the two major challenges. So do it regularly, but not too regularly. Include detail, but not too much. Make sure you have something valuable to say, and do the heavy lifting for the reader by summarising ruthlessly. 
  7. Stop talking, start listening. “I need to work on my listening skills,” said a business coach to me at a networking event. No kidding. He spent the next 20 minutes explaining to me why they were important, and how they worked, and how most people get the balance wrong between listening and talking. “We have two ears and one mouth,” he said, clearly pleased with himself, “and we should use them in proportion.” I tried to agree, but couldn’t get a word in. 
  8. If you ask for feedback, take it. Politicians are often very bad at this. They have a pet project, and they look for any and every piece of evidence that will back up their scheme. If they don’t find it, or find something to the contrary, they simply carry on regardless. Just last month, I heard of somebody who asked for honest feedback on their website. When they got it, they exploded – and yet it was sound advice. We all have blind spots, and feedback is vital to the process. But you have to take the rough with the smooth.
  9. Give reassurance at every turn. “All my work comes with a guarantee,” said the bicycle shop guy to me. “And the saddle comes with a 30-day comfort guarantee.” It was one guarantee after another, and I could feel a warm fuzzy feeling as he laid it on thicker and thicker. I didn’t need all that reassurance, as his work is always impeccable. I know it’s guaranteed, but he says it every time. And every time it works. It just does.
  10. Don’t focus on the problem. This is one I struggle with. I can see why: often, dissecting the problem is far more fun than finding a solution. How could I have done that? I ask myself. Look what a mess it is! I say. This will never be right, I predict with grim certainty. And yet where does that get me? Or you? Nowhere. So do what Cameron does: tell yourself ‘we are where we are’, and come up with a solution, however imperfect. In the long run, it saves time, effort and heartache. 

Dave’s not perfect, but he’s good at what counts – mastering the detail, spinning the story and finding fixes. Maybe if I follow in his footsteps – initiation ceremonies (alleged) aside – I’ll be unstoppable too. 

Just Call me Kevin.