Today’s post is by Dr. Liz Alexander, author of #Thought Leadership Tweet: 140 Prompts for Designing and Executing an Effective Thought Leadership Campaign (CLICK HERE to get your copy). Here’s Liz…
Last week I sent an email to a leading international shipping company, having discovered to my horror that the family heirlooms I’d entrusted to them had been smashed to smithereens during their journey from the UK to my home in Texas.
My missive began with:
“For sixty years my mother has carefully kept many treasured items, including the fine china she received as a wedding present from her favorite aunt. As her eldest child and only daughter they were recently entrusted to me as Mum (now 84 and suffering from Parkinson’s) has moved permanently into a care home. Too heavy and delicate to pack in my checked luggage I chose to ship these family heirlooms with your company, believing they would arrive safe and sound. How wrong I was.”
Given the number of complaints such companies likely receive, I wanted mine to stand out. Meaning I had to move beyond mere communication to inspire a greater level of emotional engagement. As a professional writer, the best way I know to do this is to tell a story, featuring a compelling character (my ailing octogenarian mother) and the beginnings of a dramatic plot. Plus, as you’ll learn shortly, I had a very specific “leading” role in mind for my target audience—one that many corporate storytellers in PR and marketing overlook to their cost.
Much is written about the value of storytelling for business. With articles regularly appearing in well-respected forums like the Harvard Business Review and Copyblogger, we are surely past the stage of debating the value of techniques that authors and journalists like myself have long used to capture readers’ imaginations. Sadly, many businesses fail to move the needle when it comes to differentiating themselves, let alone engaging the hearts and minds of their target audience. The following three steps can help overcome that impasse:
1. Intrigue, Don’t Inundate
Ernest Hemingway won a bet that he couldn’t write the world’s shortest story by penning six words: For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.
While Hemingway’s story is an extreme example, it’s a good illustration of what can happen when the mind isn’t inundated with too much detailed information.
Psychologists have explored how, when we’re exposed to stories, we innately fill in any gaps. Try it with Hemingway’s offering, noting how the narrative you conjure up as a consequence of thinking about that story are much richer than what’s conveyed by those six words alone.
Presented with the right stories, we co-create — filtering them through our own values, beliefs, and experiences, rather than remaining passive recipients. Take advantage of that fact by sparing your reader (or viewer) too many details. Allow them to paint a more personal picture to entice them into your world.
2. Craft Stories Everyone Understand
In season two of the ABC series Scandal, starring Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn, Fitzgerald Thomas Grant III (Goldwyn) and his team are prepping for the upcoming Presidential debates. Fitz has been given a question about the US economy and is blathering on about reducing the national debt, speaking in trillions of dollars.
Fitz’s father, a colorful and competitive character, dismisses his son saying he’s going to show him how it’s done. He begins:
A mother is standing on the sidewalk choking because she’s swallowed a penny. A man in a suit comes along, performs the Heimlich maneuver and out pops the coin. He picks up the penny, puts it in his pocket and is about to walk away when the woman rushes over. “I cannot thank you enough, doctor,” she gushes. “Oh, I’m not a doctor,” replies the man in the suit. “I’m from the IRS.”
At which point Fitz’s father delivers the punch line: “And that’s what’s going to happen if the other guy wins the election. Next question.”
So, here’s my challenge to you. Give examples of your web content or your latest PR or marketing collateral to your grandmother or any other “normal” person not associated with your business. What’s the betting they’re as underwhelmed and befuddled as the TV audience would have been, had Fitzgerald Thomas Grant III not had a lesson in using metaphor and down-to-earth storytelling from his old man?
But here’s an even more granular approach that far too many companies ignore—to their cost.
3. Make Them (Not You) The Hero
When I wrote that email about my mother’s broken treasures, my goal was to influence the reader to take action by mentally simulating (albeit unconsciously) the role of hero. (While this wasn’t a Sisyphean task, the company’s service center in the UK hadn’t told me I needed to purchase additional insurance, so there were more challenges than merely paying out on a claim.)
Unfortunately, most companies are so busy presenting themselves as heroes, there’s no part left for their clients or prospects to play. Take that classic corporate story, the case study. Next time you come across one of these “success stories” ask yourself: who’s the hero? If it’s your company then you’ve made a monumental boo-boo.
Strictly speaking, the hero of any story is the person who changes the most. Add to that the fact that your clients and prospects are going to relate to other clients and prospects much more than they do to you. You’ll attract more attention and potentially more leads by writing “thrillers” that focus more on the trials and transformation of cases with similar business issues to your target market, than by how your product or service saved the day!
To wrap up, while my shipping story hasn’t yet reached its denouement, I did receive a phone call within 10 minutes of sending that email I mentioned at the top of this post. A very positive conversation ensued and I left my self-appointed hero to weave his magic.
Now, if only our clients and prospects were as responsive, engaged and action-oriented. But now you know how to inspire them, don’t you?
- Dr. Liz Alexander has been writing ever since she could pick up a pencil. She is the author of 13 books, including the award winning #Thought Leadership Tweet: 140 Prompts for Designing and Executing an Effective Thought Leadership Campaign. As co-founder of Leading Thought, Liz helps mid-tier and challenger brand professional services firms develop unassailable thought leadership recognition from clients and prospects.
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