Story is Sticky

Here’s a really interesting, useful book for anyone trying to make their communication more ‘sticky’.  It’s called Made to Stick – Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. It’s by Chip and Dan Heath and published by Random House. The six key qualities for stickiness (a concept the Heaths acknowledge they borrowed from Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point) are: Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotional and Stories. In my media and presentation training work I am always pushing my clients to use stories to make their communication have impact. I know this works when I see the result in the media or get reports of audiences repeating the stories they have heard in presentations. I was so pleased to see the Heaths’ confirmation of this approach in their book. So, for the rest of this blog post I’m going to reprise another column from my past about the value of employing story to carry messages in preparing for media interviews or presentations at work. I hope you find it useful as well.

Messages can’t tell the story. But story can deliver messages

By Patrick McGee

Copyright 2006

I recently had a mild disagreement with a client. As we prepared to train her spokespeople, she asked me to emphasize the need for them to deliver three key messages. I get this a lot and too often see preparation materials that are long on messaging and very short or bereft of story. My advice to my clients and anyone else who will listen is that story wins the day in media interaction. Bullet point messages do not tell a story, but a good story can carry all the messages – including those branded, self-promoting messages that media hate.Every time I have been involved in training spokespeople to handle negative news – like pricing or fee changes on products and services – the sessions start out very gloomy. (No wonder – who wants to have to defend the attacks that come from media on behalf of  customers?) But they inevitably end on a positive note when we turn the messages into a story that makes sense and is defensible.  I have clients who now recognize the benefit of this and write a 30 second ‘story’ at the top of their preparation materials – ahead of the messages.

Why message over story persists

Every time I see messages without story I ask myself why this approach persists. My conclusions are:

  • People want to make everything shorter in a time/attention challenged world. Therefore, lists of messages meet this goal, regardless of the goal of effective communication.
  • People assume that the spokesperson can turn message into story.
  • People assume that the Holy Grail of message is the sound bite and that somehow the context (usually delivered by story) for the sound bite is understood or will take care of itself.
  • People (big generalization here) don’t ‘get’ story. Some don’t even try. Some give lousy story. Some have never been taught how to find/construct an effective story.
  • People seem to give up on the positive in the face of the negative and go to message (defensive) rather than story (offensive). (A gold-medal athlete recently told me his previous media training had consisted solely of what not to say and nothing about what to say and how to say it. Go figure!)

 Let me return to the client I said I had a conflict with at the beginning of this column. My response to her was that I would make the point about messaging but that it had to be in the context of story. She responded that that was fine, but she and her colleague felt that the best way for spokespeople to prepare was to have a few key messages prepared in advance. In the end her point was delivered to the trainees wrapped up in my structure about how to create a story.  Perhaps the cause of our conflict was the brevity of her initial message. I read into it an intention that she didn’t have and we went from there. I didn’t get the context of her people not doing proper preparation until I pushed back. Then she brought context. But it was out of order and not as effective. So, instead of a message with critical bits missing, a story like the following might have avoided the conflict:

“Pat, some of our people have already done interviews and not done sufficient preparation. The interviews have stalled because our people didn’t have anything to say, didn’t like where the interview was going or didn’t deliver any of the messages the organization would like to get out. We suggest they prepare up to three messages in advance with sufficient proofs to deliver. Could you accommodate that in your training?”

This client’s a busy person and made some sub/un-conscious assumptions, as we all do when we communicate (Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick call this the Curse of Knowledge). She cut out some of the context (the problem statement at the beginning of the story) and delivered a message that didn’t work as intended.

Build a story

So, how do you turn messages into story? Well, you don’t. You build a story that will carry messages. Here are my keys to story building:

ü      Choose an audience. This is so critical. You want an audience that has an interest. You want to be able to connect their interest to your interest. So, pick the audience and think about who they are and their interest (e.g. need, opportunity, threat). Be able to talk about their interest like an expert, or at least extremely empathetically.

ü      Find the generic solution (anyone can provide it) to link their interest to your interest. It’s the transition from their problem to your solution. For instance, they need a widget.

ü       Create three messages — exceeding three diminishes impact, unless the excess is used to support repetitions of the generic solution.

ü      Turn your messages into specific, branded solutions that deliver the generic solution.  So, if they accept that a widget is needed and think/ask where to get it, you’re on.

ü      Have proofs for every element of the story. You have to be able to prove the audience’s interest and the generic solution and your messages. So, lots of proofs needed. 

Recently I was asked to train an executive for a negative announcement. In our search for the right story we explored the audiences who would pay attention, and we immediately found the audience that would benefit most from the change. In fact, they had responded very well to a previous announcement. Those disaffected were not the primary audience, but their concerns would be acknowledged and their needs would be addressed (one of the messages). The executive’s mindset changed completely. He saw the announcement as an opportunity, and was able to focus on that positive aspect and put the negative impacts into that context. All the messages, including the dreaded advertising slogan, were worked into the story in a natural, acceptable way — all because of the story structure. Without it, he would have been playing defence not offence.

Go ahead, do the messages (don’t forget the supporting proofs). Then stop thinking about yourself and think about the audience. Define the segment that has the interest that you can match. Tell the story of their interest and how you can deliver something they want. Re-do the messages to suit. Put the story at the top of your preparation materials – before the messages.                                                


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