Impactful corporate storytelling demands singular stories, not schizophrenia

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Remember when you were a kid? Something had gone wrong. You were involved, and someone was going to be angry. A teacher, a parent or a sibling. But you weren’t seen, and to minimise repercussions you crafted a version of the truth that had an air of plausibility to it that would also get you off the hook. Perhaps a boisterous but mute pet could take the rap. The problem was – particularly for the still-developing teenage prefrontal cortex – remembering the elements you’d embroidered. Let alone to whom you’d told what.

Growing up and learning to interact with different groups – friends, family, authority figures – is a positive learning experience if you’re going to be able to swap between modes and registers in later life. Those tweens and teens who learn to apply context in different environments go on to thrive. Knowing not to swear in class or to the police, becoming a bit more estuary in the playground or on the terraces, and upping the deference before grandparents are important skills for the trainee social chameleon. But it’s ever so funny when these emerging skills lapse in the heat of the moment.

I’ve no idea what it’s like to have an affair. Coming from a serial broken home, I’ve always prized fidelity and stability highly. I also happen to have found The One at just 20 – lucky old me – and have combined being not-the-straying-kind with a strong and happy partnership. But I’m not immune to popular culture, and I’ve seen my fair share of characters in film, TV series and books come a cropper by failing to control singular sexual narratives.

Holding multiple versions of the same story in your consciousness and constantly having to switch between them can be exhausting; stressful to the storyteller and confusing to the audience. As for individuals, so for corporations and brands. And all the more so because the folk memory and representation of an abstract entity like a brand is held in the collective minds and mouths of dozens to thousands of individuals.

In a pre-social media world, companies could and often did tell different stories to different audiences with impunity.

  • One story for their supply chain, whom they wanted to see them as partners: “Through our long-term commitment to you, we can help your company grow with ours.” (Or maybe: “We’ll parasite on your innovation until it becomes synonymous with us not you. And then we’ll cut your margin until it’s no longer viable for you to supply us.”)
  • One story for their shareholders and investors, whom they wanted to reassure they were running the business keenly: “We’ve removed all unnecessary costs from the supply chain and now produce our products more cheaply than the competition.” (Or possibly: “We screw our suppliers to the floor to maximise margin.”)
  • One story for their customers, whom they wanted to woo and bewitch: “We make the best products – bar none.” (Or perhaps “We’re brilliant at accentuating the positive.”)
  • One story for regulators and legislators: “We’re the greenest business in this sector.” (Or read: “We stick to the letter but not the spirit of the law and pollute as little as possible.”)
  •  And one story for employees: “With our company on your CV, you’ll have the pick of the market for your next role.” (Code for: “You should be grateful to work here, and accept the fact that we’re not going to give you a raise, even in line with inflation.”)

I’ll admit that the alternative readings (in brackets) are cynical, and historically the different narrative strands may all have been well-meaning from each of the different parts of a business. But very often the CSR story was 180 degrees from the key messages for city analysts. And a tale told to assuage environmentalists and local government would lead shareholders seriously to consider shuffling their investment portfolios.

The problem was – and amazingly still is in a surprisingly large number of organisations – that communication wasn’t joined up. The era of brand monologue was linear, siloed and separate. When it wasn’t easy to collect and collate different strands of brand communication through platforms and search engines, different strokes for different folks didn’t matter. No-one could discover the contradictions inherent in such a system.

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Does your work add value?

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Only half of communicators say all their work is aligned to corporate strategy and goals.

I developed a benchmarking database (covers 81 organizations, across 10 countries, with approximately 390,000 employees) of communication practices, and the link to organizational performance by identifying the #11ways communicators can contribute to performance. It turns out that high-performing organizations (compared to average ones), are:

  • Twice as likely to keep language simple and jargon-free
  • 80% more likely to have a process for creating great corporate stories.
  • Twice as likely to make emotional connections to their audiences
  • 60% more likely to think about communication from the audience perspective.

The idea was to develop a database to explore the connections between communication practices and organizational performance, and answer questions like: “what are the common communication practices that have an impact on performance? And are there things that communicators do which actually contribute to organizational under-performance?”Three in particular stood out:

The know-it-all leader and the know-a-little communicator?

Half of organizations say that corporate messages are generally devised by senior executives, potentially relegating the communications team to the role of a paper-boy or paper-girl: just delivering the message.

Indeed, some communications departments are referred to the SOS team : “Send Out Stuff”. If corporate leaders are devising the messages they’d better be good at it, but only 20% of benchmarked organizations think their leaders are good at communicating. There must be a lot of horrible communications going on. Or, as one organization anonymously told us: “Executives that think they know how to communicate with employees, but don’t!”

So it seems that executives should listen to communicators’ advice more. But only a third of communicators admitted that their level of business know-how and understanding was high.

Two-thirds of communicators, we therefore suggest, need to improve their business understanding if they want to advise business people. Repeat: only a third of communicators admitted to knowing their own business. No wonder they don’t feel listened to.

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How to present as a CEO

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When CEOs stand up and talk, they have the power to lift or lower the mood of their audiences. Too often, they lower it. Sometimes they even alarm or alienate people. This is not, of course, their intention. But it happens when they misunderstand some of the basic ground rules about communication. In this article I’m going to share ten top tips to help the world’s CEOs spread more light, understanding and engagement when they speak inside or outside their organisations.

1) Think about the audience

This sounds obvious, but too many CEOs prepare generic speeches and presentations that they give to many different audiences in many different places. Before writing or assembling a presentation, ask yourself first of all how your audience are likely to receive it. Will it contain information which is new to them? Will they benefit from hearing it? If so, how? Do you want them to do or think something different as a result of hearing you speak? If not, there’s probably no point delivering your presentation.

2) Build a bridge

As the salesmen say, people buy people first. In other words, before accepting your product, advice, information or point of view, they make a judgment, often subconscious, on whether they accept you as the kind of person they listen to – whether they like you, trust you, admit you to their group, find you interesting, funny, authoritative and all the rest. All in the blink of an eye. So start your presentation with something that (a) they can relate to and (b) says something about you. The words you say may be trivial – a joke, a pleasantry, a story, a compliment to the host – but they must signal that you deserve their attention, and that what you are about to say has something in it for them.

3) Keep it simple

The best and most intelligent writing can be understood by primary (elementary) school pupils. Long words, convoluted sentences and jargon only confuse. It is actually harder to write simply, but it repays the effort. And the simpler your language, the more people you will reach. Don’t patronise, but don’t assume too much knowledge of, or interest in, your specialist subject. Avoid subordinate clauses, in-jokes and humour based on language or cultural assumptions.

4) Structure your presentation

Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em, then tell ‘em what you’ve told ‘em. Don’t labour this. However, the audience will feel more comfortable if your presentation has a beginning, a middle and an end, and both you and they know where you have got to in the structure. It’s best to schedule questions after the body of your presentation but before the very end. Give a time limit for questions and remain in control. After questions, end on something uplifting.

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How we as communicators can add most value to our business

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As a corporate communication professional with experience in large multi-national organisations, I know too well the challenges global teams have in effectively rolling out corporate campaigns whether they are aiming to engage employees or consumers:

  • Maintaining brand consistency whilst tailoring the campaign for local markets
  • Not compromising key messages whilst translating into 20+ languages
  • Paying attention to cultural differences
  • Leveraging varying degrees of skills and resources across the organisation
  • Governance models with dotting lines which stretch your influencing skills
  • Competing with local business priorities and marketing campaigns
  • Delivering a global framework for measurement and evaluation

However, emerging digital and social media trends are enabling companies to overcome these challenges, adapt their approach to global campaigns, to innovate and be successful or to fall behind.

  • New technologies have paved the road for virtual team working, Enterprise Social Networks, advanced Content Management Systems allowing content (copy, images, multimedia) to be created once and delivered across multiple channels (website, email, mobile devices) and easier access to data via automated tools (analytics, social media listening, custom dashboards)
  • Governance models see the formation of Centres of Excellence cutting across functions and silos, lines blurring between internal and external communications, between marketing and communications with business and corporate communicators developing new digital and journalism skills due to increased knowledge sharing, Champion Networks and virtual training opportunities.
  • Social media platforms foster collaboration and exchanges of ideas across work level, gender, age group and people come together united not just by work goals but by a common passion.
  • Trust has shifted from leaders and CEOs to friends and colleagues at work, people in our own network. The practice of “stealing with pride” a peer’s idea, campaign poster or report template is widely seen as smart, timesaving and cost-effective.

Here are three strategic insights to help you turn these digital trends into an advantage and innovate global campaign planning and execution.

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