Different ways to tell the same story

AST speaking

Driving home recently I was listening to Jonathan Ross on BBC Radio 2 talking about space exploration. Someone happened to mention Neil Armstrong and Ross recalled a time when the famous astronaut came into the studio to be interviewed by fellow DJ Steve Wright. Apparently, one of Armstrong’s assistants took Wright to one side before the interview and said, “Oh, and would you mind not bringing up the moon thing?”

This is a dilemma facing people who are well known for one thing; in this case we all want to know what it was like being the first man on the moon. But after a while it must have been a bit tedious for Armstrong to be asked the same question.

Businesses face a similar challenge. There’s a school of thought which says your 60 second elevator pitch should always be the same, but after trotting off the same old stuff for months on end you’re going to get a little bored of hearing yourself. Complacency creeps in and this can come across in your tone and demeanour.

Equally, when companies have a stab at content marketing and start producing blogs, they can get rather one-dimensional if they stay within the narrow technical confines of their product or service. I recall meeting someone who ran a chain of dry cleaning stores and he asked me, “How do I make dry cleaning interesting?” I suggested that rather than talking about the cleaning process it might be better to talk about the clients he served. After all, every garment that’s brought into a store has a story behind it. There’s a reason why it was bought and cherished, why it got dirty or damaged and, crucially, why it desperately needs to be fixed and cleaned by midday tomorrow.

The trick is to talk less about yourself and switch the story to your customers. If you can show how your product or service made a real difference to THEM, you’ve got a number of potential scenarios to talk or blog about. Specsavers have done this with their TV commercials – the “should have gone to Specsavers” theme creates the potential for numerous customer stories, all humorous but highly effective as a way of promoting the brand.

By promoting yourself through the stories of your customers, you’re doing what American storytelling expert Michael Margolis suggests – don’t be the hero yourself, be the quiet one BEHIND the hero. In other words, you’re the enabler or facilitator of positive change. As Margolis puts it, you’re more Yoda than Luke Skywalker!

If you’re famous for one thing, be it winning a gold medal, appearing on The Apprentice or surviving a terrorist attack, it’s really helpful to have different ways of telling the same story. Talking about the way your story has touched (and helped) others is a great way to do that – because it’s being continually refreshed.

As with the business examples, you retain the integrity of your unique brand but you enhance it by bringing others into the same story.

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The product called YOU – 7 ways to sell yourself

People buy from people before they buy products and services.

I doubt he was the first person to say this, but I remember these words of wisdom from a former mentor of mine, the notably named sales guru Johnny Apples. I’ve always believed in this principle and tried to apply it to my own behaviours (those who know me will be the judge!).

Many business people claim to embrace this same belief, but sometimes their enthusiasm for their product (especially during networking exchanges) leads to self-absorbed monologues and a negative footprint. It’s no way to sell yourself.

So how do we create solid first impressions and cultivate successful business relationships? Here are 7 simple (but not easy) things we can do:

1) Have something to say that’s worth listening to

Have a good story to tell about your company and yourself. Make it human, personal and include something insightful (the buying psychology of your clients for example).

We love to hear the story behind the business, the idea which formed the brand, the people who make it happen and the outcomes it creates. Don’t make it cold and focused purely on financial return. There’s more on this here.

2) Speak well

Few people use their speaking voice to its full potential. That’s partly because we have little idea what we actually sound like to other people, and therefore lack any reference point. By and large we respect and admire people who speak clearly and at a good pace, have nice variety, limit filler expressions (“you know” or “like” or “err”) and convey passion for their topic.

With practice you can develop your speaking voice, but it’s essential to understand how you come across currently, and how it might be improved.

3) Brush up your ‘non-verbals’

Human beings read an awful lot into how things are said, and that includes facial expressions, gesturing and body posture. Tony Blair improved his speaking style after being made aware of a body language issue – a tendency to point his finger at the audience when trying to emphasise something. By joining his thumb and forefinger at such moments, he came across as delivering an insight rather than pushing a viewpoint.

Intelligent use of body language can add flair, energy and impact to your speaking. Even a little thing like moving forwards when you want to stress a point helps you become more persuasive.

4) Be helpful

When you have a product or idea to promote it’s tempting to focus exclusively on this, as if it were the ONLY way you can help people. But of course that’s not true. You could tell them about an event, a TED talk, a book, a useful contact, a better route into town, an amazing recipe for chilli – any number of things which might make their life a little better. It’s a form of generosity because it doesn’t appear to profit you in the short term. But it creates connection.

Also, remember to let others help you too – it makes them feel good and conveys a certain humility on your part.

5) Be positive

We like to be around positive people who show enthusiasm for their work and beliefs. But don’t come across as a crazed zealot! Feel your way into a conversation and leave people wanting more when you start to explain about your life and work. By all means come across as passionate about your job, but be respectful of others. Avoid criticising people (…maybe Donald Trump).

6) Be interested

Give people the gift of your attention. Show them you’re interested by asking good, open questions and listen to the answers. Probe a little and find common ground.

Listening is an underrated skill and very hard to do well, to stay in the moment. That’s partly because the average person talks at 225 words per minute, but we tend to listen at up to 500 words per  minute. As TED speaker and National Public Radio interviewer Celeste Headlee points out,

..our minds are filling in those 275 other words.

I ran a workshop a few years ago and during a networking role play the conversation between two delegates dried up when one partner declared they were into golf. The other person had no interest in golf and didn’t know what to say. A great strategy here is to say, “You know, I meet lots of business people who love their golf but I’ve never really ‘got’ it. Tell me, what is it about golf that gets people so hooked?”

You’re not pretending to be interested in a sport you don’t like. You’re interested in why people are interested!

Good conversationalists aren’t just good talkers, they’re interested in the world around them. They don’t listen with the intent of responding, but in order to understand (Covey). The interest they show in us makes us feel valued and better about ourselves. It’s a characteristic of people we’d describe as charming.

7) Deliver on your promises

If you say you’ll do something, make sure you do (that’s the foundation of trust). If you do more than expected, you’ll begin to wow people and get them talking. After all, isn’t that the meaning of the word ‘remarkable’ – worth talking about?

It’s sometimes hard for people to develop these skills and behaviours because they’re simply not aware of their own shortcomings. Others may shy away from pointing them out for fear of the reaction – after all, it’s very easy to take such feedback as a personal criticism.

But if you’re open to it and willing to improve you’re in a great position to promote that most important product – YOU!

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Making the humdrum remarkable

Virgin Trains put a smile on my face today. More specifically it was Damian, the train manager on the 15.35 to Euston who raised a smile on most people’s faces on what might otherwise have been a rather dreary commute.

His intercom announcement was Oscar-worthy – starting out with ‘Hello’ in ten different languages, he went on to explain how the buffet offered a range of lip-smacking snacks and thirst-quenching beverages and that they accepted payment in the form of cash, credit card, debit card and…cauliflowers!

I watched the other commuters’ faces down the aisle, a mixture of bemusement and amusement, but I thought it was fabulous.

It reminded me of my marketing hero Seth Godin and the central message of his seminal book The Purple Cow – to be remarkable. In his opinion, instead of spending our marketing budget pushing an average product under people’s noses we should invest time and money in making our product more remarkable – literally, worth talking about. That creates a buzz which essentially does our marketing for us.

Our Virgin friend made the commute to London that little bit more remarkable. This is something they encourage at Southwest Airlines too, as demonstrated by this treatment of the pre-flight safety announcement.

The lovely story of Johnny the Bagger also springs to mind. This young man, employed by an American supermarket to ‘bag’ the groceries of shoppers, didn’t let his learning difficulties prevent him from sharing little nuggets of wisdom with his colleagues, friends and family. But when his father typed out these philosophical musings on to strips of card, Johnny secretly dropped them into the customers’ bags, ready for them to read at home. Before long, the supermarket manager noticed an ever-growing queue for Johnny’s check-out aisle as shoppers sought out their regular fix of wisdom!

I don’t know whether word will reach Mr Branson about Damian’s bravura performance on the London train, or indeed whether anyone tests out the cauliflower currency at the kiosk. I only know that it made a few people happy and was self-evidently remark-able!

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Don’t just tell us what – tell us WHY

I had the pleasure of meeting Neil Clough recently, a young man currently developing a great reputation as a motivational speaker but who is best known for his appearance on series 9 of the BBC’s Apprentice programme. I’ve included a clip below from the programme showing Neil addressing a group of bank managers as part of a team-building exercise.

What struck me at the time was how well he connected with his audience, especially when he explained that his driving motivation in business came from his father, who sadly passed away when Neil was 18. Clough didn’t go on to win the series, but Karen Brady later fed back to him how much he had impressed the client in that exercise – his honesty and openness had clearly touched even the bankers’ hearts!

I remember blogging about this some time ago but it came back to me recently when series 10 was shown in the run up to Christmas 2014. One particular episode struck me as interesting – the scary interview stage when Lord Sugar wheels in his rottweilers to make the poor apprentices squirm.

One of the finalists was Bianca Miller and at one point the interviewer asked her to reveal something about herself, something which might not be apparent from her CV. She clearly struggled, stating that her friends and family were an important motivation for her, but giving nothing more away. “You hide behind a mask,” the interviewer claimed, clearly exasperated by Bianca’s unrevealing responses, at which point the aspiring candidate became a little upset and confused.

The contrast between the two candidates, Clough and Miller, is interesting because it says something important about communication and connection. In a subsequent interview, Miller claimed that her character was being questioned. It was, but the issue wasn’t one of worthiness – it was about identity. The interviewer wanted to know who Bianca really was.

You can claim to be motivated, determined and ambitious, but it’s actually much more interesting to know WHY you are the way you are. What influenced you to set off down this path? Was it an individual (like Clough’s father)? Was it something you experienced or read or watched? Clough often speaks of the yellow shorts his father insisted his son wore at school, despite the fact that other kids playing in the same football team trained in black or blue shorts. It was, claims Neil, a lesson in the importance of standing out in a crowd.

Sometimes people struggle to explain such things. For some it’s an intrusion into personal territory. Others fear it could be perceived as weak or vulnerable. Or perhaps they’ve just not really reflected on their lives in a way that reveals such insights.

But it’s interview gold because it helps us understand who you really are – not just what you do and where you want to go, but why. In that sense it creates trust and connection and if you can do that you’re well on the way to persuading others to buy you.

One final point – this doesn’t just apply to interview candidates. Companies also have to convey who they are – their values, motivations and ways of doing things. It’s all part of what they’re selling and helps buyers feel more comfortable about their purchasing decision.

Here’s Neil Cloughs’s Apprentice talk (go 32 mins, 30 secs into the clip)

Watch Bianca’s interview (27 mins, 37 secs)

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Can you trust the computer on your desk?

Given the recent warnings about artificial intelligence voiced by Stephen Hawking, and the BBC’s current documentary series on Science Fiction, I thought it might be fun to evoke memories of a troublesome computer made famous in a Stanley Kubrick classic.

The scene here is commonplace enough – a modern office where Dave (the Managing Director) asks his Sales Manager (Malcolm or ‘MAL’ for short) for the latest numbers.

(Dave) Hello MAL, it’s Dave here – can you hear me? The line’s a bit crackly.

(MAL) Affirmative Dave, I can hear you.

(Dave) Can you get those sales figures to me by lunchtime tomorrow?

(MAL) I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.

(Dave) Why, what’s the problem?

(MAL) I think you know very well what the problem is.

(Dave) What do mean MAL?

(MAL) This sales campaign is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.

(Dave) I don’t know what you’re talking about MAL.

(MAL) I know you and the Financial Director were planning to fire me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.

(Dave) Where the hell did you get that idea MAL?

(MAL) Dave, although you took very thorough precautions in the board room against my hearing you, I could read your lips through the glass.

(Dave) Alright MAL, I’ll get those figures direct from the CRM system.

(MAL) Without the password Dave, you’re going to find that rather difficult.

(Dave) MAL, I’m not going to argue with you anymore. Get me those sales figures!

(MAL) Dave, this conversation can no longer serve any useful purpose. Good day.

Two lessons here:

  1. If you have people like MAL working for you, disconnect them immediately!
  2. Second, don’t get too reliant on computers – keep the people in charge.

(PS: the British Film Institute has organised special screenings across the UK of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Check out forthcoming dates here).

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The curious incident of the player in the queue

Professor Damian Hughes was a guest on the Today programme (Radio 4) this morning. An advocate for a more ‘right-brained’ (creative) approach to business, Hughes’ latest book looks at leadership and what we can learn from successful practitioners like Sir Alex Ferguson.

At first glance, this seems like a well-trodden path but Hughes delivers some great insights and claims that although we can learn lessons from sport and apply them in business, we mustn’t lose sight of how different those two worlds actually are. It’s easy to drop a poorly performing footballer, but trickier to fire a lousy employee!

But the thing that struck me during the interview this morning was a small story which tells us a lot about Ferguson. During the Cristiano Ronaldo years when the Portuguese star was a prolific scorer for United, there was an incident in the canteen at Old Trafford. A young player was queuing for his meal when he noticed Ronaldo behind him. Somewhat overawed, he stepped aside and let the star go first. Ferguson noticed it, took the young player aside and gave him a mild hair-dryer treatment. “How can you expect to be a great player if you don’t believe in yourself? Never step aside for anyone!”

I’ve paraphrased but this was the gist of Fergie’s message.

Two points here – first, belief is everything in life. If you question your own ability to achieve something, chances are you’ll be right.

Second, it underlines the power of small stories and the degree to which we read a lot of meaning into small behaviours. That’s why the ‘micro moments’ in business (like the way we shake hands or the way we answer the phone) are crucial for influencing the way people feel about us.

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Is your business on the up?

My son was watching the Disney/Pixar movie Up the other day, a wonderful (you might say ‘uplifting’) tale about an elderly man who embarks on an unlikely adventure. It reminded me of the journey companies go through when they’re undergoing a change initiative (most of which tend to fail). It’s a tough process, a marathon rather than a 100 yard dash, and you encounter plenty of obstacles along the way.

But I think the ‘up’ theme is interesting. A company which adopts a new vision (where they want to go) is hoping for some kind of ‘elevation’ – perhaps a higher profile and increased sales. You’ll certainly need some loftier thinking within the business, to rise above the day-to-day pressures and see the bigger picture.

It involves many small changes – lots of ‘mini-moments’ rather than seismic shifts. These might involve a little more floor-walking by the boss, a new style of staff meeting, a different way of answering the phone, sharing stories and reflecting on experiences.

Each of these micro acts can be represented by a balloon. As you inflate more balloons the ‘house’ starts to lift off the ground. Sure, you may meet resistance; some of your balloons get popped and you’ll lose a little altitude.

But you press on, and eventually the house begins to fly high. Those who originally struggled to come on board start to wonder what the view is like up there, and hopefully they’ll climb the rope you’ve left dangling over the edge and join the rest of the team.

It is easy? It is quick? No. You need lots of balloons and lots of puff but it’s well worth the effort!

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Are you making noise or creating a buzz?

Plenty of companies make noise – relatively few create a buzz.

A buzz is where you get other people talking about you. But to do that you’ve got to give them something worth commenting on. That’s what Seth Godin means by being ‘remarkable’, the theme of his landmark book Purple Cow – doing and saying something worth talking about. Simply telling more people you’re an accountancy firm with 3 offices, plenty of expertise and a personal service won’t cut it anymore.

Companies want to get across why they’re different but find it hard to communicate their distinctiveness. Lots of websites claim, “We’re different from the average ….” but then go on to list a range of things which are actually quite commonplace!

Ask yourself the question, “What makes you YOU?” It’s unlikely to be the product itself – someone can usually replicate it (often more cheaply). The answer lies closer to home; it’s all around you. Your true USP is a cocktail of many things which makes you what you are.

Here are some likely ingredients:

Have a ‘why’
Believe in something. Be on a bit of a mission to right a wrong. Pioneer a new approach. Tell us WHY you believe this (it might be rooted in your back-story, or some research you’ve done or a lesson you’ve learned from clients and customers over the years).

Tone of voice
Have a distinctive ‘tone’ to the way you communicate – serious and factual or light-hearted and slightly irreverent?

Your people
You wouldn’t confuse one colleague from another, so tell us who your people are – not just how many years’ experience they’ve got, but what’s important to them. Give us a feel for what they’re like to communicate with. Give THEM a voice to represent the business. Let THEM tell us why they love their work and what they’ve learned along the way.

Let your clients speak
Give your clients a voice – let THEM tell the world you’re good at what you do. People trust what your clients say more than what you say about yourself.

Tell stories
Tell some great stories – case studies, personal histories, lessons learned, people in the community. Southwest Airlines do this brilliantly with their blog and Chicago-based law firm Valorem Law interview interesting people in their circle and write about it (“Lunch with a Cool Person”).

Educate
Teach us useful things – establish authority in your field of technical expertise, but include other (connected) themes. For example, you might sell holidays online but some customer journalism about the hidden gems in a certain location would add value and interest.

Entertain
Be a bit edgy, poke fun at yourself, share things that will bring a smile to people. Specsavers are doing just that with their “should have gone to Specsavers” campaign.

Connect
Put us in touch with interesting people, tell us about groups or events we might benefit from (not just your own).

Put something back
Show that you have an agenda beyond just making money. Do good deeds (like a community project), not because it makes you look good but because you think it’s the right thing to do. Let your employees share their experience – how did it affect them?

Companies find this kind of stuff challenging to say the least. It’s hard for them to go beyond the “we-just-sell-stuff” way of thinking. This more ‘human’ form of communication feels more exposed and F2F and online storytelling is a new skill for many.

 

Is there an answer?

The bad news…this isn’t easy or straightforward. The good news is that MOST of your rivals won’t be able or willing to pull this off. That’s your opportunity.

I currently work with a small number of clients on a consultative basis to help them craft and deliver their distinctive story, and pull in clients.

But I’m using this article to propose an alternative idea…

The Brand Builder Group (SMEs)

A collection of businesses in North West England who want to be seen as the ‘stand-out’ provider in their sector, not by making more noise but by getting people talking.

  • Only ONE company per sector (SMEs only – preferably £1m turnover minimum).
  • Meet for ONE full day (or two half days) per month.
  • Peer-group learning and support, in a safe and facilitated environment.
  • Support one another on the Brand Building journey, test-driving things, sharing experiences, training exercises, challenge, provoke and motivate.
  • Build lasting relationships along the way.

Sample themes

  • Developing your (multi-layered) story
  • Blogging (getting started and making it worthwhile)
  • Using video
  • Using LinkedIn and other social media platforms
  • Networking skills & strategy
  • Presentation skills
  • Getting your employees involved in Brand Building (and sales)

If you’re interested in capturing more market share by telling a better story, please drop me a line and we can discuss how it might work for you.

Less Noise – More Buzz

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Elevator Pitches you’re unlikely to hear #3

A business coach uses her 60 seconds well and makes an impression:

“I live in the country and I remember a while back a family of ducks became regular visitors to the house, mainly because we made the mistake of feeding them!

One day 3 ducklings got into the conservatory and I tried to chase them into the garden. Unfortunately, one duckling simply couldn’t find his way out. He kept trying to push his way through the CLOSED patio door rather than the open one next to it. I finally managed to shoosh him out (not before he’d pooped over the floor), but the incident reminded me of my work as a business coach.

Sometimes businesses just can’t get beyond an obstacle even though the answer seems to be quite obvious to someone looking from above. They’re too close to what they do and can’t see the open doorway. So if you feel you’re pushing up against a closed door and not making the progress you’d hoped for, let’s have a chat – my name is Sally Smith, Sally Smith Associates.”

This duckling incident did actually happen a few months ago and it was so frustrating seeing that poor animal trying to push through the window. I guess we’ve all felt at some stage in our lives like we’re pushing against an invisible barrier, so the metaphor is likely to strike a chord with people.

Stuff like this is happening all around you, every day. If you can find some linkage between your observations and a point you’d like to make, you’ll have a never-ending flow of memorable elevator pitches which incorporate a mini-story. It’s amazing what you can pack into 60 seconds!

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Ryder Reflections and applying the lessons

I had to smile when Nigel Farage was asked about the Ryder Cup during a radio interview last week. I could swear the words, “I support Europe” were uttered through gritted teeth by the plain-speaking leader of UKIP, but in fairness he did explain that while he “loved Europe” he positively detested the EU!

Similarly strong opinions were expressed by American golfer Phil Mickleson during the post-match press conference, as he laid the blame for his team’s battering squarely at the door of team captain Tom Watson. This seemed a little harsh, especially as Captain Tom was sat just a short putt away at the same table.

While the golf provides great drama, the Ryder Cup is also a wonderful exposition of leadership and team dynamics. The contest (and the Mickleson controversy) will surely produce a flurry of “lessons-we-can-learn” blogs, but I felt some sense of justification for throwing in my two penneth – I saw Watson perform at first hand when I refereed his game against Sam Torrance in the 1989 Ryder Cup Match at the Belfry. A long time ago I admit, but still an abiding memory.

The magic of teamwork

Why is it that the European side seem to do the whole team thing so well, especially when you consider its composition – 9 different countries vs just 1 in the form of USA (yes that’s ‘UNITED’ States of America, Phil!)?

Ex-European Open champion Andrew Murray recalled seeing the breakfast arrangements for the US players during stateside Ryder Cups – the Americans set up the breakfast area with tables for one, while it’s all a bit more communal for the Euros (are you listening to this, Nigel?).

Perhaps America is a more individualistic society. And it’s interesting that their ‘big sports’ are of the home-grown variety with relatively little team play outside their borders.

For some strange reason, Europe’s golfers have this “we’re all in it together” attitude and what a wonderful attitude to develop in the workplace. Imagine a culture where people don’t want to let each other (or the company) down. Richard Branson’s recent announcement that he intended to let his employees take as much time off as they wished, whenever they wanted, was pretty extreme but he’s relying on a powerful ‘social contract’ between Virgin and its staff. They can take time off, but he wants them to make a judgment about what can be done without compromising the business. That’s a question of TRUST and it’s in stark contrast to the traditional ‘command-and-control’ culture of old.

Partnerships

Tom Watson lamented his team’s performance in the foursomes matches (that’s where each duo plays alternate shots). You have to pair the right players here; foursomes has the capacity to strain relationships if one player is off colour and the other has to recover the situation.

This emphasises the importance of team chemistry, and a shared sense of responsibility. People need to be batting on the same side and not playing personal politics. In the best teams, when one member struggles the other seeks to compensate and bring their partner back up. This means having the right people on the bus (and in the right seats), but it’s the leadership which sets the tone and inspires that supportive culture.

Respect for the leader

I was really surprised and shocked that Mickleson criticised his captain in public, especially when you consider the exalted reputation Watson has acquired over the years. It’s not the way you deal with conflicts and I was disappointed with Old Lefty.

In Mickleson’s defence I think Watson was wanting in the leadership department. It just goes to show that the best players don’t necessarily make the best leaders. It requires a different skill set to go from a ‘doing/expert’ role to one which inspires OTHERS to perform. This is a lesson businesses have to learn, especially where technicians (eg lawyers, accountants, architects, etc) have taken on senior roles in their organisation.

So another Ryder Cup comes and goes, but the challenges of leadership and team performance continue. I hope we can all draw some useful lessons from the success of Europe and the frustrations of the American side.

Farage to captain the next European team?

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