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Storytelling: How to Make Your Message Stick

December 24, 2011 Leave a comment

One of the benefits of being a Microsoft employee is that they do have some pretty amazing training and development sessions available for their employees. One of my favorite sessions put on by the Marketing@Microsoft team was about Storytelling and making your message stick. The storytelling course resonated with me because it forced me to think through how I was presenting my ideas to other across my team and business group (BG) so that the ideas would be easy to understand and would be memorable at the end of a 60 minute meeting.

This session also became helpful to me think about the PR side of marketing while at Decide. PR is all about storytelling and pitching a product or an idea. Using the SUCCES framework helped me to make sure that my idea would stick and that individuals would remember our value proposition. It also lead to me creating better submissions for award nominations and helped us to win a handful of awards for our website and newly launched iPhone app. SUCCES works.

This Cheat Sheet/Reference guide is based on the SUCCESS framework introduced by Chip Heath & Dale Heath in their 2007 book “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.” New York: Random House

Simple. Unexpected. Concrete. Credible. Emotional. Story.

The antithesis of the SUCCES frame work is “the curse of knowledge.”

You don’t always need all 6 elements to be present to develop a sticky message, but if you build in more of these traits they are more likely to make your idea stick.

SIMPLE. Simple is about focusing on what is most important. An example of keeping the message simple can be seen with Linux. Steve Ballmer didn’t give complex arguments about “total cost of ownership”, he said “Linus is free like a puppy is free.” The message was simple to understand and stuck with the audience.

Don’t:

    • Tell your audience everything you know about the subject. If you provide too much information “decision paralysis” can set in and people will delay or resist to making a choice or decision.
    • Substitute a list or set of features for a compelling narrative.

Do:

    • Find a simple statement that captures the essence of your story. Simplify as much as possible so decision paralysis won’t set in.
    • Follow journalists best practices and start with the “Lead”. Don’t bury the “lead”, lead with it!

UNEXPECTED. Get people’s attention. Focus on ways to break through the clutter by creating surprise.

Don’t evaluate products on a feature by feature basis, people won’t remember feature by feature comparisons. They will remember something distinctive.

Do:

    • Highlight the uncommon sense in your message: what is novel, distinctive, unusual, new.
    • Create a classic high concept pitch that combines “Simple & Unexpected.”
      • Anchor on an idea that is already in people’s mind and then pivot to what is new and or distinctive about your idea/product. Examples of anchor/pivots: Jaws /On a spaceship, Carriage/Horseless, Shopping App/Recommends when to buy to get the best price.
    • If you want to generate word of mouth, build or highlight a feature that is 300% better rather 110%  better than your competitor.

CONCRETE. Is about helping people to understand and remember. Audiences remember things that appeal to our senses.

Dig through the data to get concrete details to tell a great story.  The distinguishing trait of concrete ideas is that you can picture them in your head.

Aesop’s Fables are great examples of abstract moral truths made concrete (e.g., the abstract lesson to “tell the truth” becomes “The Boy Who Cried

Wolf.”) The “Velcro theory of memory” says that the more “hooks” we can put into an idea, the stickier it will be.

CREDIBLE. Is about making people believe your ideas. Use the Sinatra test — if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere (New York, New York!)

Most people try to do this by citing either statistics or external authorities (i.e. ComScore, Gartner, Forrester) but real credibility can be gained by blending specific concrete details into the DNA of the story.

Weave credibility throughout the message.

Make it easy for people to understand and keep scale in mind. For example, an anti-nuclear-weapons group used sound to represent the world’s nuclear arsenal: The sound of one BB, dropped in a bucket, represented Hiroshima. The sound of 5,000 BBs, ricocheting around in the bucket, symbolized the massive expansion in nuclear scale.

Another instance: Decide.com is the first and only website that recommends when to make your next consumer electronics purchase. Consumers who use Decide save an average of $54 on their purchases and the Decide’s price predictions are accurate 74% of the time.

EMOTIONAL. Is about making people care.

Don’t:

    • Bury the What’s In It For You (WIIFY). Appeal to an individuals self interest, either socio-economic or identity based.
    • Focus only on socio-economic self interest. While one of the two ways people make decisions is based on the economics model of rational self- interest focusing on the identity model can help drive a strong emotional tie to your idea/product.

Do:

    • Use techniques like talking about the consequences of the idea for an individual. i.e. Mother Theresa said, ““If I look at the one, I will act. If I look at the mass, I will not.”
    • Use techniques that cause the individual to identify with the product: Who am I? What kind of situation is this? What does someone like me do in this kind of situation?

Examples: Apple has done a great job getting an emotional connection to their gadgets. Everyone wants to be the cool kid who has the latest and greatest Apple product. Similarly, instead of using slogans like “Keep Oregon Green” to keep people from littering Texas adopted “Don’t Mess With Texas” which has a much stronger emotional appeal.

STORY. Stories prompt people to act via simulation—showing people how to act—and via inspiration—providing the energy and motivation to act.

Good stories describe barriers and how people overcome them. Think of any fairy tale Princess, her prince had to overcome obstacles to win her heart.

Stories have the power to inspire. Think of Jared, he ate all of those low-fat subway sandwiches to loose hundreds of pounds and keep it off.

DO: Use one of three types of plots to help inspire your story

    • The Challenge Plot, where a protagonist overcomes big obstacles to succeed. I.E. David & Goliath
    • The Connection Plot, where two dissimilar people overcome social barriers to share a special moment. I.E. Lady & The Tramp, Shrek
    • The Creativity Plot, where an individual or team use resourcefulness and gumption to solve a problem in a novel way. I.E. Richard Dean Anderson as MacGuyver

There you have it. SUCCES for storytelling. At the beginning of the post I mentioned that there is an antithesis in storytelling and it is one that I struggle with at times.

THE CURSE OF KNOWLEDGE. Is when you have a hard time culling down the story because it’s difficult for you imagine that other people might not know what you know.

Sticky messages are simple, but most people are fascinated by the complexity and nuance of an idea. Remember  KISS – Keep It Simple Silly/Stupid – when developing your story.

Sticky messages are concrete, but it’s easy to think about an idea or product in an abstract way. Remember to be concrete allowing individuals to visualize your concept.

Sticky messages are emotional, but it’s easy to already think technology is cool and so you don’t have to try to convey it to others. You do! In the 90’s it wasn’t cool to own an Apple Product, in 2010, everyone has at least one if not two or three.

Good luck developing your story or your pitch.

Categories: Best Practices, PR