In the current toxic communications environment, staying quiet isn’t the answer. Telling your organization’s stories - clearly, passionately, and in large numbers – is.
Media commentary by Steve Dunlop
Listen to podcast version here
I walked into the training not knowing quite what to expect. My subject was a senior executive at a major European firm. Be careful, I was warned. He had chewed up a long list of media trainers, and by all accounts he thought the process itself was utter nonsense. He would be a notoriously tough nut to crack.
The door opened. I was greeted by the sort of warm smile you get from a long lost friend.
“Steve!” he exclaimed. “It’s good to see you again!”
I didn’t understand, at first. Good to see me again? Was I one of those chewed-up trainers? What exactly was good about this?
“I really resisted doing another training,” he admitted to me. “But when I heard I could work with you… I remembered that you were the only one who had actually helped me.”
It turned out I had, in fact, trained this individual long ago - at another company. He rose through the ranks and eventually left for a new job a continent away. The new firm required him to work with their “Brand X” trainer, whose approach, he told me, yes, he did view as nonsense. (He actually used a stronger term than nonsense.)
He had misplaced my contact info, but kept his handwritten notes from my lecture all these years. And he had made a special trip back to his home office just to retrieve them. He was sorry we’d lost touch. He couldn’t wait to get back to work.
Messaging made obsolete by a single tweet
I don’t tell this story to pat myself on the back. I share it because lately, with a handful of exceptions, this kind of enthusiasm for communicating has become an increasingly rare commodity in the business world. And in an age when so much corporate messaging work can be made obsolete by a single tweet, that’s understandable.
After all, messaging in a large organization doesn’t materialize overnight. It requires thought. It demands research. It needs rewrites and input from far flung divisions. Reversing the process is like turning around an ocean liner. Can be done, but it takes time. The larger the ocean liner, the longer it takes.
But while your rudder and engines are straining to execute that turn, all your audience hears is silence.
That silence is driven not just by your need to regroup. If we’re honest with ourselves, it’s also propelled by fear - a dark resignation that these days, your words will either lack the desired effect, be outdated by the time you can speak them, or wind up being turned against you.
And it is exactly the wrong reaction.
Fear can be a powerful and informative instinct. But the smartest people know that your words can also be powerful things. To fall silent is to lose your seat at the table. A loss is never permanent, but you cannot hope for a win unless you are sitting there.
A three-part strategy
This does not necessarily mean the next social media attack requires you to initiate a knee jerk, head-on response. But it does mean executing a three-part strategy that is a viable alternative to falling silent.
First, that you should recover your own passion to articulate the positive values of your organization in a wide range of ways;
Second, that you are at your strongest precisely when you are telling stories that reflect those values, rather than simply reacting, or reciting messages by rote;
Third, that you should awaken that narrative passion in others - not just your traditional spokespersons, but everyone under the roof.
In short, be not afraid. Tell great stories. And build an army of storytellers.
We call trainings that teach this strategy “narrative-based.” We pioneered the narrative approach, and developed a proprietary methodology for teaching it that now has many imitators. The original is as intuitive as it is uncommon.
The strategy works because it emphasizes turning your messages into stories. Narratives, after all, are stickier than messages, and the Internet is inherently narrative. Stories and the human brain more or less grew up together. Little wonder narratives have greater cognitive resonance than a string of bullet points that are simply dumped on your audience.
Your workforce - an “army” of storytellers
It is also scalable, internally and externally. Narrative-based training leverages the ability of your entire workforce - not necessarily to be interviewed by a journalist at a financial publication, but to confidently handle pointed criticisms in both business and personal situations: from customer meetings and difficult conversations with colleagues, to backyard barbecues and family reunions.
Many of the people we train today may never meet a reporter or go in front of a camera. But they all utilize the same basic narrative skills.
This is why what used to be called media training is better described today as communications training. It is also why our trainings, on average, suddenly got larger over the last year and a half, as we showed many participants at once how to convey the same overarching narrative in very diverse ways. Attendance at one of these trainings reached 500 people.
These days, it is not enough to train your top execs, although that is still a must. It takes an army.
Why people don’t talk about it
Word of this strategy’s success spreads quickly, although not virally, because being trained is still too sensitive a subject to tweet about. It gets around in old school, under-the-radar fashion: on internal listservs, in office cafeterias, and in quiet talks at the coffee machine.
The leader of a private equity firm shared the following impression of his training in an email to his direct reports, and it led us to train close to a dozen startups they had partnered with.
“It was HELL, but very good for me,” he wrote, capitalizing the H-word for emphasis. “You MUST do it.”
Another day, another army of storytellers.
Back to my long lost trainee. In my renewed work with him that day, we did not churn out the standard litany of messages. We used those messages to develop several clear, easy to convey high level topic narratives. He could adapt them to a major presentation, to a panel discussion, or even – perish the thought – to a media interview.
In the process, he rediscovered his passion for speaking out. It’s high time the rest of us did the same.