Quit singing messaging karaoke and tell us a great story instead (review of Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes)

Every business tells us they’re customer-centred. Every hospital is patient-centred. Every school, college and university is student-centred.

But to stand out from the competition, you can’t be with them in the choir singing what Ann Handley calls messaging karaoke.

Instead of tossing out the same exhausted words and tired phrases that we all tune out, show us how you’re putting customers, patients and students first. Highlight some of the big and small ways you’re doing this that are unique and unexpected. And recap who or what inspired you to go the extra mile.

“What sets you apart,” says Handley, who’s just revised and updated her bestselling book Everybody Writes. “Don’t tell me what you do. Show me who you are – and then show me why you matter to me.”

You show who you are and why you matter by telling stories.While we ignore messaging karaoke, we pay attention to stories. We’re hardwired for storytelling. Great stories stand out, stay with us and connect with us at a deeper emotional level than a straight up sales pitch. The good news is every business and organization – even yours – has a great story to tell.

To help you find your story, Handley poses 11 questions.

What’s unique about your business or organization?

What’s interesting about how your business or organization was founded?

What’s interesting about the founder(s)?

What problem are you trying to solve for others?

What or who inspired your business or organization?

What are the aha! moments for your business or organization?

How’s your business or organization evolved?

How do you feel about your business or organization, your customers and yourself?

What’s an unobvious way to tell your story? Can you look to analogy instead of example?

What do you consider normal and boring that everyone else would think is cool?

And what’s your vision? How will your company or organization change the world?

“That last question is especially salient because it’s central to your bigger story: How will you change the world…even a little bit? How will you make it better for all of us?”

When telling your story, never make yourself the hero. The hero is always a real customer, patient or student. You’re the solution to your hero’s problem, the answer to their prayers and the resolution to their searches. Build your true story around an ordinary person who’s done something extraordinary with your help.

Also know that how you tell your story is as important as the story you tell. Again, you don’t want to sound like everyone else.

“Your brand’s tone of voice sets you apart,” says Handley, who calls brand voice your personality in words.

“It differentiates you from competition. It signals what you’re like to do business with. It’s key to creating and sustaining customer relationships.

“Brand tone of voice is not a small, throwaway thing. And yet most companies treat it that way. Very few take the time to consider the branding boost that an approachable, relatable, friendly voice can give a company.”

Here’s an easy way to test for brand voice. Strip your logo and name off your website. Would anyone know it’s still you? Or would the words and tone be indistinguishable from your competitors and have all the warmth and personality of copy created by artificial intelligence or a room full of lawyers?

“Storytelling in business isn’t about spinning a yarn or a fairy tale,” says Handley. “It’s about showing how your business (or its products or service) exists in the real world: who you are and what you do for the benefit of others; how you add value to people’s lives, ease their troubles, help shoulder their burdens, and meet their needs.

“Your brand stories give your audience a chance to view your business as what it is: a living, breathing entity run by real people offering real value.”

So please don’t tell us like everyone else that you’re innovative, creative, leading edge, best in class, world class, driven by excellence, committed to quality, a champion of inclusivity and an employer of choice. Show us instead with a great story and a hero’s journey.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.