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.

Build your brand with a helping hand during the pandemic (review)

empathyThe COVID fog rolled in thick and fast at the grocery store and an act of kindness got me home.

I was at my car with a week’s worth of groceries but no keys. I rifled through every bag and made sure the keys weren’t locked in my car.

I went back inside the grocery store to the check-out line, swung by customer service and retraced my route up and down the aisles.

The store was closing in 40 minutes.

The manager took pity, stopped restocking shelves and joined the search. He offered to watch the cart and recheck the grocery bags while I scoured the store for a third time. The manager found the keys buried in a bunch of grapes. I couldn’t remember when or why I’d put the keys there.

Buyology-Coronavirus_3DI thanked the manager. No worries, he said. Lots of customers are distracted and losing things these days. He was possibly being more kind than truthful.

Either way, empathy is exactly what you should be showing your customers and employees, says Martin Lindstrom in Buyology for a Coronavirus World. We need kindness now more than ever and smart businesses are offering it.

“Right now there are a lot of people in need,” says Martin. “Old people struggle to shop without having to leave their home and expose themselves to the virus. Waiters, bartenders, and airline crews have lost their jobs, with no new jobs in sight. Kids’ schools have closed, though mom and dad are still expected at the office. Nurses are working day and night. The list goes on and on, adding up to hundreds of millions of people affected by the crisis. All are in need.”

While offering extra help to your existing customers will cost you money, it’ll be less than what you’ll spend trying to find new customers at a time when most of us are dialing back our overspending.

“In times of need, you can really make a difference — and your customers will notice. In difficult times, you can cement a lifelong relationship. You can build your brand.”

During the financial crisis of 2008, car buyers were offered the Hyundai Assurance. The company promised drivers they could return their new vehicles if they lost their jobs within a year. Sales went up by double digits while only five cars were returned.

Your acts of kindness don’t need to be budget-busting grand gestures. Hilton’s DoubleTree Hotels recently published the recipe for the cookies they give to guests as they check-in. The hotel chain gave out more than 30 million cookies each year at its 500-plus properties during our pre-pandemic days.

cookies“We know this is an anxious time for everyone,” said a DoubleTree senior executive. “A warm chocolate chip cookie can’t solve everything but it can bring a moment of comfort and happiness. We hope families enjoy the fun of baking together during their time at home and we look forward to welcoming our guests with a warm DoubleTree cookie when travel resumes.”

My kids were definitely comforted and happy and ate the entire batch of DoubleTree cookies in two days. 

Compare Hyundai and DoubleTree to companies that are ignoring or taking advantage of customers. Martin calls out an airline that hung up on him and another that’s charging $50 upfront for every call you make, regardless of why you’re calling.

“What strikes me is that most airlines, car rental companies, hotels, supermarkets, insurance companies – you name it – behave like they never plan to interact with customers again. It’s as if this is the end of the world. They may know something I don’t, but I hold another opinion.”

Martin also says now’s the time to rethink and reinvent your business.  The prospect of another shutdown, an economy that’s slow to restart and customers who’ve broken their addiction to overspending should give you the sense of added urgency required to bust out of your comfort zone.

“This crisis is written on every wall, door and panel. I don’t think a single soul will deny it so use it to your advantage. Give everyone in your organization, from the receptionist to top management, a simple but profound task: rethink your business model. Ask the profound questions. If we need to change everything from the ground up, what industry are we really in.”

Legacies will be defined during the pandemic. We’ll remember how you made us feel long after COVID-19’s defeated. So be kind, do good, rethink and reinvent.

“What’s happening right now is a lot more than a story for our grandchildren and the next generation to come. This is the moment when you define your legacy as a leader. You won’t be remembered for wins or losses, but for how you were there for your employees and customers.”

Martin is doing good by making his pocketbook available for free as a digital download.

This review ran in the June 27th edition of The Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

How to get us to earn our attention, trust and business (review of Think Say Do)

Would you close your store on Black Friday and turn away customers online?

Outdoor retailer REI Co-op launched #OptOutside in 2015 so customers and employers could head outdoors during one of the busiest retail days of the year. Along with closing all 157 stores and giving its 13,000 employees a paid holiday, the company doesn’t process online payments.

This year, the company’s adding a call to action that invites everyone to join one of 11 organized environmental clean-up projects on Black Friday.

More than 15 million people, and more than 700 organizations, have so far joined REI’s anti-shopping movement.

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REI launched #OptOutside with an ad campaign starring their former chief executive officer sitting at a desk on a mountaintop. “We believe a life lived outside is a life worth living. We’d rather be in the mountains than in the aisles,” said Jerry Stritzke.

Ron Tite, author of Think Do Say and founder and CEO of marketing agency Church + State, thinks REI is genius for closing while competitors slash prices, roll out special promotions and spend big bucks on advertising in an all-out war to gin up pre-holiday spending.

think do say“REI shut down on its busiest day of the year and actually grew revenue in the process,” says Tite. “They got consumers to look. They established trust in the brand. The result was incredible momentum and growth, all because everyone from the CEO to the cashier were aligned on what they thought, what they did and what they said.”

Alignment gets you noticed in an increasingly chaotic world where we no longer know where to look or who to trust. The marketplace is flooded with products and services clamoring for our attention and wallets. At the same time, we’re witnessing a massive breach of trust in consumer marketing.

“Great brands, great companies and great leaders are based on what they think, what they do and what they say. When all three of those pillars work together, people look up. Getting them to do that has never been more difficult.”

The first pillar is the most important. What do you think? Believe in something greater, says Tite. “Go beyond the rational. Explore the emotional. Start with purpose.” REI believes that a life outdoors is a life well lived. Closing on Boxing Day aligns with what the company believes. To borrow a line from Bill Bernbach, “a principle is not a principle until it costs you money.”

Once you’ve defined your brand belief, figure out what to do to act on that belief and then how to say it.

“If you believe in something greater and you behave in a way that reinforces that belief, it’s worth talking about. And if you’re going to talk about it you should say it in a way that gets as many people onside as possible. Just state what you believe, say what you do to live it and say it in an authentic and memorable way.”

Misalignment in what you think, say and do can lead to trust-killing integrity gaps. “Do your best to avoid them, but own them when they occur because what you do immediately following an integrity gap will say more about your character than what you did before.”

Deciding what to think, do and say is hard work but the payoff is worth it, says Tite. You’ll earn our attention, trust and your business.

Need more proof? REI’s announcement that it was closing on Black Friday generated 6.7 billion media impressions and 1.2 billion social impressions. Co-op membership has grown 31 per cent since 2014 and the company’s achieved a 20 per cent five-year compound growth rate.

This review ran in the Nov. 23 edition of the Hamilton Spectator. I serve as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, live in Hamilton and have reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999. Reviews are archived here.

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