Content Corporate Communications

Interrogative on Events

Technology makes scheduling and hosting events easier than ever before. Isn’t it funny that nobody wants to attend them?

At least a sparsely attended webinar or Zoom call isn’t as uncomfortable as a room with a podium and lots of empty chairs, and even if so many beautifully rendered virtual trade show exhibits have been seen by so few people, there was no there there in the first place.

The the pandemic hasn’t changed the rules for events, whether virtual or geophysical, and it’s a good moment to pause and consider them.

Here are three questions you can ask before you schedule the next one:

First, is it necessary? I’m not talking about your internal need to announce a product or make your execs feel important, but rather, do your stakeholders have needs that can only be met by attending an event? Most times, there are better and cheaper (i.e. more effective) ways to meet their requirements, if you simply stop to consider them before contemplating your own.

A good number of events are repeats, like regular customer or user conferences, but that’s still no excuse for thinking you have an agenda to fill vs. attendee needs to meet. What will they get to see or experience, virtually or in tangible reality, that would warrant their attention? Nobody wakes up in the morning wondering what your new product will be (unless you’re Apple), so what is it about whatever you want to promote that can only be communicated in real-time to an audience? What would make it something that they’d hate to have missed?

Remember, they don’t have to attend and they often don’t, so unless you have a really good idea of what they want, you aren’t going to automatically get a chance to present anything to them.

They’re not a captive audience if they don’t show up.

Second, is it live? Nobody wants to attend an event consisting of prerecorded content, so stop creating that glossy brand video that you want to force on them. And please, please don’t create some CGI exhibit that people can explore by clicking on renderings of objects and displays, since it’s too much work for too little return (i.e. playing bad video games is more fun).

Canned presentations, whether shot prior or consisting of execs reading scripts, are not only not special, but they’re not really events.

Think of the immense potential of live experience, especially in terms of communicating authenticity and surprising people out of their preconceived notions. Your attendees aren’t an audience as much as participants in an experience that needs to be somehow unexpected, personal, funny, even dramatic. Your event should be a performance, not a platform for serving up your content. This means being less concerned with making every moment as perfect as a digital readout, and allowing for informality and imperfection that brings your attendees into the spirit of the moment.

Third, is it unique? Even if they’re relevant and live, the best special events reach beyond those attributes to stand for something and become things that matter.

Remember how you felt the last time you attended a play or art exhibit, and left thinking to yourself Wow, that was different or I’m glad I was there! Maybe it was a family event, or simply a chance moment when you and a loved one shared something that you just know will stay with you for years, if not for your entire life. Online or for real.

We crave these moments because we’re human, and they stand out especially when contrasted with the canned and framed experiences we’re led through on our digital screens. This doesn’t mean your new product announcement has to come across like the opening night of Hamilton. But the same principles apply: Content that is relevant, that embraces live experience, and adds up to something more than just a sum of its parts.

Why will they remember they were in the room? What will it say to our employees, or to our client? How will it evidence the ways we are truly different than our competition?

The jury is still out on how and how often we’ll get together in geophysical space; my bet is that we’ll do so when the opportunities warrant it, whether company meetings, trade shows, or any activities in our personal lives. We’ll go somewhere when there’s a compelling reason to do it.

But it turns out the same criteria already apply to virtual events. We don’t need or want more of them, and the capacity to fill airtime with beautiful content doesn’t take the place of meeting audience needs and interests.

A bad event is still a bad event. Question your plans before you host the next one.

Corporate Communications

Interrogative on Live Interviews

A company exec in front of a live camera or microphone is a unique opportunity to connect directly with an audience. So why are so many of them so bad?

Spend some time watching the daytime programming at CNBC, for instance, and you’ll see what I mean. Most interviews are filled with buzzwords and non-news piled on top of news that have me remarking “wait, she didn’t even answer the question” more often than not. Most exec podcast interviews put me to sleep.

Such stumbles don’t come with lots of hard work: PR people produce soaringly generic talking points which then get vetted by marketers to make sure they’re suitably skewed to whatever messages they’ve deemed important. Approvals from legal departments ensure there’s nothing said that could be construed to be surprising or meaningful.

It takes a community to produce an “on brand” throwaway interview.

Before you prep for the next one, here are three questions you should ask yourself:

First, is your exec prepared to be a human being? Doing so is the first if not sole objective of any live appearance, whether video or audio. These media are visceral, not literal, which means that your exec needs to successfully establish credibility and rapport with the interviewer and audience before regurgitating whatever branding blather you’d made her memorize.

This is easier said than done, since many top execs don’t really come across like real people in their daily lives, having spent their careers learning to measure their responses and guard their personal feelings. Some never had much of a personality in the first place, while others have horribly inflated opinions of their own likability (which deservedly should be kept hidden, however imperfectly).

Therefore, you need to help them understand that their goal isn’t to appear smart or leaderly but rather to be human. If they aren’t comfortable with this, you must teach them a few tricks to pretend.

For instance, tell them it’s OK to not know the answer to a question, to smile or frown, and to always speak in the first person (only royalty get to use “we” without sounding like a stunt double for a real person). Talking about the dullest news should be presented in terms of how the exec feels about, wonders, or has hopes for it, and not as if he were some spirit hovering over an operating table describing a procedure.

There are also tricks, like pausing before answering as if they’re actually thinking about what to say (Winston Churchill used to script them) or complimenting their interviewers because they’ve asked a good question or made an interesting point.

Humanity first. Messaging later.

Second, will she talk about solving a real problem? Every strategy seems intended to “create value” these days, especially if it involves technology, as if there were ever plans in the past to purposefully spend or destroy it. It’s a term that comes from corporate boardrooms, where you create value because you can’t credibly explain what you’re really doing.

Further, many (if not most) interviews are booked in hopes of talking about some recent news event. Even if your exec gains airtime to do it, the messaging will be mostly DOA because the media and its consumers are far more interested in ongoing challenges and work; the news prompt is, by definition, no longer newsworthy unless your exec can add something to it.

Whatever the prompt for the appearance — last quarter’s earnings, a tech innovation that proves time travel is possible — your exec should be prepared to talk about some real, unresolved problem and how your company is focused on it.

Think real problems that involve suffering, injustices, and other impacts that don’t require a fancy online dashboard to measure, and not making shopping easier.

Real problems require vision, ingenuity, fortitude, and a host of qualities that audiences respect, both in individuals and from the businesses they represent. Problems make strategies necessary, not just nice to have, and they make talking about your latest breakthrough in using machine intelligence to mine microbial data, or whatever, far more relevant and memorable.

Third, does your exec know that humility is the new confidence? If your exec had all the answers, your company would be the most profitable and untouchable entity if all of human history; if this isn’t the case, live interviews should be considered installments in your search for answers.

Sure, your exec should articulate goals, aspirations, and even talk about confidence in the future as long as it’s couched in terms of personal hope and intention. But the future is unwritten and any interview should reflect this fact.

All of us face that truth every moment of every day.

Maybe it would help if your exec thought of your blathertastic “brand journey” as an ongoing experiment; this would mean that even the most impressive recent accomplishment would be tempered by admission that more work and even greater risk/reward work would follow. One successful test begets the next, which may or may not succeed.

This perspective would allow your exec to use live interviews to invite audiences and journalists into this ongoing narrative, and give them milestones upon which to track it.

It’ll take work to reconfigure the way your execs do live interviews, and you may never succeed in getting marketers and/or lawyers to let them talk like human beings. But even small steps in that direction will improve the credibility and benefit of doing the gigs in the first place. Maybe add some humanity training to the next media training?

It might even create value.


Interrogative on Owned Media

Owned media are the artifacts of content over which PR people have total control, as we use it to propagate content that ranges from business updates, to philanthropic activities and dicey public policy issues. Most legit media outlets will publish it in exchange for lots of cash. It’s included in PR academic circles as part of a well-rounded publicity offering.

Most of it stinks. It’s the cereal component to a breakfast of fruit and milk.

Communicators are their own worst enemies on this front. Since owned media are literally dictated, the content is primarily accountable to branding, customer messaging, and executive egos.

None of these qualities have anything to do with whether or not the content is relevant, useful, or even true, but it can yield nice examples of them “successfully” doing their jobs.

Instead of using owned media as mirrors into which your company can stare adoringly, here are three questions you can ask:

First, would a real journalist ever write your story or shoot your video? If it couldn’t pass that test, it’s a good indication that it’s not relevant or believable, so why would you pay to promote it? The bar for owned content is actually higher when it comes to credibility (since audiences arrive with preconceived notions about commercialism). Your content has to be objectively newsworthy, and your approach needs to scream necessity and meaning, not just gargle all of the buzzwords and images you think you’re supposed to promote.

Here’s a good test for your next creative effort: If it never appeared, or disappeared the day after you published it, would anybody care (other than the agency you paid to develop it)?

Second, why does it have to be slick? This is a particular problem with websites but also includes many of those paid placements in media I mentioned earlier. If your video or branded article are beautifully written, or your video is narrated by that same voice that introduces Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride, then it’s generic garbage. Sorry, but no stakeholder has asked for another unremarkable piece of content in their lives; if you are going to intrude on them why not make a bluntly compelling ad? Better yet, put on that journalist hat from the prior point and challenge yourself to create something that reads and looks like news and not a corporate brochure. It’ll help keep you honest on the content.

Third, what makes it uniquely yours? If your article or podcast could have been produced by one of your competitors, let alone other companies, you need to really ponder why you’re producing it in the first place. I mean, who cares? Instead, consider what your stakeholders are interested in hearing or, better yet, dare to address the complex and even challenging topics that you’ve avoided because they aren’t highlighted on that grid your marketers use to determine messaging. Present a unique POV instead of your execs extolling the merits of the IoT and you may actually get somebody to care about it.

Owned content is a huge and incredibly promising proposition that can be used to articulate unique POVs, educate stakeholders on issues they care about, and change hearts and minds, but only if companies use it wisely.

Maybe it’s time to stop looking in the mirror?

Corporate Communications

Interrogative on Crisis Communications

The crisis communications industry is good business. Triggering events seem to occur in lockstep with the tech and services made available to discover and share them. People have learned to expect the worst of businesses and institutions; trust in authority is low and suspicions of nefarious purposes are high.

So, while these circumstances serve as full employment act for PR people and their specialized crisis response plans, it begs a simple question:

Does it do any good?

The cynic in me says no. Crises that are truly unexpected are incredibly rare. Aside from a meteor made of an undetectable mineral crashing into your factory, most crisis events are the result of decisions that could have been made differently.

In other words, every crisis other than a truly Black Swan surprise is a self-inflicted wound.

Businesses are run on balancing the probabilities of risk with the financial implications of addressing them. Data are protected with layers of security defined by regulation and past experience and then considered against the potential liability of a hack. Oil pipelines can withstand the most ardent animal bites and even a minor earthquake, but those tolerances are chosen based on cost to implement and sustain.

Filling a car cabin with Jell-O might cushion passengers from some one in a million crash incident, but it would cost too much to put in every vehicle.

Crises reveal the decisions made by businesses and institutions. They’re interruptions of fact in the face of promises, assumptions, and sometimes benign neglect.

Crises, like political gaffes, are when stakeholders get a glimpse of reality.

There are three questions that will help you manage crises:

First, does company leadership grasp the PR downside to their decisions? You could spent ten minutes and come up with a list of, say, a dozen crises that are on your company’s horizon, and then work up communications scenarios if they occurred; not your blah blah statements but frank assessments of what company policies and actions will be blamed or questioned (i.e. the causes, or at least the set-ups, for the crises), including what the coverage might look like and what it could lead to, thinking beyond media to impacts on suppliers, lenders, employees and new recruiting Then, push it in front of your company’s senior leadership (and board, if possible) and challenge them to face their complicity and risk exposure. Hopefully, they’ll choose to preempt the worst possibilities through changes in operations.

The best way to manage a crisis is to make it less likely.

Second, are your customers prepared? I’m reminded of those mouseprint data privacy contracts that we sign before activating some silly smartphone app. Business are happy that we don’t read them, because we’d be scared if we did. Yet by tolerating this disconnect — and encouraging our happy ignorance — they prime us for disappointment and potential damage to the brand when a hacking crisis occurs.

It’s the same on most other issues that customers care about, or would if they knew about them.

Are you telling them the truth about your activities and responsibilities when it comes to combating climate change, or just producing slick content that positions you as “a leader” in meeting some far-away goal that sounds great and has no meaning?

Do you disclose the reality of the gender and ethnic diversity in your company, or have you simply hired a spokesperson to represent what is an outlier effort or simply perpetuation of the status quo?

Will you educate your customers about the challenges and trade-offs your company makes on sourcing, security, and any other activity, or do you rely on the grandiose and outdated nonsense of branding to promote it?

Can you acknowledge that customers have relationships with your company and not some artificial construct from your marketing Brahmins?

The second best way to manage a crisis is to deal with informed stakeholders, not surprised victims.

Third, are you ready to fix the problems? This is another business operations activity and not something that arises and lives in communications: crises need to be addressed and resolved as quickly as possible. It’s the only real response to questions from the media and other stakeholders. Even the finest holding statement can’t hold a candle to reports of real action and insight. Every minute that passes in which your company doesn’t know something is a minute somebody else fills with their own assumptions and accusations.

This means that those dozen crises on your list need detailed operational frameworks that are focused on swift, all-hands-on-deck solutions to crises, and your associates in other areas of the company need to understand their roles and responsibilities. Keep repeating this mantra to them (and to yourself):

Crises aren’t communications events, they’re real.

Also, don’t get distracted by all of the silly and ephemeral “crises” that might pop up because somebody Tweeted something or a social media influencer decided your shoes chafe instead of fit. Much of the corporate reputation industry (along with the brand gurus) have gotten horribly distracted by this content and its purported effects, mostly because there are shiny computer dashboards that can track them…until they evaporate a day later, if not sooner.

The third best way to manage a crisis is to, well, manage the crisis. For real.

In a real sense, businesses and institutions are always in crisis, only to different degrees of intensity and impact. The more you recognize it — and work to bridge any explicit or implicit divides between what your leadership is willing to tolerate and what your stakeholders believe to be true, rightly or wrongly — the next blunt revelation of such disconnects will be less damaging.


Interrogative on Technology

New technology is an old idea. We’ve been singing its praises since our caveman ancestors first learned how to grill.

Today’s digital tech is so pervasive that it makes every business a technology company, which makes it particularly hard forth to differentiate based on tech alone. It’s why the most popular tech stories are about people, usually at startups and the occasional billionaire rocket launch. Big, established businesses that tangibly do more with tech that any entrepreneur promises are left out of most coverage.

There are three questions that will help you get in on those conversations:

First, are you changing the world? Tech that enhances, improves, or otherwise makes things better in some incremental way is what drives the vast majority of real business innovation, development, and sales, yet it’s DOA from a news perspective; only your most informed customer cares that your whatchamacallit increases resonance variability by 4 percent, yielding a richer user experience, or that your thingamajig works at the periphery of the value chain instead of midway.

Yet talking in this mixture of gibberish and complacency (“we’re the leader in…” is a kiss of death phrase) keeps most tech marcom content on the sidelines. It doesn’t help that a big company’s stock price is dependent on its ability to reliably make profits, and even the suggestion of a Hail Mary pass could whack said value. There’s no money in dreaming big.

You need to question this assumption, however, and challenge yourself to see a bigger, longer play in what you’re trying to accomplish. Little steps aren’t so little if they’re steps along a bigger journey and are communicated with consistency and meaning.

Second, are you aware of your stakeholders’ interests and concerns? Most technology development happens based on prior tech performance specs and expert analyses of what improvements are possible within the limitations of time and budget. Making it relevant to different stakeholders is an afterthought that usually involves bolting-on references to the IoT, smart (insert industry here), AI, or some other buzzworthy topic suggested by management consultants (who make the same suggestions to everyone).

The thing is, nobody cares about technology except technology people; the rest of us are happy using streaming movies and flying in airplanes with limited to no understanding of how those miracles are even possible.

This means that your stakeholders probably aren’t interested in your latest tech announcement, so the media outlets they consume aren’t, either.

Instead, what if the comms planning for your next tech news started with a deep understanding of what issues a particular stakeholder group cared about, we’re hearing about in the media, and then imagining how and where your content might fit into that construct?

Third, are you willing to talk about people? Anybody who innovates for a living knows that it can be challenging, scary, thrilling, rewarding, dumbfounding, demoralizing, and then all of it all over again. Even the most inarticulate engineer feels deeply about her or his work, maybe never using the word “passion” but certainly revealing it by doing things like working at home or forgetting to bathe.

How is it that corp comms manages to produce content devoid of any of this humanity?

Before you produce that next glossy video or try to erase your spokesperson’s personality with corporate messaging, consider letting people talk about their technology journeys, not just your corporate destination. Let them share hopes, dreams, successes and failures. Let them be themselves, whether in front of a camera or simply getting their names pasted on top of expertly produced blog posts.

Like I said at the beginning, technology stories are people stories, and there’s no reason your comms have to be stuck inside a box that is separated from goals, stakeholder needs, and authentic personal voices.

It’s time to think outside the box. Now there’s a new idea!

Employee Communications

Interrogative on Employee Communications

Most of us would have trouble remembering employee communications that didn’t reek of, well, employee communications, and that’s a problem.

Lots of factors conspire to inhibit or misdirect people who are otherwise talented and principled communicators, and obscure the often valid and important information they’re tasked with sharing.

There are three questions you could ask the next time you decide you’re going to tell you employees something:

First, do you see them as customers? If you talked about customers in terms of what they should know or do, or assumed they’d open or read and watch whatever you throw at them, you’d be laughed out of the next marketing meeting.

Employees have no obligation to consume or believe what you say and no opinion survey will tell how how, where, or when to address their needs and interests. In fact, they’re more critical consumers of information because they know more about your company, which also makes them potentially more valuable (and believable) as advocates when they embrace an idea or program.

So, that article on your glorious environmental program in the employee newsletter has no credibility if your people know that there’s little operational reality behind it. Those images of meetings populated with smiling, racially diverse stuntmen and women that flash across your intranet or internal digital signage carry no weight if employees know there’s no substance to your diversity claims. Celebrating teamwork holds no water when your policies reward those who are the loudest.

Effective employee communications starts with understanding and respect, not your branding or need to manage your people. Rethink your purpose before you strategize how to use process and tools.

Second, are you prepared to help them? There have to be immediately apparent uses for what you choose to tell employees; they have no time for ‘nice to know’ information, and content without an apparent self-interested value is going to be perceived as having an ulterior, perhaps devious motive. Or it’ll just get ignored.

It would be a fair guess that most employees are interested in 1) Their career success, satisfaction, and security, and 2) The impact their work has on their communities, countries, and planet. Most people want to do good by doing good, all things considered. The order of interests vary by individual, of course, but people are people.

What are they supposed to do with, say, that article about your latest trade show booth, or feature on some charity drive hosted at one of your facilities? Does that slick video full of branding blather give them a reason to pay attention, not to mention a call to action? When your CEO waxes poetic about your robust quarter results, have you considered how employees might unpack and review it?

That’s why what you tell them not only has to be credible — like in a world outside recognizing, third-party verified sort of way — but should be developed through a lens that asks how can our employees use this information, and why should they?

This means you have to be really rigorous, to the point of being ardently protective of their time and attention. Push back when business operators tell you things to tell them that have no utility. Challenge executives to talk like the rest of us do. Establish criteria for what and how content gets communicated, and stick to it.

Third, are your comms truly two-way? There’s really no company separate from the people who work there. Sure, you have policies, and some sort of institutional memory either buried on rarely used computer drives or etched into the consciousness of people your business has impacted over the years, but anything your company is currently doing is being done by employees.

If you’re tasked with employee communications, your work is kinda like trying to describe the fishbowl from inside it.

Why not rely on your fellow fish to do the describing?

This means throwing out the presumption that achieving email opens or dial-ins to webinars evidence engagement, and replacing it with the involvement of non-marketers in creating that content in the first place. It would also require you to throw out your expectations for glowingly perfect stories and replace them with messy, uneven, and otherwise human content that narrated the doing happening inside your company.

So, imagine an article about a new product offering, only told from the perspective of somebody who worked on the project. The news wouldn’t be limited to the thing, but expand to include insights into work habits, tricks of the trade, and other useful insights. What about a video about your latest trade show presence, only recorded by an employee who gives her perspective on what your competition was displaying? What about a story about how something didn’t work or generated more challenges your people are considering.

Consider skipping the next satisfaction survey about whether or not they like what you promote, and instead query them on what they’d like to help create. Is it reasonable to consider a large hunk of your employee communications editorial calendar as a platform that is open sourced?

Here’s a bonus question to ask before you distribute your next story or video:

If you saw it in your personal life, not as its creator or an employee, would you believe it or care?


Interrogative on Corporate Videos

Video has been the future of communications since the song “Video Killed the Radio Star” was first recorded in 1977 (this is a video of the Buggles’ version from 1979, when nascent home video tape recorders were still called VTRs).

Much has changed since it was the first music video broadcast by MTV in 1981, starting with the fact that MTV hasn’t really played music videos for ages and radio not only didn’t die but was reborn as a thriving medium for talk (and, more broadly, audio in the form of podcasts are the new long-form medium).

More intriguingly, video isn’t really about video anymore. Just spend 15 seconds on TikTok.

Sharing killed the watching star.

What hasn’t changed, however, is the propensity of companies to make videos, complete with narration, soaring soundtracks and, gasp, often more than a minute of content.

Before you commit to making another one, there are at least three questions you should ask:

First, who wants to see it, and how do you even know? An endless array of breathless reports and surveys make the case for video, often citing how it dominates mobile traffic, or declare the self-fulfilling prophecy of other companies using it as reason to follow suit.

Little of it is true, and certainly not reliable enough to drive any meaningful business decisions.

Measurements of the time people spend watching videos are squishy, both because they can be based on survey data and usually provide no correlation to lasting awareness, let alone understanding and preference. You need to start with the assumption that nobody wakes up in the morning wishing there were more corporate videos in the world, and work from there. Challenge yourself to understand the experiential dynamic of video consumption, not just the aggregate numbers.

Second, what content and/or circumstances require it? What can be best communicated in video or, more to the point, only done so? Things that simply need to be seen to be believed come to mind; not so much how something exists, but proof that no written words could convey. A complement to this would be revealing things that people otherwise couldn’t see, such as wildly remote locations or, better yet, secret stuff.

The more practical use for video is to express human emotions…joy, fear, passion, and other personal qualities that just loose their oomph if they’re reduced to written quotes. We human beings tend to make judgements about credibility based on our perceptions on sincerity, and we use visual and audio cues to form our opinions. Imagine if your videos communicated aspects of your company, and its leadership, that couldn’t be communicated in any other way.

If I’m right, most scripted corporate videos are useless, irrespective of length and ingenuity.

Third, does your video have a purpose beyond being watched? Unless you’re producing a TV show or run the platform on which it’s shared, your company doesn’t make money showing videos: You want people to do something during or after watching them, ideally something that involves giving you money or at least moves them further down a defined path to buy from you (or endorse you, buy your stock, or join your team, etc.).

Accomplishing this requires much more than entertaining content, and it can’t get done by attaching a link “for more information” at the end. There has to be a broader, ongoing narrative, or story that you’re telling, whether via video alone or across your content media, that involves your stakeholders while giving them things they can do. Parse it on TikTok or whatever shorter duration platform comes next. Good luck figuring out consistency across inconsistent exposure, though.

Video didn’t kill the radio star but it can certainly kill a chunk of your communications budget, so you might as well maximize its utility. Ask better questions about your audience, your message, and your commitment before you start working on being hilarious or on-brand.


Interrogative on Storytelling

You can’t talk about branding or public relations without tripping across promises to tell stories. It’s catnip to clients who feel like their stakeholders don’t understand or value them properly. Storytelling can substitute creative technique for substantive content, or so goes the sales pitch.

But successful storytelling has nothing to do with creativity.

A story is good or bad depending on its structure, first and foremost. You don’t need a lit professor to tell you that good stories share common qualities: protagonists, conflict and uncertainty, human drama, internal consistency and, most of all, describe things that are real and believably true. This truth applies equally to news reports and the plots of romance novels.

It’s also what makes it harder for companies to tell great stories because it requires a willingness to embrace all the things that brand and marketing communicators don’t like, such as change, risk, and transparency. A great story is the antithesis of what’s covered in your typical press release or slick video.

It your agency promises otherwise — offering creativity as some panacea workaround that will magically prompt greater awareness and believability — they’re either lying or don’t know what they’re talking about.

Here are 3 questions that can help you come up with better stories:

First, who wants to hear your story? This is the exact opposite starting point from deciding what you want the world to know. Your story needs to answer questions and interests of its intended recipients, which means the topics may not be those that you bought in that last glossy agency presentation. It also must be timely and have relevance to what’s going on in their lives and not your need to coordinate launch timing for a new product.

PS, if what you want to do is labelled “thought leadership” before you’ve filled in the blanks, it probably isn’t.

Second, how is it any different from other stories? Think about how many times you’ve shared stories about your company being “first,” “best,” or having accomplished something that you’ve said was “strategic.” None of those terms have any meaning because every company says the same things. It’s not helpful that everyone is reading the same market analyses from their consultants but it’s a good reminder of how challenging it is to be different.

It also means that nuance, complexity, or your own spin on some well-worn topic is not going to fly; instead, what stories can you tell that have not been told before? The world thought X but it’s really Y, or This is something that you’ve never heard of. …You need to think in these terms before you start creating content.

Third, are you prepared to tell the sequel? When people like stories they want to know that they can return to the narrative…to see what happens next, resolve unanswered questions, and ask new ones. That means describing where your story is going “next” is as important as describing where it’s at “now.”

It means that great storytelling promises goals and actions that are incomplete and ongoing; targets that may or may not be reached, or not so completely; people who have choices to make and decisions that haven’t been taken. A great story is as much about the story yet to tell as it is about the one it details.

It’s why tech startups leave big public companies in the dust when it comes to storytelling: two guys in a garage with no customers can happily declare their smartphone app will someday be able to read minds, while corp comms gets caught up in only sharing work that has been neatly wrapped in a ribbon, approved by legal, shared with investors, and blessed by the brand marketers.

Asking more questions about storytelling will get you a lot closer to creating truly great ones, or if you can’t answer them to your satisfaction, help you resist producing bad ones.

Considering how much owned content is available on company websites these days, there seems to be no shortage of the latter.

Corporate Communications

Interrogative on Executive Quotes

Whether featured in press releases, blogs, social posts, or any other produced content, quotes from your senior leaders represent a great opportunity for you to share meaning.

There’s a good chance that they fall short of that goal, but you can ask five questions that will help you make any quote more meaningful and memorable:

First, does it say something that matters to your stakeholders? This means quotes shouldn’t reference back to your branding messaging or the macro trends identified by your management consultants. Is there a need or opportunity for a personal commitment or statement about policy? What about sharing a personal anecdote that adds color to whatever you’re saying? If your quote can’t bring such content to your communication, consider omitting it; bad quotes are far worse than no quotes.

Second, does it embrace the POV and language of your stakeholders? Buzzwords and jargon should be explicitly off limits. Uber is an IoT engagement platform, but it talks about providing gig jobs and ferrying passengers and stuff. 5G is gloriously technologically advanced but consumers are still searching for reasons why they need it (and not why companies need to sell it). Nobody is trying to “have seamless transactions” in their lives; further, achieving some gigantic, far-off UN SDG goal is about as inspiring as a sneeze. Quotes should be simple and their effect immediate.

Third, does it acknowledge the elephant in the room (and there is always one of some sort)? Such context can be past news, current events, or forecasts, and your executive quotes will be consumed within this context. Better to address the ones that will matter most, whether positive or negative, so they don’t detract from the credibility of your content. Stuff that doesn’t pass a smell test, no matter how brilliantly conceived, still smells bad.

Fourth, does it declare what something means? The old saying at MTV was “if you have to say something’s cool, it’s not,” and that’s still true today; no matter how important your leadership or messaging matrices say references to the IoT, AI, or whatever “wave” of an esoteric industrial trend, it’s your readers, viewers, or listeners who have the authority to make those connections and judgments.

Five, is it short? Today’s tech has conditioned all of us to equate any increase in length with a decrease in relevance, so exec language that involves not just buzzwords but utilizes convoluted grammar and too many words is pretty much DOA. ‘Nuff said.

The key to asking these questions and then collaborating with your leaders to arrive at the best answers starts and ends with telling them the truth and, when they or others push back in fealty to tradition or brand messaging, you need to challenge them.  

Today, using every and media requires that you earn the interest, belief, and retention of your stakeholders. Don’t let your leaders be fooled by their own expectations or understanding of how your stakeholders experience media.