Right Story, Wrong Narrator

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Your story matters.

Who tells it matters more.

By Adaiah Ludy

A strong narrator is a key component of a compelling story. As strategic storytellers, we must consistently examine our brand's narrators. Narrators give your story emotion, and have significant power over the direction of your brand - shaping the customer's perception and the feedback your brand receives. A poor narrator can lead to misrepresentation and understanding gaps both internally and externally. For nonprofits, a poor narrator may look like pursuing the wrong donors or not communicating the impact of their donations to your organization. Some businesses may experience poor narrators in unsatisfied or underserved customers who then tell a negative story about your brand to their social circles. Inside corporations, poor narration may take the form of disorganized meetings, inefficient communication between teams, and missed deadlines.

Here's a 15-minute exercise for your organization to consider.

Analyze your target audience: What do they value? Where are they found, physically and virtually? What are they currently doing or using? What voices are they listening to? What type of rhetoric do they respond to? What can you offer them to make that change? Once you’ve got a grip on that, it will be easier to determine your ideal medium. Additional avenues like search engine optimization and social media analytics can help you understand what gaps may exist between your brand and your intended customers.  

Develop a messaging guide: It is not always easy or practical to simply change narrators. In these cases, it’s best to develop a uniform messaging guide to distribute throughout the company. Every employee should understand the company’s vision, customers, and message. Develop answers to frequent or potential questions as well as tips that will be applicable for multiple mediums. Your content should be uniform in that each post or product communicates your distinct brand story regardless of the medium. When communicating through social media, your messaging should include images and potent, bite-sized information that will make viewers curious while communicating the fundamentals. For longer pieces, you should seek to communicate credibility and experience while highlighting the unique benefits of using your company.

Find your narrators: Consider all the voices that are telling your brand story. The person with the most expertise, especially in technical fields, may not be the best person to reach your target audience. Whose voice does your story come from? Do your narrators understand their role in communicating your brand story? Is the language they're using intelligible and inclusive with respect to your target audience? Is that voice relatable and believable? Don't limit your story to your PR person. Your customers are also narrators that will either uplift or harm your brand story, reinforcing the necessity of the first two components.

If you suspect you may have a misaligned narrator, consider these steps:

  • Hire an inclusivity consultant: We often respond best to people who look like us or have some other shared characteristic. If there's a significant gap between the makeup of your staff and your intended audience, it may be useful to bring in a specialist. 
  • Proudly display yourself: Let your audience in on some of your work and practices. Having a trustworthy narrator often requires some transparency, and in a digital world, it is increasingly important to produce visual dialogue that is easy to digest. 
  • Engage in meaningful conversation: Ask thoughtful questions and give specific, insightful answers. Reply to comments and reviews when you can. Responsive employees lead to happy customers and effective narrators. 

Assessments such as these should not be a one-time exercise. Rather, they should be routinely incorporated to ensure that your brand's messaging is clear, true to your mission and goals, and reaching its intended audience. The use of social media analytics, customer feedback, and internal company evaluations are also helpful tools in reviewing the strategy and effectiveness of your storytelling. Often, the loudest voice wins. Make sure that voice is crafting your story and representing your brand in the best way possible.  

"Creative People Must Be Stopped"

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In his book, Creative People Must Be Stopped: 6 Ways We Kill Innovation (Without Even Trying), author and Vanderbilt professor David A. Owens discusses six constraints to innovation: individuals, groups, organizations, industries, society, and technology.

Individuals must have great ideas. Groups must be on board and not allow negative emotions to derail the innovation process. An organization's structure and strategy must support risk-taking and new initiatives, rather than be bound to routine, consistent outputs. Industries must be shown the utility and value for a new disruption in order to abandon the status quo. Innovations must be presented to society in acceptable terms that are in line with norms and values. Finally, technology takes significant time, resources, and expertise to be proven effective and reliable. 

As our world becomes more interconnected and we gain power in new places and mediums, the combination of these constraints also gets more complex and can exert power over a greater distance and larger audience. 

His advice for innovators? Acknowledge the presence and power of these constraints. Then overcome them. 

Don't try to compete with an industry that has existed for 50 years by  going toe to toe, inadvertently giving strength to their strengths. Come in with a new cost structure; take a holistic view of systems and organizations; and don't be afraid to question authority. He also says that while the limited money in the world lends itself to incremental innovation, it is still very much possible to be disruptive because the big guys are all looking at each other. Many of us focus on innovation as technology, but Owens argues that the technology is usually just in service of an idea. The idea must come first. 

Dream. Execute. Disrupt.

Check out his book for more.

Living in a Scrolling Society: How Technology Is Minimizing Our Sensitivity

By Adaiah Ludy

Some say we’ve developed a microwave mentality of impatience and immediate gratification. In this increasingly speedy, technological world, another phenomenon is also developing. We are becoming a scrolling society. We are able to scroll past disagreements, police shootings, natural disasters, local news, long articles, and general foolishness with a simple swipe. Should we ever get tired of scrolling, we simply block, unfollow, and forget.

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"We are able to scroll past disagreements, rants, police shootings, natural disasters, long articles, and general foolishness with a simple swipe."

This process of scrolling and self-selecting what we are exposed to has given us an unprecedented capacity to mentally opt-out, which for many has become second nature. Occasionally things may catch our attention for a brief moment, where we retweet or double tap or like to show our support and raise awareness.

But in the midst of all this “awareness”, what we are truly generating is a false sense of action and compassion.

We use hashtags as a disguise for complacency and retweets as camouflage for inactivism.

This world of limitless connectivity has given us mass exposure to so many happenings that each subsequent one is minimized or dismissed. So how do we combat it?

Reflect: Ask yourself, why was this posted or shared? What makes me dismissive of it? What does this have to do with me? How can I help?

Engage: Truly listen to other perspectives. Start new conversations with unfamiliar followers. Meaningful dialogue develops empathy.

Unplug: Sometimes it is too much. Too much trauma. Too much ignorance. Too much stimulus. Engage in self-care, whatever that looks like. Disconnect an hour before bed. Give your mind and heart time to recuperate and restore their humanity. 

In doing these things, you will disrupt the scrolling mentality. You have the power to reduce the spreading of unreliable news, connect to organizations, gain insights from reading and research, and be presented with opportunities to engage in meaningful action and impactful conversations. You will contemplate the relationship between climate change, deforestation, and mudslides in Sierra Leone. You will begin to consider the legacy of damage left in Hurricane Maria's wake. You will become concerned with Venezuela’s collapse and its relevance to refugees and oil prices.

When you stop scrolling, even just for a moment, you give your brain time to slow down and actually connect.

Connect with the idea that these are not just headlines and pictures. These are people. These are lives and situations that may be far away yet are undoubtedly connected to each one of us. And the next time you share something, make it something that will make them stop scrolling.

Hop Off My Brand-Wagon

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Most sports fans are familiar with the concept of band-wagoning, or people attaching to a particular team as victory approaches. Similarly, in business, people may attach to your brand to extract collateral value for themselves. Protect yourself by following these tips to avoid, assess, and address potential brand-wagoners.  

Avoid: Legal measures protect you from external competitors, but brand-wagoning often comes from those closest to us.

  • Present your team with a variety of ideas and arenas. Exposure to new topics reduces the likelihood of attachment to any singular brand, namely yours.

  • Empower team members with resources to branch out. Discuss their needs, and encourage them to be themselves.

  • Diversify your team. Entrusting the same one or two people with everything creates a power imbalance within the team and increases your susceptibility to brand-wagoning.

 

Assess: Brand-wagoning often resembles loyalty or support. Pay attention, and remember that brand-wagoners take more than they give.

  • They don’t contribute, combat, or develop ideas in meetings. If they are present but rarely offer insight or feedback, it may be a façade to gain exposure to others’ innovative ideas.

  • They don’t invest in your company or purchase your product. If they attend promotional events without ever putting money behind you, they may be stocking up on personal connections and other valuable information to run off with later.

 

Address: Do not make assumptions. Approach the situation carefully, asking critical questions and clarifying the scope of the partnership.

  • Question team members about their goals. Your team members should have their own aspirations. If they give vague, roundabout answers, they may be band-wagoning.

  • Encourage them to be honest about what they want. Check in with them to gauge their feelings about the partnership, and create an environment where they feel comfortable asking for more or less.

 

Your brand is an ever-evolving representation of yourself. You worked hard to build it. Avoid brand-wagoners by surrounding yourself with ambitious, critical thinkers with different end goals. Assess your team regularly but not suspiciously. Simple conversations about their honest expectations, desires, and contributions helps ensure their productivity and your protection.