Four Ways to Get Employees to Embrace Your Brand Story

Drop RippleI love a client who loves their brand. I was meeting with such a client recently, talking with her about deepening their company’s brand story and creating greater employee engagement and alignment around it. This particular client has a passion for her brand that is remarkable and infectious; combined with her strategic smarts, sense of humour (and not to be overlooked, style), she is a true joy to work with.

We were talking about better ways to tell the company’s brand story to employees, including building a more compelling keynote presentation that she and other leaders could deliver: a common storytelling tool we help clients develop. However, I explained that as good as that presentation and other storytelling tools would be, they alone will not fully entrench the company’s brand story in the hearts and minds of employees. For the real magic of internal storytelling lies not as much in the company’s leaders telling the brand story to employees, but in getting the employees to tell the brand story back to them.

With this sentiment in mind, outlined below are four ways that companies can do a better job of getting their employees to not only hear their brand story, but also embrace it and make it their own.

  • Avoid corporate jargon and instead speak like real human beings — A lot of brand planning language ends up sounding like it’s a plaque or an annual report talking to employees instead of a fellow human being. This is often because that language is crated through collective composition, where lots of smart people lock themselves in a room and try to agree on lowest common denominator words they can feel good about in writing, even if they aren’t the type of words that any of us would ever use in natural, day-to-day conversation. Instead, use that time together to explore and uncover the conceptual threads of your brand story and then leave the articulation of those threads up to a seasoned writer: someone on your team or from the outside who can strategically and poetically do justice to those concepts with language that is provocative, memorable and human.
  • Provide the deeper meaning beyond the bumper sticker sayings — Too much brand planning work is driven by a relentless desire to boil everything down to one line that could fit on a bumper sticker or t-shirt. I can appreciate the focus and sacrifice that comes from this sort of effort, as a galvanizing concept emerges to take center stage. The problem, however, occurs when companies think that that line alone is going to tell everyone everything they need to know and leave the individual interpretation of that line to chance. Don’t make that mistake. Take the time to dig deep, uncover and articulate the richer meaning behind the line or lines that are central to your brand story. Every great story has a title; but the real heart of it resides in what lies beneath.
  • Invite employees to share their own exemplary stories of your brand story coming to life — No matter how beautifully articulated your brand story can be, it will not truly take hold with employees until they can identify and share stories from their own work experiences of your brand story coming to life. When they can connect their own story and workplace activity to your company’s brand story, it becomes more than a collection of words on paper; it becomes real. So create forums, channels and practices for employees to regularly share their personal examples of your brand story made manifest. Make this communal storytelling the way you engage internally (e.g. someone tells at a three-minute exemplary story at the start of every meeting), and it will quickly become integral to the culture and operations of your organization. (NOTE: I will write more on this practice in a future blog post.)
  • Show that you mean it by measuring it — A client once said to me, “If we measure something, employees know we’re serious about it.” Despite the best of intentions that internal storytelling efforts such as these can have, they are often regarded with a degree of skepticism and cynicism as employees wonder if this is just another “flavor of the month” initiative. Show them you mean business by measuring the impact of your brand story, linking it to performance goals of the company and its leaders and recognizing and rewarding those who best live and breathe it. If you take it seriously by doing this, your employees will as well.
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Five Characteristics of Great Storyteller Leaders

Great storytellers are each as unique as the stories they tell. And while the strengths of one will most certainly be different than the strengths of another, great storytellers—especially great leaders who use storytelling—do share some common characteristics that they either consciously or subconsciously use when communicating and/or making presentations.

Great storyteller leaders listen, engage and interact with their audience – They bridge the gap between “you” and “me” to make their audience feel one with them. They understand that storytelling is really a conversation; a dialogue between people; an exchange of meaning. It is not a lecture or a seemingly endless download of information. Rather, it is a shared experience among equals in which the audience is just as active a participant as the storyteller, even if the storyteller is doing most of the talking. For a great example of this in action, watch Steve Jobs make a prank phone call with 4,000 people.

Great storyteller leaders empower others – When done well, storytelling enables people to hear what you have to tell them, but then draw their own conclusions from what they have heard. Those conclusions are remarkably similar to what you want them to be; but they are nonetheless their conclusions, not yours. You can guide them down the path, you can get that finish line in sight, but they have to walk over that line on their own to truly make your story, their story. When you entrust them to take those last few steps by themselves, they will respect you for it and become that much more committed to bringing your story to life.

Great storyteller leaders are generous in spirit – They understand that storytelling is a selfless gift.  It is ego-less.  It is not about personal acknowledgement or grandeur. Rather, it’s about giving something special to someone else. In fact with great storytelling, the storyteller is not the hero; the audience is. You care more about the story getting passed along than you do about recognition or praise for telling it. For as Harry Truman once said, “There is no limit to what you can accomplish as long as you don’t care who gets the credit for it.”

Great storyteller leaders are human, vulnerable, truthful and trustworthy – They are authentic and genuine, not being afraid to admit doubts, confusion or mistakes. They also invite people in and reveal parts of themselves in telling of their stories, and the audience feels closer to them as a result because they relate to the storyteller not just on a professional level, but also on a human one.

Great storyteller leaders make sure there is a point to the story they’re telling – They are strategic in their storytelling. Rather than telling any story at any time, they tell the right story at the right time, doing so with intent and purpose and desire to specifically shape the way their audience thinks, feels and, ultimately, acts. (For more insight on how to strategically engineer the stories you tell, click here.)

A great example of many of the traits I mention above, especially the last two, is this clip of Zappos CEO Tony Hshie sharing a story of their company’s amazing service ethic coming to life.

As you start to use storytelling more and more in your communications—and use it strategically—keep these five characteristics in mind. Infusing your leadership communications with storytelling may feel a bit strange at first, but the fact is you already know how to do this because you’ve been telling stories since you first started communicating. Perhaps you just haven’t taken that proclivity and applied it to the workplace…at least not yet. Good luck!

[Note - if you to read this blog post from Bill's 1st Quarter Newsletter, here is the link to the storytelling video... Great Storytellers Do Not Hide Behind PowerPoint]

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Naughty or Nice

Naughty or NiceIt’s Christmas Eve, which means I am in for a restless sleep this evening as I lie awake wondering if Santa will bring me what I requested for Christmas this year: a new Sodastream, a pony and world peace. I’ll likely be disappointed in the morning when I only get the Sodastream, but I’ll survive. And through the day, my disappointment will likely morph into self-reflection and doubt as I look back on the past year and ponder “Was I not nice enough?”

“Be nice” was one of a handful of barbs my mother used to hurl my way when I was a kid, rotated with regularity with other favourites such as “Go outside” or “Bring me my cigarettes” or “Massage my feet.” While those other directives were typically more task-oriented (and therefore more readily achievable) “Be nice” was more open-ended and therefore harder for me to wrap my childish head around. “What does being nice look like exactly? How will I know when I have been nice? Will there be a sign?” It was a bit of a black hole of thought for me, so eventually, I would just stop thinking about it.

But I’ve been thinking about being nice a lot lately, especially as relates to doing business. And what I have learned is that being nice can be a distinct advantage for a business that is rooted in the practice of people working with other people and that flourishes through personal relationships.

You see, I have come to realize not only that I am a nice person, but also that my niceness can be good for business. To be clear, I am not nice because it benefits my business; but I do know that my business benefits because I am nice. I am nice because I appreciate it when people are nice to me; because it comes easier to me than being a jerk; and because my mother raised me to be a nice boy.

Being nice—being a kind, caring and fun person—can be a huge strength in the world of business: not a weakness. It will never take the place of being smart, responsive, organized, innovative, etc.; nor should it. And in no way does it mean you have to be a pushover or a suck-up. But being nice and being someone whom others genuinely enjoy spending time with can result in others actively seeking to spend more time with you. And in the competitive world of professional services, sometimes that can make all the difference.

So listen to your mother and be nice, in life and in work. Don’t do it because you have to; do it because you want to and know that in doing it, it can benefit the world and it can benefit you in the end.

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Four Tiny Ways to Make a Bigger Impact Pitching New Business

My name is Bill Baker, and I am a recovering advertising executive.

Before diving into the world of strategic storytelling, I spent 18 years navigating through the always-stimulating, sometimes soul-sucking seas of advertising, working for multinational agencies such as Grey, Saatchi & Saatchi and DDB. During my tenure in advertising, I was regularly involved in pitching new business, which elicited some of the highest highs and lowest lows of my career.

More recently, in some bizarre twist of fate, I have had the opportunity to sit on the other side of the table for agency pitches as we’ve helped several clients find the right agency to build off of our StoryFinding work and bring it to life in communications. Watching an agency team go through a pitch process instead of being part of that team has been incredibly illuminating. In particular, I have been struck by how a much the little things can add up to make a big difference in how an agency is perceived and, ultimately, judged.

With this in mind, and in the spirit of giving some friendly advice to my former comrades in arms, I offer up the following tips on the smaller but important things that agencies (or professional service firms of any kind) too often overlook in the pitch process.

  • Remember, most people don’t like to read — When you’re putting together a written submission, remember that yours will be keeping company with eight to twelve other ones. And while the totality of all those submissions represents a lot of great talent and thinking, it also represents a whole whack of reading for the clients to go through. Accordingly, make your submission a pleasure to read by taking care of the person who’s reading it. Use less words that mean more. Have lots of headlines, text call-outs and pictures. Be philosophical and poetic in a few key spaces and more practical and succinct in others. And never forget that just because you’ve got a lot to say and can say it beautifully doesn’t mean everyone wants to read it.
  • Make the tough calls when it comes to casting — A common mistake agencies make in pitch presentations is not being able to choose who should be in the room; so they end up choosing everyone. This happens when agencies are held hostage by internal politics or a few fragile egos instead of focusing on putting the right (and right-sized) team forward. When an agency brings too many people into the room, it is often too many senior people, who then tend to dominate the discussion, creating the impression that your agency is top heavy and expensive and that the mid-level folks who would actually be working on your business aren’t trusted to take on a larger role. One or two senior agency leaders in the room are appropriate to convey the importance of the opportunity; but more than that can quickly feel like overkill.
  • Keep it simple — There is a great scene in the move “Amadeus” in which the somewhat simple-minded Emperor Joseph II, after sitting through the debut of Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” tries to articulate why he’s struggling with it. Looking to his many suck-up advisers for the right words, one offers, “too many notes, Sire?” “Yes, yes, exactly. Too many notes,” Emperor Joseph agrees, before explaining to a befuddled Mozart that, “there are only so many notes the ear can hear over the course of an evening.” Such can also be the case with pitch presentations. So as you’re preparing it, ask yourself, “If they remembered only one thing from this presentation, what should it be? What if they remembered three?” Instead of throwing a dozen different notes at them and risking them hearing none, decide on the few you want them to hear, build your presentation around them and then make them sing.
  • Be good hosts — In a recent search, the winning agency won because the clients truly felt they had the best pitch and would be the best fit for them. But their warm hospitality also did not go unnoticed. They sent thank-you emails after the first meeting. They sent welcome emails prior to the pitch meeting with instructions on where to park and how to find the office. They were waiting for us, outside, when we pulled up. Everyone on their team said hello to everyone on ours. They took our coats, offered coffee and refreshments and told us where the bathrooms were. They sent us on our way with a little nosh for the road. And they followed-up the next day with another thank-you email. These smaller gestures on their own will not win a pitch for an agency, but they certainly make a difference in how a client feels about the agency.

Pitching for new business is part of the business of any professional services firm, ad agencies included. It requires a lot of time, energy and effort; but it also requires humanity, common sense and an ability to look at yourselves from the outside in and ask, “How will this read? How will it feel? How will it resonate?” Look at the big picture, yes, but don’t forget the smaller details. Because in a business of people hiring people, these little things can add up to make all the difference.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: If you are part of an agency or professional services firm that has to regularly pitch for business, and you feel you could a better job of putting your best foot forward during those pitches, you should consider the Better Pitching Workshop conducted by myself and my colleague, Linda Oglov. Please get in touch with me if you want more details.

 

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Letting People See the Person Behind the Dream

Martin Luther King, Jr Delivering His "I Have a Dream" SpeechToday marks the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Like many other coaches and trainers, I often use this speech to demonstrate the transformative power of a person not only with a clear vision, but also a profound ability to magnetize people around it.

I regularly play the last third of this speech in our Leadership Through Storytelling workshops, after which I open it up for discussion, asking the participants to share their thoughts as to why it is so powerful. This always leads to great observations from the group, as we evaluate not only the content of the speech, but also its delivery and its deliverer. There are many elements of this speech that work, and I won’t burden this post by sharing all of those with you. However, there is one aspect that I want to draw your attention to, and that is the speaker’s willingness to truly open himself up to his audience, bare his soul and connect at a deeply human level.

Like many speakers, Dr. King had carefully prepared this speech, typed it out and rehearsed it beforehand. But roughly half way through the speech, he knew it wasn’t having the impact it needed to motivate the monumental change he had envisioned. And so, urged on by the singer Mahalia Jackson (who bellowed, “Tell them about the dream Martin!”), Dr. King went off script and started speaking more from his heart than from the pages in front of him.

And this is where the magic starts to happen. It does so because Dr. King began speaking to us not only as a civil rights leader, but also as a father, as a citizen and as a human being who simply wanted the country he loved to be a better place for the children he loved. He made it personal, and in that moment of vulnerability, he invited people in and enabled them to not only see his vision, but also see themselves in it, motivating them to do whatever they had to in order to make that vision real. He preached, yes, but he never came across as preachy. And even though he was the one elevated above the crowd, he never talked down to them. Instead, he raised them up, lifting them up to his level and in that moment creating a sense of oneness and unity around a dream that was achievable and worth achieving.

Take fifteen minutes at some point and watch this speech. I am not suggesting that you try to emulate Dr. King’s style in your next presentation or meeting (though wouldn’t people remember it if you did). But I will say that there is much to learn from watching him, most notably in the way he takes down his armour and allows us see the person behind the dream. As speakers, as managers, as leaders, we must never forget that people ultimately follow people. So don’t be afraid to let your audience see the person behind the ideas, plans or strategies you’re sharing. It can feel riskier than just sticking to the script, but trust me, it has potential to deliver a far greater reward.

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How Great Strategic Planning is Like Jazz

Jazz PianistWhen I turned seven, I decided that I would be a far more interesting person if I learned to play the piano. Fortunately, it wasn’t hard to convince my parents to let me give it a try. My mother showed her support by immediately signing me up for lessons with the church organist, while my father showed his by buying me the absolute cheapest piano he could find East of the Mississippi: an upright monstrosity that looked and sounded like an aging boxer who’d been hit in the head one too many times. I think he paid $17 for it.

Surprising to everyone, I really took to it; and when my mother was told I had “some talent,” my parents bought me a shiny new piano, which I sat at for the next 11 years, working my way through Bach, Chopin and thousands of hours of Hanon and Czerny exercises. Over time, I came to respect the structure of classical piano and appreciate the musical foundation and skills it gave me. Despite that respect and appreciation however, I always felt an urge to play “out of the box” and stretch myself musically. I just never had the confidence or the knowledge to do so.

Last summer, I finally took the plunge and started taking jazz piano lessons under the tutelage of Bob Murphy: a Jedi master of both music and life. Studying jazz piano has been a sometimes-frustrating experience, as I learn what feels like a whole new musical language. But it’s also been liberating as I become increasingly confident with stepping beyond the framework of my classical training to follow my musical intuition, even if doing so is, at times, incredibly messy.

The deeper I get into jazz piano, the more I see the parallels between it and really great strategic planning. Truly transformative strategic planning can get messy. It’s volatile, iterative and sometimes hard to pin down. It is a combination of logic and magic; science and art; head and heart; rigour and imagination; numbers and narrative. It is an analytical endeavor, but also a highly human one, recognizing that when those taking part in strategic planning put humanity into the process, what comes out of it will better resonate with the employees on the front lines who are instrumental in bringing those plans to life.

Too often I see strategic planning drift away from human nature and towards the seemingly safer harbours of reason and logic, where it then drops anchor. It’s the type of strategic planning that gets bogged down in models and metrics; the type that uses research to tell those involved how to think versus informing and guiding their thinking; the type that results in a mission statement, brand positioning or corporate values that employees can understand but can’t truly embrace, because it sounds like a text book talking to them instead of a fellow human being.

Don’t get me wrong; I greatly respect rigour, analysis, models and metrics and feel they are an integral part of sound strategic planning. They just can’t be the only part. Companies and organizations going through strategic planning need to be willing to immerse themselves in the unpredictable and messier waters of human nature instead of trying to rationalize their way around them. They don’t have to stay immersed forever, but they should certainly swim around for a bit, having the faith that if they do, something more meaningful, unique and compelling will come out of it.

Human nature needs to be part of the strategic planning process from the beginning so it can work in harmony with more rigorous analysis, not against it. By bringing humanity into strategic planning we recognize that some of the answers to tough strategic challenges lies buried beneath our individual life experiences and collective intuition; we just need to be willing to dig.

This is where the magic often comes from: from within us, our lives as professionals and as people. Great strategic planning finds a way to tap into that magic and let it loose, even if doing so gets a little messy. Once extracted, that magic can be blended with more logical notes from the planning process to create a tune that is infinitely richer and more compelling: a tune that will ultimately ring in the hearts and minds of employees who are crucial to bringing the outcomes of your strategic planning work to life. As the late, great jazz musician Charlie Parker, once said, “Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”

Now that’s music to my ears.

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The Mood of a Leader is Infectious

George and MarthEvery Tuesday and Thursday mornings, if I am home in Vancouver, I walk to my neighbourhood gym for a workout. I am an early riser, so this walk typically takes place around 6:00 AM, sometimes in the pouring rain, sometimes under blue and brightening skies. On my way to the gym, I always stop at the same Starbucks for my first injection of caffeine via a Grande dark roast coffee that I carry on with me.

Ever since I have been stopping at that Starbucks, the same man and same woman have been serving me. The friendliness of this duo is simply astounding, and they regularly greet me with a perkiness that would make Donny and Marie look like George and Martha from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”

Now even though I rise relatively early in the morning, I am never happy about it. As a result, I am somewhat sullen while I slowly come to grips with the fact that I am no longer in bed. So the first 25 to 30 times this über-friendly duo served me, it took everything in me not to reach across the counter and slap them. But their chipperness never wavered, and I soon came to realize that my grumpiness was no match for it. I now greet their smiles, banter and laughter with a smile and banter of my own (I’m working up to laughter), and I always walk out of that Starbucks feeling better than when I walked into it.

The simple truth is that moods are infectious. This is something I always discuss with executives and managers during our Leadership Through Storytelling workshops. More specifically, we talk about the fact that the mood they carry into the office has a way of positively or negatively influencing the moods of others. Good leaders are both aware of this fact and hold themselves accountable to it.

We have all heard the adage “It’s lonely at the top.” One reason it’s lonely is because good leaders don’t get to have as many bad days as everyone else. They understand and respect that their bad day—and the bad mood that accompanies it—not only communicates, but also contaminates, with the power to spread virally and knock an entire team off kilter. Conversely, when a leader walks into the office conveying a sense of focus, determination, promise and possibility, that positivity also spreads and, as it does, helps inoculate a team from the pressures, doubts and anxieties that might otherwise weigh it down.

We can’t always control whether we are in a bad mood or not. But we can control how we present ourselves to our teams and whether or not we’re going to let our bad mood corrupt their own. In other words, we can choose to appear in a good mood, even if we’re not. It’s not the easiest thing to do, but it is doable, and good leaders know that. And strangely, as we try to convince others that we’re in a good mood, we can eventually convince ourselves of the same: a transition that is often helped by the good mood coming back at us from our team.

We all have the power to do this on our own. But if you ever need a good mood shot in the arm, I know a great Starbucks you can visit to get it.

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When to Use Storytelling in Presentations

If you were to compare the worst presentations you’ve sat through to the best, you would likely see some patterns emerge. The former is typically packed with too many slides filled with too much content that the presenter feels compelled to read to you, line-by-line, with a mind-numbing monotony that makes you wish you were anywhere else in the world at that moment (e.g. having a root canal, in traffic court, trapped in an elevator, etc.).

In contrast, great presentations are more about the presenter than the slides, and they make you feel like you are witnessing something special as someone shares their unique perspective, insight and expertise with the world. There are many traits that make great presentations great, but one common characteristic is how the presenter uses storytelling to infuse richer meaning and humanity into the key messages he or she is conveying. Well-selected stories well-placed can add colour and dimension to a presentation, making it a more memorable experience for the audience.

To help you infuse your next presentation with more stories, outlined below are five guidelines that you can follow:

Expand your thinking around what a story can be. We define story as “an exchange of meaning shared from one person to another,” and it can take many forms. For instance, it can be a more traditional narrative with a clear beginning, middle and end: a narrative that comes from your own history, from someone else’s history or simply from history. But it can also be as simple as a beautiful image, insightful quote, parable, metaphor, video clip, cartoon, infographic or newspaper headline. Once you think more broadly about the definition of story, you begin to recognize all the different “meaning exchanges” that can be peppered throughout a presentation to give it greater depth and diversity.

Be strategic in the selection of stories. When you use stories in your presentation, it’s important that you don’t just tell any story at any time; you need to tell the right story at the right time. Because it’s not just storytelling, it’s strategic storytelling, used to compel your audience to think and feel in specific way.

Use a story at the start of your presentation to personally connect with your audience and establish context. Often when you present, you are walking into a room full of strangers who are likely expecting yet another “ho-hum” presentation. Starting your presentation with a story helps you break through their cynicism, lower their defenses and get your audience to see you as a person, not just a presenter. In turn, this makes them more likely to connect with you, trust you and listen to you. In addition, if you’re really strategic about the story you tell upfront, you can set the stage for the core content of your presentation that is to follow, preemptively shaping the way your audience will think about it and, in the process, making them more receptive to it.

Use stories in the middle to exemplify and give meaning to key points you are making. Shorter and more concise stories used throughout your presentation (such as an arresting image, relevant quote or illuminating infographic) can effectively bring to life the core ideas you are putting forward. It’s like you’re lobbing out a compelling concept to the audience and then quickly tossing them a short story to make that concept more real and tangible. That said, when you place pithier “exchanges of meaning” throughout your presentation, be careful not to provide too much of a good thing. Even the most brilliant presentation will start to feel tedious if every single point is followed up with a story (“Oh God, here he goes again!”)

Use a story at the end to provide one last inspiring thought before you finish. Ending your presentation with a moving video clip, a poetic quote or another narrative can serve as the perfect cherry on top of the proverbial sundae. It’s your way of giving your audience one last moment of inspiration and understanding before you send them on their way: one final dose of meaning to connect back to and reinforce the key messages and ideas you have put forward.

So the next time you’re preparing a presentation, think about embedding some stories in it to make it more engaging, enlightening and meaningful. But also think about the purpose and intent of the stories you’re embedding, making certain there is a relevant point to each one. Your audience will connect with your presentation more, take more away from it and love you all the more for it.

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How to Change Corporate Culture with Storytelling

Yahoo CEO Marisa Mayer’s decision to call all Yahoo employees back to the office will likely be studied for years to come not so much for what she did but for how she did it.

I can appreciate the need for Ms. Mayer to make a dramatic change to revive a flailing company; and clearly, this experienced executive understands the central role that employees play in helping her enact the change she envisions. After looking under the hood for several months, Ms. Mayer determined that a key issue holding the company back is the corporate culture that surrounds those employees: a culture that had become void of energy, innovation and inspired collaboration. And so, she set about to change that culture as quickly as possible. But it is in her haste, not her vision, that I think she erred.

Screen Shot 2013-03-12 at 8.51.51 AMStrong corporate cultures are developed or evolved over time, not overnight. They are seeded from the top down, as leaders determine and espouse a strategic vision and values for the company and (hopefully) create a working environment and operational framework that enable both. But they also grow from the bottom up, as employees not only see this strategic vision and values, but also see themselves in them, working together towards the vision and bringing the values to life each step of the way. Employees are the soil in which a corporate culture is cultivated, and the more nourished and involved that soil is, the more that culture will thrive.

Change is hard, but it’s also necessary, and it can be effective if managed properly. Storytelling can be a powerful tool to help corporate leaders soften the ground for change and engage and align employees around it. But to have the most positive impact on corporate culture, leaders have to use storytelling strategically in three ways:

First, envision a future story for the company and share it broadly, before you start making big changes. Tough workplace decisions are easier to understand and accept if there is some context first established for them: a bigger picture, a broader vision, a story that gives meaning to those decisions. CEO’s need to establish that context, and the best way to do so is by sharing a story of not only where the company has been and is today, but also where it must go in the future.

In looking at the company-wide memo that announced the end of working from home at Yahoo, it seemed that while they tried to connect that decision to other, previously-launched initiatives, there is still no broader story serving as a contextual backdrop for them. Maybe Ms. Mayer didn’t feel like she had the time to develop and share a bigger-picture, future-oriented story. But if she had before announcing the end of working from home, it would’ve made that bitter pill (and likely others) easier to swallow.

Second, invite employees into the conversation by asking them to share stories connected to the new vision for the company. Storytelling provides a way for corporate leaders to pull employees into a dialogue around a new strategic vision versus pushing tough decisions based on that vision down upon them. Granted, corporations are not democracies, and everyone doesn’t have an equal vote in how they’re run. But everyone does have a voice, and if they’re given a chance to express it through storytelling, they will be more open to the inevitable changes that are coming down the road. So while a new strategic vision for a company is typically crafted by its leaders, employees should be asked to contribute to that vision by sharing stories of how it is already coming to life in the trenches, where it isn’t coming to life and how it could better come to life in the future.

By connecting their own stories to a new corporate vision, employees are able make that vision real for them personally. And through the simple act of sharing those stories, they will often, on their own, draw conclusions similar to those the leaders of the company have already drawn. I’m certain that many employees already shared Ms. Mayer’s belief that working from home wasn’t working for Yahoo. I’m also certain many other employees would’ve reached that conclusion on their own if they were engaged in some StorySharing around the new vision and future story for the company.

And lastly, live by example by becoming the company’s Storyteller-in-Chief. When a CEO asks for new ways of thinking, talking and acting, employees will always look up the ladder to see if she is practicing what she preaches. CEO’s can do so by constantly sharing relevant stories of their strategic vision and future story coming to life and making a positive impact across the company.

I am eager to see if the changes at Yahoo will make a difference. I hope they do, because I hate to see great brands fall as the business behind them fails. I don’t begrudge Ms. Mayer making the decision she did, but the way she did it was like ripping off the cultural Band-Aid too quickly. I’m sure that, as a mother, she knew it would hurt and that employees would cry and complain. But she likely also thought that employees would eventually get over it and move on. For her sake and Yahoo’s, I hope they do.

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Three Ways to Define the Roles Your Brand Plays

DSC_2733To get people connecting with and talking about your travel and tourism brand, it’s important to rise above the straight forward promotion of features and instead create genuine experiences for your customers: experiences rich and compelling enough that they will naturally and instinctively draw meaning from them. When this happens—when a travel and tourism brand creates a truly meaningful experience for its customers—it ends up resonating with them and playing a role in their lives as a result, even if only for a moment.

Far too often, however, brand representatives have no awareness of these roles and therefore no concept of the impact they and the experience are having on their customers (as was the case with my Costa Rican zipline tour). To ensure nothing is left to chance, brand leaders must become conscious of the experience the brand provides, the meaning it creates and the roles that the brand plays in creating those experiences and eliciting that meaning. They must explore, uncover and define all these things so that everyone behind the brand can be more focused, intentional and inspired in their efforts, creating a lasting impression on the lives of customers as a result.

When thinking about the roles their brands can play in the lives of their customers, you should fish in three different strategic ponds for the right answers. Remember that brands, like people, are multifaceted and therefore can play different roles at different times. So don’t be afraid to identify three or four roles for your brand by taking the following into consideration:

Consider your brand as a profession— Imagine your brand as an engaged, upstanding member of a community in which your customers are the residents. What profession would your brand undertake in that community? What vocation would they serve to support, impact and facilitate the lives of their fellow residents? Are they more of a leader in that community (e.g. A judge, minister, drill sergeant, etc.) or do they play more of a supportive role (e.g. nurse, teacher, lawyer, etc.).

The Inn at Little Washington about an hour west of Washington DC, instinctively understands the various roles it plays in the lives of its guests. I once asked the owner and chef of The Inn, Patrick O’Connell, what it was that he and his staff actually do for people, and he replied: “It’s religion, psychiatry and theater all wrapped up together.” Anyone who has ever spent a weekend at The Inn at Little Washington or simply dined in it’s world-renowned restaurant can attest to the fact that this incredible property takes you on a spiritual journey (as a religious leader would), helps you discover or rediscover things about yourself (as a psychiatrist would) and most certainly ensures you are delighted, stimulated and enthralled (as any good theater director would). To get a sense of Chef O’Connell practicing some psychiatry, listen to this touching story he tells about an interaction with one of his guests.

Consider your brand as agent — The dictionary defines an agent as ‘a person who acts on behalf of another’, which is how most of us recognize and use this word. However, if we dig deeper into the dictionary, into the world of physics and chemistry, we find another definition: ‘something that takes an active role or produces a specialized effect’. It is this latter definition that we focus on here, thinking about how your brand—the experiences you create and the meaning drawn from those experiences—changes people, impacts their lives or creates a specialized effect. Is your brand a catalyst, somehow sparking a reaction in your customers, their relations or the world around them? Is your brand a portal, enabling your customers to exit one place or state of being and enter another? Or is your brand an illuminator, shedding light on a situation and enabling them to see it (and likely themselves) in a fresh, new way?

Consider your brand as a personal relation — What are the more intimate roles your brand plays for your customers? These roles can be as a member of their immediate family, but also their extended family: someone whom they’re not technically related to but who plays an important role in their lives nonetheless. This is a very abundant area for identifying roles, as we consider our own relationships with our immediate family members and the myriad of personal relationships we have with others. For example, the nurturing mom, crazy uncle, doting and spoiling grandmother, best friend, mentor, coach, good neighbor, caretaker, etc.

I once asked a very popular trainer what role he played with his clients, and he said: “Sometimes I’m their best friend. Sometimes I’m their worst enemy. But most often I try to be that supportive but slightly detached, cool older brother whom they admire and look up to, and I use that position to encourage them but also push them to try harder. And sometimes, I just smack them and tell them to ‘Move it!’ like my big brother always did to me.”

The more you start to look into these three areas of potential roles, the more you will see how easily they can blend into each other. Is a nurse a supportive profession or more a personal and intimate relation? Can’t a great teacher also be a catalyst or illuminator? If this starts to happen, let it. There are no hard lines between these three areas, so mix them up, approach them from different angles and don’t be afraid to cross-fertilize. You will get richer, more defined and unique roles as a result.

No matter what roles you uncover, make certain everyone on your staff not only understands them, but also recognizes their part in bringing those roles to life each day. When this happens, you will create more compelling experiences around your brand that elicit more powerful meaning for your customers, and they will love you all the more for it.

This post originally ran on February 12, 2013 as the fourth and final part of a series of articles I wrote for UK-based travel and tourism website, EyeForTravel. An eBook of all four articles (and more) is currently under development.

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