Three Differences between Corporate Messages and a Corporate Story

One of the more common conversations I have with potential clients is around the difference between corporate messages and a corporate story.

During an introductory coffee meeting or phone call, the discussion will sometimes lead to the potential client assuring me that they, in fact, already have their corporate story defined and their workforce engaged and aligned around it. With new business development I never push hard and try to sell something to someone who isn’t sure they need it, so my tact in this situation is often to ask the person to share some of their story with me. Sometimes what they relay back is indeed a story, filled with purpose, depth and meaning. But more often what I will hear is simply a series of pithy, well-crafted, bumper-sticker-like sentences strung together, with little else. “That’s great,” I will acknowledge, “But that isn’t really your story; they’re more your corporate messages. There’s a role for both, but they’re different.”

“What’s the difference?” they will respond, and then I proceed to share the following:

ONE — Corporate messages are about we; a corporate story is about the world in which we exist. The vast majority of corporate messages focus exclusively on the corporation itself: on the work that it’s doing, its latest accomplishments, its plans for the future, etc. In this regard, corporate messages are more insular. A corporate story however takes a broader view, considering first the world around the organization, then its larger role within that world and its impact on the people who live in it. A corporate story provides a sense of purpose and meaning behind corporate messages by helping the communicator and the audience understand the context for them, therefore making those messages more approachable, believable and palatable.

Look for example at Apple: a company, a brand that clearly has a story, one of challenging the status quo and empowering and delighting people through incredible design. When Apple found itself under a barrage of criticism over its labour practices in China, its Corporate Communications department had respond with a series of well-crafted messages broadcast through the typical channels of statements, interviews and press conferences. Because Apple has such a strong story—one deeply rooted in humanity and humans—their messages resonated, and the company was given latitude to correct the situation. In contrast, look at GM, which doesn’t have a strong story (if any story at all) and is therefore less able to right the communications ship after its record-setting recall crisis.

TWO — Corporate messages are controlled and controlling; a corporate story is flexible and trusting. Corporate messages are typically crafted by some department dedicated to this sort of thing (e.g. Corporate Communications or Media Relations) and once determined become something relegated to a select few who are then expected to memorize and repeat those messages verbatim—i.e. to be consistently “on message.” But this sort of practice creates a state of fear and division within an organization, with those select few worried they’ll say the wrong thing, and the rest of the staff expected not to say anything at all. This approach had some success 20 or 30 years ago when we still lived in a one-to-many world of broadcast communications; but in the many-to-many world of social media we now live in, it does not.

A corporate story is more generous, motivated by a desire to cultivate richer understanding among all employees and faith that once that’s seeded, people will instinctively know what to say. As my esteemed colleague Paul Belserene once said to me, “Any automaton can deliver a corporate message. It takes a human to tell a story.” Unlike corporate messages, which look to inform or convince people, a corporate story looks to engage and inspire them. Its primary motivation is to connect with people (not the least of which are employees) in a meaningful way, helping them to not only see the larger corporate story, but also see themselves in that story. When that connection is made internally, employees will embrace the corporate story as their own and then more readily share it with others, albeit in a more personal and less rigid way: like thousands of great jazz musicians riffing off the same score. Look at the high level of employee engagement at companies like Google, WestJet or Zappos: all companies that entrust their employees with their story and foster an incredible sense of ownership and pride in it as a result.

THREE — Corporate messages are one-way communications; a corporate story is a conversation. A corporate message is something one person pushes out onto others hoping that, with enough repetition and conviction, it will stick. If someone asks for clarification or further meaning, the originator of that message will typically just repeat it, making the message feel ‘canned.’ Look at how hard a time BP had with the Gulf oil spill, simply repeating the same message over and over again (“We’re working on it”) until the public stopped believing and stopped listening. In contrast, a story is an authentic exchange of meaning shared from one person to another. It’s a two-way dialogue, engaging the audience and making them as active a participant as the storyteller. A corporate story invites employees and the public in to build on the story, and in doing so connect one person to another in a way that means something to both.

To be clear, Corporate Communications and the key messages they develop and deploy play a vital role in any organization. The mistake corporations make, however, is thinking that those messages alone constitute their story. A company’s story is what lies behind and between its messages, and this is especially important when engaging and aligning the most powerful storytellers of all: employees. Importantly, corporate messages tend to be more temporary, responding to changing circumstances and new situations. A corporate story is more timeless; it’s the ether that continually permeates and floats around those messages. Stories are not opportunistic, they don’t change when the conditions change. The messages conveyed in the spirit of that story may adjust, but the story endures.

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Go Long—Three Reasons You Need a Full Articulation of Your Brand Story

In today’s harried, fast-paced world of business, brevity is king and headlines and bullet points seem to have become the communications currency of the day. Few people have the time or inclination to really read anymore, and most of us would rather have something verbally explained to us with the aid of PowerPoint or in a video than have to absorb complex ideas in writing.

I get this. Like most working people, time has become my most precious commodity. I therefore appreciate it when people synthesize content for me, serving it up in a headlined or bullet-pointed way that enables me to absorb the greatest amount of information in the least amount of time. This information distillation works well for a lot of different things and situations, but it runs into trouble when trying to bring to life for an audience the full meaning of a core brand’s story.

You see, brands, like people, are multi-faceted and layered; and it’s difficult if not impossible for someone to fully convey what a brand is all about by using a couple of headlines or bullet points alone. Indeed, when uncovering a brand’s core story, some galvanizing ideas and key phrases typically float to the surface, and they can be used to structure and summarize that story in the same way that book or chapter titles do. But they are never enough to bring a core brand story fully to life for an audience. That’s why when senior brand leaders tell their core brand story in person they instinctively dive deeper. Yes, they will convey and reaffirm the key phrases of the brand story, but they also go further and will naturally communicate the richer, more nuanced levels of meaning behind those phrases, showcasing and leveraging their more in-depth and intimate knowledge of their brand.

For a core brand story to fully engage hearts and minds, those richer levels of meaning that are effectively and naturally communicated in person have to also be articulated somewhere in writing: preserved in print. This will result in a written document that is sometimes considered “long” by today’s standards: as in more than a page. But having that thorough, comprehensive articulation of the core brand story is essential to its preservation and to the ability of organizational leaders to evangelize and institutionalize it. Here’s why:

ONE: We don’t naturally speak in headlines and bullet points alone. We might start with a headline or bullet point to introduce ideas, but as hard-wired storytellers, we naturally delve deeper, verbally giving an idea more meaning because we know instinctively that only by conveying that richer meaning can we get that idea to truly resonate with our audience. Senior brand leaders who truly know their brands inside and out will instinctively know what to say when going deeper beyond the headlines; but others may not. So having the richer layers of meaning articulated in writing equips any and all brand evangelists with the means to go deeper and thus helps them ensure an idea truly takes hold with an audience. In other words, it gives them the verbal glue to make core brand ideas stick.

TWO: Having only the idea headlines articulated in writing leaves too much interpretation to chance. Having the richer levels of meaning of your core brand story articulated in writing not only enables people to exercise their natural proclivity to delve deeper, it also ensures the path they take is consistent with those their colleagues are taking, reinforcing core themes. This is important because consistency and cohesion are essential in ensuring a brand story truly takes hold within an organization and, more importantly, in the hearts and minds of its employees. If only the idea headlines are articulated in writing, there is too much latitude for people to interpret those headlines in their own way and, with that, too much opportunity for inconsistency and, ultimately, confusion.

THREE: The longer, written articulation of a brand story serves as the ultimate storytelling resource, doing justice to the passion and conviction of its most effective tellers. When strong brand leaders present the core story of their brand in person, they do so with a passion for their brand that is infectious and a level of understanding that is both enlightening and inspirational. Weeks later, succinct bullet points or headlines might serve well to remind audiences of the core ideas inherent in a brand story, but on their own, they will fall short in reigniting their passion for it. In turn, a thorough, richer written articulation of all layers of the core brand story will not only re-enlighten audiences to the more nuanced aspects of it, but also inspire them to bring that story to life day-by-day in their respective jobs. In this regard, the complete written articulation of a brand story can serve as the ultimate leave-behind or briefing document: a valuable touchstone that people can refer back to again and again.

When you start uncovering the core threads of your brand story, let the headlines or bullet point phrases float to the surface. Capture them in writing, but then do right by your brand story and by diving back down below that surface to also capture the richer meaning behind those phrases. It will certainly make for a longer document than a slide full of bullet points; but it will be well worth the read.

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Personal Goals and Grit

SeawallMy partner and I like to run early in the mornings, often on the seawall that loops around Stanley Park here in our hometown of Vancouver. We are, by no means, the only ones who take advantage of this route, and over the years a cast of recognizable seawall buddies has developed, some of whom we talk to (the nice guy who looks like Ned Flanders) and some of whom we don’t (the women who walks the seawall in designer jeans and five inch heels).

Our favourite has always been Walking Lady, an elderly woman whom we would see walking around the seawall every morning, in rain or shine, darkness or light. Our initial interactions with her were always brief: just a quick “good morning” or a “beautiful day, isn’t it?” But over the years, our mid-run conversations got longer, starting 20 meters or so out and continuing on over our shoulders as we ran past. At some point, we can’t remember when, Walking Lady started ending our exchanges with “Lots of love boys,” and we would always run off buoyed by a genuine niceness you just don’t find much anymore.

A couple of years ago, we stopped seeing Walking Lady; and for about six months, she just never showed up on our runs. And then one day she reappeared, her recognizable blue coat moving towards us, but her gate noticeably slower. “Where have you been?” we asked as we approached. “Oh, I’ve been away for a while. But it’s so good to see you boys. Lots of love!” she replied with a smile. And as we ran along, we both acknowledged that she didn’t seem to be doing so well but also how noble it was that she was still out there walking.

For several more months we’d see her on our runs, enjoying our usual exchanges, which had been augmented with a high five as we ran past. And just when we’d gotten used to seeing her each day, she was gone again.

Yesterday morning—on one of those bright and warming days that convinces you that Winter is truly over and reminds you how beautiful Vancouver can be—we came around a corner of the seawall, and there she was, in her same bright blue coat and with that same twinkle in her eyes, but her walk now transformed into more of a shuffle, and her warm smile now clearly distorted by a stroke. This time we stopped running as she held up her hand to give us a high five. “There you are!” we exclaimed. “How are you doing?” “Oh, I’m not so good,” said said; and after a pause, she then pointed to a bend in the seawall about 200 meters away and said, “I’m just going to make it to that point. That’s all I want to do. That’s all I need to do.” And as we each squeezed one of her hands I said, “And that’s what you will do. She smiled as best she could, squeezed our hands back and said “Lots of love boys.”

And as we both continued running through the silent residue of that moment, I knew to the core of my being that Walking Lady would make it to that point. No matter what life or age was throwing at her, she had the perseverance, the grit to get out of bed that morning and work towards a goal that had no significance to anyone but her. And that was enough to get her moving yesterday morning when, I would imagine, every muscle and nerve in her body was screaming at her not to.

Seeing Walking Lady walk towards that point reminded me of not only how crucial it is to have goals and the determination to work towards them, but also how important it is that some of those goals have meaning to no one but me: personal goals that would make me feel better about myself and, hopefully, make me a better me. She wasn’t walking towards that point for her family, for her doctors or for us. She was walking to that point for herself, and that was all the motivation she needed.

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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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