Concrete, concrete, concrete

Concrete, concrete, concrete

As Chip and Dan Heath captured so elegantly in Made to Stick, to get your point (your story!) across you need to be concrete, always. Concreteness is one of the six elements of their SUCCESS rubric for telling “sticky” stories.

More specifically, you need to use language that speaks to the shared vocabulary of the two people who are speaking. If you have more expertise on a topic than the person to whom you’re speaking, this will feel like dumbing down your language. It’s not. It’s making sure there’s no possibility for confusion where there doesn’t need to be.

Think about it: every time we use language that is not in people’s day to day vernacular (I mean that literally: language that they use every day; concepts that are so familiar that they don’t require a second of extra thought), we are asking them to spend mental effort deciphering language rather than resonating with our story. That is wasted attention and the fault is with us for asking them to expend it.

This is not (not not not!) a question of their intelligence, this is a question of your shared vocabulary and where you want them to use up their precious, finite attention.

This means that every time you’re speaking, you’re saying “for example,” a lot.

It means, for example, that you’re not saying “ethical sourcing” when you could be saying “six year olds in factories.” You’re not saying “assess baseline data” when you could be saying “go to 10 customers’ homes and record whether or not they have corrugated tin roofs.” You’re not speaking about millions of dollars when they live and breathe crores. You’re probably never, ever talking about “paradigms.”

Instead, you are trading conceptual terms for concrete ones, exchanging categories of things (“processed cotton”) with specific and familiar examples (“thread”). You are starting with one specific, familiar item (or action) and generalizing from there, rather than staying at the conceptual level and assuming they’re smart enough to boil it down to the specific. They are, but they shouldn’t have to.

And you’re doing this in a disciplined way, time and time again, because that’s what it takes to have this become natural to you.

Live in their world, speak with their language using vocabulary that parallels their reality, not yours, and they’ll finally start hearing you.

The Egyptian (wiki) coup

I’ve found it surprising how nearly blasé the mainstream Western press has been about recent events in Egypt.  Not that the events haven’t been described as important, but rather how quickly the press has devolved to a simple ends-justify-the-means analysis (epitomized in this hugely disappointing David Brooks piece).  The ousting of a democratically-elected leader by the military – with or without huge popular support – is far from a clear-cut turn of events in the Arab world’s largest democracy.

It’s also amazing to see how much the world has changed, that major political events unfold in real time online, including on Wikipedia, where a page titled “2013 Egyptian coup d’etat” apparently went live three days before Morsi was ousted.  In a microcosm over the battle of language that’s ensuing in all circles, there’s fierce debate on that Wikipedia page about whether to call the events a “revolution” or a “coup,” and I find it more interesting still to consider whether and why it would make sense for Wiki-zens to defer to the popular press in defining the terms of debate (an argument made by some in favor of objectivity).

The Wikipedia entry is here, 135 citations and all,  and if you’ve never peaked behind the scenes of a hotly-contested Wikipedia page, now’s your chance.  A nice summary of the unfolding of Wikipedia events can be found on the Foreign Policy blog.

Stories, Facts and Synthesis

Break down any presentation and you’ve got three building blocks: stories, facts and synthesis.

Since we’re generally not comfortable as storytellers, and since it feels safe to report on the facts, lots of presentations divide up the pie like this (“we did this and then this and then this.”)

There are two shifts we can make across the board so that we can connect with our audience.

The first is to radically change the balance between the three layers of the pie – spending about equal time at each level.

The second, equally important, is to realize that your facts are only there to work for your stories or to support your synthesis.  That means you only share facts that serve either to substantiate a point that a story makes someone feel; or you share facts that serve as a jumping-off point for synthesis (aka “the big picture” or “the takeaway”).

Facts that aren’t working for you are facts we don’t need to hear.

The story-reality gap

Whether or not you consider yourself a marketer or a salesperson, one way or another you’re telling stories all the time.  It happened the moment you traded in your college rucksack for that nice Kenneth Cole leather briefcase; it happens each day when you talk (or don’t) in meetings, when you speak (or don’t) about topics that are a stretch for you, when you write an email (or don’t) in a voice that stands out from the crowd.

Your organization is also telling stories all the time, and the easiest, most obvious water-cooler scuttlebutt is about your story-reality gap: how the software suite that your company just touted in a $3 million, 30-second Superbowl ad is just a mash-up of so-so apps that were just rebundled and re-branded; how the ink wasn’t even dry on the financing plan when it was put in front of your Series B investors; how you don’t have everything just right yet, so how can your CEO be talking about the next phase of growth?

Here’s a dirty little secret: that gap is supposed to exist, it has to exist, it’s the gap between where you are now and where you’re going.  And without this gap, you might never get there.

If your organization isn’t living this gap then it’s going too slowly, it’s dreaming too small, it’s getting too comfortable in its little sandbox.  This doesn’t mean you always have to grow fast – in terms of revenues, employees, customers – but it means that you have the potential to teeter on the edge of exactly what you know you can deliver today and what you dream of delivering tomorrow.  Daring to dream out loud is just the first step.

Never lie, and never ever make promises to your customers that you can’t keep (nothing spreads faster than stories about broken promises).

But the world understands that five-year plans are aspirational.  You’ll never rally the troops with small dreams.

Hans Rosling does it again

I don’t know which makes me smile more, the amazing visualization of statistics to tell a complex story, or Hans Rosling’s contagious joy and energy.

It’s a wonderful 4-minute video.  Enjoy.

The 17 second story

Twice in the last two weeks I’ve had 30 minute calls with people who are exploring interesting new vehicles for raising capital in the nonprofit sector.  Yet in both cases, it took 17 minutes (I counted) to get to the core of what the opportunity was.  We lost more than half the time in the lead-up, and this with the people whose job it is to sell the story.  (And whether you’re a CEO or a job-seeker, it is your job to sell the story).

This is an easy trap to fall in to, because you want to dig in to the nuts and bolts so much.  But when you lose the headline, you lose the inspiring vision, you lose the thing that’s going to give this thing legs.  You don’t have 17 minutes, you have 17 seconds.

This isn’t a post about nailing the 17-second elevator pitch for your organization – who you are, what you do, why it matters – although everyone from your Board to your CEO to each employee must be able to articulate this effectively.  In a world where you’re constantly leading and innovating, where you’re tearing through projects because you’re getting so much done, you have to keep on developing and refining and changing your 17-second story.  Nailing this consistently is one of the arts of leadership.

It’s about having, at your fingertips, the answer to the same question in many guises: “What is the most pressing question you’re facing right now?” or “what’s your greatest need?” or “what keeps you up at night?” or “what’s new”?

Any of these in 17 seconds.

So, what’s new?

David Weprin and the other 19

The other day on my way to work I passed a campaign volunteer for David Weprin, candidate for NYC Comptroller.   During the time I was within her earshot, I probably heard her say “Weprin for NYC Comptroller!!” about 10 times.  From what I observed, around 1 in 20 people stopped to get the flier she was handing out, which left 19 people just hearing what she said as they walked by.

There’s no doubt that from the volunteer’s perspective, “Weprin for NYC Comptroller” is the right message.  She knows all the candidates and firmly believes that Mr. Weprin is the best of those candidates.

I suspect, though, that the other 19 people, like me, have a different starting point.  Not only don’t we know anything about Mr. Weprin and how he compares to the other candidates, we probably didn’t even remember that a Comptroller race is underway.  To get us, you need to start the story from the beginning.

The questions in my mind when I heard her say, “Weprin for NYC Comptroller” were:

  1. “There’s an election for Comptroller?”
  2. “When is it?”
  3. “Who’s Weprin and why would I vote for him?”

She’s neck-deep in the race, so it’s understandable that she’s started at Question 3.  But she’s losing 95% of the people who don’t even know that race is going on, and for whom “Weprin for Comptroller” is a useless message.

The battle she needs to win on the street corner isn’t just about the 1 out of 20 people who already care enough about the race to stop and take a flier (many of whom may also have made a decision about whom they will vote for); it’s also about the other 19 people and getting them tuned in to the face that an election is going on, and getting them to go to the polls.

If you’re engaged in advocacy around a certain issue, or you work for a social sector organization that’s trying to solve a specific problem, it’s easy to fall into this same trap: explaining why what you do is the best, without remembering that nearly everyone you’re talking to knows less about the issue than you do, and many of them aren’t even away of the problem you’re working so hard to address.

Even worse, most of the people who hear your message won’t bother to stop to tell you the real truth, which might be, “I didn’t really know there was a _______ (race for Comptroller; catastrophic issue around deforestation; huge malnutrition problem in India; global epidemic of maternal mortality).”

Unless you’re speaking to your rabid fans, the place to start isn’t “let me tell you why our intervention is the best,” it’s “let me tell you about a problem that matters, and one that you can do something about.”

It’s so easy to start where YOU are, because that’s what’s exciting and what motivates you every day.  Instead try starting where the other 19 people are.  Even person 20 will appreciate seeing the big picture and where you fit in.

“Weprin for NYC Comptroller” is OK.

Much better is: “Comptroller elections on November 3rd.  Vote for Democrat David Weprin.”

Before iPod Genius, there was Shuffle…and it was good enough

One of the many clever iPod/iPhone features is “Genius,” which automatically creates a playlist of related songs based on a song that you pick. You pick a song by the Police and you’ll get a playlist with U2 and Sting and Bob Marley.

Apparently, Genius is pretty sophisticated, but I don’t think it has to be.  The first 10% of accuracy would be enough, because our minds would tell the story that would do the rest of the work.  Need proof?  Back when we all had to settle for Shuffle – a completely random playlist created from songs from your music library – people would inevitably claim that their iPod was psychic, somehow “knowing” the right song to play at the exact right moment.

The point?  Our minds (specifically, our right brains) are constantly trying to make sense of information by telling a story that’s consistent with whatever we’re seeing.  You cannot walk through the woods and make sense of every individual tree…you’d go crazy.  So you process a few trees until your mind tells you, “This is a forest.”

In the same way, it’s enchanting to think that a mindless iPod knows the perfect song to play at the party.  It’s your mind picking out what it wants to see.

For you left-brain, analytical people out there, who are persuaded by (and want to persuade others using) mostly facts and logic, it’s easy to forget how much your audience needs a story.   By imagining your own mind and how you process information – and the sequence of facts that would make sense to you – you completely abandon something powerful that is working in your favor: that the person sitting across from you, hearing these facts for the very first time, wants nothing more than to tell themselves a story.  It’s the best way for them to make sense of what you are saying.

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My iPhone story…finally

Change is hard, right?  Or maybe not.  So here’s the experiment.  I’ve been a heavy (obsessive?) Blackberry user for almost a decade.  And I’ve been fawning over the iPhone since it came out two years ago.  But I kept on convincing myself that the Blackberry won hands down for everything I needed (mostly sending and receiving email), so it didn’t matter that the  iPhone would win for everything I wanted.

A few days ago, I caved, barreled into the Apple store, and bought an iPhone.  Why?

The starting point is the story.  Apple has woven a captivating story about an uber-device that will make me more hip, more connected, and generally part of the ‘in’ crowd (never mind that they’ve sold more than 21 million so far– the story just isn’t true any more, objectively.  But it can still be true to me).  I’ve come across this iPhone story literally hundreds of times, not just in mass media, but every time I see yet another pair of white earbuds (which I used to see often) or people gazing longingly at their iPhones on NY street corners (more common now).  And even though I said ‘no thanks’ a hundred times, on the hundred and first time, I said ‘yes.’ That was Story #1.

Now on to Story #2, which started when I bought the iPhone.  This is the story I’m telling myself now that I’ve given in.  The story is, “I love this thing, never mind the typing and switching applications and the battery life, and some sync hiccups,  and, and, and…”  The long story Apple told me about how much I was going to love the iPhone has turned into a story I tell myself about how much I do love the iPhone (30 day return policy be damned).  Every time I find something frustrating about the iPhone, I explain away the cognitive dissonance in one way or another.

All a helpful reminder of how many stories are at play in every customer (donor) relationship.  The right (and the wrong) stories keep on replaying, morphing, and multiplying, and your customers spend time looking to reinforce the stories you tell – and the ones they tell themselves – at every turn.

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The last turn problem

Next time you’re driving somewhere new, notice how you process the directions you’ve been given.  If you’re like me, you’ll give your complete attention to the overall route and the first 9/10th of the drive, and then when the time comes, you’ll pay close attention to the last set of turns.  “OK, I’m doing a 2 hour drive, going North on I-95, and then I need to take Exit 16…” gets you most of the way there.

This is an efficient way to process information: it’s simple, you keep to the key information, and you’re processing the amount of information you can handle given that you’re a novice on this route.

Notice the difference between this (the information you want to be told by a friend giving you directions) and how two locals talk to each other about driving.  If you’ve  ever visited Los Angeles, you’ve seen this scene unfold: the first 30 minutes of a party are spent with people (all insiders) comparing notes on how they got there, which freeways they did and didn’t take, how they remembered that there was a Lakers game tonight so they did such-and-such differently…  This is interesting if you spend a lot of your day trying to figure out how to beat nightmarish traffic.  But if you, guest at said party and newcomer to LA, are listening to this conversation, you’re lost and you’re not learning what you need to hear.  You just want to know which freeway to take when you go home and where to get off.  In fact, you’re probably OK sitting in traffic if it’s a choice between that and getting lost altogether.

Now, hold this thought for a minute, and then ask yourself how you take your experience as a driver trying to get from point A to point B and use it to make your storytelling more effective.  And take as a given that you, the storyteller, know your story inside-out and backwards.  You’re the expert who knows all the back roads and has the best secret for skipping off the highway to beat rush-hour traffic.

Don’t start talking about the back roads.  Don’t give all the tips and secrets.  Tell the story at the level of information and expertise that is right for the listener, not for you.  You can and should telescope in from time to time to provide context and details and be specific.  But if all you’re doing is sharing the insider’s version of your story, you’ve lost your audience.

This is why “storytelling” matters.  It’s not because people want simple answers and live at the level of anecdote.  It’s because stories provide a common language and a way of interacting that everyone can relate to, so they become the vehicle through which the expert (hopefully you) and the neophyte (your audience…sometimes but definitely not always) can develop a common understanding.

And going back to the driving analogy, as you develop your story, you are driving along the freeway, and if you bring your audience with you, you can delve into the nitty-gritty details of those last 8 turns.  Just don’t start there.  They’re not ready for that conversation, because it doesn’t matter to them…yet.