Where storytelling meets social influence

August 12, 2013 1 comment

Experience may be the best teacher, but a compelling story is a close second. This is true as much in the workplace as it is in content marketing.

Let me explain with a story from my work life.

The meeting about meetings

In one of her first acts as the new manager, Sami called a staff meeting with one item on the agenda: meetings.

“We’re having a meeting about meetings? What’s that about?” several people wondered. I had my theory.

The weekly staff meetings were out of control. We never made it around the table for individual updates because each time the meeting would get hijacked by the same four people.

storytelling social influence

Storytelling at work.

They would consume the time with tirades about everything that was not working and how others in the organization were thwarting our efforts. Eventually others joined in:

“The sales reps are too lazy to pick up the phone and make a call.”

“I’m losing revenue because the plant is holding up production.”

“We can’t sell this product because the finance department priced it too high.”

The result was always the same: a rehash of the same issues every week with no solutions, but lots of hyperventilating. Mondays at 10:00 were my time of dread.

Sami had attended some of those meetings. My silent prayer was that she would bring change. That prayer was answered in a way I did not anticipate.

She opened the meeting that Monday morning with a statement that caught everybody by surprise. “I think we should discontinue the weekly meeting. I’m not sure anyone is getting any value from them. What do you think?”

The typically vocal group went silent.

Then one by one, people began to list reasons we needed to keep the meetings. This led to a discussion on how to make them more productive. Then the group came to agreement on new ground rules for interacting: offer solutions when voicing a problem; time limits to discussions; no sidebar discussions.

It turned into one of the most fruitful meetings we’d had in a long time.

At the end Sami added one last thing. “I’d like everybody to have a chance to lead the meetings. We’ll rotate each week and the leader is responsible for gathering agenda items, circulating the agenda beforehand and enforcing the ground rules. Everyone agree?”

They did. Enthusiastically.

The whole thing was handled brilliantly, especially that last part. It started a complete turnaround in the productivity of the meetings that spilled over into overall effectiveness of the group.

Related: The secret to bringing influence in any situation

From a management perspective, the lesson of this story could be about enabling teamwork or leading change. From an influence perspective, it is an example of the power of a narrative to motivate and inspire in the workplace.

But is it storytelling?

Lead with a story

Sami’s approach to tackling this management challenge follows a simple storytelling structure, with a beginning, middle and end. Paul Smith, author of Lead with a Story, describes this structure for business narratives with the acronym CAR: context, action, result.

Let’s look at the “meeting about meetings” and see how it fits into this model.

telling a business storyCONTEXT

The context sets the stage for the narrative. It is the who, what, when, where of the story. It also identifies the protagonist and antagonist in a conflict. On one side we have Sami, with a desire to improve productivity. On the other side we have the disruptors with a desire to vent.


This tells what happened when the protagonist and antagonist come into conflict. Sami opened with an element of surprise to break the thought patterns of the disruptors. They were drawn into a debate defending the merits of weekly meetings.


At the meeting the action shifted from negative fault-finding to problem solving. In hindsight, we can see the lessons learned: putting the audience into the story, team involvement in problem solving, leading and motivating change.

Stories at work

We often limit our thinking about storytelling to brand stories, case studies and marketing content or presentations. At least I do. But business narratives have the same power to inspire, educate, entertain and engage as brand stories in our content marketing. They can boost your influence in the workplace.

How do you put stories to work for you at work?

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Every day is an interview

John Maxwell has said, “Leadership is built daily, not in a day.”

It’s a simple, yet profound truth. The choices you make and the actions you take each day build equity that makes you a person of influence at work, at home, or anywhere else in life.

It is the true path to promotion.

Here is a story where I experienced this principle in action.

One day I was called to meet with my management team. “John, we’re making some changes to the organization and you are part of them,” my boss said. “We are making you manager over half of the marketing team.”

As they explained the new structure, it became clear to me that 10 of my marketing peers would now be reporting to me. They were a bright and talented bunch. Many had been with the company and department much longer than me. Would they accept me in this new role?

Related: Leaders have followers

promoting leadership

The path to promotion is a daily walk.

Still processing the sudden news, I raised this question. “Won’t they resent not having had the opportunity to interview for a new manager role?”

I’ll always remember the answer my director gave me.

“They interviewed for the job every day they walked in the door,” she said.

Her answer made me realize that every single day you are being evaluated by the value you bring. How do you position yourself for promotion in your day-to-day activities? There are many ways, but here is what I learned from this experience.


Bring creative ideas that improve the strategy, approach, work process, product, etc. The more ideas you bring, the more opportunities you have to innovate and improve the quality of work. Here is how that came into play in my story.

At that first meeting, my boss told me, “I want you to take that targeted catalog strategy you did, and expand it across the entire group. Lead the charge.”

When I first proposed the idea of producing catalogs, it was met with groans, eye-rolls and a unanimous, “We tried that and it didn’t work.” The company had produced a mammoth catalog with every one of thousands of products in it. It was expensive and a production headache.

But I had a different idea.

I created a series of smaller catalogs with product offerings that encouraged meaningful cross-sales to targeted customer segments. Products featured in these catalogs had the combination impact made popular by Amazon: people who bought this, also bought that.

The new strategy was so successful the management team wanted me to extend it across the whole department.

Related: Don’t think about innovation like a CEO


There are two kinds of people: those who identify problems, and those who identify solutions to problems. Those who offer solutions get promoted.

The targeted catalog strategy solved a number of business problems. One, it enabled us to reduce the number of solo campaigns, which cut costs and mail clutter. Two, we got smarter about targeting offers that drove inbound traffic and phone calls. And most importantly, it increased sales and profitability.


Do more than is required of you. It is the difference between seeing the opportunity and seizing the opportunity. Those who seize it, go beyond what is expected and find a way to do the work better, faster and more efficiently.

Related: The surprising rewards of going the extra mile

Others in my group determined catalogs did not work and chose to continue a strategy of expensive solo campaigns. I knew there had to be a better way and set out to find it. It was a risk with awesome rewards.

My big takeaway from this experience is that you really are interviewing every day. You may already have the job or the client or the customer, but promotion comes from the daily pursuit of awesomeness.

What are you doing today to be positioned for promotion?

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Common words that suck emotional power out of your content

blog writing with emotional words

You can’t bore someone into reading or sharing your content.

Every word has an emotion attached to it.

Every reader, regardless of profession or IQ, has an emotional reaction to your words. It is hardwired into the brain.

So when you are writing a blog post or other content for online marketing, your choice of words is important. Need convincing?

Legendary copywriter John Caples made a life study of persuasive writing. Once, he changed the word “repair” to “fix” in an ad and achieved a 20% increase in response. One word!

Related: A word reduction plan for lean writing

That illustrates an important rule of word choice for writers: When emotion meets intellect, emotion always wins. Analytical words activate the reader’s analytical brain instead of triggering an emotional response. Here is an example.

How would you respond to getting this email?


It is loaded with intellectual words like “selected,” “allocated,” “receive,” and “required.” I think anybody with a pulse would be left cold by this message.

What if we replaced the intellectual words with emotional words? We might get something like this:

We have great news for you. You’re already a winner.

Here’s how you claim your award …

It is essentially the same information. But the words are far more likely to trigger a response.

Weeding the content garden

Like weeds in a garden, intellectual words can creep into your copy, choking its emotional impact. It is so unnecessary. When you are on the lookout for them, it is easy to shift word choice in favor of emotion. Here is a reference guide to get you started, courtesy of my copywriting hero Herschell Gordon Lewis.

content marketing emotion words

Boring or persuasive? You choose

Every good piece of copy has an emotional outpouring of words. But there is a big difference between writing with emotion and dumbing down your message. It comes down to understanding people.

People make judgments about you, your ideas, or your brand based on emotion. Then they justify their response with logic. It happens in that order.

Your challenge as a blogger is to choose words that arouse their senses and lead them to their logical conclusion. Intellectual words don’t do that. They make you sound smarter. They also make you sound boring.

What would you add to the intellectual/emotional word list?

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Make readers devour your content with these curiosity hooks

create curiosity in blog content

How to hook your blog readers into reading to the end.

On the night of April 14, the ocean liner Californian has progressed to within fifteen hundred miles of her destination, Boston Harbor.


Second Officer Herbert Stone is due for watch on the bridge.

Reporting for duty, Stone finds his apprentice seaman glued to a pair of binoculars, staring toward the black horizon.

He, the apprentice, has sighted a steamer in the distance.

He can make out the ship’s masthead light, her red light, and a glare of white lights on her afterdeck.

Stone asks the apprentice to try for communication by means of the Californian’s Morse lamp.

A bright beacon signal is flashed.

No answer from the steamer.

“Will that be all, sir?”

Stone nods; the apprentice leaves to make record in the patent log.

Now Second Officer Stone is alone on the bridge.

Glancing idly over the water, a white flash catches his eye—a white flash of light in the direction of the distant steamer.

Stone scratches his head, picks up the binoculars. Four more white flashes, like skyrockets burst in the heavens.

Stone notifies the ship’s captain.

Over the voice pipe, the captain asks if the flashes appeared to be company signals.

Stone cannot say for sure.

The captain then requests further communication attempt through the Morse lamp.

By now Stone’s apprentice has returned to the bridge. The beacon signal is employed once more.

Still no answer from the steamer.

Lifting the binoculars to his eyes once more, Stone observes three more flashes in the continuing light show, but now his attention is drawn to the steamer’s cabin lights.

They seem to be disappearing, as though the steamer were sailing away.

At 1:40 a.m., Stone sees the eighth and last white flash in the night sky.

In one hour, all the steamer’s lights have vanished into the blackness.

It is not until 4:00 a.m. that anyone on board the liner Californian learns the rest of the story.

The curiosity hook

paul harvey, master storyteller

Paul Harvey

So begins The Light Show, one of hundreds of stories told by radio personality Paul Harvey. One of the hallmarks of his storytelling was the ability to build curiosity that made you pay attention until the last word.

Listeners would eagerly sit through the commercial break just to hear the rest of the story. Isn’t that the desire of every blogger and content marketer, to hold readers’ attention through to the last word of your content?

It is one of the great challenges in content marketing today, and cause for concern. Here is why.

Recently Slate magazine did an online readership study that quantifies the problem:

The antidote is to build curiosity into your copy to keep readers reading. I learned a copywriting trick that works wonders for this. I call it the curiosity hook. Never heard of it?

Let me explain.

A curiosity hook is a short sentence that signals something important or surprising is ahead. It is a transitional phrase that links two paragraphs either at the end of one, the beginning of the next, or as its own one-line paragraph.

There is a simple reason it works.

It introduces a question in the mind of the reader that can only be answered by reading on. Let me give you some examples:

  • And that’s not all.
  • There’s one more thing.
  • Then I made a discovery.
  • Let me explain.
  • You won’t believe what happened next.
  • Here’s why.
  • That’s when things got weird.
  • So read on.
  • But there’s another reason.
  • Now here comes the good part.
  • Then it got interesting.
  • The story doesn’t end there.
  • Here’s the twist.
  • It gets better.
  • But I didn’t stop there.
  • Then she came to a decision.
  • I couldn’t stand it any longer.
  • And then inspiration struck.

Each of these hooks creates curiosity by teasing the promise of new information. It pulls the reader into the next paragraph. The curiosity hook puts a question into their mind that needs closure: What? Why? How? Closure comes when they read on.

Done well, your reader can’t escape without reading to the end.

And now, the rest of the story

If you have read this far, you’re probably curious how the story ends. Here is what happened.

Neither the Captain nor the Second Officer aboard the Californian had interpreted the white skyrocket flashes as cause for alarm.

titanic storytelling

Drama just nine miles away.

It was a matter of coincidence that they had been seen in the first place. For earlier that night – the night of April 14 – the Californian had reversed engines and parked as a precautionary measure, halted in her course by an immense field of oceanic ice.

That unscheduled stop in the middle of the sea had provided the Californian a ringside seat to an unimaginable drama.

The distant steamer had intended those rocket flares as distress signals, and the Californian – only nine miles away – might have rushed to her aid.

Except for one thing. The steamer was sending other distress calls by radio. And the Californian was well within range of those messages.

But her radio operator was asleep.

The Californian’s fledgling radio operator – fresh from training school – was fast asleep in his cabin. And that night the ship’s Second Officer, from his vantage point on the bridge, unwittingly watched the sinking … of the Titanic.

As Paul Harvey famously said, now you know the rest of the story.

Now that your curiosity is satisfied, will you help satisfy mine? Let me know if you think curiosity hooks will help you engage your blog readers. Or, if you have others you’d add to the list. I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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Does your social media manager have emotional intelligence?

social media and emotional intelligence

When passion overwhelms reason you get a social media firestorm.

This is a topic I don’t hear discussed much, if at all.

Most tips on finding or becoming a social media manager focus on similar skills and experience:

  • Familiarity with numerous social platforms
  • Experience/expertise with social media
  • Education in marketing, communication, journalism, PR
  • Solid writing skills

Emotional intelligence should be at the top of the list.

Growing up on Facebook or having expansive knowledge of social platforms does not translate into grace under fire. In the throes of real-time marketing on social media, passion can overwhelm reason and judgment.

Take for example, the recent public meltdown of Amy’s Baking Company on Facebook. Here are a few excerpts from a much longer series of posts responding to their critics.

social media pr

social media marketing freak out

social media marketing customer engagement

social media management gone wrong

[Source: Buzzfeed]

Since the last post invokes “what God wants,” I’ll cite one of His Proverbs that speaks to this situation and any other social media exchange:

A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

I confess, I have not always followed this wisdom. I’m just grateful none of my angry tirades got published on social media for all the world to see.

And that is the point.

Of all emotions, anger has the greatest potential to stir controversy and discord on social media.

Anger criticizes, ridicules, disrespects, humiliates and frequently provokes us to take quick action.

Those actions can be regrettable. On social media they can destroy your brand reputation and damage public relations in a single mouse-click.

That is why emotional intelligence is such an important trait in a community manager.

An emotionally competent social media manager

The concept of emotional intelligence was first introduced by Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book. In business, it is most commonly associated with cultivating effective leaders. But the principles work across any discipline, including social media management.

What is the model of emotional competence in a social media manager?

Most simply, it can be evaluated by examining two areas of the social/self.

1. Self-awareness and self-regulation:  understanding what drives individual behavior and how the individual regulates emotions.

2. Social awareness and relationship management: the capacity for empathy and understanding how actions and words influence others.

Understanding the “self” part of the person will give you a sense how the “social” part will operate. Ideally you find this out when you interview them, if you know what to ask.

How to guage emotional intelligence

Here are some things to ask your current or perspective social media manager to gauge his or her emotional competency.


Tell me about your strengths and your limitations.

Tell me about a time when you received feedback.

Tell me about a time when you made a big mistake.


social media emotional intelligence

Social media social skills

How do you handle stressful situations?

Tell me about a time when you got angry. What did you do?

When do you feel most under pressure?

How do you handle multiple demands?

How do you achieve work/life balance?


Describe a time when you had to deliver difficult news.

What do you do when someone comes to you with a problem?

Describe a time when understanding someone else’s perspective helped you understand them better.

How do you understand what others are feeling?


Tell me about a time when you needed to influence someone.

Describe a difficult issue you had to deal with.

How do you build rapport and relationships with people?

As Goleman has said, emotional intelligence can matter more than IQ in determining a person’s success. Is your social media manager intelligent enough to turn away wrath with a soft answer? Think about it now, because your brand’s reputation depends on it.

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Dad’s old school marketing maxims for today

dad's marketing maxims

What dad taught me about social media and content marketing.

Maybe father knows best after all.

Growing up, I heard plenty of advice, stories and platitudes designed to guide me into responsible adulthood.

Some of it stuck. Especially dad’s advice on marketing fundamentals.

In 1971 dad started a marketing agency. I was 10 years old then and didn’t really know what that was. I figured it had something to do with advertising.

In the early days, I would wake up in the morning and find dad sitting in his recliner writing feverishly on a yellow legal pad. The smell of stale coffee and cigarettes told me he had already been working for several hours.

Fast forward to 1981. The summer of my freshman year in college we were coming out of a recession and I had a broken ankle. My summer job prospects were dim. Dad gave me an internship doing design work and emptying waste baskets.

That was my first exposure to the world of marketing. I learned those yellow page scribblings were marketing proposals, marketing plans and copy. I got to experience photo shoots and press checks. I watched him turn ideas into finished direct marketing campaigns.

Related: To pierce the digital clutter, deliver the unexpected

I joined dad’s firm in 1989 after a 4-year stint in corporate America. That’s when I was fed a steady diet of dad’s marketing maxims that served me well in the two decades that followed.

Here are three that still apply to our digital world today:

“Nothing happens until a sale is made”

This one serves as a reminder that results are more important than the creative work or winning awards. The direct marketing discipline of tracking response rates and sales metrics are the lifeblood of online marketing.

It is also a guiding principle for creating a productive working relationship between marketing and sales. The marketer must focus on lead generation and sales enablement that will make the sales team succeed, because nothing happens until a sale is made.

content marketing maxims

Dad, 1985

“Your customer is your best prospect”

We specialized in creating relationship marketing programs that built customer loyalty and were designed to generate referrals, cross-selling and up-selling opportunities. The programs optimized direct mail as the channel to engage customers and facilitate conversations with sales reps.

Related: CRM woos social media. Will the engagement last?

Today social media gives us a channel for making these kinds of connections which dad could not have imagined. But the idea is as true today as ever.

“The old is forever new”

I think of this a lot when I hear people talking about content marketing and brand journalism. Dad is particularly intrigued by this and rightfully proud of our early work in this area before digital media.

Related: The accidental brand journalist

He was at the forefront of direct marketers to develop continuity programs where B2B clients published industry newsletters that used a journalistic reporting and writing style to tell brand stories. There were no blogs, but the content approach was the same used by brand journalists today.

Related: The case for getting a journalist on your content marketing team

Dad has been retired for quite a few years now. When I talk about Twitter or blogging or social media, it is hard for him to comprehend how much the landscape has changed. But some of the maxims he taught me haven’t changed at all.

What marketing maxims would you add to dad’s list?

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How to put a price tag on strategy

value of marketing strategy

A seven-step proposal will help you highlight the value of your creative strategy.

For starters, don’t make it a discussion about your hourly rate.

In a tough economy, marketing agencies, consultants and freelancers face a daily battle against having their talent and intellectual capital commoditized. I saw this happen early in my career.

In the 1990s I worked for a B2B direct marketing agency that did very well. We had several long term accounts with Fortune 100 companies. We did many ongoing customer relationship programs for them that generated profitable sales over periods of 5-10 years.

We also had a few kinks in the business model that made me uncomfortable.

At that time it was still fairly common for an agency to land full-service business. We were fortunate enough to be one of them. Over time, we got too comfortable with the margins from printing, mailing and fulfillment services while selling creative and strategy services near cost.

Related: The triage marketing death trap

On top of that, the sales model for new business gave away strategy. We would present a complete marketing program, with all the research, analysis and creative rationale at the proposal stage. Many times I would walk away from those presentations thinking, “We’ve given them the whole strategy. They could take the plan, thank us, and then do it themselves.”

When economic hardship hit our biggest client, this came back to haunt us.

In response, they implemented a centralized procurement policy to cut costs. They unbundled all of the printing, mailing and fulfillment services from our programs, pulling them in-house. The body blows didn’t stop there.

Since we had been giving away the strategy work, it showed no value on their ledgers. Eventually we devolved from a full-service agency to a creative vendor. Party over.

I remembered that lesson years later when I became an independent consultant. I resolved to never give away the strategy or creative ideas in a marketing proposal. Instead, I use a proposal format that sells the plan and value I bring. It’s much more than a one-page cost estimate, though. Check out this slide deck to see what I mean.

7 steps to proving your value to prospective clients

Including these seven components in your marketing proposal helps to steer the discussion to how you will help solve a business problem rather than how much you cost. It follows a logical flow that more often than not gets the client to say, “Yes, let’s work together.”

Here’s how it flows:

marketing proposal flow chart


The overview is a high level summary that tells the client (I’m using the assumptive close, here) you understand their business challenges. And it states the problem you will be solving together.


Sometimes I refer to these as “starter objectives” to get the conversation started. The goal is to get written agreement on specific outcomes and how they will be measured. For more on writing smart objectives see this post. Everything that follows is based on the objectives, so getting agreement on them is most critical.

Related: When execution beats strategy


This part details the specific work you will be doing, and when appropriate, what is not included.


Here is where you explain the steps you will take to complete the work and identify all the parties and responsibilities required to make them happen.


Now it makes sense to show the estimated costs. They are based on work process, which is based on the scope of work, which is based on the objectives. This gives a value basis and strategic rationale to the costs. Discussions about the budget can be focused on scope rather than your hourly rate.


The purpose of the working agreement is to establish the legal aspects of working together before they become an issue midway into the project. It covers cost estimates, ownership of work, confidentiality, payment for services and other elements of doing business together. Addressing this up front shows you are a professional.


This is the place to end on a positive note. Don’t make it fluffy boilerplate propaganda. Direct your narrative to the skills, knowledge and experience you have specific to the industry and the assignment.

Getting to ‘YES’

The important thing to remember is the proposal is not the marketing plan. It is a discussion tool to set and manage the expectations for the project. And it is a tool to help you establish the value of the strategy and work you bring. It is your best bet for getting to ‘yes.’

Tell me what you think.

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