This post is the presentation that I just gave, along with Jon Franko from Gorilla76, to a group of internal and external communicators within Ag Biotech giant Monsanto. I'm sorry I couldn't figure out how to add in the visuals from the presentation file.

Dating back to the earliest recordings of man, storytelling and dialogue have been at the core of howwe communicate with one another. So why is it that this natural form of communication, so fundamentallyhuman, seems so unnatural and is so rare in corporate communication?

Most corporations spew out facts and data without weaving in the human story. Additionally, theytend to talk at their audiences, opposed to talking with them – chiefly because such communicationwas difficult to conduct. Now, however, all thanks to the Web, we have new tools popping up daily thatprovide for real dialogue in a mass setting.

So what opportunities does this create for corporate communicators and marketers?

Let’s explore.

Why should we strive to use storytelling in communication?
• Memorable
• Personal
• Puts things in context
• Root of human communication

Some examples:
• Jim Collins (Good to Great, Built to Last)
• Steve Jobs (Macworld)
• Sesame Street (fun learning vs. institutionalized)
• Best teachers we had in school

Another example:
Coconut oil in movie popcorn from Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. If you haven’t read this book, you should. It’s really, really good.

"Art Silverman stared at a bag of movie popcorn. It looked out of place sitting on his desk. Hisoffice had long since filled up with fake-butter fumes. Silverman knew, because of his organization’sresearch, that the popcorn on his desk was unhealthy. Shockingly unhealthy, in fact.His job was to figure out a way to communicate this message to the unsuspecting moviegoers ofAmerica.

Silverman worked for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit group thateducates the public about nutrition. The CSPI sent bags of movie popcorn from a dozen theatersin three major cities to a lab for nutritional analysis. The results surprised everyone.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that a normal diet containno more than 20 grams of saturated fat each day. According to the lab results, the typical bag ofpopcorn had 37 grams. The culprit was coconut oil, which theaters used to pop their popcorn. Coconut oil had some big advantages over other oils. It gave the popcorn a nice, silky texture, and released a more pleasant
and natural aroma than the alternative oils. Unfortunately, as the lab results showed, coconut oil was also brimming with saturated fat.

The single serving of popcorn on Silverman’s desk — a snack someone might scarf down betweenmeals — had nearly two days’ worth of saturated fat. And those 37 grams of saturated fat were packed into a medium-sized serving of popcorn. No doubt a decent sized bucket could have cleared triple digits.

The challenge, Silverman realized, was that few people know what “37 grams of saturated fat” means. Most of us don’t memorize the USDA’s daily nutrition recommendations. Is 37 grams good or bad? And even if we have an intuition that it’s bad, we’d wonder if it was “bad bad” (like cigarettes) or “normal bad” (like a cookie or a milk shake). Even the phrase “37 grams of saturated fat” by itself was enough to cause most people’s eyes to glaze over. “Saturated fat has zero appeal,” Silverman says. “It’s dry, it’s academic, who cares?”

Silverman could have created some kind of visual comparison-perhaps an advertisement comparing the amount of saturated fat in the popcorn with the USDA’s recommended daily allowance. Think of a bar graph, with one of the bars stretching twice as high as the other.

But that was too scientific somehow. Too rational. The amount of fat in this popcorn was, in some sense, not rational. It was ludicrous. The CSPI needed a way to shape the message in a way that fully communicated this ludicrousness.

Silverman came up with a solution. CSPI called a press conference on September 27, 1992. Here’s the message it presented: “A medium-sized ‘butter’ popcorn at a typical neighborhood movie theater contains more artery-clogging fat than a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings — combined!”

The folks at CSPI didn’t neglect the visuals — they laid out the full buffet of greasy food for the television cameras. An entire day’s worth of unhealthy eating, displayed on a table. All that saturated fat stuffed into a single bag of popcorn. The story was an immediate sensation, featured on CBS, NBC, ABC, and CNN. It made the
front pages of USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post’s Style section. Leno and Letterman cracked jokes about fat-soaked popcorn, and headline writers trotted out some doozies: “Popcorn Gets an ‘R’ Rating,” “Lights, Action, Cholesterol!” “Theater Popcorn is Double Feature of Fat.”

The idea stuck. Moviegoers, repulsed by these findings, avoided popcorn in droves. Sales plunged. The service staff at movie houses grew accustomed to fielding questions about whether the popcorn was popped in the “bad” oil. Soon after, most of the nation’s biggest theater chains — including United Artists, AMC, and Loews-announced that they would stop using coconut oil."

This is a great example of how to take relevant “data” and convey it in a way that is simple, unexpected,relevant, easy to identify with and creative so that the message “sticks.” After all, our ultimate goal as communicators is to positively influence our audiences.

• Who are your audiences?
• Why is your topic important to connect with them?
• What do you want them to do and what perception do you want them to have regarding Monsanto?
• What opportunities are there to tell stories?
• What other influencers are there that could tell stories (trusted 3rd party institutions like CSPI)?

At Monsanto, a big challenge exists due to your history, complex science and personal nature of your product – altering food!

Aim to make a connection that is human vs. corporate.

Communication is no longer one-way – like it or not. The Internet has armed anyone who wants a voice with a microphone. So how can you capitalize on this and embrace it?

We should embrace and encourage dialogue because:
• Two-way communication allows us to learn and react
• Opportunity to engage our audience and get them more vested in our story
• Allows us to get smarter about what audiences think, perceive and do

Perceptions and opinions will be formed by:
• Skeptics
• Fanatics
• Disgruntled customers and employees

Do you want these people on stage telling YOUR STORY?

Help guide the conversation:
• Dispel myths
• Establish credibility
• Positively impact perception
• Call out positive things vs. playing defense

Tools for such engagement include:
• Facebook & MySpace:
• YouTube:
• Twitter
• Ning:
• LinkedIn:
• Blogs
• Flickr

Use traditional media to drive people to engage, then react, learn and weave into future communications. Don’t think in terms of “campaigns” but ther “conversations.” Not a clear beginning and end – continuously evolving.

Obama example from Fast Company:

"His key tool was MyBarackObama.com, or MyBO for short, a surprisingly intuitive and funto-use networking Web site that allowed Obama supporters to create groups, plan events, raise funds, download tools, and connect with one another -- not unlike a more focused, activist Facebook.

MyBO also let the campaign reach its most passionate supporters cheaply and effectively.By the time the campaign was over, volunteers had created more than 2 million profiles on the site, planned 200,000 offline events, formed 35,000 groups, posted 400,000 blogs, and raised $30 million on 70,000 personal fund-raising pages.

There is no beginning and there is no end to storytelling and dialogue. It is an ongoing cycle that an organization must commit resources to. Adapt what you say, how you say it and what means you use to communicate it. All these are interwoven making it challenging for large organizations with many departments to stay on story.

Therefore – come up with theme guidelines that inform everyone who may be communicating. It creates commonality and a sense of order. Be sure marketing, sales, public relations, corporate communications all are cued in. Does each group
have a social networking coordinator? Are you evaluating how you can make your communication more story-like and facilitate and enable dialogue? Have you clearly answered the question of who are you talking to and what do you hope to achieve before jumping in to the blogosphere and world of Twitter and Facebook?

Find ways to tell positive stories and engage your audiences. Then listen and react.

Ad Age Digital
Business Week Exchange


Daniel J. Watkins said...

Great post, Mike! And, BTW, I can probably help you with putting the visual elements of your presentation in the blog post. Let me know if I can help! -Dan

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