The Secret To A Better Reputation Isn't Better Adjectives—It's Better Storytelling

In light of U.S. audiences' diminishing attention span and buzzword tolerance, Joe Biden's former speechwriter offers actionable advice on what types of stories to tell and how business leaders can find them.

In the early 20th century, psychologists discovered that your brain, just like your stomach, can get full.

The phenomenon was eventually called semantic satiation—where people got so tired of hearing a repeated word or phrase, that their brain began processing it as gibberish.

In the early 21st century, many American businesses and their leaders are unwittingly repeating this experiment on a mass scale—testing the appetites of their audiences with empty buzzwords that threaten to turn their communications into something akin to Charlie Brown’s parents mumbling from the other room.

The rise of business speak isn’t a new phenomenon of course, and it has long been greeted on a spectrum somewhere between annoyance and mild amusement. But beyond the snickering about "synergies" and "value added solutions" lies a real problem.

Too many companies—and the executives who lead them—are trying to tell someone else’s story.

They are relying on words that don’t accurately or authentically characterize what they do, why they are different, or how they provide value to customers, shareholders, employees, and society.

Take for example, the latest buzzword du jour: "innovation."

A 2012 Wall Street Journal report found that U.S. companies used some form of the word "innovation" over 33,000 times in SEC-filed quarterly and annual reports—a 64% increase compared to 2007. In late 2013, the Journal discovered that the number of Standard & Poor's 500 companies mentioning innovation on their quarterly conference calls had doubled to 197, from just 99 companies five years prior.

Do we think there are suddenly twice as many innovative companies in the S&P 500? Perhaps businesses are running shadow campaigns to get themselves on Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies list.

A more likely explanation is that the same companies and executives that undoubtedly understand the perils of "me too" marketing of their products are, for some reason, embracing "me too" marketing of their company to investors, employees, policymakers, and other audiences.

And the more companies that claim to be innovative, the less it really means.

It’s no surprise then that when Capgemini Consulting asked corporate leaders to identify the biggest barriers to achieving their company’s innovation targets, the top reply was "the absence of a well-defined innovation strategy."

It’s tough to meet a goal when you can’t define what it is.

Of course, the word "innovation" isn’t the real problem. Nor is the desire by companies to be seen as innovative.

The problem is thinking that the secret to better communications and a better reputation is better adjectives.

When one CEO conceded to the Journal that his company had been going to the innovation well too often, he finally pledged to do something different.

He said his company would start describing itself as "inventive" instead.

Instead of finding better adjectives, companies need to find a better story.

The novelist Elmore Leonard—who started his career writing copy for a Detroit ad agency—once said that "when you're reading a novel, you don't want people telling you things, you want to see it, to hear it."

The advice is just as relevant to business leaders and companies as it is to aspiring writers. Don’t tell an audience how innovative you are. Show them with a great story.

Good company stories do more than just engage or entertain. They highlight what really makes you different, and how you actually put your company values into practice. They demonstrate how a complicated technology or business can deliver simple, easy to understand value to the people who buy from you, invest in you, work with you, or depend on you to solve problems.

In searching for these stories, don’t think about what you want to say. Find out what your respective audiences want or need to hear. Do the research to see how you, as well as your industry peers are really perceived; to see if what you say matches what people really think about you, and to gauge what elements of your business or industry are interesting or exciting, boring, or concerning.

These insights will help you develop and deliver a consistent narrative that reinforces good perceptions, rebuts the bad ones, and provides an authentic picture of what you do and where you fit amid broader trends in your industry or the economy.

Tell the right stories with an original voice and your audience just may conclude on their own that you are innovative, or strategic, or whatever else you want to be—without you ever having to actually say those words.

The power of stories isn’t just validated by late, great novelists.

A research team led by Princeton psychologist Uri Hasson found that audiences hearing a good story actually had similar brain activity on MRI scans to the person telling the story. The upshot, according to Psychology Today, was that a storyteller could essentially "plant ideas, thoughts, and emotions into the listeners' brains."

The importance of good storytelling will only continue to grow as companies and their leaders deal with audiences that, according to an array of recent research and polling, have shorter attention spans and diminishing confidence in anything government and business leaders have to say.

Some companies are adjusting accordingly. Witness for example, the rapid increase in content marketing budgets, as companies recognize the need to reach audiences with documentary style videos, speeches, articles, and social media experiences that tell stories and are often similar in tone and style to content one would find from traditional news outlets.

But too many companies are still lagging behind, piling into an overcrowded communications marketplace with more jargon, when they should be separating themselves with better stories.

Almost every company, no matter what they do, has interesting stories to tell that will resonate and be relevant to the audiences they care about.

Now, they just need to tell them.

Ryan Clancy leads the Executive Communications practice at FTI Consulting, where he advises business leaders on communications strategy and thought leadership. He previously served as a speechwriter in the Obama administration for Vice President Joe Biden and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke.

[Image: Flickr user OFFICIAL LEWEB PHOTOS]

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3 Comments

  • One thing that comes to my mind is GE and how they're employing the Lean Startup philosophy to their entire company. They're a company I've always looked up for innovation since Jack Welch's time. It's delightful to hear that they're taking action towards reinventing themselves to stay on the cusp of innovative culture.

    That may be the issue there - companies want to be innovative, but they don't know how except by talking. They talk the talk, but don't walk to walk. Is this how innovation starts? Is measuring the # of times the word innovation is being used a vanity metric or a diagnostic for an evolving culture ready to embrace a new philosophy?

  • Larry Melnick

    Thanks for sharing this, Ryan. Powerful insights! I agree with you that much of the solution starts with understanding your market. Among the clients that I work with, there is usually a gap in not just understanding the market, but understanding themselves through the eyes of their market - what they do, why they are different, or how they provide value to customers. As you point out, they end up relying on others words that certainly aren't authentic. Those words most often fade into "blah-blah-blah" and definitely don't serve as a platform for good storytelling. It's interesting to see how good client research can provide valuable insights that among other things, sharpens this understanding and ultimately unearths a message and voice that better engages and influences.