You can’t touch this guide to using stories instead of cheesy adjectives, writes Ian Whitworth.
I had a discussion recently about what’s the lying-est lie that sales people and presenters use. The words that light up the subconscious lie detectors in your brain like a tiny Vivid Festival, every instinct telling you that your trust carries the same doomed optimism you see in anybody marrying an actor or musician.
There were some strong finalists. ‘Wow factor.’ ‘Thought leaders.’ ‘Mouth-watering.’ You can imagine each of them coming out of some confident tosser who will let you down in a blink.
But as a sign that you’re dealing with a straight-up, forked-tongue, fingers-crossed-behind-their-back liar, I’m giving the prize to ‘seamless’.
Nothing in life is seamless. People who say ‘seamless’ don’t actually know what it means or how to make it happen. They’ve just been trained, like a dog, that if they say the special word someone might give them some money. But it’s not very persuasive, because words are easy to say, and there’s an infinite supply of other people who also say them. Net competitive value: zero.
People like to sell and present with lists of boasts because it plays well in your own office, where everyone agrees that your own product is awesome. So someone selling a venue or catering service says ‘exquisite dishes prepared from the finest ingredients by our renowned chefs’. This style comes straight from the 1950’s school of thought that you persuade people by saying how great you are.
Why does this technique suck so deeply? Because it’s full of adjectives. Adjectives make your message weak and unprovable. Exquisite. Finest. Renowned. Really? Says who? The Independent Board of Catering Quality Benchmarking? Or is it from the Institute of What You Reckon? Verbal polyfilla you made up because that’s what marketing is supposed to look like, hoping that your prospect will race back to their office and go: “Guess what? I’ve found a place you can get EXQUISITE DISHES!”
There are two ways to solve your adjective infestation. One is being refreshingly honest. If someone said “our enterprise software has seams, but they’re really carefully stitched,” I’d buy from them because they sound like realists. It makes you stand out.
But for making people listen and understand, the best approach is stories. Contrast the sales blather above with a story from Phil, the executive chef at Adelaide’s National Wine Centre, a client of ours. Chefs tell it to you straight. They don’t have to worry about persuading you with adjectives, because they carry knives.
They’re in Adelaide’s Botanical Gardens. And the kitchen has developed a close relationship with the gardeners there, so there’s a source of produce literally outside the back gate. In fig season they go out and harvest enough fruit to make a year’s worth of fig paste. That helps the gardens, as otherwise the ripe fruit would drop, go all smooshy and attract fig-eating night critters. The gardeners have sorted the herb section into edible and inedible sections, so Phil’s team can take modest, sustainable clippings. It’s a lovely story with a happy sense of community.
Let’s analyse what makes it, like all good stories, a powerful way to communicate.
Nobody else can tell that story, because there’s nobody else is in the gardens. So it’s competitor-proof.
Local Sourcing At Its Most Local
People who love food know that Copenhagen’s Noma, which gets voted best restaurant in the world a lot, sends their kitchen staff out to forage for ingredients in the harsh Scandinavian landscape. The whole locavore movement makes Phil’s approach a clear signifier of produce quality and an antidote to generic function dining.
Another word that people just say because they feel they should, but what’s more sustainable than food that grows within a short walk that would have otherwise gone to waste?
Stories like that make people think: where do other venues get their produce from? Some giant distribution warehouse filled with preservative gases? Probably not, but it’s not going to be as good as Phil’s green idyll.
Easy To Remember and Re-Tell
This is the greatness of stories. You could get up right now and tell that story to anyone, because stories stick. If Phil just said: “At the National Wine Centre we have a unique location, fresh local ingredients, sustainability and close community partnerships,” three minutes later you’d be all “yeah, whatever, something freshness, green, I forget the rest.”
So search through your organisation and get some stories that don’t come from marketing people, folks, they’re presentation gold. Or get Lynne Schinella to teach you. She did a fine session on storytelling at the MEA conference in KL recently. Not seamless at all.
Ian Whitworth leads a double life as a co-founder of audio-visual group Scene Change, and principal of creative marketing consultancy, A Lizard Drinking. He can be contacted on email – firstname.lastname@example.org