Unleashing Your Voice Blog

I’m a big fan of Patti Digh, author of Life is a Verb, Creative is a Verb, and a wonderful blog, 37days.com.  Patti started the blog, which launched her writing career, when her stepfather died—just 37 days after he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

That’s the kind of wake-up call that would shake any of us, and it was a call that Patti answered in a significant way. She decided she had something to say, first to her daughters and then to the world–messages that she needed to leave behind if she ever had just 37 days, and messages that needed to shape her life if she had many more.  The writing that followed became a kind of instructional manual to her daughters for how to be in the world and how to live a fuller, more intentional life.

Patti started asking herself what she’d be doing that day if she only had 37 days to live.  And she also began championing the concept of 37 days as a timeline for living—not just for dying.  She decided that if you devoted 37 days to almost anything, it would change your life; that it’s enough time to change a habit or create a new one; to incrementally but significantly alter your worldview; to figure out what you really have to say and start saying it.

And that’s where this all begins to tie into to branding, to message strategy and to unleashing your voice in the world.  I’m thinking there’s a kind of “37 days” litmus test we could all put to a personal or an organizational brand.  It would include questions like:

  • If you or your organization had only 37 days to live, what do you need to get busy saying right now?
  • Why are you talking about anything else, anyway?
  • What can you do in the next 37 days to make sure you’re standing for and communicating something that matters?

The sense of urgency that comes from not having much time has a lot to teach all of us.  What really matters becomes crystal clear.  What we care about most moves front and center.  Who we are without all the excess window dressing is far more evident.  There’s no time to waste on the extraneous.

All of that is what makes a great brand, well, great.  Its focus is clear; its message is loud and proud; its intent is real and human.  It knows who it is, and it doesn’t try to be anything else.

And you can create that kind of brand for yourself or your organization—especially if you use the “37 days” filter to shape it. It’s pretty simple, really. Build a brand identity based on who you really are and what you need to say, and share it in a way that matters to those who need to hear it.  Let an imagined sense of urgency guide you to that clear focus, that proud message, that authentic intent.

Oh, and don’t give yourself more than 37 days to do it.

Happy National Inventor’s Day!  Yes, it’s a real day of observance—presidentially proclaimed by Ronald Reagan back in the ‘80s and timed to coincide with Thomas Edison’s birthday on Feb. 11.  The intent, of course, is to honor and celebrate inventions that have changed or made lives better.

Now, I’m no Thomas Edison, but I am an inventor.  So are we all.  We may not have invented the light bulb, but we create or originate things all the time–from the simplest ideas for how to do something better at work to the most complex re-organizations of people or systems.  When it comes to branding, we’re constantly inventing how we want others to see us—inviting them to imagine a world where what we do matters.

As a country, we’re pretty good at invention.  It seems to me that what we’re really great at, though, is reinvention.  We’re obsessed with the makeover, from home décor to celebrity rehab to political redemption.  If we have a problem, reinvention often seems like the answer.  Our collective imagination appears to be boundless.

There’s a lot of upside to that, and some downside as well.  One downside is how easy it can be to slip into the dark side of invention and reinvention—reinventing history, inventing excuses, reinventing the wheel, fabricating the truth.  After awhile, are we really reinventing or are we just making things up?  Are we looking to be more of what we are, or more of what we’re not?

This is an important question for anyone who’s thinking about branding or rebranding—especially if you’re doing it in response to some external dynamic that has you running a little scared.  Case in point:  I was recently approached by a potential client who said that he wanted to reinvent his brand.  Clearly, things weren’t going well from a marketing or sales position.  This client wanted to reinvent the way the organization was perceived without actually changing anything they did.  He didn’t want to involve his people in the rebranding, either; just create a new image that might or might not reflect what his organization is really like, really believes in, or is really capable of delivering.

Could there be an inventive approach to doing this?  Absolutely.  Is it likely to work in the long run?  Not very.  So, if you want to effectively rebrand your organization or yourself, remember the following when it comes to reinvention:

1.  True reinvention is a process of stepping more deeply into who you really are. A lot of people seem to think of reinvention as stepping away from something or being more like someone or something else. I think of it as stepping into something about ourselves that’s a better match with what the world needs.  It’s about finding and activating the lesser known parts of ourselves, and of knowing and telling our stories in profound new ways.

2.  True reinvention feels empowering. If it’s based on the real strengths and values you have to offer the world, reinvention energizes, activates and empowers.  If it’s about laying claim to things that don’t feel like you or you can’t really deliver, it does just the opposite.  If your rebranding is fear-based—or a fearful reaction to what’s going on around you—you’re headed down a disempowering path.

3.  True reinvention offers true value to the world. I have another client who says he helps people provide real value in the world while staying true to themselves.  If that’s the foundation for a rebranding, then you’re on the right track.  If your rebranding is based on an empty promise that you think someone wants to hear, you’re trying to reinvent reality instead of yourself.  Even “Extreme Home Makeover” would have trouble with that one.

I love a good story.  You probably do, too.  Stories influence, inspire and capture our imaginations like nothing else.  We tell them all the time.  And they scare the heck out of many of my clients.

I don’t mean my clients are literally afraid of stories.  I mean they sometimes get intimidated at the thought of using story to communicate about an organization, product or service.  Some don’t know where to begin.  Others don’t know what kind of story to tell.  Some don’t think they’ll be taken seriously unless they have lots of facts and information share.

So here’s the good news:  You don’t have to tell a story at all to make your communications a lot more interesting–or to dramatically increase the chance that your messages will be heard–or to make the kind of human connection with an audience that starts to build a real relationship.  But you do have to use story-based communications principles. Here are four core principles to remember:

1.  Begin at the end. If you don’t know where to begin, remember this:  when it comes to quickly engaging other people in what you have to say, it’s the outcomes they care about (the “happy endings,” so to speak).  In formal marketing speak, that means shifting your communications strategy to an outcome-base orientation.  In plain speak, it means telling people what’s going to happen for them if they get involved with you (e.g., buy something, donate, advocate for your position, etc.).    Tell them less about what you do and more about how it’s going to turn out.

2.  Typecast yourself. If you don’t know what kind of story to tell, mentally cast your organization in the role of a character it’s most like–and talk about the things that character would talk about.  Maybe you’re organization is most like a Creator that helps people innovate or express something.  Maybe you’re like a Hero that helps others overcome challenges.  Maybe you most resemble a Jester that helps people have fun.  Each of those characters would say very different things if asked to make a presentation about you, probably in a lively and interesting way.  Knowing who you are and what role you play in the world can bring your communications to life, too.  For help with this, you can find a free story typing survey on my website (http://www.storybranding.com/take-the-svss-survey/) that will tell you which one of 12 great characters you or your organization is most like.

3.  Get serious about sharing your values. The characters in great stories rely on a combination of strengths (what they’re good at) and values (what they care about) to accomplish their missions.  Strengths are critical, but they’re not as memorable as values.  Most organizational communications focus a lot on strengths and a lot less on values.  At the end of the day, though, you’ll be defined by the value system that others associate with you.   They’re the most critical part of your identity infrastructure because they make you seem real and alive to others.

4.  Tell the truth. Okay, so some of the great stories we love to hear aren’t exactly true.  But when it comes to organizational communications, nothing is more important than authenticity.  Telling the truth about who you are and what you or your products/services really mean attracts the people who will be your best customers or employees or advocates.  And if creating an attraction field for your work isn’t what you’ve set out to do, why tell a story at all?