My name is LARRY VINCENT. I'm a writer, speaker, photographer and lovable nerd based in Los Angeles. When I'm not writing here about things that inspire me, I look after The Brand Studio at United Talent Agency.
I’ve been asked the same question for the past week: Is Apple’s brand on a decline?
Some who asked were from the media, others were clients. Today, the market will ask the same question and await clarity in the answer Apple provides when it releases its earnings report.
Why are so many obsessed with Apple’s brand health? The obvious reason is that Apple has been the center of our attention for so long that we naturally want to see what happens next. But there are other factors at play. There’s a new king on the throne and we aren’t sure what to think of him. He’s clearly not Steve Jobs, but we can’t match him to a clear archetype. He’s a mystery. Mystery breeds speculation.
There isn’t a bigger forum for television advertising than the Super Bowl. It was once Carnegie Hall and the Grand Ole Opry rolled into one—a place for brands and their agencies to raise the stakes and entertain the largest television audience in the world. Some of the most memorable advertisements of all time debuted on a Super Bowl broadcast. So, why was 2013 so lackluster?
These posters represent some of the best thinking in branding. A visual identity should provide only a cue, be it an artifact, a plot point, or a character trait. We just need the simple cue to let our imagination do the rest of the work. In fact, research has shown that we enjoy graphic identity more when our brain is engaged piecing together the story from the cue.
In schools across the world we teach young people many skills and bits of knowledge; like how to read and to write, how to solve quadratic equations, or how to calculate the atomic weight of Hydrogen. We arm our children with the most powerful concepts we can imagine in our overly analytical minds, so much so that we stress ourselves out and stress our children out in the process. However, I’ve noticed that we don’t spend enough time teaching our children two critical skills that are essential to life. We don’t teach them how to tell a story and we don’t teach them how to listen for one.
With the new year just hours away, it’s time to make a resolution to yourself to improve how you tell your story. I spend a lot of time on this site discussing brands and storytelling. Today we address the most important brand in your life: you.
Whether you’re writing a resume, an email to a colleague or a post to your blog, your goal should be to tell your story in each snippet of prose. Sadly, too many interesting people short-change themselves when they write. They miss the opportunity to convey their character and the essence of their story. Here are five simple things you can do to bring out your brand narrative.
Use your own voice
I have a friend who is one of the most affable, lovable guys you’ll ever meet. He’s the life of the party and a charming professional. People like being around him. Unfortunately, when he writes, he sounds like a droll actuary (apologies to any actuaries reading this). His sentences are filled with formal, stiff constructions. Reading something from him, you’d never guess what he was really like. There’s simply no good reason to communicate with anything other than your own voice. Make sure what you write sounds like you. Before hitting the send key, read your writing out loud. Is this how you would say what you want to say if the person were sitting in front of you?
Match characters to actions
If you really want to be a storyteller, stop thinking of subject/verb agreement and start thinking about characters in actions. Great storytelling is revealed by action, not exposition. Instead of writing, “the report we wrote was transmitted by Mary on Thursday,” consider: “Mary sent you our report Thursday.” It’s more engaging to follow Mary doing something than it is to follow the track of the report.
Use dialog and quotes
For some reason, business writers shy away from snippets of dialog. I wrote a research report last year that started with a direct quotation from one of the respondents: “The challenge is to develop entertainment that keeps people engaged…” It was a successful technique. The client told me people actually enjoyed reading my document — this from a thoroughly PowerPoint culture. Quotes and snippets of dialog are the hallmarks of good storytelling. Why not use them in your business writing?
In the theatre, actors generally avoid breaking the “fourth wall”. That’s the imaginary wall between the stage and the audience. Unless part of the play’s style, breaking the fourth wall interrupts the storytelling experience because it brings the audience back to reality. When you needlessly fill your writing with phrases such as “the purpose of this document is…” or “to summarize” or any other clause that discusses your discussion, you put distance between you and your reader. You also break the fourth wall. Rather than tell us what you’re going to tell us, just say it. Tell me a story. Don’t tell me how you intend to tell the story. It’s not to say that there isn’t occasional need for metadiscourse. Just make it the exception and not the norm in your writing.
Shorter. Clearer. Easier.
Want to tell a really good story? Don’t let the words get in the way. Use short, declarative sentences. Make sure each of those sentences clearly expresses a thought. And make sure all of the thoughts string together in a way that makes it easy for the reader to follow your story. Remember, western audiences prefer linear storytelling. That means each sentence should logically flow into the next. At your best, your sentences should raise questions in the reader’s mind that the following sentences effortlessly answer. When done well, the reader gets to the end of your story with no unanswered questions.
Remember, when you’re not in the room, your writing is a remnant of your brand. Be known as a good storyteller, and make sure your stories reflect your unique way.
Cocktail chatter is always a challenge for me because inevitably somebody will ask what I do. Explaining that I’m a strategist usually provokes an empty stare. It also sounds pretentious. I try to elaborate, but it never works and inevitably we choose a safe pop culture topic.
What is a strategist and what is strategy? There’s generally no consensus on the perfect definition of strategy, even from the gurus and pundits. Michael Porter will tell you that strategy is about choices—choosing upon a distinct set of activities that provide competitive advantage. Henry Mintzberg argues that strategy is about emerging patterns of decisions over time. The funny thing about strategy is that both perspectives are right and both somewhat miss the best part of strategy. Strategy is about storytelling. Story is strategy.
Imagine a tribal war camp somewhere in the desert hundreds of years ago. The warriors gather around a fire to discuss the next day’s plan of attack. The tribe probably did decide upon the activities they would emphasize in battle: surprise, a forward march, flanking positions. And undoubtedly, the perspective of the elder warriors and tribal chiefs influenced the priority activities. But the ideas had to be communicated and understood. Something had to link the activities together into a plan of action. That plan had to inspire. It had to have a common theme that helped warriors make decisions in the field when random circumstances forced split second decisions. The plan needed a logic, a linear flow of reasoning that convinced other men to put their lives on the line. In short, the plan had to be a story.
I get paid to review, critique and develop the strategies of some of the world’s biggest companies. Some are better than others, but the best have always been rooted in a good story. They may not ever surface on the New York Times Bestseller List, but these strategies read well. They read concisely. They read simply. Sometimes, they appear so simple and concise that you have to wonder why someone didn’t think of the strategy sooner. It’s a powerful experience to sit through a good strategy presentation. And when it’s really good, people relay the thinking around the water cooler the next day with most of the logic still intact.
Storytelling requires logic. A good story has a beginning, middle and an end. Each part of the story leads to the next part in an orderly fashion to deliver a perfectly natural final conclusion, while still delivering enough revealing twists and turns to keep the audience engaged. This is the art of the storyteller. It is also the art of the strategist.
Unfortunately, many companies have great strategic ideas in search of strategies. These companies have the data. They excel at performing certain activities. They have insights and perspective about what the data means and how the activities influence the data. But when it comes to stringing data, insights and activities together in a manner that communicates a plan of action, they fall short. They lack a story.
My favorite example of this concept is from General George S. Patton when he delivered his most famous speech to the 3rd Army on June 5, 1944. Patton had a masterful strategy. He knew that to win he had to keep his troops moving. There would be no entrenchment. On the eve D-Day, Patton told his troops of his plans in a rousing, famous speech known for its color, frankness, and imagery as much as its strategic insight. With his men fully engaged in his storytelling, Patton told them, “we’re not holding anything; we are advancing constantly, and we’re not interested in holding onto anything except the enemy. We’re going to hold onto him by the nose and kick him in the ass.”
When my daughter Jordan was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor in 2003, our whole family began a journey that has led us through many unexpected twists and turns. I write about this ongoing adventure and the girl that is my muse here.