As messaging professionals, we tell stories all the time. We spend most of our time thinking about the stories we’re going to tell externally, to our customers/fans.
We tend to spend less time thinking about all the stories we tell internally, to our coworkers, employees, friends, and even ourselves.
With that in mind, let’s talk about the value of those internal stories. To start the conversation, here’s a link to a fascinating NYT column. There’s so much depth to it that you should read the whole thing. That said, I’ll break it down for you quickly.
It’s a story about an independent minor league baseball team (meaning one that can sign whichever players it wants). When you run a baseball team, you need to tell several great stories. The obvious story is the one you tell your fans: you should come out to our ballgames because we’re great family entertainment for a great price, and we’re going to win a championship! It’s easier to miss the stories you have to tell to your most unique employees – your players.
Interestingly, that internal story also bears on the closest (and biggest spending) customers your team has, sponsors and luxury box buyers.
The independent baseball team hired two very experienced data nerds run things. In some ways the nerds succeeded, but they’re very clear about how they failed to meet all of their goals. In their own words: “We should have come up with a better story,” and the story they’re talking about is their internal one.
They positioned themselves to a group of baseball players – performers who are not exactly known for their open-mindedness – as data nerds who understood statistical analysis. They made a worse mistake than misbranding themselves, however: “We made it about us.” Given that the “us” in question was two statistics nerds and the audience in question – young baseball players – was not likely to be open to “data analytics” from statistics nerds, their message was bound to miss its target audience.
Sure enough, their players – and another key employee, their manager – routinely ignored the advice and directions that they’d spent hours compiling, and while the team did well, they also lost games because of that.
It wasn’t until late in the season that the nerds realized that they needed a different story. They should have branded themselves as extreme competitors who were working their butts off to give their players the same resources that major leaguers get. In their own words: “This is not nerd stuff. But to many of our players, it was ignored as such simply because we, the nerds, were doing it.”
They should have told their players and manager that they were giving them something very unique to help them succeed and grow in their baseball careers. Their story shouldn’t have been, “We’re smart, so you should listen to us.” Rather, it should have been, “We care about you, and we’re going to work our butts off to give you what nobody else in the league has, the same tools that players like Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw get.”
I’ve got personal experience with making that mistake. I did almost the exact same thing with the first radio morning show – the key performers on every radio station – that I ever managed. I dropped a very similar line on the show’s lead about how he should accept my coaching because I was so dang smart.
Oops. He was about as open to my coaching after that – and I did have a lot of valuable input for him – as the nerds’ baseball team was to theirs.
I failed him badly because I made the story I told him about me, rather than him. I learned a very valuable lesson at his expense. (If you happen to be reading this Stan, sorry!) Luckily, I did learn my lesson and did much, much better with every morning show after that.
Are you making your messaging about you or about your fans/customers?
There’s another curveball in this baseball story (pun not intended, but I’ll take it): the importance of messaging was driven home by a young athlete named Sean Conroy. The nerds signed him because they thought he would turn into a relief ace for their team, and he quickly proved them right.
Then he came out, becoming the first active gay professional baseball player.
The data nerds learned a lesson from him: sequence matters. First, Conroy introduced himself to his “conservative, hypermasculine clubhouse” as a relief ace. Then, when his teammates had judged him on that story, he told them the story that (sadly) might not have been judged so kindly had it been told first. In the nerds’ own words: “[P]layers who had once been so casual with homophobic slurs now thanked him for the attention he brought to the [team].”
I’ll let the nerds finish the story: “Conroy did what we failed to do. He didn’t make his story seem scary, and he didn’t make it about himself. He made it about the team. Everybody on a baseball field is telling a story.”
We’re all aware of the stories we tell through all messaging channels. In the process, we often forget about the totality of the storytelling that’s just as important to our success. It’s crucial that you tell your stories at the right time and in the right order.
Sean Conroy knew that, to meet two key objectives (being able to be his authentic self while maintaining his bond with his teammates), he had to tell his story in the right sequence with the right timing.
Are you telling all the right stories not just in the most compelling way possible, but in a way that will make your fans/customers open to the story?