Europe’s Communications Professionals: Power Players or Just Piano Players?

How do the corporate communications managers for Europe’s largest companies see their place in the business world? The European Communication Monitor 2011 – billed as the world’s largest project to survey these professionals – finds a mixed, not to say schizophrenic picture.

Reducing matters to today’s all-defining “like” or “unlike” buttons, the answers in the 131-page report launched June 30th suggest a big “don’t know.”  The report polled 2,209 professionals from 43 countries, drawn from the ranks of the European Association of Communications Directors.

While it’s still warm and fresh, here’s a rough and ready take on the headline numbers in today’s report launched at the European Communication Summit in Brussels.

The report was structured around six big themes. Overall, it’s clear that the old “set the message machine to transmit and stick strictly with the PowerPoint” approach is fading. “If you speak out and just build images, you will have less influence than if you advance your listening skills, and use these to help shape long term strategy in the C suite,” said Prof Ansar Zerfass of the University of Leipzig, one of the report’s authors.

Strategic issues and trust. It appears that – just as the rise of social media has decimated the ranks of professional journalists and forced traditional media organisations to renegotiate their licence to operate, so social media is also forcing their opposite numbers in corpcomms to take a fresh look at their roles and the labels they live by.

54.9% of respondents put their top issues as “dealing with the digital evolution and the social web.” That compares – amazingly – with just 9.6% who are concerned with properly positioning their CEOs. Since 2009, “social media angst” has been rising steadily. Yet 50.8% of respondents confessed they’ve still to implement in-house training programs for social media, while 48.3% of departments have no key performance indicators for measuring social web activities. And 30.2% don’t have any guidelines at all for in-house bloggers or Tweeters.

Amazing! No wonder, says Zerfass, “we’re just not there yet in terms of defining what is success in social media. We need to find out, otherwise this won’t make any difference.” He’s right: although 82.2% of communication professionals expect strong growth in social networks, almost 50% of them neglect to check in themselves online more than a few times a week, and 4.7% never use social media!

PR Credibility. While 25% of the 2,209 communications directors polled in 43 countries saw the power of communications rising in corporate life, 73% found that the negative connotations of the PR industry were decreasing trust in the work of communications professionals. Out goes “PR” and in come “strategic communications” (favoured by 61.3%). ‘Integrated Communications” gets a thumbs-down with just 45.9% approval.

Decision-making Styles. There may be a 24/7 tweeted news cycle out there, but Europe’s comms professionals still prefer the reflective approach. 85% take a considered approach, while 68% are guided by best practice. Only a minority of 45% are prepared to take risks when making decisions. And in Europe shared decision making (56%) trumps the individualism found in similar US surveys (53%).

Power of Comms departments. Though executives have a seat at the top table – in Northern Europe 24% have board seats – there’s a mood of insecurity or pessimism lurking the ranks: 25% of respondents don’t believe the communications department plays an important role in the financial performance of the company and fully 30% think their department is replaceable! Where can this anxiety come from, given the rising influence of communicators? 77.9% say they are “taken seriously” by senior management and 76.9% say they’re likely to be invited to top level meetings to organise strategic planning.

ROI of communication. Perhaps the answer lies in the ambiguous response to the question “how does your department add value?” Somebody’s still hoping the CFO and his beancounters won’t look their way. Although half of respondents (47%) say that ROI is built into their comms plans, there’s an argument still to be had about exactly how you measure it. Fully 83% prefer to state that measuring ROI properly is about achieving communication objectives, or a similar number believe the non-financial value of communications. Just 38% of respondents believe that ROI in communications is all about delivering cash.

Inevitably this is a “snap” analysis of the Corpcomms report. More stuff from the conference floor will follow. But if you’re not in the ranks of these professionals, don’t feel too concerned about their existential concerns: a quarter of their ranks have entered the EUR 100,000 plus band in terms of basic income. And 5% (fewer of them female executives, alas) will get more than EUR 200,000.

The bottom line seems to be that strategic communications is on the rise. But a goodly number of communications professionals still privately believe that, if the bad-reputation cowboys ever burst into their saloon bar with guns blazing, they can still try the old line: “don’t shoot me – I’m only the piano player.”

Richard House

Rags to Riches, Voyage and Return, and Overcoming the Monster: In search of our Seven Universal Stories.

This is the first in a series of posts about universal or archetypal stories that drive our collective consciousness, influencing the destiny of nations, of companies, of leaders and individuals like you and me.

The text is a bit long as the opening chapter of this subject is a monster. Bear with me! It’s a huge subject that can’t be tackled in one sitting – and which depends shamelessly upon the scholarship of thinkers and tellers of ‘stories about stories’ many times wiser than I.

Isaac Newton, the rock band Oasis and Britain’s two-pound coin all share one thing in common. Their fame rests (in part) upon their use of the phrase ‘standing on the shoulders of giants.’ The giant upon whose shoulders I avowedly stand for the purposes of storytelling is Christopher Booker.

A well-thumbed copy of his 2004 masterwork The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories should occupy pride of place on the desk of every speechwriter, coach and guide to the creation of effective stories.

This book does for storytelling what Linnaeus did for biology. It doesn’t simply create a workable, seven-layer matrix into which every single powerful human story can be segmented and fitted – Booker goes on to parse and docket just about every compelling story the world has ever known and passed on, from the 5,000 year old Epic of Gilgamesh to Lord of the Rings and The Simpsons.

As Booker himself acknowledges in his introduction, the 30 year task of writing his book in turn drew upon the work of even greater pioneers, Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Joseph Campbell, Bruno Bettelheim.

The Seven Basic Plots are:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

My purpose isn’t just to write about this universal “storytelling system” (buy the book if you want that) or even to write about storytellers.

Paradoxically, the professional storyteller himself can be transfixingly dull. Think of the Ancient Mariner who holds the wedding-guest in thrall in Coleridge’s eponymous poem. Or the blind, androgynous Tyresias of The Odyssey. Or, worst of all, Doctor Casaubon in George Eliot’s Victorian epic Middlemarch. This repressive villain’s dry-as-dust academic search for a “key to all mythologies” is a bit like Booker’s own project, which at 705 pages, is a bit heavy for holiday reading.

Just collecting and pinning dead stories on a card to label isn’t the point. Nor is this a literary version of ‘Trivial Pursuit.’

This is about dynamic usage of the power in this system. A few well-chosen words cause stories to arise, that set us on course to change the world.

My purpose is analytical only in the sense of asking “how do stories help to change the world?”

The best place to start is with world leaders. What they do affects all of us – and the chains of cause and effect are clearly visible in history as it unfolds before us in the media.

So my first article investigates how leaders consciously use narratives to shape our destiny. In the coming weeks I hope I’ll be able to explain some of Booker’s thinking.

Part 1. After The Bushwars: Obama the Storyteller

As Commander in Chief, President Barack Obama was criticized by military strategists for announcing the withdrawal of 33,000 US soldiers from Afghanistan in his “peace with honour” speech delivered 22nd June.

Forget strategy, think mass psychology. As Storyteller in Chief, Obama signalled a much more profound change to the US national narrative, with a deftness of touch that is the mark of a true leader. It was as though Americans turned on the TV expecting a tired re-run of Jaws, and instead previewed a glittering Broadway version of Cinderella.

After two decades of war and a trillion dollars in lost treasure it was now time, Obama said, to “reclaim the American dream that is at the center of our story.” One narrative has been exhausted, so another must begin.

Out goes “Overcoming the Monster” — the reigning mythology of the twin Bush presidencies, and in comes a lighter, brighter new script – “Rags to Riches.”

Why? Because the monster is dead. The killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2nd brought to a virtual end to that most primal of story patterns which lie at the basis of our universal consciousness. The attempt at world domination by that terrifying monster of the early English Beowulf saga, by successive villains in James Bond films, by the Gorgon Medusa in Greek myth, or by the Transylvanian Dracula, has been crushed.

Right has triumphed. “The light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance. These long wars will come to a responsible end,” said Obama. However much the generals huff and puff about the clear and present danger of the Taliban, it is time to go home.

Why? Because, like Ulysses returning after long years of wandering, the work of nation-building must resume in a land whose central myth lies tarnished and whose values have been degraded.

Just as in Ithica, there is chaos at home. The American dream – that anyone can rise from obscurity to a place in the sun – must be redeemed. While both Bushes pointedly ignored the 1832 advice of John Quincy Adams, (“America … goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy”), Obama is attempting to return to the sanity laid out in Adams’ mighty address to Congress.

When Obama spoke of “common purpose,” and “nation-building here at home,” he was inviting a new breed of hero – or heroine – to walk the stage of America’s national consciousness. Step forward Aladdin of the Lamp, Eliza Doolittle from My Fair Lady, Dicken’s David Copperfield, Dick Whittington with his cat, and in pride of place of course, Cinderella.

Men and women now mired in the debt-heavy ashes of America’s national kitchen, beleaguered by joblessness, deficits and partisan divisions of internecine intensity, will win the fine clothes they deserve and finally go to the glittering ball. The three Ugly Sisters (of Wall Street and K Street and Main Street) will be frustrated.

The healing power of comedy replaces the searing catharsis of foreign war. Confusion routed, the family will be reunited as at the end of the Marriage of Figaro, or The Taming of the Shrew. No wonder some commentators contrasted Obama’s address with that Richard Nixon’s 1973 message ending the Vietnam War.

As my former Washington Post colleague, columnist Jackson Diehl astutely noted, “an address about troop withdrawals was sounding a lot like a campaign stump speech.” He has left it dangerously late, but after a mandate’s worth of disappointments, Obama is returning the almost-forgotten agenda laid out in his January 2009 inaugural, when he promised to “put aside childish things” and “remake America.”

Obama is good with a story – but he’s not infallible. During his January 2011 State of the Nation speech he was caught with one red hand in the storyteller’s cookie-jar when he called for a “Sputnik moment” to reignite America’s technological prowess. Obama was spotted blatantly trying to copy John F Kennedy’s successful exploitation of another primal story; The Voyage and Return.

The story worked for Kennedy – and for America. His 1962 “we choose to go to the moon” speech ushered in the NASA programs that in turn drove America’s economic ascendancy through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

America may not have been first into space – but unlike the USSR, NASA brought (almost all) its heroes home. Most famously in the 1995 thriller Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks.

Safe return to the “normal” world, after high and strange adventures, is the sine qua non of this great story family. Think of HG Wells’ The Time Machine, The Wizard of Oz, Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and of course Robinson Crusoe. From the dream-like “otherness” of outer space, heroes bring back precious knowledge and gifts (characterised by those fragments of moon-rock).

But – just as the Bush narrative of Taming the Monster was made redundant by Osama bin Laden’s death, so the final shuttle flight planned for July, is turning the last page on this incarnation of Voyage and Return. Obama got roundly panned by his critics: today’s vision-impaired America can only see Voyage and Return stories as a costly indulgence.

So, as we’ve seen, Obama looked to the tattered American Dream and wisely picked Rags to Riches from the playbook. As his Democrat predecessor Bill Clinton told himself every morning when on campaign “it’s the economy, stupid.”

Are story archetypes useful only in decoding the national affairs of the United States? Of course not.

Examine the recent speeches of the beleaguered Greek premier George Papandreou. He has crafted the narrative of Greece’s current financial agony with reference to that most epic of struggles: the invasion of his country by an army of Persians in 490 BC. The ensuing Battle of Marathon defined the early stages of our western history, creating the myth of endurance. Papandreou, a runner himself, uses Marathon as a symbol.

Papandreou may be Athenian, but Greeks have not been scared to insert him into the Spartan myth of the 300 warriors who held the pass at Thermopylae a decade later in 480 BC, frustrating the Persian king Xerxes and his army of two million soldiers. Patriotic Greeks see Papandreou as holding the thin line against an alien horde of creditors. The subject of a gruesome 2006 animation movie, the 300 myth is a variant of ‘Overcoming the Monster’ in which the Spartans snatch the victory of immortal fame from their defeat.

There’s another narrative of victory, of course, characterised by The Quest.

Mostly, we think about Quest stories in terms of great journeys: Pilgrim’s Progress, The Aeneid, Lord of the Rings. Don’t forget the Indiana Jones movies. Or Philip Pullman’s superb Dark Materials trilogy which achieves the feat of blending Paradise Lost with Blake’s Prophetic Books – all in a page-turner.

Yet when it comes to national destiny, politicians regularly use Quest stories to embody a desired goal for which we hunger and toward which we can move together as a society. This is the “civis” of national identity and citizenship.

Ronald Reagan several times adapted the 17th century English Puritan John Winthrop’s words to craft his vision of a divine plan for America in his Shining City on the Hill speech. In fact Reagan followed Kennedy in his first use of it as early as 1974. Later, he used it to accept the Republican Party re-nomination in 1984 and then again in his farewell speech to the nation in 1989.

In his “Finest Hour” speech of 1940, Winston Churchill promised Britons that after victory over Hitler, “the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.” This quest for a shared space characterised by light, airiness, and freedom is universal.

So, as the bombs rained down on Chile’s Moncada Palace in September 1973 during the Pinochet military coup, president Salvador Allende, machine-gun in one hand and microphone in the other, delivered a final broadcast in which he promised a vision of the restored free city as the apex of civilisation. The darkness of dictatorship would one day pass, he promised, to restore a new day on which “great avenues will again be opened, through which will pass the free man, to construct a better society.” And so it came to be.

As you can see, The Quest is just one of the powerful narratives that global leaders consciously use for the purpose mobilising and transforming national destinies. Can we use their example?

In the next post, I’ll look at how stories change the lives and destinies not of nations but of another great collective being – the company or enterprise. How CEOs can make practical use these power stories is the subject of forthcoming blogs.

See Part 2 of this story at

Richard House

Strictly Counter-Cyclical: Latin America forgets the old economic dance tunes

Filmstar Alice Braga helped me change my mind. But it’s really not what you’re thinking….

Three weeks ago I was writing: “when economists aren’t getting it wrong, they’re usually changing their minds.” I published a piece on June 8th entitled “Brazil’s Economy: Towering or Tanking?” I assembled the prosecution evidence that things were overheating dangerously.

But thanks to the fabulous Alice, I’ll concede maybe the one doing the overheating is me. In general, I’m not keen on second generation starlets, all-action stereotypes or the kinds of movies she appears in, but let me explain why she made me think again.

“I’m a global Latin American” is the boast of the impossibly glamorous poster girls or boys flying the flag in display ads for Banco Itaú. The actress figures prominently in this slick but ever-so slightly cheesy international print media campaign.

The intended message may be simply that Itaú banks the cheques of a gorgeous-looking band of young latino fashion designers, polo playboys, ballet dancers, actors and artists who’ve become famous in New York, California or Europe. Or that while the world’s 10th largest bank follows its elite clients overseas, their loyalty is such that they still gratefully bank at home.

But the abiding message of this campaign by Latin America’s third most valuable brand may be unintended: Latin America is now an integral part of the new global economy – with all that implies.

Back in 2001, Brazil looked the eccentric pick in Goldman Sachs research chief Jim O’Neil’s ‘gang of four,’ that soon became known as the BRIC nations. And ten years ago, there was no such creature as a “global Latin American,” except perhaps a tiny handful of opera singers and financiers.

That was because Brazil had bucked the global trend for decades. When the rest of the world was doing well, Brazil fared badly – and vice versa. A succession of stock market booms passed by ailing Brazil in the 80s and even the 90s. Conversely while the developed world swooned in the 60s and 70s, Brazil boomed. And while the credit crunch started blighting the US economy in 2007, Brazil just kept on growing.

As ex-president Lula proudly told international audiences in 2009, by the time the global economic tsunami reached his shores, Brazil felt no more than a gentle ripple – thanks in part to a gargantuan sea-wall built of federal spending, ballooning BNDES credit lines, and the Bolsa Familia cash distribution programme.

For foreign investors, Brazil is today probably the most comprehensible of the BRIC group. That’s because it has at last shaken off the “counter-cyclical curse,” and as a global player, Brazil is finally dancing to the same macro-economic beat as the rest of the world.

That brings challenges – and a potential solution to the current economic overheating of the Brazilian economy.

So why is it good news that the old counter-cyclical story has run out of road? Under the old logic, if the United States continues to do badly – and it will – that means Brazil will do well. Too well in fact. That got folks worried.

Although an official from Brasília’s finance ministry this week drafted a snooty reply to rebut The Economist’s recent charge that warning lights were flashing for the Brazilian economy, it’s widely acknowledged that bottlenecks and capacity constraints threaten stability.

Brasília’s policymakers and opportunist politicians were never going to have the courage by themselves to fling a bucket of icy water on this mighty carnival, cooling rising inflation and restraining the turbo-charged monster of consumer demand. Somebody else would have to do the dirty work.

Step forward China. Every economic weathervane suggests the wind from China – which manufactures one fifth of the world’s goods – is cooling. It means all those who depend upon China’s growth will feel cool winds too.

What happens in China, affects everyone who is now locked into its economic orbit – that includes everyone who in Itaú’s artful phrase is a “global Latin American.” Hence my change of mind.

Once again, The Economist tends to see the glass half empty, attributing US and EU woes to a cooler China. Most of the fuss has been about China’s rising economic strength relative to the US is caused by the fact that American growth is too feeble.

Others feel it too: Australia is a case in point. Because the lion’s share of Australian GDP growth depends on China, there’s a realistic expectation of a ‘hard landing’ for those who depend on Beijing’s health and wealth.

But what about a country whose growth is already too strong? There have been few economic commentaries about Brazil’s economic status relative to China. Or the fact that an intra-BRIC trade pattern has effectively decoupled from the old US hegemony.

With bilateral trade with US$56 billion and a 5$ billion surplus for Brazil, China is now a bigger partner than the US.

Fact is, Brazil now moves in lockstep with China, not the US. So if Beijing is an economic motor for Brazil, then whenever the Chinese brakes come on, Brazil goes flying through the windshield.

Or not. Like the end of a sweltering December day in Rio that’s way too hot, things are set to cool quite nicely later on. Thanks to China.

What could this mean for Brazil’s prospects? The numbers all say Brazil’s economic surge is containable in 2011: inflation at 6.2%; money supply growth down to 16.7%; $35.8 billion of primary surplus in the tax coffers; a budget deficit below 2% (dream on – France, Spain, the US).

Cool or hot, the numbers don’t say it all.

The real issue is how it feels to live in what is clearly a stressed-out economy. Whatever the numbers say, it’s no fun. My earlier posting moaned about blocked airports, jammed roads, overpriced stuff, a fast-declining real standard of living among my friends.

I lamented that Brazil’s middle classes were now caught like golden hamsters on a golden wheel, striving to pay for overpriced and often unnecessary services caused by overpriced salaries from unnecessary employees. Not to mention a currency that’s as over-valued as China’s is accused of being under-valued.

That thought went further: this week I found myself agreeing with another London-based Brazil expert. Both of us were quietly inventing excuses not to travel to São Paulo. For over 25 years, both of us had been straining at the leash like greyhounds to get back there, when we hadn’t actually been living there.

Now we can fly whenever we want, we know that São Paulo, the capital city of global Latin Americans, is about the most stressful urban environment – Misrata and Gaza City excepted. That’s the real reason why, although Brazil’s economy may not be about to boil over, my patience did.

I know I can’t have the older, slower Brazil back. But the idea of being able to have dinner in a restaurant without waiting two hours for a table does fill me with saudades. So does getting a Ponte Aerea to Rio that both leaves and arrives on time.

A chill wind from China won’t bring back the past. But if it changes Brazil’s economic soundtrack from today’s relentless technobeat back to something just a little more like the old samba-reggae or even MPB, I’ll be on that plane tomorrow. And even though her tough-cookie action movies aren’t my thing and I’m not quite in the same league as her screen partners Will Smith or Jude Law, maybe I’ll ask Alice Braga to dance. Something strictly counter-cyclical, I hope.

Richard House

How Long is Long Enough? Reflections On The King’s Speech-makers.

Every long-distance driver with children in the back-seat dreads the cry: “are we nearly there yet?” And at conferences you frequently hear it on adult lips too, alarmed by the prospect of another gigabyte’s worth of PowerPoint slides.

Conversely, you don’t need the eerie,crackling radio silence that marks the opening scene of the Oscar–winning movie The King’s Speech, to know when a speech is dying on its feet.

Getting a presentation just right, in terms of length, content and delivery style – not to mention humour and anecdote – is one of the key challenges for business leaders. Until recently they didn’t get much support from MBA courses, where the mantra was “let the facts speak for themselves.”

But facts don’t speak, people do. And many of those people need help.

Perhaps the principal lesson of scriptwriter David Seidler’s The King’s Speech was not the overcoming of adversity by the central character George VI (Colin Firth). But the realisation that effective public speaking is not a divine gift but a transferable skill – even when the speech impediment is grave.  In the film, practice and persistence by the challenged Bertie trump the arrogance of his gifted but lazy older brother David.

In the wake of Oscar success, a whole coaching industry has grown up around The King’s Speech. Experts parse and recycle the onscreen techniques of speech therapist Lionel Logue (acted by Geoffrey Rush) for the new royalty of business – the CEO. (In fact googling ‘King’s Speech + CEO’ gets an amazing 10 million hits).

There’s no doubt the movie has been a huge blessing to those like me who work in this strange field – as speech writers, media trainers, coaches, thought leadership sounding-boxes and sparring-partners to CEOs.

But how many of us actually roll our captains of industry on the carpet, invite them home for tea, or deliver those deliciously impertinent tongue-lashings in the style of Lionel Logue? In my experience what our clients want is something different.

The Oscar award showed that the real story was the making of the story – how Bertie and Logue consciously crafted a public persona that fitted Britain’s need for wartime leadership.

It showed how leadership as seen by the people through modern media (whether the radio of the 1930s or the internet of 2011) is an active construct based on the leader and his communications advisor delivering the right answer to three key questions:

  • What to say? (Content)
  • How to say it? (Style)
  • Who to be? (Persona)

So Content, Style, Persona are the keys to public speaking.

In The King’s Speech, Logue doesn’t create content, instead taking the scripts from a ministry official. I’ll address content in later postings, so right now I just want to address the issue of “how long is long enough?”

The key to Content is brevity.

John Kennedy’s 1963 “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech was only 702 words long. Churchill’s 1940 “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat” address had just 740 words. Nelson Mandela’s 1994 “time for the healing of the wounds” inaugural speech was just 856 words long. Sensing something like a pattern here?

The general assumption that “shorter is better” has recently received endorsement from an unlikely quarter: Fidel Castro. Known for parliamentary harangues that could last all night, Fidel in 2010 emerged from a four-year silence to deliver a modest 10 minute intervention, and has since issued a mea culpa about his past penchant for marathon speeches.

A database of Fidel’s speeches shows that even before he took power in Havana in 1959, he regularly delivered 13,000 word harangues. A friend who was an ambassador in Havana in the 90s, described how diplomats would edge toward the exits as he took the podium. Alas for latinos, his skills were passed on to Venezuela strongman Hugo Chaves, whose ‘Alo Presidente’ TV show has already run for an interminable 375 episodes.

In the pursuit of brevity, many companies have introduced 10-slides rules for presentations. But this can be easily subverted. Some PowerPoint artists nest slides-within-slides – and sometimes whole animated movies – without ‘breaking’ the rule.

When it comes to PowerPoint, the only unbreakable rule is “20×20” – the ability to deliver 20 slides at 20 seconds each, resulting in a presentation of exactly six minutes, 40 seconds. That’s the discipline of Pecha Kucha, a performance delivery technique that emerged in Japan in 2003, which is steadily transforming the corporate speaking scene – for the better.

Pecha Kucha nights are held in cities around the world and some US  universities already insist students use it. If you can’t describe what’s packed onto your slide in 20 seconds, then use a plain photo.

But what if 6’ 40’’ is simply too short for a more formal conference speech? Many conferences offer a slot of 20-30 minutes – even though it’s a proven fact that very few people have an attention longer than 19 minutes.

I’ve written hundreds more speeches for others than I have delivered myself, but I detect a golden rule. The final draft I deliver to the client is always shorter than the first one.

I invariably take out stuff they like, but I have never had a client complain the script is too short. And I always practice it aloud (even if the client doesn’t): you won’t catch those tongue-twisters, dipthongs and literals unless you do.

Likewise, you won’t know the timing until you’ve spoken it. Some assumptions: while newsreaders can deliver text at around 130 words a minute, most native speakers deliver text at around 110 words. And those for whom English is not a first language seldom speak faster than 100 words a minute.

Few confident speakers actually use a full text. They prefer to use extended bullet points – usually set onto large-format library cards – or PowerPoint speaker notes. That gives them more freedom to pause, engage the audience, and go “off piste’ with a suitable anecdote.

Now for Style.  Our neurological wiring means we are just as tuned to the way people say things, as what actually they say. That’s why most marriages survive. For a CEO or any speaker, a strong delivery style can and frequently does rescue poor content. Vice versa doesn’t alas, hold true.

What’s noteworthy is that natural delivery style in the executive community is often determined by background. Engineers, business process mavens and financial types are quite different from those with a sales and marketing background. The latter demands both an extrovert persona and a sensitivity to listener needs. You won’t sell much unless you can adjust your message to the user’s own context.

So who can we learn from?

There’s a widely-repeated myth (widely propagated by Mac-heads) that the premier business presenter of our networked age is Apple’s Steve Jobs, because of his unique style. Now Jobs is a sick man, so criticism might sound ugly.  And our business is run head-to-toe on Macs.

Nevertheless, if you watch any Jobs presentation with eyes wide open, it’s hard not to conclude that his style is about as inspiring as the same old black turtleneck/jeans combo he’s been using for the last 40 years. People respect Jobs and love his products, but do they love him as a speaker?

He picks his audiences carefully – invariably the faithful. And he says exactly the same thing. “We’re the best – and we just got even better.” Usually, he manages a hostile side-swipe at the competition (or those who in his view are copying Apple): Kindle, Samsung’s 3G phones or whatever.

The June 6th launch of iCloud is a case in point. Jobs gets a standing ovation from the WWDC audience before even he starts speaking. His slidedeck uses Keynote – an application that was invented for his personal use – and is always structured around the same “rule of three,” and purposeful repetition. The Jobs message about iCloud: “A competitor can never make it.”

OK, so whose style do I really like?

 I’m an unabashed fan of Sir David Attenborough’s delivery style. As the unquestioned star presenter of BBC nature documentaries for over 50 years – from Zoo Quest in 1957 through Madagascar in 2011, Attenborough surely has way more than 10,000 hours of presentation delivery to his credit.

You might argue that while Attenborough’s breathy, confidential style is fine for introducing the antics of gorillas or Birds of Paradise, it would invite ridicule if used to explain an IPO or an M&A deal.

In fact Attenborough himself – although he managed the finances of a major TV network for five years – makes a personal virtue of not being a business guy. Nevertheless, he has enormous appeal. I’ve met him and he’s even better in the flesh than on screen. Today he’s an old man, and yet he’s courageous and gracious enough to show the vulnerability of age.

For my desert island, I’d pick Attenborough over Jobs any day.

 Finally, Persona. 

 “Who to be” sounds like a redundant question for most of the determined, ambitious executives who’ve finally made it to the C-suite.

They know exactly who they are, or should do: most likely they’ve been coached, mentored, counselled and groomed for the top spot. Executive search experts and HR gurus have submitted them to every known form of psychometric testing. How could they fail to know?

But whatever they know for themselves, they must project those certainties to lesser mortals; employees, customers, stakeholders. They must breathe confidence, wisdom, inspiration – and the whole raft of shared values on which their brands (both personal and corporate) are built. They must explain what they believe in and ask others to follow them into the future.

This is the really hard stuff of the “soft stuff.” In The King’s Speech, George VI wins our respect for his dogged persona. We know he’s not brilliant and has been thrust into a job he didn’t want.

In the final scenes, though, we see ordinary men and women listening to his 3rd September 1939 wartime address, ready to follow his example into war, suffering, and ultimate victory.

And all in a broadcast of just 5 minutes, 44 seconds. I hope that finally answers the question about  how long is long enough.

Richard House

Stewardship: Brand Equity for Tomorrow’s World.

It’s a curious fact that Swiss watch manufacturers have grown rich by suggesting it’s better to inherit their products than trying to purchase them.

“Don’t buy a watch for your son; he’s going to inherit yours,” whispers one classy display ad. “You’ll never actually own one; you’re just passing it on,” simpers the caption below the photo of a father helping an impossibly well-groomed son do his homework.

Yet it would be wrong to dismiss the undoubted power of these ads as the snobbery that comes with inherited money – or even the near-universal desire to own a working antique whose value appreciates yearly.

The underlying psychological appeal is important for every one of us. Switzerland’s canny marketers have tapped into the enduring power of stewardship, which drives our individual and collective behaviour in more ways than we can conceive.

You don’t buy a Breguet to know what time it is. Truth is, a $20 digital watch does the job better. We know Breguet have been making watches since before the French Revolution, and today even its modern watches fetch astonishing prices at auction. That counts.

What the ad really tells us is: “Passing on a gift is the best thing you can do with your life”. In fact, stewardship is rapidly becoming a universal value, underlying not just the world’s most desired brands, but the evolving social consciousness of humanity as a whole.

Understanding the power of stewardship is a required skill not just for luxury brand kings. It’s also a necessary attribute for leaders and future-focused executives taking their business to a much higher level based on values. The level where corporate social responsibility and sustainable growth are no longer just labels, but the keys to creative and durable human endeavour.

Stewardship forces us to recognise we’re not the centre of the universe and that we will die: we’re simply links in the chain reaching toward future generations. Our duty is to “pass on” what we hold or inherit. While heritage is backward-looking and reflexive, stewardship is future-facing and dynamic.

From a business communications perspective, this all sounds counter-intuitive. You’d expect that, in a world driven by “me brands”, “just do it” personal gratification, and the pressure to accumulate dizzying quantities of personal stuff and personal experiences, stewardship would be a loser.

Yet in terms of brand equity, it’s proving a winner.

“Pass it On” is the powerful battle-cry of the British chef Jamie Oliver, whose TV campaign to improve nutrition habits and reduce obesity in America, the UK and elsewhere, has made him a hero to many, and villain to some. Jamie’s stewardship drive is for human health through better nutrition.

His “Breguet watch” is a handful of simple recipes that give ordinary people the ability to produce healthy food for their families. The introduction to his ‘Ministry of Food’ cookbook contains a contract in which readers promise to pass on every recipe they learn. In a memorable TED lecture, Jamie described his battles to slim down America, reducing heart disease and obesity through the “power of food.”

There’s nothing wrong with straightforward philanthropy – and charitable donors like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have taken it to previously unimagined heights. But the “giving” is still quite distinct from the “getting”. After all, the Nobel Peace Prize was financed by dynamite sales. So there’s now a more holistic concept doing the rounds, called social good.

Rather than trying to solve the problem of the “CSR tail wagging the corporate dog” as companies invent good and green things to do to please stakeholders, social good goes to the next level. It comes at least partly under the aegis of the UN’s Global Pulse initiative and seeks to revive the (largely forgotten) Millennium Development Goals, with the help of social media tools.

Thinkers such as Simon Mainwaring are preaching the benefits of business collaboration, not competition. “We need an entire army of companies to work together to build a better world within the next few decades,” writes Mainwaring. While acknowledging the abiding power of competition, ‘social good thinking’ seems to be pointing to a world where the fundamental duty of corporations is stewardship, if tomorrow’s ten billion consumers are to have a chance.

So a new generation of stewardship thinkers are now tapping into a vein that has been worked for decades by the environmental movement – with some astonishing results. If you want the “meta-meta” definition of global stewardship, then read on.

For years, Greens preached about intergenerational equity and the need for each of us to leave the world a better place than when we found it. Though the cause was worthy, it was (like much environmental thinking) just a bit dull. That was a pity, because good stewardship arguments lay concealed in this discourse.

Suddenly, though, everything has changed. The global concept of intergenerational equity at planetary level has a sexy new name: the Anthropocene. It was invented in 2,000 by the chemist Paul Crutzen and made the cover of the Economist May 28th, with the strapline: “Humans have changed the way the world works. Now they have to change the way they think about it, too.”

The Anthropocene means that mankind’s activities are shaping and changing the world on a scale comparable with the events that ushered in great geological transformations across aeons of time. The planet is becoming a man-made garden – or cesspit. In fact humanity’s actions are bringing our own age, the Holocene, to a premature conclusion.

Anthropocene-based analysis shows how human intervention changes the gaseous composition of our planet. Today, 40% of all the nitrogen in the proteins we humans eat comes from artificial fertilizers first developed in the 19th century. Without this nitrogen, half of us would die.

Now we are wreaking similar changes in the earth’s composition of another vital gas – CO2. And if a post-Holocene world is to sustain 10 billion inhabitants, we’ll need to vastly increase the amount of available energy — perhaps by dramatically increasing the amount of oxygen in our atmosphere.

Anthropocene thinking finally and irrefutably gives the lie to climate change denial and buttresses the “precautionary principle” which in turn is based on the stewardship idea – now clad in new scientific respectability.

This is important. Just like buying car insurance to protect you against future accidents you don’t know for sure will happen, you prudently take out a policy – rather than ranting that accidents won’t ever happen to you because you’re a responsible driver.

In the exactly same way we can’t avoid taking out insurance against human-induced climate change by changing our ways – precisely to stop the car-wreck we trust won’t smash our grandchildren. Now we know that human activity changes the world, let’s use that power to change it for the better.

So what am I doing about all this stewardship business? What will I do about brand equity? I don’t own a Swiss watch – and so I guess my son won’t either.

Yet under Britain’s curious property laws I do “own” a tiny fragment of an ecosystem more delicate, complex and precious than the rarest Breguet watch. I treasure this tiny piece of planet earth, and dream of passing it on better than I found it.

It’s a trout stream. Or more accurately, a chalk stream – a miracle of alkaline fertility that sustains a dizzying hierarchy of life, from invertebrates to the grey fuzzball family of young swans and the azure flash of the darting kingfisher’s wing. Generally, it suits me to join the others moaning about environmental degradation, farm waste and water abstraction in this, the worst drought in 30 years.

But my river contains more plump, healthy trout than I’m willing to talk about, just in case like me you are a dedicated fly-fisherman. There’s an American short story by Richard Brautigan, written in 1961. Trout Fishing in America features a surreal scene where the author finds a trout stream in the back of a junk-yard, stacked up in sections behind broken cars and abandoned cookers. The sections cost $6.50 per foot. He sees the living water and his soul is nourished.

I feel just the same as I stand midstream in my waders, scything the ranunculus waterweed to create tiny pools and eddies from which the trout will come flashing up to take a passing mayfly. Or I’m thinking about the water voles as I repair the bank, trim vegetation, or just remove the trash that others have thrown in upstream. Work done, I might just get some time to fish.

So my stewardship isn’t passing on a Breguet watch to a son who (for the meantime) doesn’t fish either: it’s rescuing a few short sections of trout stream from the junk-yard of daily life. And making ready to pass it on.

Richard House

Crowdsourcing the Authentic Story: a social history of mass storytelling.

The real story lives with the people. Finding that story, harvesting it and recycling it, has taken us from the clipboard to the keyboard, from the polling space into cyberspace.

From social studies right up to social networking, the story remains king. “Story anthropologists” and the tools they use are now an important feature in the communication landscape.

As more leaders hunt for authentic stories to encapsulate their messages and galvanise organisations, the focus is shifting from delivery to the origin of these powerful tales.

By definition, an authentic story can’t be “made up.” It has to be lived. Preferably by lots of people with whom the words will resonate when played back to them.

As every speechwriter knows, trawling mythology or social history for examples delivers references, but these can often sound dull or bookish. Using archetypes from Marvel comics sounds plain silly. Nor can we always rely upon a speaker’s own biography or experience to furnish the perfect anecdote. Storytelling professionals need a method to find the right story to match it with their client.

Over the last three quarters-of-a-century a “story harvesting industry” has grown up to search for meaningful tales amongst the flotsam of daily life. Until the advent of social media, this “crowdsourcing” of stories was a largely-unvisited corner of the communications industry.

Now, with LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, youTube, FlickR and other online community tools, it’s right at the centre of things.

Story harvesting used to be an expensive, time-consuming and ultimately subjective business. Academics, fanatics and evangelists owned the field.

Mass Observation began its work in Britain in 1937, inventing a pre-war “anthropology of ourselves” with the help of two thousand volunteer observers who collected stories of working life in Britain’s grittier industrial towns. Its left-leaning founders Charles Madge and Tom Harrison kept up the tradition of social observation until the mid 1950s, when the organisation veered into consumer trend analysis.

In the United States, Studs Terkel in the 1960s pioneered audio recordings with old-timers to harvest stories for his Conversations with America series, and created a succession of oral histories on the Depression, wartime, work, or race. Author-researcher Gail Sheehy continued Terkel’s methods in her bestselling Passages series to collect baby-boomer stories of life’s triumphs and disasters, boosting the process with managed focus groups.

Behind these authors blossomed a commercial “clipboard army” of interns, volunteers and vacation workers, noting down observations for what became the consumer trend analysis industry, spawning giants like Nielsen. This in turn shaped not just the ads – but also the story-lines for the soaps, series and shows we grew up with on TV.

The advertising industry that drove such initiatives certainly got the behavioural research it wanted to sell more stuff – but this was hardly authentic story-harvesting. Eventually, trained researchers began going into organisations with tools like Appreciative Inquiry (a associative technique designed to get people to envision positive outcomes which helps to uncover meaning and purpose using storytelling).

But “clipboard fatigue” had already set in. Businesses didn’t want to invest the money or time educating consultants and junior researchers in how their own culture worked. The workforce had real work to do, rather than sit around telling stories – and companies rightly suspected that the results were losing authenticity through editorial meddling. Instead they wanted a solution that didn’t eat into employee time, stored all inputs, and generated an authentic snapshot.

The pioneering use of online research tools for corporate storytelling came with the IBM’s monster Values Jam project sponsored by CEO Sam Palmisano. For a 72 hour period in 2003, he opened up Big Blue’s intranet for a hosted dialogue between 319,000 IBMers around the world. The result was a huge file of stories, reappraisals, rants, confessions that profiled IBM’s role in the world.

“I don’t think what resulted – broad, enthusiastic, grass-roots consensus – could have been obtained in any other way,” said Palmisano. “We are getting back in touch with what IBM has always been about – and always will be about – in a very concrete way. And I feel that I’ve been handed something every CEO craves: a mandate, for exactly the right kinds of transformation, from an entire workforce.”

Values Jam eventually became of product for IBM and was used at events like the 2005 UN Habitat conference.

In 2005 I worked on an IBM-inspired but nevertheless groundbreaking story-harvesting project at Royal Philips Electronics. At that time our sequence of four Online Dialogues managed by the communications department was the largest such venture after IBM’s – and was an integral part of major changes introduced by then CEO Gerard Kleisterlee, with whom I worked for eight years.

We used a mid-level population of 8,000 executives to explore in depth the management agenda of Growth, Talent and Simplicity during 48 hour moderated online sessions around the world.

In those days bandwidth and technology limitations restricted us to text-based interventions (we worked with the IT department to adapt the existing Lotus Notes platform). But we could stream and shape the emerging themes into story topics, with instant polling for favourite suggestions. And we added live interaction from board members to stimulate yet more “story sharing.” I still have the telephone-book sized printouts containing thousands of “stories” we harvested for analysis.

In 2006, our Online Dialogues proved their power to shape the company’s future. Despite a near century-long presence in China, India and other emerging markets, Philips still only sold 13% of its product in these countries. Something had to be done urgently.

We took the “ideas mood music” from a special emerging market Online Dialogue, and used this as direct input for the program we helped design for the March 2006 Philips management offsite in Delhi, India. The findings of our online crowdsourcing underpinned the CEO’s keynote speech and other key documents I drafted for the event. Philips changed its governance model for emerging markets, which today deliver around 40% of global sales.

Since our early work in those days, the concept of crowdsourcing has been taken up by many others, thanks in part to the advent of social networking technologies, and in part to thinking such as James Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds.

Today everyone knows what I started out trying to prove over a decade ago: that storytelling changes companies. And we know how to use online tools to source authentic stories.

A major new crowdsourced documentary, Life in a Day, has edited down thousands of hours of home-made video footage to produce a compelling vision of what life of earth was like on 24th July 2010. The project is headed by Oscar-winning director and executive produced by Ridley Scott. People uploaded their videos to youTube and trusted that the  directors would use their material to tell a story faithful to their individual contributions.

In the US, corporate giant GE has been proving that convincingly. Its programme began with a challenge to find and tell 100 stories in 30 days using a dedicated website space.

As the GE Reports site says, it’s a “a simple, no-frills-way of communicating what’s happening at GE. Our goal is to be a resource for people who are interested in learning more about GE.”

The site produces everyday stories, and has a companion youTube channel. All 320,000 employees can contribute, and there are subsidiary blogs for the GE community in China, Japan, Middle East and now Brazil, which started up in April. Hats off to GE: as tellers of their innovation story, this company has few equals.

If you can crowdsource the mood of a company, why not probe an entire nation? That’s the premise behind the online National Values Assessments carried out by the Barrett Values Centre. The centre, which has carried out national surveys of 11 countries since 2007, since claims the results can help public policymakers to plan. Following Iceland’s roiling financial collapse and administrative turmoil, a 2010 survey showed Icelanders overwhelmingly focus on the need for stewardship, accountability and ability to plan for the future as necessary values for leaders. And, backing up this approach, Iceland has just announced it is crowdsourcing the content for its new Constitution.

And if a nation’s values can be accurately plotted, how about its musical taste? That’s the premise behind a new project by the makers of one of the BBC’s very oldest radio programmes, Desert Island Discs.

Since 1942 the BBC has been plugging an unchanging formula: invite an artist, celebrity or public figure to select just eight music tracks around which to tell their life story in an hourlong chatshow. Guests get to keep just one disc for company on an imaginary desert island to which they’ll be exiled. More than 22,000 tracks have been picked, offering a statistical sample of Britain’s best-loved music.

This June the BBC raised the ante by opening up online polling for the nation’s popular vote for everyone’s Desert Island Discos. Over 25,000 people took part – albeit middle-aged, mostly white, mostly middle-class listeners of the BBC’s flagship Radio 4 station. The results: six of the eight tracks were classical, with old rock icons Queen and Pink Floyd representing “modernity”. And six of the eight were British – although the Beatles didn’t even make the cut as the nation’s top songsters.

Why? Now that’s another story.

Richard House

How to Stop Your Reputation Getting an (Undeserved) Digital Trashing

Hidden deep inside every single one of us is a wayward child with a rock in his fist, hungry for that delicious sound of breaking glass.

As we gaze at the shiny display windows where celebrities cavort in public view, the urge to throw that rock is unbearable. No surprise then, that in the digital world schadenfreude (or delight in the misfortunes of others) is now a primary driver of mass social media traffic.

It’s hard to deny that prurience, gossip and not a little lifestyle envy lie behind Twitter’s current success. Thanks to the network’s viral power, the ease with which personal reputations can be shattered has attained frightening dimensions.

The rich or famous who richly deserve to be shamed, humbled or exposed, have got it coming to them … fast. No one’s privacy is worth more than 140 characters, with TMZ lurking just around the corner.

It looks like such much harmless fun to retweet the latest revelations about Charlie Sheen’s drug-fuelled frenzies or New York State congressman Anthony D. Weiner’s naughty pictures. Tittle-tattle about soccer-players who are paid to take vacations in Dubai, advertising themselves in wraparound shades or bulbous underwear, is all cheerful grist to the Twittermill.

But what about those who don’t deserve this digital trashing?

There’s a growing body of evidence that when it comes to reputations, social networking may indiscriminately sweep up the innocent with the guilty, the good with the bad… and it’s getting uglier by the day.

This can affect the reputations not only of perfectly respectable individuals, but of corporations that may not have put a foot wrong. Online reputations need managing on a daily basis.

Take the case of Roger Boyes, the highly distinguished Berlin correspondent of the London Times, author of several books and a leading expert on Germany. In March, Boyes wrote an ill-fated piece entitled “Vienna Boys choir caught up in sex abuse scandals.”

The blogs and tweets suddenly went into overdrive, explicitly linking Boyes with paedophilia in all his top Google hits. Boyes told the BBC in an interview that his “crime” was not that he investigated serious allegations, but that in Britain’s colourful street argot, “Roger Boyes” is itself slang for paedophilia.

The funny name joke went viral. Some commentators used the incident as an opportunity to attack the much-disliked paywall policy of his employer, the Ties. Others just got snide about the name.

Boyes said that in the end he had to hire an online reputation management expert to “clear his name.” That involved setting up a Facebook page, creating a new website, signing up for LinkedIn, posting a biographical YouTube video. And using blogs and Twitter to post links to these sites. Most likely, an army of teenagers in Hanoi were also paid to click on positive links until the “bad” stuff sank to page 20 of Boyes’ Google profile. How much did all that cost him?

There’s no sign yet of such egregious happenings in the corporate world, but it won’t be long before social networking mavericks and big business go head-to-head in the reputation stakes.

Germany’s Daimler-Benz has already been in the wars. Forbes reported in May that the German automaker had succeeded in forcing Facebook to shut down a discussion group called “Daimler Colleagues against the Stuttgart 21.”

This was one focus of popular opposition to a huge development scheme planned for Daimler’s home-town, which will partly replace a popular park with a train station. Text on the (now-defunct) FB page reputedly slated Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche as being “at the head of a pack of liars.” Another report said that Daimler employees who had “liked” the offending page were called in by group HR for a verbal thrashing.

What’s clear is that “after the event” online reputation management – for individuals or for corporates – isn’t enough. Putting a Band-aid on the wound after it’s infected won’t help. Companies need to see that protecting and caring for their reputations, both off and online, is a strategic priority. In order to protect their brand value, they need to have a proper plan about what to do when a reputational crisis develops.

And that doesn’t just mean making sure a few responsible executives have some “crisis communications” training. If you don’t have a plan, there’s not much to communicate when the reputational fur really starts flying.

A good crisis management plan will have analysed real or potential threats to the company, its brand and the integrity of its executives. These days good crisis management plans try to take a holistic view of all real or potential threats to (or from) their products, infrastructure, workforce, licence to operate, legal environment, local politics, brand value and reputation. They need to consider the “Black Swan Effect”, too.

And it’s increasingly obvious that “protecting online reputation” needs to be added to that list. Otherwise, with over 600 million Facebook accounts and 177 million Twitter users sending one billion tweets a week, the outcome could be costly.

Protecting value by caring for reputation – online as well as offline – is the new management priority.

Richard House