Words Work

Politics aside*, ‘Vote Leave, Take Control’ and ‘Make America Great Again’ are winning slogans. They encapsulate strong messages in simple, powerful, memorable phrases. Through consistent repetition they became drummed into our collective and individual consciousness.

They’re bold examples of active, rather than passive, voice. Both are verb-driven: challenging the listener or reader to respond. They embody more than a call to action – they’re calls for participation.

Linguistically, they have rhythm, they have cadence, and they feel more like poetry than prose. They lodge in our ears and stick in our minds.

Part of their potency lies in positioning you, the audience, as the hero. Yes, you. Quite unlike Theresa May’s ‘Strong and Stable’ snap election strapline which focused on her leadership, these clarion calls are reminiscent of Lord Kitchener’s ‘Your Country Needs You’. Their appeal is empowering, populist, and personal – and it instills a sense of national pride. Vote Leave was about sovereignty and Trump’s campaign refrain inspired hope: the reformation of a nation and the restoration of a bygone era.

In contrast, do you remember the Remain campaign slogan? Hillary’s? Me neither.

So what?

But how is this relevant? The chances are you don’t craft campaign messages. But you do write, and speak. These are the main tools we use to influence and persuade others. Whether you’re drafting an email, asking a favour, raising sponsorship, or making a speech: the specific words you use, and the order in which you use them, matter profoundly. They make the difference between communicating effectively and confusing your audience.

Great writing carries the reader along, and powerful speeches appeal to both hearts and minds. But turgid texts are a turn off, and stodgy speeches are stultifying. Better to write nothing than torpedo your brand with your own language, in an act of rhetorical self-harm.

Words carry power. The way in which a question is phrased in a survey will influence responses. Polling shows that the majority of British voters don’t want a ‘leave v remain’ re-run, but they do want a so-called ‘people’s vote’. To be clear, these propositions are exactly the same, merely cloaked in different language. Yet they provoke diametrically opposite reactions. It’s the same the world over. Here’s a transatlantic parallel: Americans are consistently opposed to ‘drilling for oil’ but invariably in favour of ‘energy exploration’. The words we choose really do matter.

Five principles for better writing

  1. Keep it simple. Don’t use vocabulary like a preening peacock. Avoid overcomplication at all costs (unless it adds something distinctive, such as shock factor for grabbing the reader’s attention). Verbosity is linguistic Onanism**.
  2. Keep it short. Solid, functional Anglo-Saxon words, fashioned into punchy sentences and tight paragraphs. Our attention span is brief. Entice the reader to read, and the listener to listen.
  3. Keep it sweet. Tell stories. Narrative carries us along more compellingly than a barrage of stats and facts. If your writing paints a picture and captures the imagination, you’re heading in the right direction.
  4. Keep it in the frame. Draw the conversation into your own territory, and give yourself a better chance of exerting influence. The battle for ideas is won subtly and subliminally. Use language that spans the gap between you and your audience: give them the chance to cross over. Put yourself into their (metaphorical) shoes. I’m thinking about you right now. Am I helping you? Am I communicating effectively with you? Are you thinking of ways you can apply this to your writing? If so, we’re both winning.
  5. Keep the spotlight on your reader, your listener. What can you do for them? What do you have to offer? How are you helping them to be better at whatever-it-is-they-do?

The last word (or three)

Aristotle was persuaded that all great communication requires ethos, logos and pathos. They’re profound principles, yet understanding and applying them is easier than it sounds.

Ethos is about authority. Do you have the credentials to communicate on the issue you’re writing about? If not, you won’t be taken seriously. Best find another topic.

Logos is the use of logic: reason, facts and figures. Building from substance adds credibility, from which your story or speech should soar.

Pathos refers to emotional appeal. Great communication always moves hearts, as well as minds.

Blend authority, logic and emotional appeal – and your communications will be both credible and compelling. And remember: Lord Kitchener, Vote Leave and President Trump have one thing in common: they know that words can work. Adhere to these principles, and words will work for you, too.

*As if

**Yes, this is both deliberate and ironic.

Originally published at Nudge Factory.

Picture credit: Etsy

The business of branding: From vision and values to hearts and minds

I’m preparing a branding workshop for a new business, going back to brass tacks* and writing it from scratch. It’s a cathartic process, provoking me to question the value of branding, and the journey a brand takes from conception to birth.

Most people fundamentally misunderstand ‘brand’. They think immediately of logos and other visual properties – colours, typefaces, imagery, and advertising. But brands are intrinsically deeper. The logo is the recognisable ‘face’, but the brand itself is the whole person. Branding begins with identifying and crafting who the brand is, rather than what it looks like.

Clear differentiation is at the heart of branding.

Its origins can be traced back to 2,700 B.C. in ancient Egypt. Brands were literally burnt onto the hides of cattle to distinguish one herd from another. They demarcated ownership. Contemporary branding shares that essence: it’s about differentiation. Crucially, a brand ought to encapsulate why a product, service or other entity is different from and better than its competitors.

I love the writings of David Ogilvy. He viewed ‘brand’ as “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes: its name, packaging and price, its history, its reputation, and the way it’s advertised.”

Whilst his definition focuses on products, it’s clear that brand begins with the essence – the actual substance of the proposition, and encompasses every touchpoint and facet of communication. It reminds me of a discussion between one of my first marketing mentors and the chairman of the company we worked for. We had a plan to rebrand a retail chain, and the chairman (a former military man) couldn’t understand why it was going to take so long, and cost so much.

The essence of the chairman’s argument was that a rebrand simply involved changing fascias, signage, point of sale, till receipts, advertising (and so on). Surely that could be done overnight? My old boss had to find a way of communicating with the chairman that implementing superficial changes would result in a rebadging rather than a rebranding.

“You were in the SAS, weren’t you, Sir Michael?”

“Indeed, I was.”

“If I took a unit of regular soldiers and gave them SAS uniforms, would they become SAS?”

Sir Michael got the message.

Shaping perception through process

Brand building isn’t a cosmetic exercise. It requires a root and branches approach. Strong brands understand themselves deeply. They achieve cut-through in today’s cluttered communications landscape through consistency and clarity. They are differentiated from competitors and distinctly defined. Emotive and empowered, they have edge in their voices. But all of this must be distilled and encapsulated in a suite of documents to inform and inspire, and for team members to be attuned to and use as a touchpoint.

Mission, values and vision statements are fundamental. They lay a foundation, stating why a brand exists, what it does, and for whom; what it believes in and aspires to; and what its optimal future will look like, if it achieves its mission and stays true to its values.

The next layer of brand teases out the proposition and how it is differentiated from its competitors. It seeks to identify sources of sustainable competitive advantage, and to clarify its strategic positioning.

The brand narrative builds on this, crafting the overarching story. This forms the ‘stock pot’ to be drawn upon and adapted to serve different audiences in different contexts. It fleshes out brand personality and tone of voice.

Finally, a stakeholder audit identifies who the brand wants to engage with. A messaging matrix is then developed to connect the brand to its audiences. Context is key. Conversations with prospective employees, for example, consist of the same essential truths as pitches to investors, but the type of communication and hierarchy of messaging will be different.

Brands heighten awareness. They shape perception, and they persuade audiences. Strong brands become as recognisable for their consistency of proposition and communication, as for their logos and colour palettes.

Eschewing introspection (or ‘it’s not about you’)

One more thing, often forgotten. Brands are enablers. They doesn’t exist in a vacuum. They exist to serve customers, or clients. Airlines fly passengers from A to B in comfort and safety. Law firms provides legal services in a professional manner. And so on. Brands are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

They exist to meet people’s needs and desires. They are vehicles for delivering benefits, and seek to do so better than others. Great branding eschews narcissism and introspection. It focuses on enabling and empowering people, thereby occupying mental and emotional real estate. The most important place a brand must live is in the hearts and minds of its stakeholders, and achieving that outcome is the ultimate hallmark of success.

*Etymology of the phrase disputed.

Originally published at Nudge Factory.

Alternative facts, fake news, and filter bubbles – navigating the new(s) norm

‘Post-Truth’ was the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year in 2016. It’s a contemporary adjective for an ancient concept. It defines an era where facts carry less force than emotional appeals, and opinions can be shaped more profoundly by stories than by hard data.

Post-truth nestles well in our postmodern age, which denies the existence of universal truths. Objectivity is ditched in favour of an individualistic, egocentric focus on ‘my truth’ at the expense of a shared understanding of reality. Subjectivity prevails, virtue-signalling abounds, and digital and social media sucks us into echo chambers. The result? Our worldviews are reinforced and we become increasingly tribal, even myopic.

‘Fake news’ is a singularly unhelpful catch-all.

If post-truth is the canvas, ‘fake news’ paints the landscape. It’s all-pervasive, and it manifests in different forms and phrases, like ‘alternative facts’, which Kellyanne Conway used when debating the size of the crowd on the National Mall for President Trump’s inauguration. She later clarified that she was referring to an alternative perspective, not an alternative reality.

Are we inhabiting an Orwellian nightmare? Is this the new ‘Newspeak’? Will we ever be safe from manipulation and obfuscation? Possibly not. But there are ways to cut through this nefarious malaise and maintain clear thinking.

Firstly, we must realise that ‘fake news’ isn’t news at all. It’s the antithesis of news. Whilst there has never been absolute editorial integrity and impartiality, mainstream media still functions as a check and balance to the deluge of digital dross that swamps the internet. Cross-reference everything with credible sources. Step two – recognise that there’s nothing new here. In 1928, Edward Bernays was clear about the power of propaganda:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society… We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”

Attempts to manipulate perception are as old as civilisation itself, but the rise of social media has dramatically increased opportunities for disinformation.

The third step is to be aware that social media algorithms serve us with more of what we ‘like’. There’s a danger that our Facebook timeline and Twitter feed become clogged with opinions that reinforce our worldview, creating filter bubbles of like-minded content, fuelling groupthink.

That’s the shallow end. The digital ghettos that cocoon our beliefs are concerning – but the growing potential for the weaponisation of information is altogether alarming.

Russian ‘click farms’ are propaganda factories packed with digitally-savvy operatives whose express intent is the destabilisation of Western democracy. They strive to achieve this by creating ‘sock puppet’ social media profiles to foment unrest and drive discontent in the public sphere. This is the thin end of the cyber warfare wedge, with full-blown hacking and distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks being both more blatant and less frequent. 

So how do we navigate this information minefield with discernment? It’s important to understand why content is being created, by whom, and how it’s spread. It’s also vital to dive deeper into the nature of ‘fake news’.

First Draft News categorises fake news, ranging from (almost) innocent to downright devilish:

  1. Satire or parodyPrivate Eye (for example) presents false, yet humorous stories as if true. Lots of internet memes also fall into this category.
  2. False connection. A headline, photo, illustration, diagram or caption doesn’t match the content. This manifests itself across print and digital media, as clickbait, or sometimes through sloppy sub-editing.
  3. Misleading content. Misleading use of information, for example presenting editorial comment as fact, framing an issue or individual in a inaccurate manner.
  4. False context. Genuine content, shared alongside false contextual information.
  5. Imposter content. The impersonation of genuine sources, like established news agencies.
  6. Manipulated content. The distortion of genuine information or imagery, ranging from sensationalist headlines to doctored photos.
  7. Fabricated content. Completely false stories and information.

Whether meddling in elections or simply messing with our minds, the media landscape is increasingly cluttered, chaotic and confusing. We’re faced with the challenge of sifting fact from fiction, making it ever more challenging for brands to cut through the noise with compelling corporate communication. 

Good luck: it’s a (cyber) jungle out there.

Originally published at Nudge Factory.

Compelling corporate communications: proposition, positioning, perception, persuasion.

After MacKenzie* and Jeff divorce, Bill might become the richest person in the world again. With a $96 billion fortune, the chances are we’ll probably never find out if he ever really said:

“If I was down to my last dollar, I would spend it on PR.”

You’ll hear public relations types quote this carelessly, having regurgitated it after a cursory internet browse. Google** has much to answer for.

The quote is probably apocryphal, but (unsurprisingly) I agree with the sentiment. Corporate communications is a facet of PR – and it’s becoming increasingly important as the grown up, ‘suited’ manifestation of the discipline. It builds awareness, shapes perception and drives return on investment.

Like other aspects of PR, it’s amorphous: far harder to define than the legal profession or accountancy. This blog is an attempt to explain it.

Corporate communications encompasses campaigning and crisis communications; research and reputation management; stakeholder engagement and social media strategies. It uses tactical tools like media relations and content creation, and ensures consistency and cut-through with carefully crafted narratives and incisive implementation. It brings cohesion and consistency, and should be viewed as an investment, not a cost.

Marketing theory is built on ‘four Ps’ – product, price, place and promotion. Corporate communications can also be structured around four ‘Ps’ – proposition, positioning, perception and persuasion.


Identifying what your brand stands for and how it is different from (and superior to) its competitors is the starting point. In an age of unparalleled consumer choice, products and services struggle to differentiate themselves. That’s why it’s essential to identify and accentuate sources of sustainable competitive advantage.

The catalyst for this should be research and insight. The process of engaging with stakeholders to draw out their experiences and perspectives is illuminating. Conducting competitor analysis to identify market opportunities will clarify where your distinctives are found, and what to build your narrative around. Authentic communications doesn’t ‘make stuff up’, as I’ve heard some claim – it amplifies the positive aspects of your proposition.


Thinking rigorously about the audiences you engage with requires discipline, segmentation and targeting. Map out those you want to reach, and marry your proposition to their desires and expectations. Al Ries and Jack Trout are insightful and instructive:

“Positioning starts with a product. A piece of merchandise, a service, a company, an institution, or even a person. Perhaps yourself. But positioning is not what you do to a product. Positioning is what you do to the mind of the prospect. That is, you position the product in the mind of the prospect.”

We are more brand aware than we realise. Are you Apple or Android? BA or Virgin? Coke or Pepsi? And so on. We also have subtle brand preferences in the corporate world, based on the position that brands occupy in our minds and hearts.


When structuring corporate communications, never focus on the features of your offering, instead, emphasise the benefits you bring to your clients. Good messaging is not about how great your brand is, it’s about what it can do for your stakeholders. Frank Luntz was right when he observed that: 

“It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.”

Corporate communications must shape a proposition, create differentiated and consistent positioning, and change perceptions – but to achieve what? If it gives you influence, great. Influence isn’t an end in itself, we want people to act. Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy nail it:

“Public relations is the planned persuasion of people to behave in ways that further its sponsor’s objectives.”


The internal communications consultant engages and enthuses employees, fostering loyalty. Media relations operators persuade journalists to write or broadcast favourable news or features. Crisis communicators limit damage and protect reputations. Campaigners ensure that their causes prevail and their candidates win.

Likewise, all corporate communications must deliver demonstrable results, change behaviours and impact the bottom line.

Strategy must always precede tactics. Logic is the seedbed for creative magic. Research and insight are as vital as precise campaign delivery and execution. For visionary, ambitious organisations, compelling corporate communications is no longer an optional extra: it builds brands, drives differentiation and delivers growth.

*No relation

**Other search engines also available

Originally published at Nudge Factory.

Defining PR

PR is about reputation, but it must do more than generate and maintain awareness and positive perception.

It should help craft a brand’s proposition.

It must create and communicate compelling positioning.

Ultimately, it must persuade.

Not ‘influence’.

PR must do more than nudge stakeholders to think and feel differently. It must compel them to act.

PR shapes reputations and perceptions through propositions and positioning, but ultimately its goal is persuasive communication. Controversial? It shouldn’t be.

The pre-eminence of positioning

I’m a strategist, a marketer, a PR man, an integrated communications guy and an advocate of the importance of branding to add value to the balance sheet. I operate in the digital realm and in the ‘real world’.

I believe that we (collectively) ought to be able to show a causative correlation between what we do (our craft, our creativity) and a positive return for the organisations we represent. Not just a ‘return on reputation’ but also a tangible return on investment.

We are in the business of influence, yes. But our work has to do more than that. What good is influence if it doesn’t move audiences to react positively?

We must motivate and move our stakeholders to think differently, to feel differently and, crucially, to act differently. They must be engaged, be enamoured and be enchanted. And, in the final scenario, they must buy our products and/or services.

The object of their purchase is immaterial to the process of strategic, persuasive communication. Our audiences might be buying FMCG or financial services. No matter. The mechanism to get them to the point of decision is the same.

My growing conviction is that the key to orchestrating all of the disciplines mentioned above, is positioning. Branding, marketing, PR and digital are all important. These strategic and tactical disciplines are key in an integrated communications environment. But they all ought to be informed by and align to a positioning strategy.

Positioning is the art (let’s not be pretentious and pretend it’s a science) of emphasising and illuminating the most appealing facets of a brand, to selected and defined audiences, in light of the competitive environment, for the purpose of persuasion. It’s about the space that you own in the minds and hearts of your prospects.

Very little has been written about positioning. The original concept was created and popularised by Al Ries and Jack Trout in ‘Positioning – the Battle for Your Mind’. Despite not using the term, the essence of the idea was further expounded by Frank Luntz in ‘Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear’.

In order to be successful, we have got to start with the prospect’s thoughts, feelings and actions – and work back to ensure that our offering is going to connect with them, where they’re at – not blast messages at them from our entrenched position.