Is Corporate Social Responsibility at the heart of your story?

Just occasionally when you’re listening to a speaker or reading an article, something clicks.  I had such a moment whilst listening to Julia Worthington and David Pollock (DP pictured in the bin!) talking about Corporate Social Responsibility at the recent Directors’ Briefing hosted by Saffery Champness Accountants.

I’m writing a new book at the moment entitled “Choose Me!” which explores the dilemma faced by many buyers these days – how to decide whether to buy from this or that provider?  It’s a thorny problem for employers looking to fill a vacancy; they’ve got a sack-full of CV’s sporting first rate educational and technical credentials, so how do you distinguish one candidate from another?

It’s much the same in the business community, but sellers don’t make it easy for buyers to choose them because they all sound a bit similar.  So many people think marketing involves pushing a bland, factual message far and wide on the assumption that sales will be generated.  It’s all a bit vanilla – “we’re based here, we do this, we’ve got 6 offices and deal with these sorts of clients”.

Simply telling more people what you do has always worked as a marketing strategy to a certain degree, but it’s fast becoming a broken system.  There’s way too much noise out there and we tend to switch off and ignore stuff.

What DOES work, however, is having a strong story.  Instead of pushing an unremarkable message on people who haven’t given you permission to talk to them, a PULL approach involves saying things that are worth listening to and doing things that warrant people’s attention.  I loved what David told us about his company, Chess Telecom, one that’s consistently listed in The Times Top 100 Companies to Work For.   It’s got a strong story.  Part of that story are the excellent products and services they supply.  But if it was just that, they’d be no different from anyone else.  What makes their story really interesting (and distinctive) is what their people do, and their many CSR activities are a key component of this.

So many people claim to have a USP, but in my experience it’s more of a CSP (Common Selling Point)!  But here are the things that really are unique in a business:

  • your people
  • the relationships they have with others
  • the stories they generate

If you build your message around these things you really WILL be unique because you’re in them! As David pointed out, most corporate communications make for dreary reading – latest offers, new offices opening up, etc.  The MD might think this is news, but that doesn’t mean it’s newsworthy.  What people like to read about are good stories – how you transformed a client’s situation in a novel way, how an employee raised £15,000 for his daughter’s hi-tech wheelchair by reaching out to the local community, or in the case of Herdy, how you paid for some apprentices to be trained as dry stone-wallers to maintain the local landscape.

Take a look at the Herdy web-site and you’ll see a clear message.  It’s not focused around the product list or special discounts.  It’s, “This is what we believe in, want to join our tribe?”  The real story of that company is what led the directors to set it up, how they challenged perceptions about pricing and fair trade and did something to retain the distinctive nature of the environment and support local farmers.

Simon Sinek describes how powerful this approach is through his concept of the Golden Circle.  Most people communicate their message by starting with their WHAT; they might get on to their HOW but few talk about (or even know) their WHY.  And by why he doesn’t mean to make a profit, he means your cause, your purpose, the wrong you’ve set out to right, the reason you get out of bed in the morning.  In his experience, the most revered leaders and companies communicate the other way around – they start with their WHY.  He cites Apple as a great example – I’d also add John Lewis to that list, as well as Chess and Herdy of course.

The key, he says, is not to find people who need what you offer.  It’s about finding people who believe what you believe.  When you have a strong story, when you know your why and instil a culture based around it, you attract the right type of customers and employees.  These people find something in your message that resonates with them.  They come to you ‘pre-warmed’ and they’re easy to motivate and more likely to stay loyal and spread the word.  Your message centres around your beliefs and values and this becomes your main marketing tool.

Companies with a strong story-based culture (driven by their why) find it easier to retain staff, reduce absenteeism, increase productivity, attract and retain good clients and are generally more fun places to work (and buy from).  They develop a ‘story vault’ which provides fantastic material which people want to read. It all goes into creating their distinctive personality as a company.  In short, it makes it easy for (the right) buyers to choose them.

So thank you to David, Julia and Safferys for giving me even greater clarity about the importance of your story, your culture and the huge benefits of putting CSR at the heart of things.

What you can apply from TED Talks

At Speakeasy we regularly refer to the amazing library of talks at TED, a wonderful resource for anyone looking to improve their presenting and storytelling skills. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design and has evolved over the years into one of the most influential communities on the planet.

A platform for people with something to say, TED attracts thousands of attendees to its main conferences @ $6,000 a ticket – and there’s a lengthy waiting list! Speakers have included Bill Clinton, Bill and Melinda Gates, Jamie Oliver, Madeleine Albright, Steve Jobs and Peter Gabriel. Thanks to a Creative Commons license, TED talks are available to anyone for free via the internet and millions (including myself) regularly log on to find fresh inspiration and spiritual and intellectual nourishment!

But what I’m concerned to do here is demonstrate how anyone looking to improve their communication/presenting skills can find relevance from this extraordinary resource. So here’s my guide (a personal view) to getting the most from TED.

Presenting University

A lot of Speakeasy members ask me if there are any books or other resources they can study between sessions. I put together a simple e-book, the Speakeasy A-Z of Presenting a while back, but to be honest you could do a lot worse than simply watch and learn from the TED presenters. I played golf for my country when at university and from an early age I learned a lot by simply watching great players. My brother is a pro and I played with him and caddied at the highest level. I developed a swing largely by mimicry.

Within reason, you can adopt the same approach with presenting and speaking. Learn from wonderful speakers like Sir Ken Robinson and Ben Zander and Brene Brown. For example, both Sir Ken and Brene Brown open with a self-deprecatory remark or story. It puts the audience at ease and makes them immediately likeable. I’m not saying you should copy them and not be your authentic self, but you CAN learn so much from these talks – treat them as homework and test-drive some of their techniques and principles in your own presenting.

Authentic Storytelling

TED speakers leave you in no doubt that they passionately believe in their message. It’s often representative of their life’s work so it’s personal, raw, insightful and compelling. Others speak of more recent experiences that have affected them – like Ric Elias whose outlook on life changed forever when his plane came down in the Hudson River. These days people are distrustful of slick, polished pitches. You’re on safer ground if you’re open and honest about who you are and what you believe in. It comes down to knowing your own story and being totally true to your convictions.

Message over Oratory

You don’t get speaking gigs because you’re a good orator. People ask you to speak because you’ve got something to say. Know your message and develop sound presenting/storytelling skills to do it justice.

Ideas Worth Spreading

This is such a clever strap line because it’s exactly what TED is about. And it also epitomizes the Speakeasy philosophy.

  • Idea – have you got a message?
  • Worth – is it something worthy of our attention?
  • Spreading – are you doing enough to get it known/talked about?


TED reminds us that we have the power to influence others and effect change, as long as we communicate a strong message. William Kamkwamba became a powerful voice for the global environmental movement despite being a poor young man in famine-torn Malawi. But he had a great story that resonated with people. TED celebrates endeavour and struggle and reminds us of what’s possible with limited resources.

Painting the Picture

Some people find TED a little dreamy and idealistic, but sometimes you really do have to sell the sizzle and paint a picture of what might lie ahead. Martin Luther King used it to good effect in his, “I have a dream…” speech. Audiences like to be inspired, to imagine there’s a bigger story still to unfold. You may present a logical, intellectual argument but without the emotional buy-in you’re unlikely to get your audience to act on your suggestions.

If you’re serious about developing into a persuasive and influential person, learn from great storytellers and apply some of the techniques on display at TED.

Doing justice to the legend of Seve Ballesteros

For the best part of 30 years, golf has been a big part of my life and one of my great heroes passed away this morning. The Spanish golfing legend Seve Ballesteros was only 54 when he finally lost his battle with brain cancer, a fight he described as the biggest of one of many in his life. Loved by millions of adoring fans around the world, he was a charismatic player in the mould of Arnold Palmer and spearheaded the growth of European professional golf in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

BBC radio ran a feature on the great man today and asked golf correspondent Iain Carter to split his summation into 2 parts – the tournament record…and then the man. The record is impressive: 5 major championships, over 80 tournament victories worldwide and of course his spectacular performances in the Ryder Cup. Moving on to the man himself, Carter used the terms commonly associated with Seve – charismatic, swashbuckling, genius, bold, passionate, handsome, determined and stubbornly single-minded.

But it struck me that neither his stellar record nor those descriptive terms did the Ballesteros legend justice. On their own they failed to explain why people so adored and revered him, even those Americans he so desperately wanted to beat in his many Ryder Cup battles.

As ever, it was the stories that summed up the essence of the man. It seems everyone has a story about Seve, but just two will do for now.

I recall when he led the European Ryder Cup team when the contest was held in his home country for the first time in 1997.  The beautiful Valderrama course in Southern Spain played host to this most eagerly awaited battle with the USA, and the Spaniard was at his most determined, even as a non-playing captain.  His presence was felt everywhere and it was clearly difficult for Seve to contain himself as a non-combatant. During a practice round he watched Darren Clarke attempt a bunker shot. The Irishman messed it up, leaving the ball in the sandy pit. Seve shook his head, grabbed Clarke’s club, pushed him aside muttering, “No, no…like this.” He proceeded to play the most exquisite shot to within inches of the hole.

The second story I heard for the first time today. Being rather passionate and single-minded, Seve was something of a nightmare to caddy for. He went through bag carriers like babies go through nappies, but Yorkshireman Billy Foster managed to last 5 years while the Spaniard was in his prime.  During a European Tour event the magician from Pedrena was charging down the home stretch, with birdies at the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th. Now in the lead, Ballesteros was ready to attack the tricky final hole, but Foster advised caution.  The Spaniard ignored him and thrashed a 3-wood with all his might, ending up behind the wall of a villa!

He was in an impossible position – restricted backswing, trees everywhere, a tiny gap through which to thread the ball, 150 yards to carry over a wall and a swimming pool. Again, his caddy advised caution, “Just play out sideways,” he begged, almost down on his knees. His boss was not for turning, “You sonofabitch, this is Seve…watch this!” He went on to play the most outrageous shot which sailed over all the trouble and landed just short of the green. And to cap it all, he chipped in for a birdie three!

My point is this Seve tribute really only worked when the facts were married with the stories. The facts alone don’t paint the picture of his charismatic personality. They don’t explain why he accumulated so many adoring fans around the world. Those 2 anecdotes capture the essence of the man and it’s a lesson we can learn when we’re putting across our OWN message. The factual overview of our business won’t capture any hearts. It’s the stories that convey the character of our business and its people and THAT is what makes the buyer feel good about choosing US as opposed to one of our competitors.

Adios Seve – you’ll be sorely missed but the memories linger on.

The Speakeasy User Guide (Part 1)

I’ve been running Speakeasy Groups for 16 months now, and it dawned on me that I’d never produced a ‘user guide’ to help people get the best from it.  But I think a good starting point (this is effectively the ‘Intro’) is to suggest ways in which Speakeasy can help you, especially if you’re in the networking/micro/SME community.

Naturally, Speakeasy can and will help you present yourself better.  But it’s far more profound than that and hopefully this explains why.

As always with training, it’s what you do between your sessions that counts. Some suggestions would be to get into Ted Talks, listen to some good storytellers and take an interest in basic human psychology.  But even if you do NONE of the above, provided you embrace some of the principles shown below you’ll gain more benefit from attending our sessions.

The 3 key goals of all the work I do are:

  • Help people know their own story
  • Help them tell it better (so it’s compelling)
  • Help them build a network around it and PULL people to them

There’s too much bland networking and pitching going on.  It’s pushy and unremarkable and people just switch off.  Too many people have the mind-set of:

  • Be seen in as many places as possible
  • Deliver my basic factual message
  • Wait for the business to come in

The trouble with this is everyone starts to sound the same.  The question is: why should they choose YOU? The Speakeasy message is:

  • Do you and your story justice.
  • Be worth listening to.
  • Get people talking about you.

So here’s a few ways in which Speakeasy can help you.

Improve your Elevator Pitch

This is something you do all the time when you network, sometimes formally (the round-the-table), sometimes in conversation.  Develop something that’s punchy, memorable and makes people want to know more.  I believe you should have not one, but many variations of your pitch.  But the key is that it always relates in some way to your expertise in whatever niche you occupy.

Deliver a better presentation – one that has impact

Many people shy away from the 5-10 minute ‘spotlight’ – where they have a chance to expand on their 60 second pitch.  But it’s a wonderful opportunity to convey the essence of what you’re about and win over an entire audience in one go.  Use Speakeasy to test-drive this presentation and aim to deliver it 2 or 3 times during your initial 6 month membership.  It’s a safe environment to experiment with some new ideas and methodology.

Make it easy for buyers to choose YOUR company

Your pitch or presentation is really your ‘story’.  But so many people use it to deliver facts – “we’re a printing company, we’re based in Stockport, we’ve been in business since 1978 and we do a wide range of printing jobs…” zzzzzzzz!  Your task is not really to tell us what you do; the challenge is to give us a reason to choose YOU.  Speakeasy helps you know your own story, which might include why you do what you do, how you’ve transformed a client’s situation or what ambition you have for the future.

Become more persuasive when pitching to prospective clients

There’s a saying that facts make people think, but emotions make them act.  If the purpose of your pitch is to trigger a behaviour (ie buy from you!), start thinking in terms of how you want your audience to feel.  Of course, you’ve got to present a logical, rational argument for them buying your product or service.  But they’ve also got to feel good about doing it.  Speakeasy helps you take prospects on that emotional ‘journey’.

Network with more confidence

A lot of people approach networking with apprehension, but in a funny sort of way Speakeasy helps people realise how interesting they are!  There are many things about you and your work that you wouldn’t expect to be a typical brochure, but they add colour and depth to your ‘brand’.  We help you recognise things that you can use as material for your ‘story vault’ and of course these anecdotes and personal reflections make you a much more interesting conversationalist.


Develop better material for posting on social media

A few years ago if we wanted to publish something we’d look to the local newspapers or print some leaflets.  But social media like LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook (and the ability to post blogs) means we’re all authors – but that doesn’t mean what we produce is worth reading!  Speakeasy helps people recognise what’s newsworthy.  It helps you develop a ‘nose’ for a good story. And of course it all helps you stand out from your rivals – you’re developing your own distinctive signature.

Build some terrific relationships

As well as a personal development club, Speakeasy is also a networking community.  But because you’re all learning something together (and presenting is a fundamental human frailty), our members tend to develop deeper, authentic relationships.  There’s an element of vulnerability with Speakeasy, but that means the removal of falsity and the discovery of who we really are.  And that paves the way to true connection.


I hope that’s painted a clearer picture of the depth of this concept.  It’s fundamental to your success in networking and marketing because it’s about people truly appreciating what you (as opposed to your rivals) have to offer.

See you at the next session. See Speakeasy dates & venues here.

Why Storytelling is Influence in Disguise (part 2)

The power of reflection

Ask your employees to tell the story of who they are and what they do, and they have to STOP what they’re doing and reflect on it first. And that’s a powerful thing to do. Normally we’re charging around at 100 miles an hour and never pause to consider whether or not we’re working intelligently or indeed on the right thing at all.

I like Seth Godin’s reference to our ‘art’ in his book Linchpin. For him, art doesn’t just mean paints and canvas – it’s creativity in its broadest sense (a receptionist who placates an irate customer, a person who connects people or solves a problem in an unusual way). Enabling people to understand the ‘art’ they do will re-engage and re-motivate them in a way that transcends normal financial incentives. The very act of reflection leads to renewed wisdom and a greater understanding of the employee’s place (and value) in the business.

The Storytelling Culture

I talk a lot to my clients about developing a storytelling culture. I suggest they create platforms where co-workers can share their own experiences to the benefit of the group.

It simulates creative thinking.

(“I saw this great idea in the hotel I stayed in last week”).


It improves cross-departmental co-operation.

(“We’re looking for these opportunities; it seems you guys meet these people all the time”).


It raises standards.

(“I love the way you dealt with that situation; what can we learn here?”).

The value of intangibles

Michael Margolis makes a fascinating point in his manifesto ‘Believe Me’. He reminds us that in the modern world so much of the value of a company’s assets is what the accountants describe as ‘intangibles’. That’s things like brand perception, team spirit, intellectual and social capital.

Picking up on the first of those, people’s perception of a brand is really an amalgamation of all their experiences of it, the footprint that’s left behind every time you interact with it. Where their experiences of the company are inconsistent, and at odds with the ‘mission statement’, the brand is weakened (you might say Tiger Woods is an example!).  As Margolis points out, it’s very hard to measure or manage those intangibles through spreadsheets – although some try! Instead, we do so through stories, both within the company and outside.

We love to hear (and re-tell) a great story about exceptional customer service, personal bravery, unexpected outcomes or other things that are remarkable (ie worth remarking upon). This is good old-fashioned ‘word-of-mouth’ but it’s more powerful now than ever, especially because of social media. Stuff spreads!

Be a bit more interesting!

Social media has changed the landscape of business communication. Web 2.0 (the self-publishing capabilities of the internet) has made it possible for anyone to start putting their material in front of others, but therein lies the rub. In some respects it’s TOO easy and it’s led to a plethora of self-congratulatory one-way traffic – all I, us, me and we. It’s all very well telling people about yourself, but the fact is so much of what people say is bland and boring. It’s factual, information-heavy material that leaves people cold.

Social media is a wonderful opportunity to establish your reputation not only as an expert in your niche, but also as someone (individual or organisation) with a personality. And yes, that’s where stories come in! When you establish a culture of storytelling you’ll capture some wonderful anecdotes that say more about you and your values than any mission statement could.

It’s far more interesting to read and hear about how you transformed someone’s situation in a novel or creative way. Become like a story factory and develop a vault that you can draw upon when you need to, either during F2F interactions or on-line. Gradually, you’ll develop your unique ‘signature’, get talked about and generate a lot more PULL.

Authenticity and the Back-story

Listening to a Success Magazine CD the other day, there was one recurrent theme from all the guru presenters in relation to effective leadership – authenticity. So if you equate storytelling with leadership (and that’s another recurrent theme!), what we’re looking for in those with a message to deliver is the A-word.

In this sense, I like what my friend Ian Brodie refers to as your ‘back-story’. By this, we mean something about why you do what you do, what led you to be here today, speaking to us about something you obviously feel strongly about.

In my own case it was a collapsed business (and marital) relationship that led me down a different path and helped me discover my purpose. Now you might say it’s dangerous to reveal too much about yourself, but if you believe in the principle that people buy people first and foremost, it pays to be honest and open and give a little insight into your journey.

It may be that it’s BECAUSE those things happened that you’re able to speak with authority about your topic. Now you’re wiser, stronger and able to pass some nuggets on to others. There might not be anything as dramatic as a major trauma in a back-story, but a little insight adds colour, credibility and humanity to the person in front of us.


Story isn’t just about sitting by the campfire with a “once upon a time” approach. It’s absolutely fundamental to our ability to convey the essence of who we are, what we do and why others should believe in our message. It’s the soft under-belly of true influence.