What not to do!

What not to do!

We do a fair amount of message crafting with our clients. We develop positioning statements, marketing copy, speeches, pitches, you name it.

At the heart of all this work is helping clients identify and hone a simple story. It’s what marketing and communications folks like us are supposed to be really good at. But sometimes, even the best of us can go astray. The good news is, we’ve identified some of the most common traps that get in the way of a powerful story—so, hopefully, you can see them coming.

See if any of these are familiar to you. (And please, let us know if you have any others you’d like to add to the list!)

#1, Everything, including the kitchen sink.

We love our product (or program or service or whatever) so much that we want to make sure we include everything about it in our message. There is nothing wrong with this desire – except it tends to confuse the target audience. More isn’t always better. Sometimes we need sacrifice the desire to be absolutely thorough in order to create something absolutely compelling. When figuring out your core story, focus on the least you can say that still captures the truth about your product. Nothing more, nothing less. Here’s how Zenefits sums up their service:


Short, sweet and complete.

The London underground railway system (or “Tube”) learned this lesson of simplification. As summarized in this blog, by removing details in their subway maps, they were able to create a map that riders could actually understand.

#2. Me, me, me.

It’s tempting to start with a story all about us. Our journey, our product, our solution. But the most inspiring product stories are the ones that transcend this story myopia and focus more on the customer’s story – their journey, their aspirations, their needs. Recently, Microsoft was praised for producing an amazing, heartfelt ad about the Xbox. But as it turns out, Microsoft has nothing to do with it. The video was created by an Xbox fan and tells an emotional story that puts a Xbox customer at the center of the story.

#3. Danger Will Robinson.

Using robotic language and jargon is one of those things that we don’t even notice we’re doing because we’re so immersed in the language of our company or industry. “Utilize” instead of “use.” “Consumers” instead of “people.” “Produce” instead of “create.” “Purchase” instead of “buy.” You get my drift. So how do we stop being so robotic. Try reading your message to a 10-year old or an adult who has no context for your business. Replace mechanistic words with simple language, vivid metaphors, and words that connect emotionally.

#4. Christmas tree syndrome.

You’re putting the finishing touches on your big presentation to the executives: Why your tech company is ready to compete in the European market. It flows. It’s ready to light up the audience. At the last minute, a co-worker suggests that your presentation is the perfect opportunity to mention the latest and greatest concept from his product division. He thinks it will add to your sparkle. It could make sense, and consider doing him the favor. But, beware! Foreign objects don’t make a lovely Christmas tree more beautiful. They make it messy. And heavy. In fact, adding more may just take that tree down. Messages are carried by clarity. Including afterthoughts obstruct the view you’ve worked hard to create. Let that tree be.

#5. Math camp.

There’s a place for numbers in stories. Facts and figures back you up. They’re best used for evidence and emphasis. But don’t overdo it. This isn’t math camp. In a presentation numbers should be used sparingly, like exclamation points. You will make your point best through language. A conversational tone invites your audience to the front row of your story – hopefully a story that has moved you in some way. A human story will keep sparkling eyes glued on you. A numbers story drains the life out of the room. Consider the following examples. They tell the same story, the first through numbers, the second through heart-felt words.

Before After
Our email newsletter has a 65% open rate and 4,500 subscribers. Roughly ¾ of visitors to our landing page opt in to the newsletter. This is up 60% since January. These are positive trends considering our web traffic bounce rate was 75% last year. Last year we realized that people visit our website but leave quickly. Our bounce rate was 75%. This figure made us wince. Can you imagine all that missed opportunity – folks coming straight to our front door, then walking away? We needed to do something drastic to keep visitors interested. In January our design team totally re-envisioned our website landing page. They put our most popular services front and center and invited people to sign up for a weekly newsletter that features exclusive interviews with industry experts. The results were dramatic. The landing page became a magnet to prospective customers, changing their behavior from “No thanks” to “Yes please!” We know this because our email newsletter opt-in rate skyrocketed by 60%. We’re also thrilled to report people actually read our newsletter. Our open rate is 65%, among the highest in our industry. These new numbers tell us customers value their relationship with us. We are recommending that our partner companies consider the same landing page strategy.

So, reserve those statistics and percentages for POW! moments. They will make people lean in, rather than fall asleep. Attention is what you want to maintain; feelings and thoughtful reflection are what you want to evoke. So keep your story in the foreground and numbers in your back pocket.

#6. Rose-colored glasses.

When preparing a presentation, it’s tempting to only share the good news, as in the news your boss wants to hear. After all, the stakes may be high and the pressure on. But in doing so you could unwittingly paint a picture that strays pretty far from the truth, and that’s a danger zone. When you avoid sharing struggles and challenges with anyone – decision makers or mid-level employees – you do them a disservice. Remember these companies who swept issues under the rug? [Need good examples. Blackberry ignored what their customers demanded and missed market opportunities. Lululemon founder refused to offer a public apology for a comment he made and it cost him his job] Problem-solving is everybody’s business, and often times employees have a sense of the issues rumbling below the surface, so best to put them on the table for group examination. If you have a tendency to see the world through rose-colored classes, remove them and take a good look at reality. Though your audience may not be all smiles, in the end they’ll be grateful for the truth.

Now, at ZUM we like to focus on the positive–but we hope you will keep these cautionary tales in the back of your mind the next time you are working on a big presentation.


Jun Young

Principal | Jun@zumcom.com