Win over the board with an earthquake – and then a climax

The professionalisation of marketing has brought many benefits – but that innate ability to spin a yarn to capture the attention of the board has been left in the past.

Secret MarketerOne of the big differences between good marketers in today’s world and those aspirational marketing heroes, who have the unerring ability to move not only their business but the industry forward, is their ability to tell a story.

Many marketers in organisations from Aberdeen to Arundel really struggle to tell an entertaining tale, even when they stumble into it. It’s not their fault. Back in the day before marketing was a profession, people fell into it from sales or the creative industries. They had spent years talking about and even rubbing shoulders with the original storytellers. You know, the crazy ones. The ones who create brands with their imaginations in the hallowed ‘creative department’.

But with the professionalisation of marketing, the downside of having brilliantly trained marketers – who can be dispassionate about brand instead preferring to lean in to product, price, promotion and distribution – is that they sometimes really struggle to entertain.

It’s not always easy but there are ways to win over the boardToo many have never learnt how to spin a yarn, hold an audience in the palm of their hand, and sell a grand vision to transform their brand. It’s not that they lack the vision or ambition. They just don’t have the storytelling skills necessary to win at board level and, in turn, gain the freedom to grow their brand and transform the fortunes of their organisation.

There are exceptions, sure, but let’s be honest, we’re not being inundated with hundreds of brilliant campaigns and growth stories. We’re living in a flat economy with brands struggling to find extraordinary growth, and what feels like increasingly low levels of commercial ambition from businesses.

My belief is that brilliant marketers are being constrained by their inability to win with the board, and cannot deliver to their true potential, because they can’t tell a compelling story.

Attention’s the problem, creativity’s the answer – as everThe solution: we need to start some earthquakes

Sam Goldwyn, the film producer, knew a thing or two about being able to grab attention and hold it through storytelling. There is an apocryphal quote attributed to him about what it takes to make a great movie: “We want a story that starts with an earthquake and works its way up to a climax.” What a great starting point.

You don’t need to be a charismatic raconteur to do this well, but you must be able to tell a story that people want to listen to. Here are some hacks that helped me win the day and gain the space to grow my brand.

You need to go for the magic of emotion

A great session with the board starts before you enter the room. It begins with a blank sheet of paper with a box drawn in the middle. That box is where the magic happens. Write in it what you want the board to feel about your proposal. How excited, reassured and interested do you want them to be?

That’s right, how do you want them to feel at the end of your presentation? What emotions do you want to trigger? What personal connection do you want to make?

This start point relies on the truth that logic and process are rarely inspiring.

Success lies in getting some real fizz and buzz into the room. You want heart beats up, a rush of blood, some goddam excitement. You want the CEO to say, “This has been one of the most interesting meetings I’ve ever had.” Why? Because people like interesting things. They buy-in to things they connect with. How can you make your brand or marketing strategy interesting? Try putting some passion into it, even a sense of mischief and fun if you can.

Don’t try to bore people into agreement, it rarely works

When we focus on the audience and their needs and expectations. When we perform mental judo, appealing not to their head, but their heart. When we take a rational proposal and use their desires to breathe fire into their bellies, then we can win. Appealing to their irrationality, can cut a clear path to success.

So, once you have that magic box filled, then it’s about defining what’s in the chapters of the story you are going to weave for them.Creativity is marketers’ last legal unfair advantage – and I don’t mean advertising

Add some tension and drama to enrich the discussion

Something I learned from McKinsey years ago is that it’s really valuable to set out your core assumptions upfront. These form the basis of your approach and recommendation. They become the anchor points to your story.

But more than that, these assumptions allow you to recognise where key stakeholders disagree with you. Disagreement can be a powerful tool and catalyst for change in a board discussion, when handled proactively. At this level, it is vital that a balanced recommendation is put forward, to demonstrate you have listened to alternative view points in deciding your strategy.

Never be afraid of dissenting voices. It takes courage for people to speak up. But it takes even more courage to address them head on and then discount the arguments. It shows great confidence, and in return it will inspire the board’s confidence in you.

Put yourself in the spotlight

There is never enough time to run through a slide pack with the board. So, don’t bother. You will have sent in a detailed pre-read. Most directors will have read it. That is their job. So don’t attempt the impossible. Do the opposite and just talk to one slide, then open up for questions. Use that one slide as the anchor point for your story. This is very purposeful. It focuses attention on you, it gives you the stage.

The language of the boardroom: What to say and what to avoid

In my last board meeting I spent 10 minutes talking through one slide that contained the marketing strategy objectives on it. By talking around these I could weave a story of what we wanted to achieve by building greater brand equity, how we would create clarity for our customers, drive commercial effectiveness, support future growth, manage reputational risk, and optimise investments. The subsequent 20 minutes of Q&A were entirely on my terms. It was amazing. It was liberating. It was instantly successful.

You don’t need to be a master of rhetoric. But what helps is getting into the shoes of your executive and non-executive audience, and telling a story that they can get excited by. This is something aspiring marketing heroes can and should do to reach their true potential. After all, it is what they have been trained to do day in day out with their customers. We just need to employ that same approach with the board, and then we really will be able to start with an earthquake and go to market with a climax. Now that will be entertaining.



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