If I could only ever give one piece of communications advice, it would be, "think how best to engage your reader". That sounds ridiculously simple but it's amazing how many organisations forget to do this. Rather than engage their audience, they bombard them with corporate messages that are only important to them.
While thinking about engagement, I came across the author and marketing consultant, Simon Sinek. I'll admit that I'm somewhat late to the party on this (he's hardly some johnny-come-lately) but I recently found myself watching a TED talk of his from 2009. In it, Sinek explored why certain people or companies succeed where others don’t – by looking at how they communicate.
He did this by introducing the concept of the Golden Circle. Now, I like to think I have a well attuned radar when it comes to zoning out corporate consultancy nonsense. I’m cynical and mistrustful when it comes to business-speak. But I liked Sinek’s talk.
I needed convincing on a few points but, having revisited the content a few times, I agree with it. It works for me in terms of how I always want to describe and market my own business. Plus, it stands as a summary of what I’m reminding clients to do within their content and communication efforts.
If you're similarly serious about rethinking how you engage your reader, then this is a great place to start.
Start from the centre
So, what was Sinek talking about? Well, his Golden Circle model contained three concentric circles. In the inner circle was “why”. Beyond that, in the next circle, was “how” while “what” featured in the outer circle.
His hypothesis was that people and organisations typically communicate in a way that sees them start in the outer ring and move inwards. They tell you what they do and how they do it. If you’re lucky, you may eventually get a sense of why they do it.
By contrast, successful, inspirational leaders and companies start by telling you why they do what they do. They only move to the how and the what after that. He argues that the latter approach works because it engages us on a more emotional level. I think he’s right.
With those two different approaches in mind, how could I describe my own business? Probably something along these lines:
A – The Content Equation is a public relations agency that offers communications consultancy services. These range from content strategy and generation through to media relations and copywriting. We work with you and your team to understand your ambitions. We'll help produce a range of content assets which will really engage your reader. In everything we do, we believe there is huge value in thinking and acting like a publisher.
B – At The Content Equation, we’re passionate about working with companies who want to think and act more like a publisher. We want to help generate content that audiences will actively seek out and engage with. We’ll do this by working alongside you and your team to understand your ambitions. And we’ll provide all the support you need from content strategy and generation through to media relations and copywriting.
That feels better
Option B is so much better isn’t it? And all because I majored on the “why”. It doesn’t just sound better, it feels better. That’s why I believe it’s more likely to lead to a positive result.
With option A, I’m just one of the crowd. I'm one of many other similar sized operations, scrabbling for the audience’s attention, shouting about what we do. With option B, I’m at least giving myself an opportunity to engage the audience on a more emotional level.
Option A cannot give me that. With option A, I take my chances on having a better product, better marketing materials or better existing relationships than the competition. I’m appealing to the rational side of a buyer’s brain – and I’ll need to follow that up with facts, figures and testimonials.
Option B advises me to appeal to that same buyer on a more cerebral, emotional level. I’m going to need to follow that up with more on my editorial ideology and evidence of how what I do is driven by what I believe.
Given the right circumstances, Option A could work in terms of me sparking up a new business relationship. But it’s Option B which provides the opportunity to form a stronger, longer-lasting bond with my potential clients.
Throw in a bit of science
Sinek suggests that the circles of the model correlate to the workings of the human brain. The outer circle – the “what” circle – correlates to the neocortex where rational thought and analysis takes place. This is the domain of facts and figures, where warm and fuzzy language is absent.
The inner circles correlate to the limbic brain; a place of emotion and instinct. This is the part of the brain which drives behaviour and makes decisions. It's the part of the brain you really should target when trying to engage your reader.
This prompted me to think how, in my 18 years in professional services, we almost exclusively communicated in the “what” circle. We almost exclusively employed rational, data-heavy language. I always felt this was a problem, exacerbated by how most products and services were the same across all the Big 4 accountancy firms. So, we were all talking in the same, fairly flat, way about the same suite of products. We never properly engaged the more powerful, emotion-driven, side of the audience’s brain.
I think that the powers-that-be recognised this eventually. After the financial crash, there was a noticeable shift to talking up corporate values and beliefs. To me, it all felt somewhat hollow though. Plus, with companies that big, it’s hard to suddenly switch on the emotion tap and expect audiences to whole-heartedly buy into it.
At the turn of the decade though, I found myself leading a small editorial team, determined to be decidedly counter-cultural in terms of the content assets we generated. I wanted us to be opinionated, insightful and debate-driven. I wanted all these things and I wanted it to stem from people telling me what they believed.
A shorthand name for this content emerged. We (unimaginatively) called it the “I believe….” content. I took a lot of flak over this approach. Many people just didn’t get it. They didn’t like communicating in that way or they didn’t see how it could drive sales. To this day, I still believe in it.
Forming an emotional connection
Perhaps this is where Sinek sealed the deal in terms of me liking his TEDTalk. He too advocates an approach to communication which majors on articulating beliefs rather than just facts to engage your reader. This is where emotional attachments such as trust and loyalty are formed. It's not done by trying to make a case for how your product is better than the other guy’s.
“People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.” It’s a line he repeats throughout the talk.
I’ll be honest; it’s a line I struggled with. On first viewing, I had the same issue with this sentiment too: “The goal is not to do business with people who need what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.”
As someone in the early days of a start-up, this was quite hard to get my head around. But that’s because everyone in those early days has a very transactional mindset. See business, get business, put money in bank. You’re a commodity purchase and you’re happy to be so - because you want money in the bank.
As a longer term aspiration though, I do now understand that goal. A shared belief between client and supplier will create a stronger emotional attachment. In turn, this should lead to a more fulfilling business relationship.
There it is
That’s my differentiator right there; not whether I can write better, create a better strategy or be cheaper than the competition (although I clearly tick the first of those two boxes!). It’s that I have a vision of bringing more emotive content into the corporate mix. I want to instil a little bit of the publishing world - some editorial rigour and story-telling flair - into mid-market Britain. I want to find and work with people who are similarly enthusiastic about doing that too.
In my own business, I’m going to keep pushing that message ad nauseum. It's one that I think will resonate with some potential buyers. And when it does resonate, it will do so with a far greater, more lasting effect than anything I could have said about what I do – because of the emotional connection it will have created.
Sinek does round off with what some might think is a rather trite line – but I think it just about works. Talking of Martin Luther King and his ability to inspire, he points out how King had a dream, not a 12 point plan. Corporate Britain would be well advised to remember the value of an emotional connection the next time it launches into a comms campaign.