• Elana Duffy

The Next Step in Your Master Story: The Right Words Matter


This is the latest in a series of blogs on what we at Present Tense LLC call a “Master Story”. In this installment, Frank gives us the next steps in the process of story creation: using your words to provide a consistent story across your content.

Sure, we have all heard it said: our actual words make up only a small part of effective storytelling.


This saying dates back to the early 1970’s and the work of UCLA psychologist Albert Mehrabian, who derived a famous formula (verbal + vocal + visual) to break down effective communication. Through his experiments, Dr. Mehrabian concluded that only 7% of effective communication is due to words (verbal). Your “vocal” tone of voice (38%) and “visual” body language (55%) make up the rest.

His formula has prompted legions of executives, managers, and salespeople to work – rightly so – on improving their vocal and visual cues. But along the way we have forgotten an important caveat which Dr. Mehrabian includes on his own website: “Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.”

So if you are in a face-to-face situation (such as meeting someone in a bar) and you are conveying feelings or attitudes, yes, keep Dr. Mehrabian in mind.

But what if you have an occasion when you are not face-to-face, and you still need to express ideas on a complex, perhaps technical topic? You want your communication to be savvy and smooth, and that means you need to place far more emphasis on your actual words.

This changes the equation. The right words matter.

And that brings us back to the topic of our previous four blog posts: the Master Story. My colleagues and I have touched on some of the mechanics of assembling a Master Story, through collaboration, introspection, and documenting your corporate habits. We also provided an example of how a start-up used a Master Story to keep itself on track and “on story” in its early days.

Now it is time for us to answer some “so what?” questions.

Once you have a Master Story, what do you do with it? What purpose does it serve, beyond being an introspective exercise or an attempt to inspire some clever content idea? Specifically, how do you turn it into content pieces you can distribute?

As a refresher: Your Master Story is a reservoir of your best stories, anecdotes, and other information that you would like customers to know, to experience, and to learn from. These individual stories bring you to life and spark recognition so that the reader – whether a customer, a potential investor, a journalist or market observer, or a potential partner or employee – feels or acts a certain way. Your Master Story helps you because it gives you a pool of content to draw from and elaborate on, customized for whomever you are trying to reach.

Once you have a Master Story, you have a natural and genuine response to any communication challenge. You are never at a loss for words. Your team can also stay “on story”, providing their own perspective but still harvesting the same core material.

Here are some of the content pieces you can derive from your Master Story:

Better website content: For better or worse, this is still an essential portal for people to explore you or your business. Most websites focus on delivering what the company feels readers want to know, but fall short on the “experience” and the “learning” elements. Your Master Story gives you material to help you find the right stories to draw people in. As Leo Burnett once said, “there is an inherent drama in every product. Our No. 1 job is to dig for it and capitalize on it.” Take a look at your site and ask yourself if it reflects the inherent drama in what you do.

Sharper press releases: When I worked for a wire service, I learned first-hand how news organizations quickly provide context when news stories break. They had boilerplate content stockpiled which they could splice in over and over. The same technique can allow you to respond quickly when an event happens in your industry, and you want to inform journalists, analysts, or others about your point of view. You shouldn’t need to craft every answer to every question from scratch. Your points of view – when you are happy with the phrasing – warrant repetition until they become synonymous with you. Even the most basic messages can bear repeating.

Clearer interview scripts: In my former role as a management consultant, I had the opportunity to speak with print journalists on a regular basis, and also had some radio and TV appearances. While I wish I had the talent to sit down and riff no matter what someone asked, I knew that intensive preparation and rehearsal were paramount. That doesn’t mean memorizing a text, it means becoming so comfortable with your stories that you can deliver them in a second-nature way. That takes time and practice.

Richer blogs, case studies, and papers: You can take one anecdote or key story from your Master Story and elaborate on it. A case study or white paper addresses the “want to learn more” urge that some readers may have when they visit your website, read your press releases, or hear you speak.

A blog requires a deeper well of material. While many companies and individuals maintain a quality blog with a consistent rhythm over months or years, far too many corporate sites have blogs which are inconsistent in style, rhythm, and topic. A Master Story helps you understand how deep your content well truly is, and helps you build a sustainable rhythm and style around it. Better to tell a solid story once a month than be erratic or inconsistent.

Creative by-lined articles: Many sites offer platforms for ad hoc or op-ed publishing. They serve as a great ancillary distribution channel for your ideas. Rather than find a distilled way to say everything, though, you should find a meaty way to say one thing. Take the opportunity to give a story a new twist, or write on an aspect of your Master Story that is not always front and center.

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Your Master Story comprises the best stories you have to tell others. Knowing what you want to say, what experiences you can draw on, and then have it prepared and rehearsed lets you convey a confidence and achieve a consistency that would be very hard to achieve if you simply wing it or roll from question to question without a common basis for your stories.

The right words matter. What are yours?

Frank Luby is co-founder and CEO of Present Tense LLC, a communications company dedicated to helping people express their ideas through better business storytelling. In his former life as a management consultant, he co-authored the book “Manage for Profit, Not for Market Share” and published op-eds in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and Billboard. You can also follow Frank on Twitter: @FrankLuby

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