From Measly Messages To Mighty Moments

Utari spends much of her time with a tree.

She waters it. She dances next to it. Shoos the Water Buffalo away from it. She even ties ribbons on it and stays with it long into the night.

But why?

One day her husband reminds her that tomorrow is the big day. Her son will turn five.

Ultari is jubilant

She dances around the tree singing songs of praise and thanksgiving.

You see, in her village, it is the tradition to mark a tree when a child is born. And keep marking it with ribbons and paint as the child grows up.

But in her village, after five years, most mothers have lost their child. And only the tree is left.

Utari is one of the lucky ones

Her celebration of the tree is her way to express her gratitude.

Every year two million children don’t survive to their fifth birthday. In Utari’s village, it’s usually because of diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia.

A lot of these deaths can be prevented by the simple act of washing hands with soap.

Experiences to the rescue

That’s why Lifebuoy Disinfectant Soap created an experience to address the problem.

They decided there was only one way to take proper hand washing techniques out to all the remote villages. And that was through the children themselves.

So they partnered with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts.

They trained thousands of guides and scouts.

And these children, in turn, taught their communities. They showed everyone how hand washing is an easy, effective, and affordable way to prevent infections. And save lives.

Crocks, pirouettes, and flash mobs

Lifebuoy taught the girls the five steps to properly washing your hands. To make it easier to remember, they gave each step an animal name and movement.

And to help them share the technique they created the hand-washing dance.

Then they sent them out, like an army of little angels, to share what they had learned. Almost like a flash mob. As a shared experience.

Experiences empower

An estimated 100,000 girl guides and scouts were thus empowered to share their knowledge. And to do it through an orchestrated experience.

When they shared the experience, they spread the habit of hand washing.

In fact, over four million people in India were touched by this army of children. And the experience they brought.

Stories spread the word

In one village, the experience and the stories that came out of it cut the incidence of diarrhea to 5 percent from 36 percent.

Here’s a story from that village.

The truth is

This program would not have been so successful if Lifebuoy had developed a bunch of messages. More content. An ever-expanding avalanche of landing pages.

The reason is messages don’t work anymore. Even when they’re part of a carefully honed content strategy.

We need to move from messages to experiences

Weak, measly messages get lost in the avalanche of information we are burying people with.

Their ability to move people diminishes every time you add another medium to your mix. Every time you send out all those mass emails. And the daily blog posts. And another library of eBooks.

For Lifebuoy, it was the experience that generated action. And it was the stories that came from the experience that spread the idea.

Something needs to change

If we want engagement and action like that, we need to change our mindset.

We need to accept the fact that experiences are much more powerful than messages. We will have to get out of our comfort zone and learn how to design experiences.

We will have to open our minds to new approaches to designing those experiences. We will have to see things differently.

Changing us

Here are 10 key behavioral shifts that we’ll personally have to make:

  • From a focus on a few tribe members to the inclusion of many.
  • From focusing only on functionality to embracing beauty.
  • From self-protection to vulnerability.
  • From top-down dictation to all-around collaboration.
  • From reliance on reason to consideration of intuition.
  • From designing for money to designing for purpose.
  • From taking credit to amplifying others’ voices.
  • From rigidity to adaptability.
  • From protection of status to advocacy for others.
  • From acting with fear to leading with love.

Changing our organizations

We will also need to change the way we work as an organization.

We’ll have to take a close look at the approaches and processes we use to develop experiences.

And we’ll need to create new ones.

Here are four of the most important changes we’ll need to make to move from messaging to experiences.

Move From Guiding Journeys to Orchestrating Events

Your tribe’s decision journey is growing ever more non-linear. At this rate it will be impossible to scale up to meet every new channel.

So let’s not add to the complexity. Let’s focus on creating fewer, high-impact experiences that tribe members want to share.

Our maps are taking us in the wrong direction

For example, donor journey maps are important. They give us insight into the tribe’s key decision points. As such, they can help us build empathy with tribe members. And empathy is critically important when designing an experience.

But a journey map should not be used to increase the number of mile markers.

More often than not, they misguide tribe members. They get stuck in a labyrinth of evermore media, messages, and content mumbo jumbo.

Then what’s a map for?

Rather, the map should be used to set up the right balance of experiences.

The goal, in fact, should be to give the least amount of friction between three entities. The tribe member. The desired action. And the value of that action to the tribe’s purpose.

Reduce the silos, cut the friction

We can no longer have every siloed group in the organization maintaining it’s own platforms. Each one dedicated only to their small slice of the tribe member’s journey.

We have to stop rewarding teams for the number of interactions they can create with a tribe member. It is flawed logic that this drives a deeper relationship with tribe members. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

It is decision simplicity that builds tribe interaction and loyalty.

In other words, as few interactions as possible

What’s important is making sure that each one delivers a clear and intended impact.

When you do that you create the desire to experience more.

It’s not about more communications, more messages, more content, more experiences.

It’s about creating the most valuable experiences for the right opportunities. All based on the tribe’s desire to change things.

Move From Being Data-Driven to Meaning-Driven

Data, while powerful, is only half of the story.

The other half is understanding the emotive needs of our tribe members. What are their aspirations, fears, dreams, desires?

Balancing the rational with the emotional gives meaning to data.

Even more important, it can give us insight into how to build experiences of empathy and genuine help.

Experiences of empathy

To get to that point, we’re going to have to stop using data merely as a way to prove success.

Right now, it’s the main incentive for measuring people and program performance. And it’s getting in the way of gaining insights into the people who use our experiences.

Organizations that separate communications and development teams (marketing and sales) create this problem for themselves.

As a result, their tribe members have inconsistent experiences. Entirely different experiences every time one group hands them off to another.

To make matters worse, the teams build separate walled gardens. That’s where data and measurement are held captive to the individual goals of each team.

Finding meaning in all of this

Data and experiences become meaningful when they generate true, actionable insight.

In isolation, data are simply theoretical answers. In fact, they are often answers to problems the organization doesn’t understand.

And experiences, by themselves, are simply creative projects or performance art.

Meaning comes when experiences are viewed through the contextual information data gives us.

Insight comes from ideas and questions

Information, no matter how beautifully it is packaged or repackaged, is not an idea.

Data are nothing more than the raw stuff that might lead you to something new.

Until information is seeded with an idea that leads to action, it’s just a lump of words and figures.

Insight appears when you look for meaning rather than facts.

Insight doesn’t come directly from existing facts, but from the holes we drill through them.

The questions that drill holes

Insight comes from creative, insightful questions. Questions that are designed to improve the experience. Not prove a point.

We need to start by understanding the tribe’s emotional levers. The things that move the people we are building the experience for.

And that is their worldview.

Our questions should revolve around the emotional elements that are important to them. The things they value most. What they think is right with the world. And what’s not.

The question is, what moves them?

When it comes to experiences, insight comes from a deep understanding of three things:

  • The tribe’s view of the world as it is.
  • The tribe’s view of the world as it can be.
  • The change that they think is necessary to make the world what it can be.

The questions we ask should revolve around these tribe issues.

The experiences we design must fit into that tribe context.

And if we don’t ask the questions it takes to understand it, the experience will not meet their emotional needs.

Here’s an experience designed to touch the emotional triggers of the people of Astonia. And make each one feel part of the tribe’s quest for freedom.

We must learn to use data and measurement to get more meaningful insight.

Insight that helps us develop fewer experiences. But more beautiful, powerful, experiences for tribe members. Experiences that engage them emotionally.

Move From A Message Culture to A Story Culture

Ron Geatz had just been hired as director of global content at the Nature Conservancy. It’s an organization that is very fact- and data-driven.

However, Ron was not impressed. Especially during his first meeting with the directors of the organization.

It was a stats and facts orgy

“People in the audience were literally falling asleep,” he said.

The question in Ron’s mind was, “How do you get people like that to embrace the power of stories? The meetings could be so much more dynamic, interesting, and involving if they would.”

So, he started by immediately banning PowerPoint slides from the next meeting. And implored them to tell a single story instead.

A Power Point turnaround

Ron worked with each director to find a personal story about his or her work. Then he built their confidence in telling that personal story in front of a group of their peers.

“Everyone was nervous and uncertain about it, right up until the last minute,” he said.

“But the results were transformational.”

“People became more engaged and connected. And tons of internal excitement was generated around the power of stories.”

So, how’s a story going to help?

All high performing, purpose-driven organizations exhibit the same kind of mission-enabling qualities:

  • Trust
  • Shared vision
  • Collaboration
  • Clear communication
  • Diversity of thought
  • Commitment to learning
  • Freedom of expression
  • A sense of belonging

Storytelling is the most effective and least expensive way to enhance these qualities.

Storytelling is a culture-building phenomenon. And it’s been so since language began.

Why it still works today

We no longer find our way in the world by searching out information and messages that tell us what to think.

Rather, we want to be associated with people who give us unique experiences. Experiences that appeal to our dreams and emotions. Experiences that add meaning to our pursuit of a better world. Experiences that encourage us to come to our own conclusion.

We want to be understood. Known for who we are as people.

Today, we navigate the world using symbols, visual expressions, shared experiences and stories.

These are the things that connect us with other tribe members and our common cause.

Simply put

To carry out extraordinary goals, people need to know each other. They need to go far beyond title, role, or resume.

When people tell their stories to each other and are heard, magic happens.

People bond. Barriers dissolve. Connections are made. Trust increases. Knowledge is transmitted. Wisdom is shared. A common language is born. And a deep sense of interdependence is felt.

Days of old and the problem today

Our ancient ancestors stood around the fire and shared stories with each other. They had to. Survival depended on it. And so did the emotional well being of the tribe.

The problem today is that people are transmitting more, but receiving less.

Data, information, and opinions are shared, but not much meaning.

And it is meaning that people hunger for.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why engagement is down in so many organizations.. It’s because so many people are feeling isolated, disconnected, unseen, and unheard.

Stories define the tribe and make meaning

If you are part of an organization, no matter what it’s shape or size, it’s time for some meaning making.

And how does that meaning making begin?

It starts with opportunities for everyone to share their stories with each other.

So let the stories do the driving

Here are a few steps purpose-driven organizations are taking to be more story driven:

  • Do away with all Power Point presentations, stat sheets, and spreadsheet reviews. Insist that people tell the story of the data.
  • Establish an internal team of storytellers. They should have skills in photography, video, and overall storytelling basics. Interns or volunteers can bring skills and expertise. But a full-time staff member should coordinate the process. That person’s goal is keep the process going and to transfer knowledge to others.
  • Teach everyone what a real story sounds and looks like and how it’s structured. Hold a staff meeting to openly discuss what real storytelling is. It should include why stories matter, and why all staff members play a vital role in it. Your focus should be to inspire them with examples, ideas, and, of course, stories. This kind of forum can help breakdown any hesitations people have. Especially about telling clients’ or donors’ stories.
  • Appoint a single person, to be the storytelling focal point of the organization. This person leads the collection, training, and planning for stories. They coordinate an internal staff in that effort.
  • Assign a team or individual to collaborate with external professionals and production companies.

From starting to growing

That’s good advice to start the move from a message culture to a storytelling culture. But how do you keep it going and growing?

We can get some guidance. Just look to organizations that have made stories an important part of their culture.

Nine to make the climb

Here are nine things they do to keep things rolling forward:

  • Listen intently to your tribe members to determine their worldview. That includes their view of what needs to change in the world. And the things that they emotionally value and care most about. See how they connect emotionally with other tribe members and with your organization.
  • Based on that on-going listening, develop a set of strategic needs and goals. They should be based on tribe needs, your mission, your purpose, and, most important, your why.
  • Have a key executive commit to storytelling and to sourcing for it.
  • Know your organization’s heritage and adapt it to the issues of the day by telling stories.
  • Listen obsessively to your tribe. Listen to the stories they tell themselves about your cause. Listen to the stories they tell to one another. Listen to the stories they tell about the experiences you create for them.
  • Constantly train your staff about what makes a real story and how they are structured. That way they’ll be able to spot tribe stories that have potential. Your focus should be to inspire them with examples, ideas and, of course, stories.
  • Identify some storytelling role models who work in your organization and in others. Hire the ones from outside your team. Teach them all what makes real storytelling. Then use them to support your staff after story training.
  • Offer incentives to staff members who find potential stories.
  • Develop organizational story structures and processes. Support them with a staff that can find and curate stories. And design experiences.

Organize for agility, not speed

Agile is the cool new music that all the communications kids are dancing to these days.

But what often gets lost in the translation is the difference between being fast and being agile.

Quick is a measure of time. Fast is a measure of speed.

The fear and feeding of the monster

The fear of moving too slowly is causing us to do foolish things.

It is causing us to develop more and more content, messages, and experiences.

Rather, we should be optimizing a set of well-defined digital and person-to-person experiences.

May I suggest that “more and faster” is the wrong metric for our success?

The result is poop

It is a terrible strategy. It is one of the main reasons messages don’t work anymore.

Like a pile of dog crap on the sidewalk, we must step out of it.

We must evolve beyond the old paradigms, stale hierarchies, and archaic processes.

We have to change the way we merge experiences into our tribe members’ decision journey.

Put simply, we must reorient ourselves and our organizations to agile strategies. Not fast strategies.


As the number of experiences explodes, we need to resist the urge to be everywhere all the time.

Instead, we should focus on being in the right place at the right time. The time and place that helps our tribe the most.

Our organizational goal should be a permanent state of agility.

That is an attitude of, “we’ll be there when you need us to be.”

“We’ll be there to help you change the things you want to change.”

But that’s just my opinion. What’s yours?