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“I love what you do, but do you have to use the word ‘story’?”

We get it.  Story has become a bit of a buzz word.  Everyone is talking about the story.  “We need to tell our story!” “Check us out. We have a great story!” You hear the word so much, what does it mean? What does it look like? Why does it matter?

This is written in response to a client – an engineer – who cringes when he hears “story.” He not only thinks buzzword. He thinks of fairy tales, science fiction, the stuff of books, movies and plays. Stories, he believes, are exaggerations, even flat out lies. He shies away from using stories in business. And he’s not alone.

So, Dear Client Who We Love and all future clients who are wondering, we want to debunk some myths around storytelling – specifically why a story matters, what a story is, and what a story isn’t.

Why Story?

Story is powerful. It’s the match that lights an emotional charge. That charge makes us jump into action, into decision, into undying love and loyalty. Why do people line up around the block to get the latest iPhone? Because iPhone tells a story about them, about the world they want to live in.

When we resist using story, our match, our message, fizzles quickly…if it ever lights at all.

What A Story Isn’t

A story isn’t always fiction.  Documentary films are stories. One of the best books in print, Endurance by Alfred Lansing, is the true story of Shackleton’s incredible voyage to Antarctica. Anyone who sits with friends at dinner and says, “Do I have a story for you…” is about to share something real.

A story isn’t a collection of lies. Well told stories touch us, move us, and stay with us because they communicate universal truths. Even when told in imaginary worlds or through imaginary characters, we relate because we see the truth.

A story isn’t an information dump. We have heard our clients say so many times, “We have our story,” and then after a few hours with us admit, “Wow. We didn’t have a story at all.”

Story doesn’t include the words “optimize,” “maximize,” and “leverage.” You can’t string together vague platitudes about how great you, your idea, or your product is, and call it a story. When is the last time you got excited about the word, “optimize?” Exactly. Jargon has no place in storytelling.

Okay, what is a story then?

Story is a structure you learned in grade school and a structure that has spent the last 100,000 years helping us interpret and understand our world. It helps us to remember and decide.

Story is truth. A story requires the truth. That means the teller is candid, clear, and not afraid to be vulnerable. The story will speak honestly about challenge and conflict.

A story follows a hero on a journey towards a goal. The path is paved with challenge and conflict. Yes, there are ingenious solutions but without the challenge we don’t cheer for those solutions. We don’t cheer for the hero. And without the hero, we have no story at all.

A story is told in plain English, not in the commonly used buzzwords of the day. Real, every day, descriptive words light up the brain’s major centers: motor, sensory, cognitive, and emotional and they do it by painting mental pictures.

How do I use story in my business?

Our vision is for every company to inspire employees, customers and investors by telling, selling and living a true and captivating story about why they exist.

If you want to know how to use story in your business, give us a call, have a conversation, and see if our match lights your fire.

Dear Client Who We Love and future clients who are wondering, we are storytellers and we are proud to say so. And we want you to be one too.

For 40 seconds of great storytelling, check out “The Hammer” from GE…a place where a lot of engineers work 😉



Say my name! But why?

Shortly after starting our business, Abigail and I met with a potential new client downtown. “Perfect Pitch,” he mused, eyeing one of our business cards. “I’ve heard of you guys.”

We looked at each other. He hadn’t heard of us and we knew it. We said nothing. Coincidentally we had started our business the year after Pitch Perfect, a Hollywood film about an a cappella singing troupe, had been released in theatres. We figured the movie was making us sound familiar and, in the beginning, we took advantage of the resulting illusion that Perfect Pitch was a well known company.

It’s turned out to haunt us. We have attended client Stampede parties wearing name tags that read, “Pitch Perfect.” We have been introduced in meetings as the ladies from “Pitch Perfect.” We’ve been referred to by clients as “Pitch Perfect.” We still believe the misnomer helps us and yet we cringe every time we hear it. Why? What’s so important about a name?

The answer was demonstrated to me years ago, when I ran a training session with a group of 30 people. I was determined to know everyone’s name without using tags or placards and I had an early morning activity that would give me an opportunity to call each of them by name. So I used a set of tricks I’d been taught by a former university professor who had this amazing capacity for remembering names. He could learn 200 names in a week and even if the students changed seats he would still remember them.

First, I arrived early and got set up so I could greet people as they arrived. Second, when they did arrive, I looked them in the eye, and repeated their name back to them. “Good morning, Harold, grab a seat wherever you like.” Third – and this was the most important trick given to me by the university professor – when I greeted them, I forced myself to think of nothing else. My mind was a blank slate, ready to receive their name.The last trick: when there was a lull in the arrivals, I looked around the room and reminded myself of all the names I had already learned. It worked! I ran the first exercise and called each person by name.

It wasn’t until the end of the course that I realized how important it is to remember a name correctly. At the end of the day I asked for questions certain I would have a bunch about the training material. A gentleman at the front raised his hand and asked, “Colleen, it is so impressive how you remembered all of our names. How did you do it?”

Out of everything we had talked about that day, the fact that I had remembered, and used, their names, was the piece that resonated most with him. And when I looked around the room I realized everyone felt the same way. They were leaning forward, waiting for me to answer.

I’ve read that hearing your name spoken is the sweetest sound to everyone on the planet. I think it’s true. When someone says our name, we feel valued, seen, and appreciated for our individuality. We are not a number. We are not a body in a seat. We are not just another face. We are individuals who want to be valued.

Wrapped up in our name is the painstaking effort our parents went to to decide what that name would be. Our name holds every story that shaped who we are. That name was sung to us by our mothers, called to us by our dearest friends, and whispered to us by those who loved us the most. Our name matters. When someone remembers it, says it, and spells it correctly, we feel closer to them. We trust them.

So, remember the importance in a name. Take the time and effort to remember, and say or spell correctly, someone’s name. Don’t refer to someone standing next to you as “he” or “she.” Refer to them by their name. Don’t start a text with instructions on where to meet for dinner. Start with their name. Don’t just shake hands and say, “Good morning.” As Florence pleads in her wonderful song, “Say my name!”



How do I tell the truth with data?

18056853_10154904573481281_8539491204641143245_nThe chart above was posted on Facebook this week and received a number of comments that expressed dismay and shock at the plight of the young Canadian home buyer. That is the initial reaction to this chart. Something along the lines of, “Wow! These poor kids have it rough. They won’t be able to buy a house until they’re 50!”

Most viewers of the chart will share it, remember it, and talk about it as though it were indisputable fact.

Take a closer look, though, and you realize the chart is inherently flawed. Flawed to such a degree that we shouldn’t trust it any further than we can throw it (and since it’s digital and you can’t physically pick it up, you can’t really throw it at all…you get my point).

So why shouldn’t we trust the chart? Why should we ask more questions and demand more detail? Answering this question will give some pretty good tips on how to design data not only so it’s simple to read, but also so it still tells the truth.

1. Remove clutter…but only the clutter. We talk a lot about removing clutter and visual ‘load’ from our charts. Clutter includes plot lines, tick marks, legends that sit next to the chart, those sorts of things. This chart removes too much. It’s hard to tell what “young” means, for example, if we don’t know the base line starting point for those bars. The bottom pink bar is labelled “23 years.” Twenty-three years from what age? The second omission is on the top bar. What does the 1976 bar refer to? All of Canada? One of the provinces? One of the cities? Without these references, we can’t safely draw an accurate conclusion.

2. Tell us why you’re comparing the data points you are comparing. Why is the top bar pulled from 1976? Why not 1982? Why is B.C. the only province highlighted? Why were Vancouver and Toronto, Canada’s most expensive cities by far, chosen to prove an assertion about all young Canadians? Do young Canadians in Newfoundland, Alberta and Manitoba experience the same? If 1976 refers to all of Canada, then a 7 year difference between then and now, 40 years later, doesn’t seem that unreasonable.

3. Use colour to tell the truth, not to misdirect. The bright pink bar at the bottom demands your eye’s attention. It’s the Vancouver line. The Vancouver line should shock no one. I can’t afford a house in Vancouver and I’m a 47-year-old business owner with a nice home now. The colours are misleading. Why would blue be chosen for both B.C. and Canada, and Toronto is in grey? When you add colour to your chart, it should be show the audience the story. Colour is an important attribute for chart design. We see changes in colour before we know we’re seeing them. In this case, though, I suspect the colour is used to misdirect.

A simple, clean chart will tell your story in a way that a table and/or bullet points can’t. Remove clutter, use colour, and use comparable data points to tell your story. Just be sure you’re not inadvertently ignoring the truth.


How do I fake confidence during a presentation?

When I complain about something that doesn’t make me feel good, I have a good friend who will often chide me with, “What does how you FEEL have to do with it?” And he’s right. Usually I just have to throw on some big girl pants, swallow my fear, and carry on.

Presentations can be one of those things that don’t make us feel good. We have clients tell us they hate presenting, they get too nervous, and they don’t feel confident. I can hear my friend’s voice in my head, “What does how you FEEL have to do with it?” He’s still right. How you feel matters very little. How you behave matters a lot.

If you worry about how you feel, you are not focused on your audience. Your audience can’t see how you feel. How you feel won’t impact their decision to support or ignore your idea. Your behaviour, on the other hand, will.

A week ago I delivered a keynote talk to a room of 170 people. The content was new, tailored specifically to the needs of our client and, as a result, I didn’t feel as confident as I normally do. Rather than beat myself up about that, I figured it was normal. I had no idea how it was going to turn out. Maybe they’d be bored. Maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe they would laugh at my jokes. Maybe they wouldn’t. I had no idea and that made me nervous. I didn’t have anything to FEEL confident about!

The good news is I’ve learned how to fake confidence and I’ve practiced it a lot. The better news is once I start faking it, I do start feeling it. My brain manufactures the feeling out of the behaviour I am exhibiting on stage.

So, if you are one of those presenters who rarely, if ever, feels confident about presenting, here are the three techniques I use to fake it until I feel it.

Start Slowly

Adrenalin hits your blood stream a few minutes before you start presenting. This is normal but it will cause you to want to rush. All of that extra energy in your body is dying to get out! Resist! Resist the urge to race into your presentation. Force yourself to look at your audience, smile, and speak slowly. Breathe. Rushing into it will make you look nervous. Taking your time will give the impression you are far more confident than you feel. Remember, they can’t see how you feel. They can only see how you behave. Start slowly.

Approach Your Audience

Nerves might make you want to play side show to your PowerPoint deck. While you hang out next to the screen, hiding in the pale glow of your slides, your audience is longing for a presenter who takes control, who guides them through the content with an expert hand. Nothing is worse than lecterns. No, they are not podiums (the podium is the little stage you’re standing on), they are lecterns and they are the worst kind of barrier between an audience and a nervous presenter.  Want to really display confidence? Step out from behind the lectern. Abandon the shelter of PowerPoint. Approach your audience. When your adrenalin makes your legs start fidgeting, take a step TOWARDS them, not away. And, please, don’t dance on the spot.


We all know how painful it is to sit through a presentation where every second word is “uh” or “um.” Suddenly we’re counting the filler words and not listening to the content. Before we know it we’re wondering if this clown is ever going to take a breath or be able to end a sentence without filling the space with “uhhhhhh.” Don’t be that presenter. It’s a tough habit to break and I know because I was that presenter. One year doing radio broadcasting at Journalism school broke the habit. We learned to pause. Pauses were so important we had a special notation for “pause” that we would mark onto our scripts so we didn’t forget them. Suddenly the “uhs” and “ums” were gone. Why? Because that pause gave us time to think about what we really wanted to say next and it was never “uhhh.” We kid ourselves if we think never pausing makes us sound confident. It does the opposite. With no time to think, our brain fills the void with filler words making us look ill prepared and even like we might be making it up as we go along. Pauses will make you sound more confident.

In the end my keynote went well. I faked confidence. I owned the content I had developed and told myself it was going great, even when, really, I wasn’t sure if it was. At the end of the talk, I was stopped outside in the hall by several people who thanked me for an engaging and useful talk. The best of the day! Phew! I felt great but, as always, what does how I feel have to do with it? All that mattered was them and if every presenter tells themselves that before starting, faking confidence is no problem at all.



Corporate storytelling is great…unless it is a fiction.

Volkswagen's Think Blue campaign purported to 'lead by example.'

Volkswagen’s Think Blue campaign purported to ‘lead by example.’

In March 2013 Volkswagen launched its Think Blue campaign, a beautifully designed and wonderfully crafted corporate story about Volkswagen’s commitment to be the most ecologically sustainable car manufacturer in the world by 2018. At the same time (I like to imagine in another, darker, smoke-filled boardroom down the hall), Volkswagen employees were signing off on fitting millions of diesel vehicles with defeat devices – software designed to kick in during emissions testing to ensure Volkswagen’s dirty cars passed.

It is the quintessential case of a business telling a story about itself but failing to live it and what really burns us is that we were duped. Stories engage us. They are memorable and, most importantly, they influence our behaviour. Whether we realize it or not, stories are what we draw on to help us make decisions and take action, like buying a car. The companies who invest in storytelling, and in getting good at it, have the power to not just win consumers. They win adoring fans.

Volkswagen’s dupe is horrible when put in this light. Their adoring fans have opened the boardroom blinds and found snakes slithering under the table. Surely they must be correct to “tear down” Volkswagen, declare them “criminal!”, and sentence them to “corporate ruin.”

And yet I can’t help but think of all the corporate web pages dedicated to lofty jargon-filled promises of vision and purpose and noble values, and I realize Volkswagen is certainly not alone.

How many companies type ‘innovation’ onto the web page and at the same time (in their other, darker, smoke-filled boardroom down the hall), muzzle ideas with fear of trying something new? There are surely many who declare their businesses to be ‘great places to work’ while piling the work and pressure onto employees who have to be there at six in the morning and can’t get out the door before seven at night. In my own experience, how many times have I forgotten to ask questions and listen, instead bombarding an unwitting listener with a full-on, no-time-for-pausing, information dump?

Volkswagen has set aside billions of dollars for the fall-out of their scandal. They know they will have to pay and they should. But before we all start feeling too self-righteous, it is probably as good a time as any to open the blinds, clear out the smoke and see what shows up in our boardrooms down the hall.





Pipeline Wars highlights the power of story

keystone-pipelineLast night in Calgary Perfect Pitch attended the private screening of “Pipeline Wars: A Burning Debate About Our Future.” The documentary film, the culmination of blood, sweat, tears and re-mortgaged houses, is an 18-month project by independent filmmakers Justin Robinson, Matt Keay, and Sylvester Ndumbi.

The filmmakers want extremists on both sides of the energy debate to talk to each other, listen to each other and, with a Star Trek-ian vision of collaboration on Earth, to work together. It seems far fetched given how polarized the debate has become and yet these guys are optimists. They don’t have time for cynics.

It’s an honorable starting point and I admire that this group of young men were willing to try. With very little money, they produced a film that should get people talking. With more money, they are hoping to make the film even stronger and reach a broader audience.

What became obvious in the film is that storytelling is winning the pipeline wars. Emotion is on the anti-oil side and its power galvanizes a flurry of protests that largely ignore the facts about oil production, emissions, and economics. On the other side sits oil, an industry that believes the facts should speak for themselves. But as one subject in the film states, “No one cares about the facts, they care about values.”

I think the filmmakers want emotion to meet facts. That would create a story that might end the viciousness of the debate and get people working together.

The film itself could have benefited from a story. The debate in Pipeline Wars is pretty academic, and heavily weighted to the left side. While academics are important, a human story would give the ideas flesh, breath and meaning.

Sylvester Ndumbi told us his most eye-opening experience in making the film was meeting people in the oil industry and realizing they care about the environment as much as anyone else. That they are people with families, children and hopes for the future.

On that vein, it would have been nice to meet an oil rig operator in Fort MacMurray, a pipeline engineer in downtown Calgary, or a ground water specialist doing testing at the Athabasca River.

Pipeline Wars highlights the power of storytelling. With one side spinning emotional stories like yarn, and the other side shunning storytelling in its cold lecture on facts, the energy debate is in a dangerous gridlock that could harm our economy and our future.

I think if Pipeline Wars wants to get people listening and showing mutual respect, the film needs some human stories to touch our hearts and inspire us to do so.






Two bands, two vibes.

curtis glas

Last night I went to Wine-Ohs in Calgary to catch the happy hour show at 6pm. I didn’t know anything about Curtis Glas or his friends but I felt for him when my friend and I showed up shortly before the show started.

Besides my friend and me there were five other people in the Cellar. Tough crowd? No crowd. Glas started with some banter. It was authentic, light hearted, and funny. We laughed.

Then Curtis Glas & Friends played like they were at the Superbowl.

At one point the seven of us forgot to clap. Caught in conversation at the end of a song. Curtis was unfazed, cracked a joke about clapping being a house rule. For the next two hours, the energy was sizzling. Curtis & Friends didn’t let up once. They played so hard they were sweating.

Whistling and cheering from seven people really can fill a room.

Shortly after 8pm, Curtis Glas & Friends were done and the Cellar had now filled almost to capacity. We decided to stay for the next act, figuring they’d be just as good.

A young hipster with a steel guitar sat on a stool centre stage and quietly introduced himself. Uh-oh, energy dipping! Then he monologued about his interest in old time music. Hmmm, trying to stay awake here. Then he started to sing.

Without even a smile, this young, talented musician sang in a flat tone devoid of passion or enthusiasm. His style was affected, tight, nervous. He appeared to be connecting more with his own feelings and thoughts instead of connecting with the room full of people in front of him.

The energy didn’t sizzle, it fizzled.

These situations always remind me of when coaching clients worry about their audiences looking bored or disengaged. Some say it throws them off and they find it hard to be engaging at that point. I do feel for them. Take a lesson from Curtis Glas, folks.

1. The most important people in the room are in your audience. Make your performance meaningful and relevant to them, not you. Even if you only have seven people in the room, these people showed up and are in the seats. They are hoping for something great.

2. Don’t wait for the audience to decide if the show is going to be energetic or disinterested. Who is responsible for the energy? The performer. Curtis Glas & Friends had more vibrant energy with seven people than the young hipster had with sixty.

Want your audience to sit up, smile, and cheer? Play like you’re at the Superbowl.


A Story of Oil – Finally!


cenovus more2thestory

Congratulations to Cenovus for producing this frank and engaging story of oil and how it impacts our daily lives in positive ways.

The oil and gas industry needs to get on board with storytelling. This resource is critical to our economic health and our quality of life. But so far the best storytellers have been the anti-oil groups. Until now.

Here are three things we like about this Story of Oil along with suggestions to use these principles in your story:

1. No jargon or buzzwords.

Great storytelling happens with concrete ideas, visual metaphors, and specific language that paints a picture for the listener. Jargon and buzzwords not only leave your audience feeling blank about your idea, they also cause your audience to wonder if you know what you’re talking about. Lose the jargon and talk the way you would at lunch with friends.

2. Acknowledges the “elephants in the room.”

Every great movie spends the bulk of its time on the lead character overcoming conflict and challenges to get to his or her goal. Why? Because otherwise the audience wouldn’t care about the outcome. Cenovus doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the challenges in its industry. And the company is frank about public perception. Doing so gives them more credibility and helps us care about what they’re doing to overcome those challenges.

3. Ends with an invitation to do something: get involved.

At the end of the story, we’re all wondering what we can do with this information. Cenovus answers the question with a clear call to action: get involved in the conversation. And if you scroll down to the comments section, you can see they are genuine in that call. They are engaging in the inevitable debate in a way that is open, honest and respectful. When you take a position on a topic, clearly state your point of view and invite discussion, you have to expect someone to disagree with you. They did and they clearly welcome the open exchange of ideas.

We believe it’s nicely done. Click on the image above and decide for yourself.





How much money are we wasting on bad presentations?

The cost of bad presentations and how to make the difference
Explore more visuals like this one on the web’s largest information design community – Visually.


A tour of the world with Hillary Rodham Clinton

Hillary Clinton Speaks At The University Of Miami

When you are invited to hear Hillary Rodham Clinton speak at a private event in Calgary, it’s wise to answer, “Yes, please.” And so we arrived at the Telus Convention Centre yesterday with 1800 other Calgary business people to see the woman who may be the next President of the United States. (Thank you, favourite client, for the invitation!)

Hillary kept us waiting which was okay because there was plenty of time to mingle, share reviews on Rob Ford’s Jimmy Kimmel appearance, and eat a couple of muffins before things started.

Then she was there, smiling and taking easy command of the biggest ballroom in downtown Calgary. She had done her research on Calgary. “You hosted your first Winter Olympics in 1988. And you didn’t invade another country when you were done.”

The laugh was a segue into the very serious topic of Russia and Ukraine, energy power plays around the world, and the potential for a future of true cooperation between Western countries.

Hillary was fantastic. She talked about big ideas but never stayed in the abstract for long. She told stories, illustrating not only her impressive knowledge and experience but also what these ideas could look like in concrete terms. She spoke with passion and conviction. She was clear about her opinions and positions.

The speech was a welcome departure from the typically vague and jargon-laden speeches of politicians today. I had the impression Hillary Clinton doesn’t mind if she is held accountable for what she says and so she says what she means, simply and clearly.

I found one idea compelling because it comes at a time when Perfect Pitch is working with a number of companies to improve team communication and dynamics.

Hillary Clinton believes a position of “no compromise” has no place in a democracy. Extremist positions that dogmatically propose one course of action, ignore other perspectives, and dismiss alternatives out of hand, are a roadblock to democracy. Compromise is simply how the machinery of democratic government works and while it doesn’t mean you sacrifice all that you stand for, it does mean you take someone else’s perspective.

I think teams who are struggling to communicate could learn from this idea. Perspective taking is one of the most powerful ways you can create connections and understanding with the people you work with. Rather than clinging to your idea with the tight grip of a loving parent, let it go for a while and see if it stands up to other points of view.

Compromise is not weakness on a team. Hillary Clinton is anything but weak. And after her talk yesterday, I was left hoping her perspective is one that helps lead us into the future.

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