Sunday, March 30, 2008


Psychologists have these things called schemata. A schema is like a dominant narrative in your brain for how things work: many and specific things like what’s supposed to happen when you walk into a hotel lobby or how the steps in a staircase are supposed to be evenly spaced.

If you go to your friend’s house and all the steps are different heights, you’ll probably trip once or twice if you try to skip up or down the stairs the way you usually do.

Is that your fault for not watching where you’re going? Or is it his for violating our unwritten social agreement on how steps are supposed to work?

When you violate the schema it makes people very uncomfortable. It’s not necessarily bad; it just makes people think when they’d rather be experiencing something else. Try this mini experiment: As you pass people in the hallway at work, ask how they’re doing. EVERY TIME. Wait for an answer. Don’t resort to that head-nod or eyebrow-raise on the fourth or fifth encounter. Start that fifth meeting with something like, “So what else did you do this weekend?”

Then sit back and let the breakthrough communication honey flow.

Or duck.


People – in general – don’t like to be made to think. They like to sort things quickly into comfortable and pre-determined categories. They don’t like different – at least not at first.

Still, we all want to be different. When people come to your house … or your place of business … is your brand of different “meeting or exceeding expectations” or just making everybody uncomfortable?

h/t Chad who doesn’t have a Web site yet.

Friday, March 28, 2008

STOP the Presses!

Sally Kempton, whom I have not read and with whom I may disagree on many things, is credited with writing that “it’s hard to fight an enemy who has outposts inside your head.”

Truer words rarely spoken.

The Dominant Narrative Theory works on those of us who are responsible for brands as much as it works on the people we’re trying to reach. The leadership of many organizations – even very successful ones – has no idea what business they’re actually in. Eric Alterman touches on this in a recent turn in that DHM* The New Yorker.

The reallyreally smart guys (mostly guys, not smart, face it) who run American newspapers have believed for a hundred years that they’re in the newspaper business: They sell “space” to advertisers and “newspapers” to consumers. That’s their business model. That’s their internal narrative.

When the Internets came along the thinking was that this was a great way to promote the print editions. It’s like TV news: tease it online and people will lay down their 50 cents to get the rest of the story. Hey, it’s also a great new source of ad revenue. It’s all good.

But … but … what if it doesn’t work?

Easy: we cut staff and double up on the technology. There are digital cameras now, so we give cameras to the scribes and make them double as shooters.

Circ drops.

Hell, they can shoot video too and we can post it on the YouTubes.

Ad revenue drops.

Cut staff. It’s the only prudent decision until we figure out how to compete in the New Frontier. We’ll all work harder!

Circ drops further. Web traffic is flat.

Cut staff. Work smarter, not harder.

This brings us [breathlessly] to the present. An entire industry disappearing – with none to replace it (yet) – because its leadership STILL doesn’t know what business it’s in.

The business of journalism (look for that word among Standard Industrial Classifications) is absolutely not about selling newspapers. That was the technology of the 1780s.

What it’s about is gathering and – this is important – EDITING news and then sharing it with a community: local regional or national. What that business sells is …

wait for it …


Gather, edit and report news that is relevant to your community and you will have an audience. You can sell or rent that audience at a pretty fair margin. That’s what James Franklin did and that’s what the next generation of journalists will do as well. Still using the latest available technology.

So, what business are you in?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Everybody Loves Raymond

But this is the best I could do on short notice.

For more information, check this.

A Winning Dominant Narrative (cont.)

Adding to the study cited below, it's important to note that these aren't specifically basketball (or football) players that are boosting the application rate. Those folks rarely face the same application process as the rest of us. These -- the incremental applicants -- will only be associated with a winner.

Or more important, an institution they perceive to be a winner.

Everybody Loves a Winner

When you’re known as a winner – when that’s part of the Dominant Narrative about your organization – people are attracted to you. Some of those people are professionals who are potential employees. Others are consumers or end-users who are your potential customers.

Those smart guys at Wharton have measured the effect of a successful athletic program on a university’s student applications. Having a team that just makes it onto the bracket nets the college’s admissions department a one percent increase in applications. Survive all six rounds to win a championship and you get a better than seven percent bump.

Football champions fare just about the same. More here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Deep Thought

How did we know how big things were before Manhattan was “discovered”?

Or Rhode Island or Connecticut were mapped?

It seems there's a meme among the (largely New York centric) news media that everybody instinctively knows from memory what those phrases mean.

Did some ancient Scot ever describe a golf ball as “about the size of those hail stones that fell just after the equinox”?

Just wonderin’ …

I’m Telling Mom! Part the 2nd

America’s Finest News Source® picks up the narrative.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

That very good friend of mine ...

A few weeks ago I got a karaoke machine and asked a few friends to offer up a song relevant to their daily lives. My son captured this rare footage of Kevin Dugan performing in North America:

That's me on the balcony, btw.

I'm Telling Mom!

We are hardwired to understand the Dominant Narrative Theory and the fact that being the first to tell your narrative is a huge advantage in framing the debate.
Remember when you were a kid and had a dispute with a sibling or maybe even a neighbor? Once the conflict escalates to the point where you could reasonably appeal to some higher authority, that's what you do. But you want to be the first one to tell the tale.
Empirical evidence out my window:
  1. Child A grapples with Child B.
  2. Child B pushes Child A away.
  3. Child A pushes Child B to the ground.
  4. Child B tackles Child A.
  5. Child A shouts, "I'M TELLING MOM!"

Visible evidence -- a mark, a spot of mud or the above photographic exhibit -- only helps to make the case for your version events.

Monday, March 24, 2008

DNT And Management Theory

A half century ago sociologists, historians, foreign policy experts and other assorted eggheads starting throwing around the phrase “revolution of rising expectations.” They were talking about developments in southern and southeastern Asia at the time, but the point is relevant for anybody who works with any group of people.

What’s morale like at your shop these days? I often have been fascinated by the phenomenon of people staying at places where everybody knows (or more often just considers) the boss to be a jerk. I’ve been just as interested by those people I meet who have left the so-called country club gigs where people play nerf football in the hallways and there’s always a beer in the breakroom.

What did you expect when you took you current job? [Sorry if you see a Dominant Narrative reference coming.] Is it better or worse than you expected?
What do the people who work for you now expect?

Internal communication challenges often come not so much from what actually is going on (the facts) as from failing to meet the expectations (the truth) of the rank-and-file. Violating the narrative you have established.

Image credit these nice people.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The ULTIMATE Dominant Narrative ...

... was that the value of your home would ALWAYS increase.

Facts often are the enemy of truth. The facts were that home prices trended up. The truth is that there's only so much money to go around.

How's that working out for you?

When you violate your own narrative …

… and it just happens to be the Dominant Narrative about your organization, what will you do?

If you’re Jeff Bezos, you own it. “Hey, sorry, we’re new at this too.”

And a little humor never hurts.

Contrition and a considered sense of humor can diffuse many potential crisis communication issues.

Making the Dominant Narrative Yours ...

... sometimes comes down to an image. At our shop we have a little team meeting first thing Monday mornings to share priorities for the week. To keep the conversation lively, we usually wrap up with plays of the week, which include an open division. The open division is basically things we've seen other agencies or organizations do that we admire or from which we can learn something.

They have to be current but they’re not always new.

Here’s an image for “clean” coal that’s popping up on outdoor locations all over the Buckeye State. What are they trying to establish as the Dominant Narrative?

Could be a contender.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Simple is good ...

The thing about a Dominant Narrative is that once you get the big ball of public perception rolling your way even the simplest of messages work for you.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Completely blogged ...

Blogger ate my homework three times in a row. Seeing if this makes it.

In the beginning …

Pretty compelling lead for a story, wouldn’t you say? Has that air of authority to say the least. Maybe that’s part of the reason the story has lasted so long and why it still has so much pull on so many people.

More than enough has been said and written and powerpointed over the last several years about the power of story. But here’s the thing: There’s always more than one story. In this competitive environment marketing principles dictate that you need to define the narrative that serves your objective and tells your story.

Over and over, probably.

Marketers call that preferred narrative positioning. Time has shown that it’s a solid approach to communicating with your audience. Still, by its very nature, positioning implies more of a monologue than a dialogue. While your position may be what you reallyreally want people to think or feel or even know about your organization, brand, product, store, Web site, city … whatever … there is always another version of the story. Often, there are as many versions of the story as there are people telling it.

These competing narratives define what becomes the truth. Is it fact? That really doesn’t matter to the communicator because ultimately whatever people choose to believe is their truth.

Which brings us to the title of this wee small exit on the Information Superhighway. Think about a pit bull terrier.

Now, think about a Labrador retriever.

Devotees of either breed will tell you remarkably similar things about them: loyal, friendly, energetic …

Those are competing narratives for the two varieties of dog.

Now which one is dominant?

What we call the Dominant Narrative is the version of the story that – ultimately – defines how anything is perceived. It’s the lens through which any and all new information is viewed. It’s why Lab attacks don’t make the news and why pit bull attacks do.

One fits the Dominant Narrative.

One is “Dog Bites Man.”

The other is “Pit Bull Mauls!”

Fair or not, fact or not, it doesn’t matter. For those who believe it, it’s true.