December 13, 2019 / Esther Choy

Christmas songs can teach us how to craft unforgettable messagesIn a recent Forbes article, I pointed out three lessons business leaders can glean from holiday “earworms,” the songs that worm their way into your head and stay for days. Here, I’ll explore how I have seen business leaders apply these principles in order to craft unforgettable messages.

Match Message & Delivery

Silent Night is an example of a Christmas song that matches message and delivery. Sure, it’s possible to belt out the lyrics if you want to, but as Peter Tregear of the University of Melbourne notes, the melody encourages soft, gentle singing. The tune “has the contours and style of a lullaby,” notes Tregear. Likewise, business leaders must ensure their delivery matches the message they want to convey. In interviewing, presentation delivery or even when you have to deliver bad news, matching your message and delivery is important.

Also, if you are excited about your work and think your listener should be too, make sure ALL aspects of your delivery convey this sentiment. One of our individual coaching clients told us he felt enthusiastic about his work, but his tone of voice and his facial expressions did not reflect that. His message was falling flat. We helped him align message and delivery. I often say during trainings, “If you are talking about something exciting, make sure your face knows it too!”

Repeat, repeat, repeat

I was fascinated to learn that the human brain actually likes repetitive songs. Research from The Music, Mind and Brain group at Goldsmiths University of London found that most of the 1,000 catchiest songs are incredibly repetitive. That’s part of what has made Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” the third most popular Christmas song of all time.The takeaway for leaders? Turn your most important point into a refrain. Say it often–even more than you think you need to. Give people something to hang on to and remember.

If you are delivering a data heavy or financial presentation, you can repeat the key number you want them to remember multiple times (for instance, “20% increase in revenue”). Repeating key numbers is helpful for fundraising, too: “Donate $500. $500 feeds 100 children. Your gift of $500…”

I had a chance to work with financial executive Karen Kane, who had to give an acceptance speech for an award a Chicago nonprofit was giving her. She had just five minutes to give a speech in front of 400 people. “As a finance person,” says Kane, “I have given numerous professional presentations to large groups, but using my past approaches would be boring, and certainly not heartfelt.” However, by applying storytelling techniques such as repeating key ideas, “the speech was very heartfelt and I was given a standing ovation!”

Champion the Underdog

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer galloped to the top of the charts because of its heartwarming story of an unlikely hero.

The “underdog” plot is one of the basic plots that works especially well in a business context. In my book, Let the Story Do the Work, I mention billionaire John Paul DeJoria of Paul Mitchell hair care system and the Patrón Spirits Company. DeJoria exemplifies the underdog or rags-to-riches story, having been homeless twice before starting Paul Mitchell with just $700.

DeJoria tells this story frequently. And no wonder! When people hear stories that follow this plot, they feel empathy toward the protagonist’s plight, and then inspired and motivated by the teller’s victory. They begin to think, “well, if they succeeded in such adverse circumstances, why can’t I succeed too?”

Tell that story to your team when you most want to inspire them.

As you tune in to holiday songs this season (or try to tune them out), consider what makes them so popular. Then, at the next meeting or presentation you find yourself in, consider whether the speaker is using the same techniques to make their message get stuck in your head. Finally, consider how you could you apply these techniques yourself.


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If you need help making your message stick, schedule a complimentary working session with us. For more examples of the right stories to tell at the right time, sign up for our monthly guide. My book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available and serves as your business storytelling toolkit.

Photo credit: Wavebreakmedia

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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