London, December 2001. A drab business hotel outside of Gatwick Airport. The first Harry Potter movie is still playing in theaters, while the world still reels from the impact of 9/11. I’ve had too much coffee, too little sleep, and I’ve got a massively complicated international corporate messaging session to lead in 10 minutes.
This aspiring tech start-up hasn’t been able to rally around a core narrative yet, and today is the moment of truth. After weeks of interviews and analysis, we’re unveiling the new direction, and it’s up to me to win them over. And now, marketing, product and sales executives from 12 countries are crowding into a woefully undersized conference room, along with seven sleepy interpreters in crumpled business attire.
I was not expecting this. I’m just a prematurely promoted Account VP from a tech PR agency in San Francisco. I thought we were having a friendly discussion with the marketing team. But this meeting coincided with their internal global all-hands meeting, and sales and product leaders invited themselves to this messaging session. They’re understandably curious—and concerned.
A nervous CMO pulls me aside last-minute to tell me that a few skeptical board members will also be “stopping by to see how this goes”. He asks that I not to talk too fast so the interpreters can keep up. There are seven of them. For seven different languages. Oh, and could I also incorporate the group's feedback into the messaging. In real time. On a wheeled-in whiteboard that’s way too small.
Crap. Here we go.
THE BIRTH OF THE AIM MODEL: AN ACT OF SELF-DEFENSE Many of us in the business of persuasive storytelling have had moments like this. You’ve done your homework. You’ve got your premise. Now it’s time to get everybody inspired, enthused and aligned around a core message.
This moment nearly 20 years ago is the trial-by-fire story of how I came to create a tool that I use to this day with all my clients. This is the birth of the AIM model: Audience, Impact, Message.
The AIM model is a blueprint for your foundational persuasive strategy. It’s a way to figure out and drive alignment around whom you’re trying to reach and what impact you want to have. And it can help you sequence your messaging for maximum persuasive impact.
But on a very human level, AIM can be used to prevent moments like the one I was about to have back in December, 2001—a day that started with an unforgettable ass-whupping.
The poorly circulated conference room air is getting thick, and I can feel the heat from the toaster-oven sized slide projector. We’ve dispensed with introductions and the situation analysis. Board members are shifting impatiently in their seats in the back row. Finally we come to it—the messaging platform.
Mission. Vision. Value proposition. Differentiation. Calls to action. The UK leadership team, who was fully on board with this messaging when it was previewed, now sits quietly, passively, waiting to see how the group will respond.
And then it starts.
Questions, objections and recommendations start flying across the room in eight different languages, only one of which I can understand. The seven interpreters struggle to keep up. The ridiculously tiny whiteboard is quickly overrun with hastily scrawled feedback. A bemused Scottish intern rushes up to me with an extra flip chart, a small ball of Blue Tack adhesive, and a couple of half-used markers. “Good luck!”, he whispers as he scampers back toward the coffee station in the back.
RALLYING AROUND A UNITING PRINCIPLE: YOUR AUDIENCE I’ll never forget feeling so utterly overwhelmed and under-prepared. When it comes to messaging debates, sometimes it feels like everybody is speaking their own language.
Why is that? And what can be done about it?
Like I said in my last article, persuasion is a science, and storytelling is an art. And before you can engage in the art of the story, it’s critical to engage in the science of the case you’re trying to build. Whom are you trying you reach? Which audience are we actually talking about here? How do we want them to react? What kind of engagement are we looking for? And most importantly, why would they care about this message in the first place? What’s in it for them?
Over the years, the vast majority of messaging arguments I’ve witnessed are the result of different executives being focused on different audiences. A fundraising pitch deck rarely works with customers. A sales deck may not be the best to use for recruiting. When you’re talking about a corporate narrative, you need some uniting principle, some shared purpose that speaks to all your stakeholders.
And if you haven’t had those conversations with all the right stakeholders before you start recommending a narrative or messaging framework, you’ll likely encounter the kind of cacophonous feedback I was experiencing back in London …
The Italian sales lead won’t stop swearing, the English marketing lead won’t stop objecting to the profanities, and the Russian communications lead is running her own sidebar messaging discussion with her two marketing and sales leads in the corner. These people are clearly not on the same page, and none of the conflicting feedback I’ve captured across six separate flip charts is helping matters.
And that’s when it hits me. We’re wordsmithing by committee, and we’re getting nowhere. I’m not an overly religious person, but this Tower of Babel fustercluck is the closest thing to Hell on Earth I’ve ever experienced.
And I say so. Out loud. On purpose. (Maybe not in those exact terms, though.) And slowly enough for the translators to hear me.
The group, shocked into silence by candor and transparency, gives me their attention. They feel the same way. And with explicit permission from the board and all present, I propose to take us all back to square one. Our audience. Or rather, our audiences. Whom do we need to reach? And which ones are most important in each geography? And what exactly is it we need them to do? Only after we come to an agreement on Audience and Impact can we ever hope to finally overcome years of unresolved, unspoken conflict and agree on Message.
HOW THE AIM MODEL WORKS This was the crucible that gave birth to the AIM Model. It was a turning point in that meeting, both for the company that was about to come to a genuine marketing consensus for the first time in years—and a turning point in my own career.
The year was 80 BCE, and this lawyer and government bureaucrat was writing about the persuasive power of empathy. A few thousand years later, modern social neuroscience would bear him out … people respond to language and arguments that start where they are intellectually and emotionally. In other words, messaging is doomed to fail from the beginning if you don’t think about whom you’re trying to reach first.
What’s more, when an organization is focused on near-term survival, and their sales, marketing, product, HR, IR and corporate development leaders haven’t explicitly agreed to their target audiences and desired impact, developing an umbrella narrative that works for the whole company is nearly impossible.
And that’s where the AIM model comes in. You can use it to create a new message from scratch. You can use it to fix a message that doesn’t seem to be resonating. And you can use it to untangle a god-awful mess like the one I was dealing with.
Just ask yourself and your team the following questions:
Whom are we trying to reach?
How do we prioritize competing audiences? If we have to optimize the message for one or two audiences and their sensibilities, which ones do we optimize for?
What’s going on with this audience? What do they currently think of their own business challenges? Their technology challenges? Their personal and career challenges?
And where does our own company, solution or cause fit in with the universe of their existing priorities? Why should they care about us, at all?
Never a truer word was spoken about messaging and persuasive storytelling. But I discovered something in that stuffy conference room— you’ve got to do more than achieve alignment on the audiences you’re trying to reach.The next critical step is to reverse-engineer your messaging from that magic moment when your audience changes what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling, and what they’re doing.
And those are the three dimensions of impact—think, feel and do. Here are just a few the questions to ask to prevent the international goat-rodeo I was going through in that stuffy Gatwick hotel 20 years ago:
What is the audience currently thinking about their challenge, their options, our company and its solutions, and our competition?
What do we want our audiences to think?And what evidence do we have to support our assertions?
How is the audience currently feeling about their challenge, their ability to succeed, our company, and our competitors?
How do we want them to feel?
What are they currently worried about? And what should they be worried about? (More on this in a moment, because this is the single most frequently overlooked question—and often the most valuable one to ask!)
What is the audience currently doing relative to this challenge? When are they choosing a competitor over us, and why? How does choosing us and our solution align with their personal passions and values?
What do we want them to do—or to stop doing?For which audiences are we best suited for, and which ones are we convinced we can do the most good for?
At what points in the customer (or stakeholder)journey would better messaging be most useful? Where are we experiencing the most friction with our customers? And how much of that is down to the product vs. the message?
One of the most important distinctions to call out here is the difference between what people think and how people feel. As I mentioned in my previous article, it takes a powerful combination of ethos, pathos and logosto really make a difference in people’s behavior. And when it comes to how we want to make people feel, the answer I usually get most often is, “We want them to feel comfortable with us,” or “confident in our solution,” or some other variety of “happy, good, safe.”
But people don’t always change behavior when they feel comfortable. In fact, the biggest—and most meaningful—changes happen when people feel constructively uncomfortable about the right things. I’m not talking about fear-mongering—we have way too much of that in the public domain as it is. It’s about escalating the urgency of choosing the right option at the right time.
And that technique led to the turning point in the meeting at that Gatwick hotel …
“Whom do you all sell to? You’ve all told me privately that nobody else in the company really understands your local market. Well, now is your chance to make them understand. Whom do you sell to? And whom do you need to sell to better in order to make your numbers this year?”
I start asking more questions related to buying, selling and making money. And these concepts translate smoothly into any language. A fresh (and noticeably larger) whiteboard wheels into the room.The air conditioning kicks in. Ties loosen as finger sandwiches and beers are passed around. Profanity has been replaced with active listening. An orderly hierarchy of buying personas takes shape on the whiteboard and surrounding flip charts.
“Okay, these are the folks we need to get to, prioritized by region. Now, what perceptions about us do we most need to change with these people in your region? And what perceptions about our competitors do we most need to shift?”
More alignment emerges. Board members move closer to the front row so they can hear the translators more easily.
“Ok, now how are your customers feeling when you first approach them? In the middle of your pitches? When you’re about to close? How do we want them to feel?”
Brits and Germans are as quiet as the Italians, French and Spaniards jump in first. But soon everybody’s sharing common fears and aspirations across their customer base, and we’re coming to agreement on the right tone for us to take.
“And what’s the real marketing and sales challenge here? Is it basic awareness? Driving new leads? Driving the right kinds of leads? De-positioning competitors? Accelerating sales cycles? Where in our funnel do we need the most help?”
Within minutes, audience and impact are codified, perhaps for the first time in years. One board member takes a photo of the whiteboard with her clunky early 2000s digital camera.
Finally, we’re ready to talk about the message.
Message Before marketers and communicators can lead and assert on message, we first have to earn the trust of our executives by asking and coming to consensus on audience and impact. But once we’ve got the audience and impact locked in, it’s our time to shine as persuaders.
When it comes to creating a persuasive storyline, there’s a pattern to how narratives are constructed—something we’ll get into in our next post. But first, it’s essential to agree to the core building blocks of any persuasive strategy—Why, What, How and What’s Next. These are the components of the M in AIM—the Message.
Perhaps the most famous articulation of the Why in any message comes courtesy of Simon Sinek from his TED talk back in 2009. And it remains true to this day. People can’t care about what you’re talking about, or how your solution works, until first you tell them why they should care. How does what you want to sell or persuade them to do relate to their own priorities? Their challenges? Their values? And at its root, their authentic identity? Why should they give you one second of their precious time? And in world in which, according to a recent New York Times article, the average person is exposed to about 5,000 ads a day, why should they pay attention to your marketing message?
Breaking through the white noise is one of the most critical functions of AIM—and so is sequencing your core messaging strategy in the right order. Here’s the framework for questions to ask yourselves, and your customers:
Why: Why should they care about this? How does this relate to their existing priorities? What’s the challenge they’re facing, and how would they frame that challenge?
What: What can they, your customer, do that they can’t do without you (or with your competitors? Don’t make this part of the message about you and your product or solution. Make this them about them and their capabilities.
How: How do you help them address their challenge and achieve their goals? Limit yourself to the details that matter most.Hook them in and give them enough evidence to convince them you really can help.
What’s next: Think of the question you wish they would come to you with. What are the strategic questions they should be asking themselves in RFPs or buying situations? And what questions do you wish they were asking competitors?
When you sequence the order right, and once you’ve documented “Why, What, How, and What’s Next”, you’ve got a blueprint for crafting most of the core messages you and your organization will need.
And that’s what we finally came to in Gatwick, in the end.
“Well, Josh, this turned out not to be the colossal waste of time I was afraid it would be! Well done.”
My jet lag prevents me from recognizing this as a compliment right away, but the clap on the shoulder and the request for my business card (reminder, this was 2001) from a relieved-looking board member tells me we’d survived the firestorm. We had a clear AIM documented in the room, and we had agreement across all 12 geographies—and more importantly, across sales, marketing and product teams.
My CMO client, now happily nursing a gin and tonic, sidles up to me. “We’ve got it. Finally. We’ve got it. The head of sales just asked me how soon we can turn all this into the new front of a sales deck. That’s a first.”
The mission statement still needs a little wordsmithing, and we’ve got some follow-up research to do on which differentiators we can substantiate now vs. which ones will appear in the product roadmap next. But we’ve finally got this company aligned around its audience, its impact, and its message.
Later at the bar, the CMO offers me a Manhattan, which would become my go-to drink in later years, as we continue our debrief. “This was a brilliant framework, by the way. That audience-impact thing? Why didn’t you just lead with it?”
Damn good question. Maybe I will next time.
AIM: GROUNDING YOUR MESSAGING IN PURPOSE Over the years, we’ve developed variations on that initial AIM model applicable to all sorts of marketing and sales situations. Corporate branding and brand narratives. Detailed technology solutions. Industry standards and associations. Public policy debates. And more recently, virtual events and digital experience design. And throughout all the customization, the core model has held up.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of AIM is that it grounds you in purpose. It anchors everybody in a shared “why”. And from there, it provides a more strategic (and often more affordable) way to approach measuring the effectiveness of our marketing. Rather than relying on outdated vanity metrics like impressions, clicks and likes, we can actually delve deeper, thanks to marketing data analytics, into whether we’ve shifted perception, sentiment and behaviors the right way with the target audiences we care about most.
Of course, using AIM to find your core persuasive strategy is just the first step on the longer journey to finding your persuasive story … which is a topic we’ll cover in my next installment on persuasive storytelling and the five-chapter model.