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Years ago a guy called Aristotle, whom most people considered quite smart, talked about a concept known as the ‘three artistic proofs’ – logos (logic), pathos (emotion), ethos (credibility/character). Aristotle noticed that in order for someone to persuade others, their communication had to include both logical and emotional appeal and the speaker or writer had to have credibility.

Illustration: Truth and LieWhile we have many more tools of communication available to us these days than Aristotle had, that basic principle remains the same. Effective communication still has to have logical and emotional appeal and come wrapped in a package of credibility.

In business communication, some of our credibility comes from things we do deliberately to create a certain image. Positioning, branding, imaging are words that spring to mind. However our credibility is also affected by other little things that tell a story to others about what we are really like. I’ve also seen this referred to as our ‘big story’ versus our ‘little stories’.

We all have a ‘big story’ that we put out to the world. In business that’s usually the image that we portray in our marketing – the way we want people to view us. Our little stories are all the little things we do (or don’t do) every minute of every day that either reinforce our big story or undermine it. It’s all the little things we may not notice that others do that can cause us embarrassment. Little stories are everywhere. A few examples that spring to mind:

  • The customer service representative that is aggressive and rude to customers
  • The inappropriate joke when speaking in front of an audience or distasteful post on social media
  • The website or other written material that is full of spelling errors
  • Being a ‘nice guy’ on one social media channel and being a crazy troll on another
  • The narky sign in a place of business
  • Careless or aggressive driving in a company sign-written vehicle

The list is literally endless because this stuff is absolutely everywhere and sometimes it’s not even something we can identify like in the examples above. Sometimes it’s just a gut feeling that we don’t trust a person or even a whole organisation.

By the way, little stories are also the way that police catch out criminals most of the time. It’s the little inconsistencies in the criminals’ stories that give the police clues as to where to look for the hard evidence.

So how worried should you be about your ‘little stories’?

There’s no straightforward answer to that question. The fact is that there are always going to be little things that trip us up and put out a message we didn’t intend. For example we all forget to return a phone call from time to time. We all miss the odd mistake here and there. We all have bad days when we’re not as polite and friendly as we should be. Sometimes people just put crazy interpretations on what we say despite our best efforts.

In business we can put systems and procedures in place for some things. For example when I write something like website copy I always get someone else to proofread it. I also have checklists for a range of different things I do to make sure all the details are covered and nothing slips through the cracks.

However a lot of the time, credibility has more to do with ‘ways of being’ than ‘ways of doing’. If you put out a big story that you are a friendly business with helpful customer service then you actually have to have friendly and helpful staff and display those values yourself – all the time not just when you are with a customer. Seems obvious I know but the reality is it doesn’t happen a great deal of the time.

The first thing to do is know what your big story is in the first place. Then and only then, you can constantly check whether the little stories you are putting out are consistent with your big story.