Read on for an excerpt that reveals how an effective content strategy is the key ingredient to bringing the right people to your brand’s table.
When asked how he planned to restore the international reputation of France, the great diplomat Talleyrand said “I don’t need secretaries as much as I need saucepans!”
Talleyrand was famous for his understanding of how power and influence really work. He was an aristocrat who kept his fortune after the French revolution when most of his peers not only lost their fortunes but also their heads. And he was a politician who worked for every warring faction in France for over sixty years. And in 1814, he pulled off what is still one of the most amazing feats in the history of public relations.
That year, representatives from all over Europe were in Vienna to restore the international order that Napoleon and his French armies had wrecked in twelve years of war. When the post-war government of France needed somebody to represent them in the aftermath, they booked Talleyrand. Think of him as one of the 18th and 19th Centuries’ ultimate fixers.
Within months of setting up his new embassy, Talleyrand had dissipated much of the fear and mistrust then directed at France. He gained the trust of the leaders of the German-speaking, English, and Russian alliance that had very recently been France’s bitterest enemies. And he came to be seen by smaller nations and ordinary people as a champion of justice.
And he did it all with rich sauces, fine wine, and choice meats. He knew he couldn’t best his opponents at the negotiating table outright, so he charmed them at the dining table first. His chef even named dishes after the diplomats they were buttering up, including Nesselrode pudding, named after the Russian ambassador, a rich dessert of cream and alcohol soaked currants still on the menu in Vienna today.
Like a skilled content strategist, Talleyrand looked deep into his organization, located sources of delight, and made good strategic use of them. Then as now, everybody found high French cooking irresistible, whatever their opinion of the French people.
By the end of the year-long negotiations, everyone was fighting over invitations to the lavish dinner parties at the French embassy. Talleyrand understood that visceral, positive feelings experienced in the moment can rewrite the pathways of memory. To reset a conversation, he didn’t need persuasive ideas, or even any ideas at all. He just needed a mechanism to disseminate delight. This is a strategic insight that will never go stale.
You company cannot and need not literally feed everybody it wants to influence. But a steady diet of absorbing stories and useful information is good enough. Even in our oversaturated, overcrowded media environment, there will always room for another good story.
The case of Talleyrand’s saucepan diplomacy above illustrates another important point about the advantages of a strategy based on wonder and delight. It activates forces that travel along the informal channels of influence that do so much to govern our lives.
One of the remarkable facts of the so-called Congress of Vienna, the pan-European diplomatic congress that was supposed to vote on a new international order, was that the congress itself never actually convened. Despite a year of being in the same city, the Kings, Princes, diplomats and celebrities that gathered there never formally met as one body. The work of the Congress, which preserved peace of almost a century, took place behind closed doors and in a succession of glittering balls, dinners, and after parties. Kings and Emperors would gather in the morning to hunt, in the afternoon to have lunch, and in the evening at salons and late at night in trysts and duels. And somehow the work got done.
This is how influence works in our own time, too. We are simply more fond of applying a thick overlay of process and pomp on top of this process. But the reality is that fashion and fun rule over our lives as much as any other set of influences. Influence emanates just as surely from the centers of fashion as it does from the centers of power.
So what does this have to do with content?
Let’s start with internal communications, the newsletters, company-wide emails, annual reports, etc. that we all love to ignore. If crafted to attract attention, these communications can be forces of transformation within your company.
The father of management studies, Peter Drucker, relates how company changes are sold within certain Japanese corporations. The change is announced autocratically from on-high, and then each employee is required to hand-write and turn in a document detailing exactly how that change will affect them. And the process is considered done.
This is, of course, the exception that proves the rule, which is that company-wide change is a chaotic, undefined process in most of the rest of the world.
Change is usually driven through a company according to a principle which originated in the discipline of public relations, “third-party credibility.” If you want your boss to buy an idea, the best way to start is to make sure they don’t hear it from you first. If the idea is diffused through the network of people that surround them, they’ll be prepared for it when it comes.
The great actor Orson Welles had the most amusing version of this principle I’ve ever heard. When explaining why he took the part of Harry Lime in The Third Man, Welles explained that it was the perfect example of what he called “the star part.” The cast spends all of act one talking about the star part, how mysterious or formidable or grand they are. By the time the character walks on stage, the audience is in such a fever pitch of anticipation that all the actor has to do is mutter a few lines or raise an eyebrow at the right time, and all the intermission chatter is devoted to what an amazing job the actor or actress playing the star part is doing.
When you want to change your company’s reputation or sell an idea, content plays the role of all the characters talking up a star part. Content, because it is inherently sharable, acts like a surrogate member in the various networks of influence within your company. Give them a succession of boring emails or, worse, a presentation deck glutted with clichés, and the idea is dead on arrival. But give them stories, and change will spread with all the speed and delight of a particularly dishy rumor.