Kate Mason on Turning Your Company’s Story Toward the Future
Mixing Board Studio Session
Mixing Board member Kate Mason is the founder of Hedgehog + Fox, a strategic communications firm that works with organizations on storytelling and narrative strategy and helps leaders communicate with authority and impact. Previously, she ran global communications functions at Medium and Khan Academy, and before that, consumer PR for YouTube and Google Australia and New Zealand.
Kate has a Ph.D. in English and lives in Sydney, Australia.
Here are excerpts from this Mixing Board Studio Session between Kate and Mixing Board founder Sean Garrett. They talk about how the process of comms is like therapy, how to work with technical founders, and Kate’s program for helping women leaders be more effective communicators.
SG: How has your Ph.D. education shaped your perspective in comms? And what were you thinking you were going to do with the Ph.D. in the first place?
KM: Originally, I thought I’d be a professor. I love teaching, I love literature, I love language and I thought that’s how to get to a place where those three things combined. The idea of spending years reading, writing and thinking about things was never a burden; that was part of the appeal. In that time I realized I actually did like people, more than I may have given myself credit for. And I really craved speed. In academia you spend months and months, sometimes years, polishing a piece for a journal, for example. Then it takes another year or so for it to be peer reviewed. It’s a very, very different pace. When I finished, I thought — I need to find somewhere I can do really interesting thinking, hopefully reading and writing, but it has to move a lot faster. I ended up taking a pretty sharp left turn into tech, which was pretty unexpected from the outset of that degree.
How has it informed comms? I never studied comms or marketing, it was never something that I formally understood. But I’ve always come at it with a sense of logic. What are the questions we need to answer here for this to make sense? What are the dots we need to connect? I think my degree gave me a mental architecture I use to get up to speed quickly on something. Tell me about soil carbon sequestration or printing human tissue and I’ll get up to speed fairly quickly because I can hang those ornaments on the tree in some sort of a framework. I’m a bit unusual because when I work with founders who have a Ph.D. in genetics or a Ph.D. in AI, they’re using that content every day. I don’t use any of the content of my Ph.D., but I use all the meta architecture and information-crunching side of it all the time.
SG: There’s also probably some thoughtful and deliberate muscles that were created in your brain that you apply today. While speed is certainly the name of the game when it comes to comms, there’s something to be said about being able to take a step back, think, consider and digest. Even the small things like a word here or there, perspective or phrasing. How has it allowed you to go deeper when maybe others would just be somewhat more surface level?
KM: The metaphor I always use with founders is, you are, in some ways, the worst placed to think about your messaging and your positioning, because you are down too deep. You’re scuba diving where there’s no light and you’re surrounded by the politics and the founding story and the minutiae of your every day. Sometimes my gift is my ignorance: I’m snorkeling on the surface, I’m just looking down. I can see what you see but I’m not encumbered by the rest of the noise. It’s a little bit like getting someone to edit your own piece of writing: You can work on something for weeks and not realize there’s a typo in the first sentence! But as soon as someone else looks at it, they have this really different perspective. Some of the work that we do in comms is being able to come in with some fresh eyes.
One of the things about a Ph.D. that I didn’t know at the outset either, maybe others don’t know, is that you are actually tasked with coming up with a new idea or perspective to contribute to your field. I went for a newer field in literature — I was writing on post-9/11 American fiction which was really being published at the same time as I was studying it. I suppose that’s what’s really appealing to me about startups: the newness and ability to find a new perspective on often an older idea. Everyone’s always obsessed with this idea of category creation. I don’t think it’s the creation of a category that’s interesting: it’s about owning that category and doing that creatively. It’s bringing together the logic, the words, the nuance and the transactional nature of language, and trying to push it into something super creative and different. How do I make a B2B tax software company sound different to the 50 other B2B tax software companies? That’s where it’s meaty and interesting to me.
SG: How do you do that?
KM: None of it makes sense unless it fits that company. If you have a company and they are thoughtful, intellectual, kind and unassuming, there’s no point in giving them a schlocky slogan. You have to be part therapist and ask, “Who actually are you? What’s that company you’re trying to build? Then how do we translate that?” So if you are that intellectual type, we want that company to be a brand extension of you, rather than something you think you should be.
SG: People who do this kind of work, we rely on several tools like, “What’s your mission? What’s your purpose? What’s your north star?” And I’ve done that plenty of times, and they work sometimes and they don’t work other times. Usually the difference is whether it’s true or not. But do those things get in the way? Are they too analytical? An actual therapist probably doesn’t say, “Okay, let’s stop this session for a moment, and let’s spend the next three working on your north star.” You’d say, “Okay, I heard you here, let’s go deeper. I heard you here. Let’s go deeper. What does that make you feel? What’s your perspective on that?” You start working on the thing versus distracting it by working on some sort of set of words that everyone can look at and like rearrange. How is that repeatable and how can that be taught? Where can you take that intuition and take that sense of therapy and keep on applying it?
KM: I imagine therapists would say that it can’t really be scaled. I’ve always been quite careful with that part of my business, that it’s me talking to a founder and not someone else. Not because I don’t think it can be taught, it probably can be. Maybe this comes from never having studied or been schooled in it, but mission, vision, values — they’re inchoate and just beyond the touch, right? I don’t wake up and think, well, “my name’s Kate and my mission today is X and my values are Y”, they’re just kind of nuggets within me. I try to spend time with founders and pick up on things. And you end up on these fascinating tangents — “there’s this thing with my co-founder”, “I’m worried about this thing my mentor said I should do, but I don’t feel it”, “my VC wants me to do X, but I’m not ready”. There’s an emotional thing there, because we’re human. I say, “Okay, if you’re comfortable, let’s dig into it. What does that mean? How does it feel? What I’m hearing is you’re feeling a pressure to do X, but you have this strong desire to do Y. How can we think about that in the message and how can we mitigate against what you’re fearful of?” I just had a client in crypto who said, “I don’t want to look too square, but at the same time I have to appeal to institutions. How do I reconcile those two really, really different audiences? It’s making me anxious.”
If I had a mission, it’s that I want the final product to engender relief. Someone to look at the final work and say, “Oh, thank you, you’ve reconciled that thing that I’ve been worrying about”. No one comes to me saying, “I’m worried about X”. They come to me saying, “we need messaging and strategy”. I wonder if that’s how a therapist feels, someone might come to you because they feel depressed, but actually, it’s this whole other thing that we can uncover.
SG: In any good story, there is conflict. It often becomes about trying to work with a founder, or someone who is close to the source, on being comfortable with that conflict — feeling vulnerable about discussing how it feels and what it’s going to take to overcome it. If they feel like that’s the “game” here, that you have to go down that place of uncomfortableness, to really expose that conflict so you can achieve the happily ever after, maybe that opens up these moments of vulnerability where you can go deeper.
Kate: Definitely. I would never say to someone, “This is going to be a process that’s painful and about your moments of vulnerability”! But they do often come up. That’s true with really, really technical founders, particularly science or deeply technical Ph.D.s. The notion of storytelling feels very foreign and unchartable. I often get asked, “I don’t understand storytelling, what is the formula?” They’ve often put it off or they’ve felt a little bit tentative about engaging in that process and have siloed off storytelling as something that only professionals do. I say, “You’ve all watched a movie and known that guy’s going to die.” We know these things as humans, we understand those tropes. We know the hero that’s got to avenge something. We intuitively get what type of movie we’re watching.
Once I tell people that they will immediately say, “Oh yeah, like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.” They know that there’s someone who’s going to redeem themselves, or whatever the story is. That actually makes them relax into it. Then they start being a little creative and saying, “This isn’t so terrifying. This actually has repetitions, plot points and genres that I’m used to. I’ve read a book, I’ve seen a movie, I understand how this could work”. Once I can get people comfortable with that, it’s very liberating for both of us. But they don’t know, for instance, the right metaphor. They keep using this clunky one about recycling, but it’s not very sexy. So how do we think about that differently?
I just worked with a client, she had this idea that her work is like a recycling plant. It got so in the weeds so quickly, because the thing she’s working on is so complicated. I said, “What if this was about mapping?” So we talked about charting, being on a voyage, discovery — it’s a journey. She said, “Oh my God, I love maps”. And I said, “Okay, well, that’s even better!” Suddenly we had this really natural way for her to talk about the ongoing process that was an undiscovered land. She’s up and running on that now and I barely had to tell her much more than that.
It’s very human. Putting it in that mission, values or slogan kind of detracts from that humanness. You need those things — they help rally your team, they help get you on the same page, they’re quite important. But in my mind, they come last. It’s all of that work beforehand to really get the feel right. You should intuitively be looking at that work and feeling like this is an extension of me, or how I want the company to be in the world.
SG: The term storytelling is one that’s been used, let’s just say, a lot. What do you feel about that, as someone who has a Ph.D. in English? Do you feel like it’s been misused? Do you feel like it’s well put? What’s your take on the art of storytelling and how it applies to helping organizations find themselves?
KM: I have a lot of feelings about it that just came up when you asked that question! One of them is that it’s really easily dismissed. People have this idea that we’ve done without comms for so long, as if it’s like a badge of honor. That’s actually myopia: you don’t get a prize. You’re probably going to pay for that oversight. So I don’t like the way it’s often dismissed. On the other hand, I think storytelling is an accurate term for what we do. The main problem I see when people talk about storytelling is that they’re looking to the past. If you ask a founder about storytelling, they’re like, “Well, it was 2018, my friend and I had this problem.” It’s the founding story.
Clearly the founding story is important and we need to have that codified and agreed upon. But storytelling is really future-looking. Where does this go? What’s the vision I can paint for people? How do I get them excited about that thing? It’s obviously easier to tell a past story than a future one, but the future one is where lies a lot of energy and excitement. It is a scarier run, it’s more vulnerable. You’re pitting yourself against expected outcomes, or you’re hoping that the technology actually will work the way you want it to. It takes a leap of faith. So I think storytelling is a good term, I would just love people to think about it as a future-facing activity, a practice, rather than fait accompli.
SG: Once it is established and future-facing, how do you see the best organizations deploy it? How does it come to life?
KM: You cannot say it enough. What’s that stat, that you have to see or hear something around seven times before you start to take it on board? I have a list of things I call ‘smart person problems’. One of them is that a smart person will say something once and believe they’ve communicated it; that it’s finished. You can’t communicate it enough. You can’t tell your investors enough. People will only hear it once they’ve actually heard it multiple, multiple times.
To really embed it, it takes patience to show that you’re turning a ship around. You’re pointing in a new trajectory, you’ve pivoted or you’ve changed. Or even sometimes people have worked at a company for a long time, but didn’t know the vision. Because your future storytelling was less than ideal. Giving them that comfort, “This is a thing, it’s going to happen. This is how we’re going to get there.” It can give a lot of energy to a team.
SG: Right now you are working with founders on building up their stories and bringing them to life. You’re also doing communications and leadership workshops specifically for women. Tell me about the workshops that you’re running and what comes from them?
KM: I was working with founding teams and I noticed there were some folks who were able to say, “This is me, this is who I am. This is where I’m going to be in the world.” And there were some folks who would say, “Oh, I’m not sure if this is right.” They would caveat everything or they would minimize and apologize. There was definitely a gender component to this, I won’t pretend otherwise. I started to realize a lot of the coaching I was doing in the narrative building was actually around, “Hey, when you say X, you don’t need to caveat it like that.” Or, “Have you ever thought about opening your meeting with something like this instead of like that?”
I had a really brilliant CFO of a well-known company. She would give a daily call to her CEO who was also a very well-known person. She would always say, “Oh, it’s just Gina,” when she began that phone call. She was telling me this and I asked, “Is there any reason you’re saying ‘it’s just Gina’? You’re the CFO and you’re giving the important call. You can just say hi, or how are you doing? Why, at the outset, were you doing that?” We again uncovered something deeper, with that therapist’s empathy. She was like, “Oh gosh, I always feel like it must be irritating.” And I said, “But he’s asked you to call him every day, right?” And she said, “Yeah, he has actually.”
I started seeing these types of patterns, thinking — what is it about these corporate structures that we often are not acting ourselves in those moments? Or somewhat diminishing ourselves? Or maybe not communicating with the authority that we should or could have? Anyone who’s ever been told, which I was early in my career, “You’re doing great, but you just need more executive presence”. How do I get that? Like, what is that? Do I have to reply to emails with ‘sounds good’? Is that the only thing I need to do?!
I call the workshop program Amplify. It’s about how to turn up your volume on whatever it is you’re doing — wherever you are. You might be an entry-level person or you might be the CFO. But what is the particular thing that you’d like to improve on? How can we give you some tools or a toolkit to think differently about it?
SG: You mentioned that you haven’t been taught comms. For better or for worse, I can probably name on one hand, in my entire career, the number of people I’ve worked with who actually went to school for it. We’re never going to be an industry that has a lesson plan. People with good instincts, good common sense, the ability to write and the ability to read other people tend to do well in what we do. At the same time, it does move so fast and there are ways that we can kind of raise others up by providing some form of better guidance, better perspective, better sense of direction on how to evolve their career and their own self value and worth in the industry. For someone who’s gone through a very rigorous academic program and is also very deep in this industry, what’s the happy medium? How do we teach better or impart better?
KM: I’ve been extremely lucky to have had some very generous mentors, whether they were working with me or we had just become friends. Being really generous with mentoring is something that officially or unofficially has certainly benefited me. And certainly I try to do it myself.
The other thing is, common sense isn’t that common. Sometimes you have a sense that someone is going to be a really good reader of people. Twitter is full of journalists saying, “How dare they robo pitch me on this thing?” We all know the mistakes that are made in the execution level of comms, but we undervalue the things that we know or the hard lessons that we’ve won. We’ve all been in a room crying at some point for a mistake that we made. So what was it, how do we not do it again? I’ve always been very forthcoming about that.
You used the word practitioner before and that comes from practicing. You have to keep practicing. We’re not finished products. It’s very easy to look at someone who’s got a great reputation and think, oh they’ve made it. But they’re still practicing, they’re still learning. They’re still making mistakes and still often being delighted by something new.
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