Interview with Daniel H. Pérez Payán, Head of External Communications Mexico at Cemex.
People who know a little bit about the power of storytelling will tell you that it’s all about storytelling.
But people who know a lot about storytelling will tell you that it’s about something else.
It’s actually not about the story – it’s about Perception Changing.
I learned about Perception Changing from Daniel H. Pérez Payán and Daniel knows a lot about stories.
He used to be a journalist, has worked for Walmart and is now Head of External Communications Mexico at Cemex. (CEMEX is a global producer and supplier of building materials for the construction industry and has 41,000 employees. The company was founded way back in 1906.)
As a professional of Communications a critical part of Daniel’s job is to manage the perception people have of the company. When I sat down to talk to him he expanded on his views about perception and stories.
Daniel: “Some people think humans are rational, but we are perceptional. Our perception makes up our world. And stories change perception. That’s why stories are so powerful. (Part of) my job is to find stories within the company and the community that we can share.”
Daniel emphasized that the key is to understand that the key is not the story. The key is how a story can change perception. An example: If someone tells a great story in a speech people may say “That was a great story!”, but unless that story does not positively change the audience’s perception of the message the speaker wanted to push, then that “great story” was just empty words. A story should change people’s perceptions. Move their hearts and change their minds.
So instead of preaching about the “power of stories” we should put our effort into finding “Potential Perception Changes” – and then package them as stories.
Daniel gave me a perfect example. One of the companies he has worked for has an old factory in a big city in Mexico. It was built on the outskirts of the city. But over the years the city expanded and now the factory is in the center of the city. When the company got ready to celebrate the latest anniversary of the factory, they realized that many of the citizens of the city had lost connection to the factory. They looked at it as a big, loud and annoying structure in the middle of their city.
So the company realized they had to shift people’s perception of the factory.
They created ads of people sharing how their relatives, for generations, had made a living working in the plant.
They invited a newspaper to make some stories about the community the plant and how the have benefit together. They also take photos of the communities living close to the plant and posted them in the “Celebrity section” of the newspaper where typically only High Society was featured. They created a book featuring some of the most influential people living in the area.
They basically created stories about how the factory was a place where people’s lives were built.
That the factory was more than a plant to sell some goods, it also built a thriving community.
Daniel pointed out to me that perception changing is difficult because people will tell themselves their own stories to maintain the perception of the world that they already have. To get them to shift it is very, very hard.
According to Daniel the way to successfully master “perception changing” is to start with identifying the problem with the current perception of the audience you want to reach. How do they look at the world right now, and why is that a problem? To be able to shift that perception you need to respect the existing one.
Let’s look at the example of the factory in Mexico.
1) Find the existing wrong perception
People did not like the factory in the middle of the city.
2) Why is this perception a problem?
The people living close to the factory felt that the plant had forgotten them. “They did not even know the name of the director of the plant anymore. People used to know these things.”
The plant had gone from a place that was part of the community to a place that was just seen as taking up space in the community.
3) Find what you need to change
The factory needed to create a bond with the people in the community again.
4) Find what you can shape
5) Make it into a story/message”
The message that the company settled on was: “We are close to you” and then they set out to create all these activities mentioned above to create new stories that could change the local’s perception of the factory.
6) Identify the perception amplifiers
Perception amplifiers are people who will help you shift your audience’s perception of your chosen issue. It can be respected community leaders, influencers, etc.
“Some people help shift perception more than others,” explained Daniel.
As we came to the end of our discussion about Perception Changing Daniel added one last thing. He said: “As a communicator you have to be aware that it doesn’t always go your own way – you are not 100% in charge of the process.”
A picture of a captain on a tiny boat in a storm came into my head. The captain can steer his/her boat in the direction he wants to go, but the storm might push him/her in a different direction. The captain cannot let that discourage him/her, instead he/she needs to relent in his/her pursuit of staying on course.
To be able to shift perceptions it is essential that the person telling the story truly believes in the message. Or as Daniel put it: “You have to believe in the new message – You have to be an activist for your own message. If you are not, people will not change their perception.”
Remember: People’s reality is made up by their perception of the world, and the stories they tell themselves help create their perception. Craft your story right and they might help your audience shift their perception and thus change their reality.
Do not just be “a storyteller” – be a Perception Changer.
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