University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 35: Jim Karrh Discusses the Importance of Storytelling and Delivering the Right Message

August 28, 2019  |  By Matt Waller

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Jim Karrh is the Founder & CEO of Karrh & Associates. Jim is also the Host of the "Manage Your Message Podcast," a podcast that emphasizes how the secret to growing your business is through natural, everyday conversations. Join us to learn more about the three legs that make up the process of managing the message.

Episode Transcript

00:01 Matt Waller: Hi. I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to BeEPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education, and your life today.


00:23 Matt Waller: Today I have with me Jim Karrh, the founder and CEO of Karrh & Associates. He was a professor at the University of Alabama, we'll forgive him for that.


00:38 Jim Karrh: And he's an ex-Duke guy and a Gator as well here in Arkansas.

00:42 Matt Waller: Normally, I wouldn't do a podcast with you, but...

00:45 Jim Karrh: Well, thank you.

00:45 Matt Waller: Since you live in Little Rock, I'll make an exception.


00:47 Jim Karrh: For 18 years, I'm almost an Arkansan, right?

00:51 Matt Waller: Exactly. You are an Arkansan by choice, I think.

00:53 Jim Karrh: Yes.

00:54 Matt Waller: You've been chief marketing officer of Mountain Valley Spring Company, and many other experiences, but right now you've got your own consulting firm. But I really was impressed when I went through your materials, in particular on some of your work around growing business by managing your message. And so, if you wouldn't mind... First of all, thank you for joining me, I really appreciate it.

01:23 Jim Karrh: My pleasure, great opportunity. I'll try to be as "epic" as possible.

01:26 Matt Waller: Thank you. Well, you already know our values.

01:28 Jim Karrh: Yes.

01:29 Matt Waller: Good job. For those of you who heard that and don't know, EPIC is the acronym for the values of Walton College, excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality. And I think that this idea of message, it's so important and it's so often not managed.

01:53 Jim Karrh: And, in fact, when I talk about message... Because that can be interpreted in lots of ways. People can think about their slogan, or their mission statement, or their value proposition, or whatever the flavor of their message might be. I tend to think about everyday business conversations, the ones that are primarily face-to-face, but other real-time conversations that everyone around your organization or everyone who knows your organization is already having. And it can seem very unmanageable, if you look in course descriptions of even elite MBA programs, like at the Walton College, and you will see a lot of courses that are titled Financial Management, Operations Management, Human Resources Management, all down the line. I've yet to see one that says Message Management, and it's...

02:43 Matt Waller: Yeah, but we need that.

02:44 Jim Karrh: Well, we can think about that a bit. But it is in today's marketplace, and when there's so much noise in the marketplace, competing messages and just so much static that's out there, can your value proposition, can... Whether you think of it as your why, about the organization, can that come through naturally every day? I saw some interesting research... And we would certainly agree that the online world, the digital world, and communications, with social media, and the internet, and all of that, is tremendously important. And yet, even in this more digital age, I've seen research, and depending upon industry, all the way from research Jonah Berger did from the Wharton School, to research that's come out in different industries, that somewhere between 70 and 90 plus percent of word of mouth happens in the offline world. So, it's in just the natural conversations again that people have on the job, over a desk, in the neighborhood, at the ball field, at their house of worship, wherever that might be.

03:56 Jim Karrh: And it can seem unmanageable at the same time that we all have this real world sense that it's tremendously important. And so part of what I am working with clients or with students in our program here at Little Rock, or wherever that might be, is to say, it fundamentally is manageable. And that if you can be consistently good at it... Not perfect, we'll never be perfect. No one ever says the right thing all the time in every circumstance. But if you, and your team, and your organization can consistently be able to convey the right things on a regular basis, then you will stand way above the noise, and will really differentiate yourself in the marketplace.

04:44 Matt Waller: I know when I had my software company, one of the things that I had training on when I started dealing with the media a lot, I went through a course in Washington, DC, where they filmed me, and they asked me questions, and they taught me to come up with what is my message, what are my subpoints, what are the supporting points. I don't even remember it all, this is 20 years ago, but I remember it did help me to think about it. And up to that point, you would think, here I am from business, and I have a PhD in business, and yet I didn't know how to do that.

05:21 Jim Karrh: And that's a very common thing. You're talking about the circumstance, and a number of executives have the same sort of thing, whether they would call it message training, or media training, and the like, it's a hard thing to do. First of all, even just at an individual level, how many of us are really good at talking about ourselves? It's still being humble, being authentic, all of those things that we know make for the right sort of message itself, but most of us are too close to it. And we can easily get down a rabbit hole. So it's hard to find those things. And not only for us to do ourselves, but when you're in the role of a leader, when you're leading a team or leading an organization, other people are looking to you, how do you coach others to do it as well? And when your organizations are training, part of what makes it even more difficult today, I think, than ever, is not only the noise in the environment of how hard it is for your signal to stand out.

06:21 Matt Waller: Now, you're going to be teaching some courses for us here in Little Rock, through our Executive Education Program, on communication. And you have a course called Communicating from Mission to Message. Would you mind just telling me a little bit about what that is?

06:39 Jim Karrh: Sure. And it's based upon what tends to characterize the leaders and the organizations that do this pretty well. The ones that you would look at and say, they do seem to be on the same page, they do tend to be effective, they have a fan base that's growing, all of those markers that make a lot of sense. And an approach that I found is a way to look at it, think of it as a three-legged stool of managing the message. So, there are three parts of it. The one leg is a message, so you got to have the right message. And so there's a lot of research now on storytelling, on clarity of message, what are the right words and phrases and examples and stories to use to best represent the enterprise.

07:25 Jim Karrh: The second leg of the stool, I call the messengers. So, it's really the people. It could be your employees, it could be your current customers, it could be your members or partners or friends in the community, all the people who know something about you and what you do, who are inclined to help and share the story. But they need something from you. If you're the message leader, they need to know what to say. They need to know what's important, and they need to have your encouragement. Not overly scripted again, but they need the knowledge, skills, and confidence to be able to share your story. So, there's a whole system there around messengers.

08:04 Jim Karrh: The third and final leg of the stool is management, or really management habits. Given the complexity of organizations today, not even big organizations, just everybody in terms of turnover, bringing new people on, when people go from being worker bees to having direct reports, and all of a sudden they have to coach other people in the message. Given the rapid changes that happen inside of organizations, and how do you keep these messages fresh, how do you get people coached and confident, how do they know the new stories, the new data, the new information, the new insights as they come along, so that it's not... Don't think of this as a short-term, fixed-term promotional effort. "Everyone, we're gonna clear out this excess inventory over the next 120 days, here's what we're going to do." Now, this needs to become a durable competency, something that is very intentional and is managed over time, and that becomes a long-term competitive advantage.

09:06 Jim Karrh: So, the three legs of the stool, message, messengers, management, those need to be in rough alignment. Never be perfect, don't worry about perfection. When we talk about mission to message, it's really about looking at this model, simplifying things, and then knowing what can you do as a manager, as a leader, someone looks to for direction, they look to for a model of behavior, and they look to for the habits and encouragement and motivation. How can we, in a very practical way, make ourselves better at this? So, we're breaking this course down into those three elements and giving people a running start on getting together a personal playbook that they can have for their organization. And the great news on this is, when I found... Is that your message, in many ways, is so much easier to change and manage than your pricing or your distribution or the product itself. Those sorts of things take a whole lot of thinking, and time, and testing. You can, within a few months, change the conversation that's coming from your organization, without having to change what you sell, or how you price it, or even the people themselves.

10:24 Matt Waller: You have lots of expertise around building a more customer-focused message, learning to apply effective storytelling structures, creating different lengths of messages, and using a conversational framework. Given all of your experience and knowledge in this area, is there anything you wanna tell our students, in particular... If you could talk to students, whether they be undergraduate or graduate students, what would you tell them?

11:00 Jim Karrh: Well, I would share... I was at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke, and I was one of the younger members of my class, and this was back in a previous millennium. So, I knew, coming in, I didn't have a whole lot of work experience, and so the summer internship, I was in the full-time day program, that summer internship in between the two years was gonna be very important for me. And I didn't prepare for my first big internship interview on campus very well. I had gone through what I thought was the perfunctory things of learning a bit, read the annual report of this business, and the like. So, I show up and we bid on half-hour interviews. Everyone lines up, and they show up at the appointed time in a meeting room on campus, and there was this executive who was there, and I recall I had gone out and bought a new gray suit and white shirt, red tie, for this interview. It seemed kind of standard thing to do, and it felt pretty good. And this executive had on a really, really nice gray suit and white shirt, red tie. I thought this was, "Oh, okay, we're right here on the same boring corporate page," and, gosh, we get maybe 10, 12 minutes into the interview, and I got a question that I didn't expect.

12:25 Jim Karrh: So, these executives said, "Jim, If I were to go out and ask some of your classmates what you are like, what would they tell me?" Well, I just had the brain freeze. I didn't know what to say, and I was a little unsure, and then I blurted out something like, "Well, I'm sure they would say I'm a fun guy." And I was trying to recover... It's one of those we're in the moment, I wished I could just pull those words back in, I couldn't do it. And I could tell, from that point on, that this person, my audience at the time is very important to me, but he was no longer taking me seriously. It was kind of that worst fear of, "Oh, here's this young guy and he's just not mature yet," so I'm not gonna bring him in. I didn't get the visit back at the company, I didn't get an offer in that internship.

13:12 Jim Karrh: Well, I realized what had happened a bit. I did what I should have done earlier, which was go to an expert. We had someone on campus, name, Dr. Bob Reinheimer, and he was a real management communication expert. Here's what he did, he said, "I want you to go through an exercise here and it'll probably be a couple of weeks for you, but I want you to take out a piece of paper. There is such a thing as a piece of paper and a pen." [chuckle] And he said, "This is something... It'll be more powerful for you if you actually write it down and take it with you. And I want you to draw out five columns in two or three rows, so you have this grid. And at the top, each of the columns are gonna represent some personal characteristic that you think is true of you. It could be intelligence, creativity, collegiality, whatever that might be." And he said, "I want you to settle on each of those and give it some thought. And then take that and test it with people who know you well and will tell you the truth, whether those things really do tend to describe you."

14:18 Jim Karrh: And then I asked him, "So what are the rows underneath those columns?" He said, "Those are for instances, examples where you had exhibited that trait. And it could be at work, it could be in your community, it could be in a volunteer organization, doesn't matter, but where you've given evidence of that." And what he had laid out for me, they didn't tell me at the time, but I realized later, is he had said, "Here's how you can collect stories, and collect stories with a very close intention." What he was talking about there and helped me do is in marketing we call it positioning. It's setting your... Whether you wanna think of it as your personal brand or your value proposition, it's what is it that's about you, the things they'll remember about you beyond the resume, beyond whatever else. When they're talking about you later on back at the office, "Oh, I met this guy, Jim Karrh, he was kind of young but... " So, positioning is super important.

15:19 Jim Karrh: The second part of this is networking, and I'll pass along here something that should be comforting to a lot of people. I'm not, by the way, a natural extrovert. I'm really in the middle. I'm what they call an ambivert. But as it turns out, most people are neither pure introverts or pure extroverts, they are in the middle, and those are the people who are best at conversation anyway. And even those who are more extroverted or more introverted, there are certainly ways that you can network effectively that don't drain your energy, and it can build without being cheesy and salesy and that sort of thing. So, pay attention to networking. And then the third part is conversation, and that really connects your positioning to your network, is to be able to engage in question and answer conversations, much of the stuff that we talk about in managing the message. If you can do that, you will so stand out.

16:16 Matt Waller: People and companies that are good at recognizing, one, when they've failed, two, seeking feedback and input so that, three, they can pivot or morph are way more likely to succeed. I think one of the things that really stood out to me about your story was you went to an expert that you knew in your school, and you said, "How can I prevent this from happening again?"

16:45 Jim Karrh: That's right.

16:45 Matt Waller: And that failure has led to your business. That's pretty interesting.

16:51 Jim Karrh: There's certainly some humility that's involved in this, and we see that a lot. People talk about, "Well, fail fast or fail forward, or don't be afraid, don't wallow in your failures." I could have gone and felt sorry for myself, or I could have been frustrated and said, "Oh, they just don't get it, they don't know how wonderful I am."

17:08 Matt Waller: You could have blamed it on them.

17:10 Jim Karrh: I could have blamed them. And when I hear executives sometimes get frustrated, like, "Well, we need to educate the marketplace, or we just need an education... " No. That is a dead-end road, and that is...

17:22 Matt Waller: Impossible.

17:23 Jim Karrh: It's impossible. Don't fall into that trap. Know that if they don't get it, then it's not their fault, but it's a solvable problem. It's a solvable problem, and just take a simple, repeatable approach, and you'll get there, and you'll grow faster than almost anyone else out there.


17:47 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the BeEPIC podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching BeEPIC podcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now, be epic.

Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is dean emeritus of the Sam M. Walton College of Business and professor of supply chain management. His work as a professor, researcher, and consultant is synergistic, blending academic research with practical insights from industry experience. This continuous cycle of learning and application makes his work more effective, relevant, and impactful.His goals include contributing to academia through high-quality research and publications, cultivating the next generation of professionals through excellent teaching, and creating value for the organizations he consults by optimizing their strategy and investments.

Walton College

Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

Be Epic Podcast

We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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