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Creative communication is critical to making your product or service stand out in the minds of your customers. Sam Horn explains how in this fascinating interview.

Interview #19 in the Creativity in Business Thought Leader Series is with Sam Horn, author, coach, keynoter, consultant and creative communication strategist. As the originator of Tongue Fu! and POP!, Sam has helped thousands of entrepreneurs and organizations crystallize and communicate innovative, one-of-a-kind ideas, approaches, products and services that helped them break out verus blending in.

Sam has been featured in Washington Post, NY Times, Chicago Tribune and Investors Business Daily; and been interviewed on NPR, MSNBC, and BusinessWeek.com. She was a top-ranked speaker (with Tom Peters, Seth Godin and Jim Collins) at INC.’s annual 500/5000 convention. Her client have included Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, NASA, National Governors Association, KPMG, Boeing, IRS and Intel among many others. She is known for focusing on original, real-life ideas that help people create receptivity and rapport and win buy-in from customers and decision-makers.

Q: How does your work relate to creativity?

Horn: My work focuses on how to communicate in creative ways so busy, distracted people are compelled to look up from their Blackberries and give us their valuable attention. For example, a client came to me because he was going to be speaking at a Harvard Medical School conference for physicians and hospital administrators. He told me, “Sam, I’m a specialist in Six Sigma. If I do a good job with this program, it could result in millions of dollars of follow-up business from the decision-makers in the audience. We have to come up with something creative to capture and keep their interest.”

I asked him, “Do you have any signature stories, interesting hobbies or relevant experiences we can use to pleasantly surprise your audience from the get go and ‘have ’em at hello?'” He told me, “I’m on the road constantly. I don’t have time for anything other than work.”

I asked, “Do you and your wife do anything with the little spare time you have?” He said, “We watch Law & Order.” Bingo. His presentation, which explained how hospital administrators could identify and fix inefficiencies that were undermining patient care and profits, became Flaw and Order. To make a long story short, he got a standing ovation – at a medical conference! – and was surrounded by participants asking for his card following his presentation.

The moral of that story? Content is important; however, a creative approach to your content is even more important if you want busy, distracted people to give you their time of day. That’s just one way I help entrepreneurs and organizations figure out innovative ways to capture and keep the favorable attention of their target customers.

Q: What do you see as the new paradigm of work?

Horn: Jerry Garcia said, “It’s not enough to be the best at what you do; you must be perceived to be the only one who does what you do.” I think the old paradigm of work was that we tried to be the best in our industry. That’s not enough these days. The new paradigm of work is to break out, not blend in. And to break out, we need to be one-of-a-kind, not one-of-many.

A favorite example of that happened here in the Washington DC area. A restaurant was not getting many people to their happy hour. Why? There were dozens of restaurants in the area offering happy hours. The manager kept looking for a way they could break out instead of blend in.

He noticed that one of their loyal patrons tied his dog up outside while he came in for a cold one. Eureka. Why not have a happy hour for dog owners? They could put out water bowls and dog biscuits for the poor pooches who’d been cooped up all day so it was a win for everyone. What to call this petworking opportunity? Yappy Hour!

The Washington Post did a feature article on the Alexandria, VA Holiday Inn’s Yappy Hour which was picked up by dozens of newspapers around the country. Now, millions of people know about that restaurant and they have a wildly popular and profitable weekly event – all for free (and a little imagination). That’s the new paradigm at work. Be first-to-market – and you own that market.

Q: What do you see the role of creativity is in that paradigm?

Horn: I believe the role of creativity is to look at everything we do at work and ask, “Has this become common?” If so, it’s a prescription for becoming irrelevant and obsolete. Ask, “How can I make this current and uncommon so we get noticed by busy customers and media?”

Q: What attitudes and behaviors do you see as essential for effectively navigating the new work paradigm?

Horn: One of the most important attitudes and behaviors we can use to navigate the new work paradigm is to constantly brainstorm and strategize ORIGINAL solutions to current problems. A few years ago, the scuba industry in Hawaii was tanking. It costs a lot of money to scuba dive. You have to be certified, you have to carry those heavy oxygen tanks on your back, and some people have trouble with the pressure in their ears.

A smart business owner kept brainstorming possible solutions by re-thinking the norms: You don’t have to carry the oxygen tanks on your back. Why not leave ’em on the boat and just run a long air hose to each person in the water? And you don’t have to go down 80 feet and worry about equalizing your ears; you can go down 8 feet and still feel like you’re in an aquarium surrounded by colorful tropical fish.

Plus, people don’t have to get certified and it’s a third of the cost, so more people can do it. Voila. What do you call this new sport? Well, using a POP! technique called Half & Half, you describe it as half snorkel – half scuba. It’s…SNUBA!

What’s your business or line of work? What are the current problems? Why is your product or service becoming outdated? Why are customers not coming back? Rethink your norms. Ask yourself, “Do we HAVE to do it this way? What’s a better way? A faster way? Cheaper way? More efficient way? Come up with a creative solution to a current problem and you and your fellow employees can profit.

Q: What is one technique people could start applying today to bring more creativity into their work?

Horn: Ask yourself, “How can we do the opposite, not the obvious?” People are tired of same old, same old. If we introduce something radically different from our customers’ norm, it will get their attention – and their business loyalty.

For example, when Enterprise wanted to enter the multi-billion dollar car rental business, the question was, “How could they possibly compete with industry giants Hertz and Avis who owned the majority of the market?” They asked themselves, “What do customers want – that no one else offers?” The answer? Drop off and pick up service at your home or hotel. So, Enterprise offered that.

“What do all our competitors have in common?”  They’re all located at or near airports. So, Enterprise located in neighborhoods. By doing the opposite versus the obvious and giving customers what they wanted and no one else offered. Enterprise is now the number one car rental agency in America.

What does this mean for you? Look at your competitors. What do they all have in common? How can you be the exception to their rule? How can you zig where they zag? What do your customers want that they can’t find? How can you be first-to-market so you own your market? How can you turn a norm on its head (much like Heinz catsup did with its innovative sit-on-its-cap bottle?)

Q: And finally, what is creative leadership to you?

Horn: It’s creating an environment where everyone feels valued and heard; where everyone has an opportunity to use their talents and innovative approaches to do work they love that matters, that benefits all involved.

You can reach Sam Horn at her website. The Creativity in Business Thought Leader Interview Series is conducted by business creativity catalyst, Michelle James, CEO of The Center for Creative Emergence and Quantum Leap Business Improv.

Listen to this podcast to find out what roles curiosity and humility play in innovation.