Friday, August 23, 2019Canada's Leading Online Business Magazine

Connecting Emotionally

A conversation with Arlene Dickinson

"When I’m watchin’ my TV, and that man comes on to tell me, how white my shirts can be… I can’t get no… satisfaction."
-The Rolling Stones

The way successful businesses communicate with their audiences has changed dramatically. As the Stones observed, it was mostly ‘useless information’ back then, with advertisers making product claims in endless monologues broadcast to the masses.

“Today, if you’re not connecting emotionally with your consumers and stakeholders, you’re probably failing,” says Arlene Dickinson. Perhaps best known as one of the stars of Dragons’ Den, Dickinson also leads a marketing agency, invests in start-ups and small businesses, has authored two best-sellers, and is now busy creating an online community for entrepreneurs (

I caught up with her recently to get her views on some of the trends that are re-defining marketing and communications. Between her business meetings and a book tour, she graciously found time for an interview.

“Brands must now speak in personal terms. They must talk with, not to, their customers.  They have to be open and accessible, listening and responding, being part of their community,” Dickinson notes. “For example, it’s no longer just about a store. Now it’s about how that store interacts with me, the kind of experience I’ll have, and whether it connects with my own values.”

This move to a more democratic marketing forum – in which individuals exert influence as much as the brands themselves – has of course been aided by the rise of digital technologies and the popular adoption of social media platforms. But Dickinson believes the transformation would have occurred regardless of the new communications devices and channels, and that the true force behind these seismic shifts is the consumer’s need for relevance and authenticity in the face of globalization.

So as businesses consolidate and centralize, their customers are increasingly seeking brands which are local in nature, convey a sense of belonging, and relate to them in ways that are tribal and even mythological.

“Globalization is a business trend, and it makes sense from the perspective of shareholder value and financial efficiency. But the consumer trend is running in the opposite direction, with individuals craving community,” says Dickinson. “And the smart companies are realizing, when it comes to marketing, that they can’t run everything out of head office, that they need to understand and reflect unique market differences.”

Not only is this true for advertising, it is true for all forms of corporate communications. Whether it’s the CEO doing a media interview, or a manager talking to employees, or the sales representative pitching a customer, the same principles apply. Success depends on connecting emotionally with your audience. And how you connect is by being a good listener, understanding the needs of others, speaking honestly and personally, identifying common ground and creating relationships.

In her book Persuasion: A New Approach to Changing Minds, Dickinson describes the process thus: “Good persuaders don’t try to ram ideas down your throat or fool you with half-truths. They don’t have to. You’re compelled to listen because it’s clear they’re not simply promoting their own interests; they’re also thinking about yours. They’re looking to create a relationship that works for both of you.”

Over the seven seasons she has been a Dragon, she has heard more than 2,000 pitches on the show. What makes a great pitch? “For me, it’s always been about the entrepreneur’s ability to tell me their story in a way that makes me believe in them, that makes me want to come on the journey with them,” Dickinson explains.

At the heart of it, then, is storytelling. Stories that engage because they speak to who we are, celebrate our shared values, encourage participation, and leave room for differences. A good example might be the Tim Horton’s ad showing people from all walks of life pouring onto a rink to line up behind their team, ending with the closer ‘Nothing brings Canadians together like a good ol’ hockey game’.

A far cry from ‘Whiter than white’.

Dickinson believes that great business leaders have learned to be skilled communicators. It’s not something taught at business schools, but it’s essential to moving their companies forward. Interestingly, she also hypothesizes that the widespread use of emailing, texting, tweeting and other social media is actually eroding our ability to effectively communicate.

“Because of the speed of these interactions and the fact that we are now always accessible, we have learned a new shorthand that simply does not convey the nuances and emotional subtleties of speech. This is going to be a big problem in the future. I’m always encouraging my staff to pick up the phone, go see someone in person, get face time.”

Anyone who has read her books knows that Dickinson is brutally honest about her own story. She talks openly about the low self-esteem and lack of confidence that plagued her early years, losing primary custody of her four children in a messy divorce, and being flat broke and sleeping on her father’s couch at the age of 31. And it is this endearing frankness that sets her apart, marks her as genuine and gives her the credentials to speak out because she’s been there.

Dickinson has been described as the gentle Dragon. She calls it capitalism with a heart. I think she trusts her instincts, more than the guys on the show, because she has learned to listen to the sub-text. The EQ as well as the IQ. In Persuasion, she writes: “Later on in life when I became a marketer, what I was really applying were the lessons I’d learned about watching and observing what people really wanted versus what they said they wanted.”

Without a compelling story that connects emotionally, your company is going to find, increasingly, that it ‘can’t get no satisfaction’ in its efforts to sell products, win clients, motivate employees, or attract investment.

By Robert Stephens

Robert Stephens is President of Public Relations Post (, a PR agency in Toronto that specializes in corporate communications and media relations.