One Action That Will Make Anyone in the Communications Business Smarter

Warren Buffet- smarter business communication

When Warren Buffet spoke at Columbia University, a student asked what he could do now to prepare for a career in investing. As reported in the Omaha World Herald, Buffett thought for a few seconds and then reached for the stack of reports, trade publications and other papers he had brought with him.

“Read 500 pages like this every day,” said Buffett, or words to that effect. “That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”

The same concept holds true for communications, although I’m not advocating that you read 500 pages every day. Still, one could make the argument that real reading — setting aside time to read articles from start to finish annotating along the way — holds even more value in the communications industry.

And I’m not talking about staying apprised for industry news from PR Week, PR Newser and the like.

Instead, it helps to venture across an eclectic mix of reading that that both stretches and jars your brain.

A few colleagues recently asked me what makes my nightstand (virtual and the wood version). Here are seven suggestion that deplete my stash of 3M stickers often highlighting storytelling techniques:

1. MediaGazer: Brought to you by the same people behind Techmeme, this property aggregates all things media in one place. If you strive to be a student of media — and you should if your job touches communications — MediaGazer deserves a benchmark.

MediaGazer - smart business communication

2. The New York Times: I’m not big on the old media guard, but the best newspaper in the country (yes, my opinion) delivers the goods. I’m constantly pulling content from the NYT for my storytelling workshops. You’ll find some of the best storytelling in journalism every Wednesday in the paper’s Dining section. And the tips on restaurants aren’t too shabby either.

3. Smashing Magazine: I’ve penned a number of posts this year on the importance of PR pros evolving their visual storytelling game. Through sheer osmosis, Smashing Magazine will nudge you in this direction. I find the channel on Web Design particularly useful with articles like “A Journey Through Beautiful Typography in Web Design.”

Smashing - smarter business communication

4. Nieman Labs: The publication’s charter is simple: Help journalism figure out its future in an Internet age. One could make an argument that a similar exercise would benefit the communications profession. While Nieman Labs hasn’t diversified into the PR realm, many of the stories have just as much relevance to communicators. After all, we’re students of media.

5. Moz Blog: As explained in our SlideShare, “The Blending of Digital Marketing and PR,” organic search represents a natural extension of PR. Regardless of your expertise, you’ll find fresh insights and what amounts to mini training sessions on the Moz blog.

6.Asia Tech News Review: For those interested in Asia, here’s a painless way to plug into the scene. Jon Russell, who spent three years as The Next Web’s Asia editor before recently taking a gig at TechCrunch — many many years ago Jon worked for our UK office in the bustling metropolis of Egham — curates the most interesting, significant or simply weird news in Asia from the previous week. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.

7. Bloomberg Businessweek: You’ll notice that I didn’t hyperlink the publication’s title — the reason being you should fork out the money for the print version. It’s in the hardcopy that you’ll discover cool techniques for visual storytelling that periodically border on experimentation.

Happy reading!

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To Borrow from a Poker Phrase — “All In With Storytelling”

visual storytelling- PR agency

I wrote a post  over a year ago called “Can Storytelling Differentiate a PR Agency?

With seemingly every communications consultancy touting its storytelling prowess, I questioned whether those who buy communication services perceived storytelling expertise as a commodity. With that said, it seemed fair to say that no PR agency, including The Hoffman Agency, had baked storytelling into its brand.

We’ve been working on changing that. The recent launch of our new website represents the most visible piece yet of our progress. Some would argue that simply redesigning our website so it looks like part of the 21st century would be an improvement. I wouldn’t disagree.

Still, taking our favorite counsel from high school English — “Show, don’t tell” — we’ve strived to do exactly that with our own site.

Our home page rotates multiple images, immediately bringing visual storytelling to the fore. As advocated in previous posts, it’s the harmony of words and visuals that often accentuates the “show” part:

The Hoffman Agency- visual storytelling

If we’re going to call out a section titled “Our Story,” we better get it right. Here’s the core piece of this narrative:

The Hoffman Agency visual storytelling- grid

In this case, we actually borrow from our lesson on “word visuals” to create the visual above.

The section on global campaigns borrows from a real-world example to illustrate the difficulty of collaboration across geographies in the larger PR agencies.

Korea Dialogue- PR agency - storytelling

We’re showing that there can be a fun dimension to business communications without undercutting the serious nature of our work.

Our new website reflects the same storytelling techniques we apply to our client campaigns:

Conversational narratives.




And the list of storytelling techniques goes on.

During an interview years ago I was challenged with the question, “While your blog focuses significantly on storytelling in business, your company’s website,, does not seem to play up storytelling. Is that a fair observation and if so, is there a reason behind not emphasizing storytelling on your agency’s site?”

At the time, I responded:

That’s a fair statement. We’ve debated how much to emphasize our storytelling expertise on the Agency website. The challenge relates to economics. The amount of money that companies allocate to outside storytelling services is a tiny fraction of what’s earmarked for public relations services. In a world where labels often point the way, it’s important that people searching for PR services find their way to our doorstep.

That’s no longer the case.

We believe the intersection of storytelling and PR is so strong that one can’t be extricated from the other.

And we want our website to serve as a tool in qualifying prospective clients who share our point of view.

Mission accomplished.

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The Branding of LeBron Inc., Cal Tech’s Artistic Side and NYT Names Storytelling Buzzword of 2014

Here comes the first grab bag post of 2015.

For those new to the neighborhood, these posts consist of three vignettes on storytelling techniques that caught my attention, but can’t quite stand alone.

LeBron James’ TV Credits Now Include the Rehab Addict

LeBron James Painting- Rehab

It’s hard to believe that LeBron James has been playing basketball professionally for over 10 years. In retrospect, the “I’m taking my skills to South Beach” moment served as a springboard for his maturation process.

Likewise, it’s interesting to observe how the LeBron Inc. brand has evolved. As highlighted last year, Team LeBron takes a global approach to branding with particular attention paid to China.

But when I saw LeBron appear on Rehab Addict (perhaps not the perfect title for a professional athlete) on HGTV, it struck me that Team LeBron is laying the groundwork for a pop culture stature that transcends basketball. You get the feeling LeBron has bigger post-NBA aspirations than hawking underwear.

One final point on Lebron breaking out his hammer on Rehab Addict —

During the initial seconds of the episode when Nicole Curtis welcomed him, I told my wife that LeBron will make a token appearance and then disappear into the woodwork (can’t resist a bad pun).


LeBron was engaged in the building process from start to finish and all the activities in between.

Cal Tech Shows Its Storytelling Side

The marketing of universities tends to fall on the unimaginative side.

While not exactly scientific, it’s still revealing how long it takes to find a university Twitter profile that isn’t dull.

Which is why I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the Cal Tech home page depending on one of my favorite storytelling techniques, contrast.

Cake or Carrots Cal Tech creativity

Nice work with the alliteration as well.

Naturally, I needed to find out if this storytelling mentality extended to the Cal Tech Twitter account.

CalTech Twitter- storytelling

No such luck.

“Storytelling Your Way to a Better Job or a Stronger Startup”

That clunky headline kicks off a story in The New York Times that asks the deep question:

“Why has it [storytelling] become this year’s buzzword?”

Did storytelling really become the buzzword for 2014?

The data suggests no.

Using Factiva, our crack research term scrutinized U.S. media properties for the word “storytelling” appearing in the headline or the lead paragraph. The data generated the following chart.

Rise in Storytelling graph

Media attention on storytelling didn’t even increase 10 percent from 2013 to 2014.

If you wanted to make an argument for storytelling achieving buzzword status, 2011 would be the year when use of the word spiked roughly 40 percent.

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Study Delivers Yet Another Proof Point That B2B Websites are Dreadful

B2B websites forrester study

The AdAge headline screamed “B-to-B Content Fails to Engage Users.”

Forrester Research graded 30 B2B websites based on 10 criteria reflecting the engagement level of the content.

The results weren’t pretty. With 30 points possible, the average score was a mere 12.8.

“The biggest problem is that the majority of content talks about the company, what its products and services do and how many awards they’ve won, but doesn’t speak to the issues their prospective buyers are trying to solve,” Forrester VP Laura Ramos shared with AdAge.

Thank you.

That is exactly what dooms the typical B2B website.

I think the Forrester study sets the bar too high with the expectation of “content that engages.” Simply producing content with an outward perspective would lift B2B websites out of the dreadful quadrant.

With this in mind, we created “the 100-word test” some time ago. The methodology calls for capturing the first 100 words of a company’s narrative from the About section on the website. Then, we evaluate whether the narrative delivers an outward or inward perspective. Last, we scrutinize the adjectives and adverbs (highlighted in the examples below) making a call on whether they advance or hype the narrative.

I can’t vouch for the science, but it provides a decent litmus test on a company’s communications.

My talk on storytelling in business at Cadence last month touched on this very point. I applied “the 100-word test” to Cadence and one of its chief competitors.

Cadence Test

100 Word Test Cadence - forrester study b2b websites

Synopsys Test

100 Word Test Synopsys  forrester study b2b websites

Thankfully, Cadence crushed Synopsys in the battle of narratives (my talks always go better when the home team wins).

Within seconds of reviewing, you can discern the empathetic dimension in the Cadence communications while Synopsys goes B2 (brag and boast). The adjectives and adverbs are equally revealing with Synopsys even dropping a “ground-breaking” into the narrative.

These exercises always remind me of what happens when you’re at a social event and meet someone who proceeds to go on and on talking about himself/herself.

Yet, B2B companies take the same approach expecting a different outcome.

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Industry Pundits on Google Using Its Corporate Blog for the “China Bombshell”

Google Blog Post on China- corporate blog and storytelling

Today marks the five-year anniversary of Google turning to its corporate blog to communicate changes in China.

At the time I thought that this was a big damn deal from a communications perspective.

As I shared in a post last week, Google’s decision gave street cred to corporate blogging.

For a broader perspective, I reached out to a mix of journalists, academic types and communication professionals for their commentary on the anniversary.


Bien Perez actually reported on the Google news five year ago. One of the preeminent China watchers in Asia, Bien has  been writing about technology for the South China Morning Post for nearly 15 years. In short, he knows his stuff


Gini and her firm have cultivated one of the best examples of online community in any industry, She was also an early advocate for PR to get the integrated comms religion.

Frosted_Flakes_box- corporate blog storytelling


I required proper attribution for the perspectives with this one exception. This individual can’t go on the record — read into this what you may — but his/her on-the-ground experience in China made it a keeper.


I met Jon when he was fresh out of college and we hired him in our UK office. Making the switch to journalism and a move to Bangkok, his career has flourished. His weekly newsletter on the tech scene in Asia is an excellent tool to keep up with the region.


USC is fortunate to have a  professor like Burghardt  who brings real-world experience — one of the leaders behind the pioneering efforts of Applied Communications — with a gift of teaching. There’s no question that USC’s Annenberg School of Communications is one of the top comms schools in the country.


After spending essentially half of his career as a journalist and editor in the Ziff Davis empire, Sam turned his efforts to assisting the communication profession. Today, SWMS is a must-have tool for tech PR professionals.

I appreciate the contributors taking the time to share their insights.

Looking out another five years to 2020, perhaps we’ll be analyzing Huawei’s decision to buy Reuters.

If Microsoft could dump $221M into MSNBC back in 1996, anything seems possible.

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