Thanks to the Internet and the fact that virtually everyone conducts some form of online due diligence before making a purchase, the value of storytelling stands at an all-time high.
I think this point gets lost among many jumping on the storytelling bandwagon.
With content serving as the basis for online search, storytelling has gone from a “nice to have” to a differentiator and even a game changer. Beyond the sheer revenue opportunity, the ability to measure digital content also gives PR a way to declare victory for a given campaign, a far cry from the leap-of-faith dot-connecting that ties media coverage to business objectives.
Out of all of the communication disciplines, PR has always been the one steeped in content. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. In this world, long-form storytelling outperforms a clever tag line. It’s our time as long as we deliver on the promise of storytelling.
To borrow from Shakespeare, “Aye, there’s the rub.”
While PR talks a good game, the profession is still in the early days of coming up the storytelling curve.
Here’s what I mean, looking at two questions that cut to the core of the matter:
- Does the content deliver the “frame” that today’s journalists need to write a story?
- Does the content resonate with the target audience when reaching out to customers/prospects directly?
If you gathered all of the content generated by the PR function this year, I suspect not even 10 percent of the deliverables would earn a “yes” to one of these questions.
Too often, we’re still writing to please the wrong audience – the people who approve the information before it moves to the outside world. Many of these client contacts still judge the worthiness of content based on key messages. Yet, in today’s world, no journalist or prospect or customer is going to devote precious time to consuming a company’s pristine messages.
With that said, it’s equally true that PR needs to evolve its expertise in what constitutes storytelling in business communications.
It’s not easy.
Patricia Sellers, the journalist at Fortune who started the “Most Powerful Women in Business” franchise, discussed storytelling in an interview with the Stanford Business School earlier in the year.
She closes with the comment, “If failure isn’t part of the story, I’m not that interested.”
Given that companies hire PR firms to position them in a successful public light – and in some cases to spackle over failures – this would seem to make PR-driven communications the opposite of storytelling.
But here’s a different interpretation. It’s actually the contrast that underpins storytelling and resonates with people. In contrasting companies, people, products or even statistics, the greater the gap between the reference points, the greater the drama. That’s why Ms. Sellers loves failure. Few contrasting points generate more of a gap and ultimately drama than the difference between failure and success (life and death?).
In the spirit of simplifying, the differences between “what was” and “what is” can bring out storytelling fodder with the requisite texture, anecdotes, etc.
The point is, PR can still create storytelling that causes the target audience to stop without tapping the heartache of failure. And the digital dimension means we can measure the work at much greater depth than “gross impressions.”
I just can’t guarantee it will win Ms. Sellers over.No comments
Many have correlated storytelling expertise with leadership. Even McKinsey, home to “let the data guide your decision making,” has articulated this point.
Which brings me to the pure definition of leadership, Nelson Mandela
While the front-page stories on Nelson Mandela’s death have recounted his life’s journey, I thought it would be interesting to dust off his first speech after his release from prison in 1990.
Friends, Comrades and Fellow South Africans, I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all. I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands. On this day of my release I extend my sincere and warmest gratitude to the millions of my compatriots and those in every comer of the globe who have campaigned tirelessly for my release.
Today the majority of South Africans, black and white, recognise that apartheid has no future. It has to be ended by our own decisive mass action in order to build peace and security. The mass campaigns of defiance and other actions of our organisation and people can only culminate in the establishment of democracy. The apartheid destruction on our sub-continent is incalculable. The fabric of family life of millions of my people has been shattered. Millions are homeless and unemployed, our economy lies in ruins and our people are embroiled in political strife.
The need to unite the people of our country is as important a task now as it always has been. No individual leader is able to take on this enormous task on his own. It is our task as leaders to place our views before our organisation and to allow the democratic structures to decide on the way forward. On the question of democratic practice, I feel duty bound to make the point that a leader of the movement is a person who has been democratically elected at a national conference. This is a principle which must be upheld without any exceptions.
The people need to be consulted on who will negotiate and on the content of such negotiations. Negotiations cannot take a place above the heads or behind the backs of our people. It is our belief that the future of our country can only be determined by a body which is democratically elected on a non-racial basis.
We have waited too long for our freedom. We can no longer wait. Now is the time to intensify the struggle on all fronts. To relax our efforts now would be a mistake which generations to come will not be able to forgive. The sight of freedom looming on the horizon should encourage us to redouble our efforts. It is only through disciplined mass action that our victory can be assured. We call on our white compatriots to join us in the shaping of a new South Africa. The freedom movement is a political home for you too. We call on the international community to continue the campaign to isolate the apartheid regime.
In conclusion, I wish to quote my own words during my trial in 1964. They are as true today as they were then. I quote: “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have carried the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Reading this speech for the first time, I’m struck by the undercurrent of optimism.
That’s the beauty of storytelling in leadership.
People can feel your optimism without you saying “I am optimistic.”
Rest in peace Nelson Mandela.No comments
After being chastised by the National Storytelling Network – “You, Mr. Hoffman, are no storyteller” – I’d like to start with a ground rule on nomenclature.
When it comes to business communications, I consider storytelling to be shorthand for “storytelling techniques.” In other words, PR practitioners don’t have the luxury of 200 pages or 90 minutes on the silver screen to tease out a classic story arc. But we can apply similar techniques in creating content that outperforms the programming on CSPAN.
With that housekeeping out of the way, let’s rewind the tape to 1983 when I landed my first job at a PR agency. Even writing a press release on disk drive with 20 megabytes of storage (please hold the gasp) seemed exciting at the time.
I remember my initial experience observing the senior guys conducting media training for a client. It was all about pummeling the executives into submission to stay on message. While the trainers were having fun – kind of a PR version of a torture chamber –it occurred to me that such a process might generate robotic responses.
But what did I know at 25 years of age with zero experience?
So I followed the lead of my role models and the mantra “stay on message” … for a while. I can’t give you the exact time and date I went rogue. I just remember a few years into my career coming to the realization that prospective customers – much less journalists – never uttered the words, “Wow, that’s a great message.”
Think about this for a moment. Aside from the chatter after watching a focus group, no one brags about a message.
But people do acknowledge good stories. Better yet, they talk about those stories and share them with colleagues and friends.
Stories trump messages every single time.2 comments
The PR profession must embrace visual storytelling.
How’s that for a declarative sentence that leaves nothing to interpretation?
We’ve discussed visual elements ranging from infographics to video to illustrations.
It’s now time to turn our attention to the humble GIF (graphics interchange format), perfect for short-form storytelling. If GIFs are good enough for BuzzFeed, which has perfected the format as click candy, it certainly deserves a place in the PR arsenal.
The simplicity of GIFs – they typically run less than 10 seconds in an endless loop – also make them ideal for contrasting the old way with the new way, a technique Yahoo used in showing off its latest site design.
For communicators, GIFs allow you to squeeze another digital asset out of existing content. I believe it was Larry Ellison who said, “You can never be too rich, too thin or have too many digital assets.”
You can see how this plays out in the real world. We designed a quarter-page ad on storytelling to run in directories. We then took this creative and pieced together a GIF called “Storytelling in Seven Seconds” (technically the visual below is not GIF to make it “playable).
Using tools such as Adobe Illlustrator and Photoshop, our designer Samantha Lim put this together in roughly 3 hours.
At the next level, GIFs can serve as a campaign extender, which you see in the second example below supporting our “Just Say No To Corporate Speak” campaign.
Again, visual storytelling makes it easy for the viewer to consume.
Virtually every campaign can benefit from GIFs and what I come to call micro storytelling.
P.S. If you enjoyed this post, check out “Six Sources To Inspire Your Visual Storytelling Side.”No comments
Notice I said “levity,” not “funny” which is a much higher bar.
Still, it often takes guts as much as creativity to bring levity to a brand’s storytelling. And if you can tap into a recent happenstance, you’ve got the makings for a story to reach the masses.
I’ve come to call this “improv marketing” with one of the best-known examples being the Oreo tweet during the Super Bowl blackout.
It’s one thing to be nimble in serving up a clever tweet.
It’s another to create a mini campaign with levity in less than 48 hours to leverage a breaking news story. That’s exactly what Zappos pulled off after Kanye West’s beat down of Zappos CEO Tony Hseih during a podcast with author Brett Easton Ellis on Nov. 18. The next day E Online reported on West’s cathartic moment:
“I got into this giant argument with the head of Zappos that he’s trying to tell me what I need to focus on. Meanwhile, he sells all this s–t product to everybody, his whole thing is based off of selling s–t product,” West stated.
I think we all can agree this isn’t a key message for Zappos.
Twenty-four hours later, Zappos went live with a new product line inspired by Mr. West:
Put yourself in the shoes – cue the groan for the bad pun – of Zappos’ brand shepherds. They had two obvious choices:
- Do nothing: Name calling from Kayne West isn’t going to torpedo Cole Haan sales.
- Call some friendly journalists: Zappos and Tony Hseih could have made a withdrawl from the media karma bank, sharing their side of the story and perhaps offering West a “buy one pair of shoes, get a second pair of free of charge” coupon
Instead, they recognized that “improv marketing” could actually turn West’s harsh words in a brand-building exercise. And it took guts to execute on this campaign because any time you push the envelope, you are going to alienate a percent of people.
Like this guy/gal who was counseled the Zappos CEO to grow up:
from United States
“Get a life, Tony Hsieh. You’re the CEO of a huge company, it’s time to act like it. This is severely immature and I will be sure to never purchase anything from your company again.”
The campaign reflects the Zappos ethos – this is a company that calls out “create fun and a little weirdness” as a core value – so if some are turned off like “Imso A,” Zappos probably figures they’re not the target audience anyway.
Effective branding is often a polarizing force. It’s the dull middle you want to avoid.
And nothing cuts through dull like levity as demonstrated by the branding work from Zappos last week.2 comments