Archive for September, 2008

The Quickest Way to a Dull Story: Jargon

The condemnation of jargon in news releases has gone on since the invention of the tool, with the latest salvo coming from Ben Worthen at The Journal.

This is a tough one.

You can articulate a rationale worthy of the Wiley College debate team, but a given company will still insist on inserting wonderful phrases like “the agile solutions-oriented enterprise” or “the cutting-edge SCSI appliance drive.”

On the other hand, there’s no excuse for allowing jargon to impede the storytelling process (unless your gift for narrative rivals Tom Clancy).

Jargon weighs down the telling of a story.

Jargon smothers the drama of story.

Jargon bores people.

BTW, it’s not just the tech industry that suffers the slings and arrows of jargon. Every industry ranging from transportation to medical to biotech creates its own esoteric language for those on the inside.

I suppose that last point gets to the issue.

When communicating to those on the outside, the jargon loses its meaning.

I think one of the best storytellers, whether in print or on video, is David Pogue from The New York Times.

In a Ragan interview earlier in the year, Pogue made the point that having to wade through a bunch of fluff turns him off quickly.

On the other end of the spectrum, he shared the following example of a pitch that kick-started the storytellling process and ended up as a column:

“One guy said, ‘David, my client sells a laptop that can be dropped from six feet, get dunked in water and survive in 300-degree heat. Let me know if you’re interested.’

“How can I not be interested?”

Good drama in a succinct and conversational 29 words.



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Does A Good Story By Definition Need To Be Authentic?

The rise of the blogosphere has given prominence to the absolute necessity of communicating with authenticity.

The infamous “Cluetrain Manfesto” called out this point long before the blogosphere gained traction:

“Business is being transformed, but not by technology. The Web is simply liberating an atavistic human desire, the longing for connection through talk. That’s the one constant throughout our evolution, from caves to mud huts to open-air bazaars, from city-states to empires, nations, interdependent global powers. We’ve always conversed, connecting to the people of our world in our authentic voices.”

What makes a voice authentic?

I don’t think I’m exactly going out on a limb by saying that it starts by being who you say you are. Conversely, pretending to be someone else in the virtual world is grounds for a public flogging. My favorite “Exhibit A” involved the CEO of Whole Foods posting online comments under the alias “Rahodeb,” trying to drive down the valuation of competitor Wild Oats Market, a toasting still surfacing a year later.

OK, that’s a relatively simple concept.

But how do you grade the authenticity of an individual communicating a story when that story actually comes from someone else?

With the presidential campaign coming down the home stretch, I’ve been thinking about this question.

The candidate deemed “most genuine” by a given voter takes a giant step toward landing the vote. Yet, there’s a cadre of speech writers and political consultants driven by the objective of crafting the words for Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain that will best resonate with the American public.

When Hillary Clinton found her voice after the New Hampshire primary, did she find her voice or the voice of a particular speech writer?

It’s an interesting debate to examine when the quest for “resonance” pushes a candidate out of the authentic quadrant. No doubt those same political consultants have spent millions on focus groups for guidance.

In the business world, the executives who are the strongest communicators are the ones sharing real stories from their personal experiences. They come across as authentic because they are authentic (what a concept).

This doesn’t mean that the PR function has no role in the process.

Executives in the technology industry often come from engineering orientations where science rules the day. PR can play a valuable role in helping the executive sort through his or her perspectives, opinions and stories, identifying the right content for a given situation.

Often, executives and even companies don’t recognize communications “gold.”

I always think back to sourcing sessions I conducted with HP when they were still in the disk drive business and had invented what would at the time be the world’s smallest disk drive called Kitty Hawk. As I was signing out at the end of the day, the product manager mentioned that the engineering team had been sequestered offsite in a portable trailer. 

Eleven engineers essentially living together in a portable trailer for the better part of a year. How could there not be some good stories around such an arrangement? And indeed, this became a sidebar in BusinessWeek.

At a more basic level, there are times when PR adds tremendous value by simply coaching an executive to open up and share his or her personal stories.

Revisiting the wonderful USA Today profile on the Graspr CEO, Theresa Phillips was kind enough to spend a few minutes with me on the phone. She said her natural inclination was to keep the story focused on the company. It turns out that the company’s PR firm, Consort Partners, was instrumental in helping Phillips understand the benefit of opening up and connecting her personal story to Graspr.  

Without this contrast - or perhaps I should say without this “authentic contrast” - it’s fair to say that the story wouldn’t have appeared in USA Today.



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To SEO Or Not To SEO (The Headline), That Is The Question

OK, it’s not exactly Shakespeare.

But it does raise a question for communication professionals. Namely, should cleverness or search engine optimization be the guiding principle in writing a news release headline?

I pondered this question after reading the interview conducted by Brian Pittman from the Bulldog Reporter with Meredith Artley, executive editor of LATimes.com.

Specifically, Artley shared:

“We have a graining program to help copy editors write headlines optimized for search. That means headlines that might have used metaphors or clever word usage in the past won’t work anymore — at least not for the website, because people don’t search for turns of phrases. They search for nouns and descriptors. Sure, this may take some of the ‘art’ out of the writing, but an artful headline that nobody sees is useless if you can’t find it on Google.”

Now there’s a sobering comment.

No matter how much drama, humanity and humor you bring to a headline, it’s all for naught if the words don’t resonate with the Google algorithm.

It turns out that this topic has been bandied about for some time, with one of the better posts coming from CNET with the header, “Newspapers search for Web headline magic.”

CNET makes the point that a Wall Street Journal article with the witty headline “Green Beans Comes Marching Home” - about Green Beans Coffee opening its cafe in the U.S. after serving overseas military bases - doesn’t cut it with the SEO generation.

In other words, if you’re looking for information about the intersection of coffee with military bases or soldiers, the takeoff on “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” means zilch to search engines.

As the news release has evolved from a tool for journalists to a form of communication to the average Joe/Joanne, it’s clear that SEO should rule the day at least for the headline.

This is one of those instances when the power of entertaining must give way to vanilla information.



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Stark Contrast Makes For A Good Story

There’s nothing like contrast to accentuate the telling of a story.

In our “art of storytelling” training I like to discuss the difference between “what was” and “what is.” The greater the delta between these two points the greater the drama in the story.

There’s a terrific example of contrast in Monday’s USA Today profile on Teresa Phillips who heads a new startup venture called Graspr.com.

One doesn’t intuitively associate life on a farm with leading a new video sharing site striving to grab turf from YouTube. That’s exactly why the lead into the story works:

“Since she was a kid hunting and working on a 27-acre farm near the tiny hamlet of Allen, Kan., Teresa Phillips has pushed herself.”

Later, the story revisits Phillips’ farm roots:

“It’s been a whirlwind journey for Phillips, whose family raised horses, cows, mules, chickens, rabbits, hogs and sheep in America’s heartland. Allen (population about 216) is about 40 miles southwest of the state capital, Topeka. When she wasn’t tending to the animals with her six siblings, Phillips doted on her mule, Jack; hunted for rabbits and squirrels with a .22-caliber rifle; and fished.”

It’s all good stuff.

Not only does contrast provide a unique dimension to the story but you gain a sense of who Teresa Phillips is as a person.

It’s also noteworthy that the reporter resists the urge to close with a corny pun around “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” a certain willpower obviously not shared by yours truly. 



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The Old “Come Back From The Dead” Storyline

Certain storylines never go out of style.

People love to see bullies get punched in the nose (like when Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly clocked Biff in “Back to the Future”).

Perseverance overcoming all obstacles is another can’t-miss theme.

But there’s no story quite like coming back from the dead to spike the ratings. Such was the case last week when Bloomberg inadvertently published its latest version of Steve Jobs’ obituary, available in its entirety at Gawker.com.

The search volume on Google Trends is just one indicator of substantial traction for the story.

As you would expect, the blogosphere had a field day with the gaffe. There were a few headlines that I thought were particularly good: “Bloomberg: Steve Jobs is dead! Wait, no he’s not” on Ars Technica and “Steve Jobs: Still Not Dead. Film at 11″ on The Unofficial Apple Weblog. 

Even the blog serving the society of professional obituary writers — I suppose if you’re not a “professional” obit writer, venture in at your own peril — got in on the fun with the double entendre: “Whoops a daisies!”

Humor is a great tool to snag the audience’s attention from the get go and a powerful element for storytelling in general.

The fact that humor is underutilized in business communications makes it all the more effective.



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