Archive for August, 2009

Revisiting a Storytelling Master, Warren Buffett

I wrote about Warren Buffett’s gift for storytelling last year.

If executives would simply take one lesson from Buffett’s communications, be conversational, the world would be a better place (cue the Coke music).

In his most recent letter to shareholders (2008), there’s a paragraph that showcases Mr. Buffett at his best.

All of us have read countless pieces about the economic downturn. They typically consist of rhetoric from politicians and jargon-filled analysis from economists.

Now, look at how Buffett couches the situation:

This debilitating spiral has spurred our government to take massive action. In poker terms, the Treasury and the Fed have gone “all in.” Economic medicine that was previously meted out by the cupful has recently been dispensed by the barrel. These once-unthinkable dosages will almost certainly bring on unwelcome aftereffects. Their precise nature is anyone’s guess, though one likely consequence is an onslaught of inflation. Moreover, major industries have become dependent on Federal assistance, and they will be followed by cities and states bearing mind-boggling requests. Weaning these entities from the public teat will be a political challenge. They won’t leave willingly.

Love the poker metaphor which brings both color and a double entendre to the topic at hand.

Great line, “…the Fed have gone all in.” You don’t have to spend time with Norman Chad watching the World Series of Poker on ESPN to get the drift.

The man knows how to turn a phrase and build drama: “Weaning these entities from the public teat will be a political challenge. They won’t leave willingly.”

For contrast, turn to the August 25 post from the blog of Peter Orszag, the director of the Office of Management and Budget:

First, let’s consider this year’s deficit. We now expect that the policies put in place to repair the financial system are likely to cost taxpayers less than previously anticipated. In particular, we have decided to remove from the budget a placeholder for further financial stabilization efforts that seemed prudent earlier this year.

Good stage-setting and everyday language (even if the word “prudent” seems like a hangover from the Bush administration).

He goes on to say:

The net result is a $262 billion improvement in the projected 2009 deficit. The 2009 deficit is now projected to be $1.58 trillion – or 11.2 percent of GDP – down from a previously projected $1.84 trillion or 12.9 percent of GDP.

I don’t know about you, but I feel better knowing the deficit has been chiseled down to $1.58 trillion.

OK, so far so good to this point.

But all of the sudden the conversation takes a detour to Narrative Hell:

As a result of a deeper-than-expected recession, certain spending programs (such as unemployment insurance and food stamps) are projected to automatically increase and revenues are projected to automatically decline, compared to our previous projection. Although these effects help to ameliorate the economic downturn by stimulating demand, they also lead to higher medium-term deficits both directly and indirectly (through higher interest costs on a higher level of public debt). Over the next 10 years, the net impact is to add $2 trillion to the projected deficit, compared to our last projection made based on February’s economic assumptions.That brings the projected 10-year deficit for 2010-2019 to $9.05 trillion – in line with CBO’s June projection.

As my high school English teacher would say, “too many moving parts.”

And what’s with “ameliorate?” I don’t think Mr. Orszag got the memo that the administration is striving to appeal to Middle America.

Needless to say, he’s not from the Warren Buffett school of storytelling.


Technology Review Goes Behind the Wolfram Alpha Curtain

Technology Review claims to be the oldest technology magazine in the world, going back to 1899.

Coming out of MIT, there’s a certain cachet to the publication as it strives to educate us mortals on emerging technologies.

Not exactly considered the magazine for hammock reading during a lemonade summer day.

And certainly not a magazine known for its entertainment value.

Not so fast.

There’s bona fide storytelling in the publication’s July/August issue as it strives to reveal the real Wolfram Alpha in the article “Search Me.” (BTW, great double entendre for the over-50 crowd who, when asked a question in their youth they didn’t know, would respond “search me.”)

Check out the lead sentence in the story:

On the evening of April 27 a ferocious rain raked the windows beside Jamie Williams’s cubicle as the physicist sat, exhausted, immersed in the minutia of food science.

Nice twist on the “dark and stormy night” opener; the stage setting continues with:

Williams wasn’t toiling in a redoubt of Silicon Valley Web entrepreneurs but in a Midwestern citadel of science geeks: Wolfram Research, in Champaign, IL, housed in an office block overlooking a Walgreens and a McDonald’s. This was the corporate lair of Stephen Wolfram …

Great word “lair,” last prominently used in Batman.

I also liked the explanation of the technology through a jargon-free example:

Say you wanted to know how much cholesterol and saturated fat lurked in a slab of your grandmother’s cornbread. You’d transcribe its ingredients from her yellowed index card to an online query bar, and Alpha would run computations and produce a USDA-style nutrition label.

Now this isn’t to say the piece doesn’t periodically delve into the esoteric — etymology tables, crystallographic patterns, animal morphologies, and the like — but again, a genuine story threads the content with a couple decent subplots.

It turns out “grasshopper,” none other than Google Founder Sergey Brin, interned for Mr. Wolfram in 1993 before surpassing the master. And while Technology Review doesn’t play the conspiracy card, it chronicles a series of Google actions that allow the reader to draw his/her own conclusions.

Also, we learn there are people who dislike Wolfram and view him as a “techwomizer,” a bit of a showoff when it comes to technology. So when Wolfram postulates on his search engine’s place in history in the same breath as the invention of mathematics and this thing called the Internet, it rubs some in the scientific community the wrong way.

While the ending is somewhat predictable, we see a softer and dare I say humble side of Wolfram in the closing line:

“It’s here as a useful service, and the test is, do people find it useful or not?”

From a communications perspective, there’s no question that Stephen Wolfram is good copy. He seems like a cross between Stephen Hawking and P.T. Barnum.

Still, the person or people behind building the public profile for Wolfram Alpha deserve credit for delivering access to Technology Review which, in turn, allowed for the storytelling. Striving to control this type of article suffocates the narrative.

As a side note, Wolfram Alpha has possibilities for PR professionals. Just one quick example: Dropping “BusinessWeek versus Technology Review” into the search engine results in the following:

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The News Embargo: Much Ado About Nothing

No doubt by the time the U.S. wakes up on Wednesday morning the Twitterati will be out in force reacting to PaidContent’s story that the Wall Street Journal is giving up embargoes (apparently the new year’s diets went out the window in February).

In short, the Journal won’t accept embargoes for stories, but will take exclusives if handed to them.

According to Rafat Ali at PaidContent the policy change ties to Robert Thomson’s memo back in March when the judgment came down:

“…henceforth all Journal reporters will be judged, in significant part, by whether they break news for the Newswires.”

But what’s really changed?

The big-brand companies still have the heft to bully publications ranging from the Journal to TechCrunch (which repented on embargoes last year) to accept embargoes. And the media properties with juice can still force the lesser names to accept their terms.

Or a given publication works with a company under embargo when it believes exploring the announcement and the associated context without the pressure of an immediate deadline will benefit the story.

That’s how the game has always been played.

I take issue with Ali’s assertion that “WSJ reporters will no longer be part of a herd of journalist briefings…”

While there are abuses from both sides of the fence on this one, the fact remains that an embargo enables a reporter to write a more thoughtful piece.

If anything, the embargo actually results in greater diversity in how an announcement plays out in various outlets. If you don’t believe this, compare the content of different wire stories from a single announcement.

I’m not criticizing the wires. With the pressures to be first (back to our friend Mr. Thomson) it’s virtually impossible to bang out an original story right after an announcement has officially gone live … which is why the only glory comes from being first.

But if you’re not going to be first, the benefit of time offers the opportunity for story telling.