Archive for January, 2010

Who Says Johnny Can’t Write (A Good Story)?

future of journalism

I’m tired of reading how American students lag behind their international counterparts on the academic front.

Johnny can’t write.

Johnny can’t add. 

Johnny can’t spell.

Even The Wall Street Journal has piled on with an article which highlights that only 23 percent of the 2009 high school graduates taking the ACT admissions test have the skills to succeed in college.

Enough already. 

There’s plenty about today’s youth to prompt optimism.

In fact, one of my colleagues John Radewagen pointed me to a listing of metaphors and analogies purportedly from high school essays that - how shall I say it - show a certain “creativity.” 

I’ve pulled out my favorites: 

“She grew on him like she was a colony of E. coli and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.”

Shrewd to align storytelling with a timely topic like food contamination. But why Canadian beef? If you’re striving for the exotic angle, should have gone with Argentinean stuff.

“She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.”

The blending of Lauren Bacall and Old Yeller makes for narrative you don’t see every day.

“Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.”

On one hand, you shouldn’t feel like you’re taking the SAT to figure out a love story. On the other hand, the ambiguity pulls you in because you can’t be 100 percent sure when the lovers will actually collide.

“He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant and she was the East River.”  

You don’t often see young authors pursue the mafia genre. While not exactly Mario Puzo, the personification of the East River shows promise.

“It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.”

You have to admit, fathers armed with chainsaws and the like deliver stronger imagery than men running around with wood paddles.

The future of storytelling is indeed in good hands.



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Communicating with Fresh and Compelling Language

bored lol cat exciting language

We associate the “sound bite” with television.

Capture your idea in an entertaining 20 seconds and increase the likelihood of making the 11 p.m. news.

The same concept exists in print journalism.

At the risk of oversimplifying, given a choice between dull or exciting, reporters will take exciting every time.

One of my all-time favorite lines goes back to supporting Philips in the mid 1980s when they were launching CD-ROM technology. A reporter was pressing Rob Moes, the VP of marketing for Philips, for projections on how many units (CD-ROM drives) would be sold looking out five years. Rob’s knee-jerk response: “That’s like asking Mrs. Magellan how many lunches to pack.”

In honor of this classic, I’m creating “Moes Takes” which joins “Iron Reporter” as a regular blog feature. Moes Takes will call out entertaining quotes from recent publications as well as how they might appear if dulled down.

Without further adieu -

“The market may be crazy, but that doesn’t make you a psychiatrist.”

Meir Statman, Finance Professor at Santa Clara University
Inefficient Markets Are Still Hard to Beat
The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 9, 2010)

The juxtaposition of crazy and psychiatrist makes for great wit.

Dulled-down version:

“The markets are erratic so it’s extremely difficult for the average person to understand.”

Next up:

“States are cutting bones and they’re big bones. These are all femurs.”

Arturo Perez, Fiscal Analyst for National Conference of State Legislators
48 States Desperate for Revenue (only available in print)
San Francisco Chronicle (Jan. 17, 2010)

Any time you can channel from your high school bio class, you’ve got a winner.

Dulled-down version:

“The states are reducing budgets to the bare minimum. Everyone is making large reductions.”

And finally:

“Pennsylvania has the potential to become the OPEC of natural gas. It’s mind boggling. It will have an impact on Pennsylvania’s economy not seen since the collapse of the steel industry.”

Robert Watson, Associate Professor Emeritus of Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering
“Natural Gas Changes the Energy Map” (only available online by subscription)
Technology Review (Nov./Dec. 2009)

Can’t see the”OPEC of natural gas” being adopted as the state slogan, but works nicely as a quote.

Dulled-down version:

“Pennsylvania could become the world leader in natural gas. It should provide a boost to the state’s economy which never recovered from the decline of the steel industry.”

If you’ve uncovered an extraordinary quote or two, please post a comment or e-mail them my way (lhoffman at hoffman dot com) and I’ll try to use them in future posts.



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Corporate Fireworks Make For Good Drama When You Don’t Know the Ending

vintage american idol drama on tvThe appeal of reality TV shows such as American Idol is undeniable.

As the judges kibitz and trade barbs on who gets a pass to Hollywood, it’s the fact that we don’t know what will happen next that draws us in.

And it’s what keeps so many people watching to the bitter end.

You can see the same dynamic on display in the corporate world when a company tries to buy another but hits a pothole on the way to bigger-hood.

Sure, the twists and turns can be compelling, but it’s the question of how it will end that captivates.

Consider a CEO pursuing an acquisition with the following elements:

* Totally emotionally and intellectually committed to the idea

* Alienated biggest shareholder

* Chalking up air miles on the corporate jet to sell the deal

* Will be defining moment for career

* Intensity and self confidence didn’t always endear her/him to colleagues

* Before arriving, company was faltering amid high commodity prices and increasing competition.

Who’s the CEO?

Anyone within a stone’s throw of the computer industry would guess Carly Fiorina when she was CEO of HP.

She led the bare-knuckles fight to acquire Compaq back in 2002.

Who can ever forget the showdown when dissident shareholder and director Walter Hewlett did everything in his power to derail the acquisition?

But those bulleted vignettes don’t describe Carly.

They’re culled from a recent BusinessWeek story on Kraft CEO Irene Rosenfeld and her quest to land Cadbury.

In this case, Rosenfeld’s “Walter Hewlett” is none other than Warren Buffet, who happens to be Kraft’s largest shareholder.

With that said, the two companies got “married” on Tuesday.



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Brother, Can You Spare a Dime … for a Good Story: The Future of Journalism

dolly freed self-publishing future of journalismThis is a story within a story.

A journalist named Paige Williams had the story.

She just needed a publication to publish the story, a not-so-minor detail.

After multiple rejections and finally selling the piece to The New York Times, only to have the opportunity go south, she took matters into her own hands.

Specifically, Williams decided to self-publish the story called “Finding Dolly Freed” on her Web site www.paige-williams.com and include a virtual tin cup with the following copy:

“Finding Dolly Freed” is a piece of independent journalism that cost more than $2,000 to produce. To help the writer recoup her expenses and perhaps bank a small paycheck, please click here and pay whatever amount you’d like. Think of it as Radiohead journalism. Thank you in advance!

The Nieman Storyboard does a nice job capturing this second story and the “glamorous” world of publishing (5,885 unique visitors and $878.75 in donations as of Jan. 14).

Talk about sharing from the heart:

“If we don’t follow what we love, what the hell are we doing? That’s our job. If I backtracked over the course of my 20-year career as a journalist and played every move safe, I wouldn’t have done half the things I’ve done… For me the outcome has nothing to do with the money. I wrapped the money into it because I was curious about what would happen.”

The Nieman post also includes pontification from Tanja Aitamurto, a Finnish journalism researcher, who shares:

“I’m very excited about this project. It shows that people are willing to pay for in-depth journalism, not just blog posts or news stories.”

I’m impressed with Williams’ chutzpah. And Ms. Aitamurto certainly knows more about journalism than myself, but does $878.75 really mean “people are willing to pay for in-depth journalism?”

Turning to the actual story on Dolly Freed, the first thing that comes to mind: Williams has a gift for long-form storytelling with the kickoff sentence setting the tone:

By noon, Dolly Freed has composted peppers, studied a tadpole under an old Russian field microscope, sniffed and tasted a new supply of homegrown garlic, discussed Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, demonstrated how to turn an ordinary pressure cooker into a moonshine still, looked up “rose-breasted grosbeak” in Peterson Field Guides, and harvested cherry tomatoes from her garden.

In short, it’s a story that revisits the life of a middle-aged woman who at the age of 18 penned a book about her experiences living with her dad off the grid. Acclaim for the book generated a spike of fame that included an appearance on the Merv Griffin Show (think Larry King with a dash of Conan O’Brien).

dolly freed storytelling

Then she disappeared, or at least disappeared from public view.

As Williams slowly unwinds the look at Dolly’s life today versus back in 1978 when she wrote the book, it’s the contrast and juxtaposition that makes for a compelling read:

It isn’t often that readers encounter a recipe for fishballs in the same book that mentions Diogenes, Napoleon, Darwin, Wagner, Demosthenes, sixth-century Constantinople, and Ecclesiastes, but Dolly wrote as economically as she dressed rabbits for braising, wasting nothing.

And it doesn’t hurt for the protagonist to have a sense of humor. When asked about her social life in college after rejoining society on her terms, she shares:

“By then I had learned not to say too much about my possum living days,” she says. “Starting a conversation with things like ‘Have you ever watched a flock of geese sleep at night?’ or ‘You know how when you go spearfishing for spawning suckers … ’ or ‘Even though I’ve had road-killed dog and it was very good, I wouldn’t kill a dog just to eat it’ just makes people stare at you,” she says. “Don’t try these openers yourself—trust me it’s a mistake.”

I don’t know. An opening line around eating road-killed dog might work with the Pabst beer crowd.

Regardless, the storytelling concepts that connect the reader to Dolly also have a place in business.

If you’re interested in more information on the Williams saga, the Neiman Storyboard also published a Q&A with the reporter.



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Top Storytelling Blog Posts From 2009 (Part II)

back to the future part two poster storytelling pr blog

I shared half of my list of favorite posts from a cruise through the past yesterday.

Here’s the remaining five.

6) Iron Reporter: Wall Street Journal Versus NY Times On A Russian Train

I came up with the Iron Reporter concept for scrutinizing how two different reporters cover the same topic. In this case, my investigative reporting instincts dug up a tweet that possibly explains why Paul Glader from the Journal didn’t fair well against his compadre from The New York Times:

new york times paul glader tweet

7) Power Of Contrast Comes Through In McDonald’s Story

Given the countless meals at McDonald’s during my youth, this was a disconcerting walk down nostalgia lane:

I can’t believe they’re doing away with the fiberglass seats. It was almost a rite of passage for every kid to misbehave in McDonald’s, inevitably fall off the chair and get conked on the head as a reminder from the karma gods to listen to their mom.

8) Borrowing From Crocodile Dundee, “Now That’s An Anecdote”

Media coverage on the Bilski intellectual property case before the Supreme Court spiked in November, allowing me to make my own case for anecdotes (like the Piggly Wiggly patent) and do some original reporting on the side:

I found Mr. Saunders’ Patent No. 1242872 and couldn’t help but notice the filing date of October 21, 1916 and the issue date of October 1917.

It’s comforting to know that even back then, the U.S. Patent Office moved at its own pace.

I love the language in the actual patent:

The object of my said invention is to provide a store equipment by which the customer will be enabled to serve himself and in so doing, will be required to review the entire assortment of goods carried in stock, conveniently and attractively displayed and after selecting the list of goods desired, will be required to pass a checking and paying station at which the goods select may be billed, packaged and settled for before retiring from the store, thus relieving the store of a large proportion of the usual incidental expenses, or overhead charges required to operate it, all as well be herinafter more fully described and claimed.

Apparently, English teachers back in 1917 were a bit more tolerant of run-together sentences.

9) A Mass Comms Curriculum Alone Short-sheets Tomorrow’s PR Pro

Social media extraordinaire Steven Farnsworth gave me a pulpit to address the future of PR skills, which I also posted in Ishmael’s Corner:

One of my favorite modern artists is Chuck Close who takes portraits to a different level. His painting and photography talent serve as only the starting point for his pieces.

Close has immersed himself in the printing process ranging from carving linoleum blocks to applying acid to his etching plates. Geometry – the use of a grid to break the face down into incremental units – and even topology also come to play in his art.

This collision of creativity and science produces stunning results not possible with only the “arts.”

10) The New York Times Interpretation Of An Enterprise Computing Story

It’s not easy to crack the mainstream media with an enterprise computing story. You need that fresh wrinkle to make for an entertaining read:

The story explains how the University of Minnesota took proceeds from licensing the “code” to Honeycrisp apples to help pay for a $6 million supercomputer.

Can you imagine the university’s computer scientists going door to door selling chocolate bars to raise this kind of dough? No way could they equal the windfall from the apple IP.

That’s a wrap. Now back to 2010.

back to the future courthouse



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