Archive for April, 2010
As best I can surmise from passport stamps, I made my 48th trip to Asia last week.
It never gets old.
Every trip – this one with stops in Tokyo and Beijing – brings a unique adventure, knowledge and inevitably a touch of weirdness that defies Western sensibilities.
I think most people are familiar with the Madonna movie called “A League of Their Own” which chronicles the first female professional baseball league. For the Jeopordy crowd, the women are divided into four teams with Madonna playing for the Rockford Peaches.
If you think those are bygone days, think again.
A women’s professional baseball league has launched for real in Japan, as I learned during my time in Tokyo.
Each team plays a 40-game season.
But here’s the catch -
There are only two teams in the league.
The Hyogo Swing Smileys and the Kyoto Asto Dreams will play each other 40 times.
Brings new meaning to the Shakespeare line “Familiarity breeds contempt.”
If the sportswriters covering the league believe in storytelling, I suppose one could make an argument that 40 games provides ample field to develop the characters.
BTW, the Smileys crushed the Dreams in the season opener 8-0.
We published the first guest post on this forum a couple of weeks ago from Michael Margolis. No. 2 comes from one of the Agency’s account folks, Julia Sinykin, who looks at stories in the context of water. And we’ll continue to strive to periodically shake up the status quo.
The word “irony” comes to mind when considering the Great Flood of Rhode Island compared to National Geographic’s recent special report on Freshwater.
I’m surrounded by local news – and my family’s tales – of flooded basements, water pumps and memorabilia, saved school papers from my youth, old photos and toys all ruined by deluges of water.
At the same time, I’m reading about the scarcity of water through various angles and perspectives on the topic from National Geographic’s recent Freshwater report as well as numerous other media outlets that are covering water scarcity issues.
It seems to me that water has quite an odd way of being too much of a good thing or simply not enough.
As PR professionals, we understand the power of words to affect a reader. We craft our clients’ stories, using just the right words to boost their reputation and credibility, adapting our messages to suit their situation.
However – and I almost bite my tongue saying this since words have always been my career path of choice — water is one topic that seems to be best understood and captured visually.
And in this new media world, photo essays and slide shows or interactive images lead the way when it comes to changing perceptions and informing people about issues.
National Geographic, a visual communications leader throughout my lifetime, certainly shows how to capture a topic via photos in its photo essays, two of which include Fresh Water or World Water Day Pictures: Epic Disappearing Acts, as well as its interactive map Lifeline in the Holy Land.
The main takeaway from these pictures is that water – at its core – is life. Without a doubt, it is an element that we need to save, especially as the world population keeps growing.
It as if the earth – via National Geographic photographers – has presented its own photo album to the world, saying, “‘Look here’…‘Be forewarned’…‘I’m almost empty.’”
The other element about impactful photos is that viewers can immediately identify with them and – if they are anything like me – immediately insert themselves in the picture.
I’ll remember those photos long after reading the content of an entire article. Need I even say it? A picture is worth a thousand words.
The best storytellers understand how to use photos to tell the story. This may mean the next-generation of PR professionals must also be photographers – or at least understand visual storytelling to be effective within this dynamic media landscape.
Reconsidering National Geographic’s photo essays, I juxtapose those images with those from my family – who coincidentally have happened to document all of life’s events through photos.
I see water up to the knee, water pumps that are too slow to keep up with the water flooding inside their basements, family members begging any company that actually picks up the phone to get a sump pump installed. A seemingly never ending mess of soggy items to sort through or throw out.
Water scarcity versus water abundance…written word versus photograph. All ironies aside, water or its “ghost”/the lack thereof, is certainly getting its fifteen minutes of fame. I know those photos are helping significantly.
Someone hand me a camera. And depending on how adventurous I feel – a tall glass of water with ice or a sump pump.
Back in 2008 I wrote it’s not enough that Warren Buffet has become one of the richest men in the world. He’s also a world-class storyteller. (If it makes you feel any better, at least he’s not handsome.)
Nowhere does this gift go on public display more than in his annual letter to shareholders.
It’s worth setting aside 30 minutes to absorb the 20 pages like a novella.
But I’ve cherry-picked the slices of narrative that I found particularly amusing, starting with Buffet’s philosophy:
Long ago, Charlie laid out his strongest ambition: “All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.” That bit of wisdom was inspired by Jacobi, the great Prussian mathematician, who counseled “Invert, always invert” as an aid to solving difficult problems. (I can report as well that this inversion approach works on a less lofty level: Sing a country song in reverse, and you will quickly recover your car, house and wife.)
I just tried this with a Merle Haggard tune and it works, a sad reminder that no matter how many times I played the Beatles song “I Am The Walrus” backwards, I could never make out “Paul is dead.”
This next one isn’t as entertaining but shows the power of conversational language:
We tend to let our many subsidiaries operate on their own, without our supervising and monitoring them to any degree. That means we are sometimes late in spotting management problems and that both operating and capital decisions are occasionally made with which Charlie and I would have disagreed had we been consulted. Most of our managers, however, use the independence we grant them magnificently, rewarding our confidence by maintaining an owner oriented attitude that is invaluable and too seldom found in huge organizations. We would rather suffer the visible costs of a few bad decisions than incur the many invisible costs that come from decisions made too slowly – or not at all – because of a stifling bureaucracy.
There’s no double-talk.
He explains his approach to management, acknowledging the periodic downside.
BTW, I defy you to find another shareholder letter that includes the word “magnificently.”
But quintessential Buffet occurs when he turns to self-deprecation as a mechanism to disarm:
And now a painful confession: Last year your chairman closed the book on a very expensive business fiasco entirely of his own making.
For many years I had struggled to think of side products that we could offer our millions of loyal GEICO customers. Unfortunately, I finally succeeded, coming up with a brilliant insight that we should market our own credit card. I reasoned that GEICO policyholders were likely to be good credit risks and, assuming we offered an attractive card, would likely favor us with their business. We got business all right – but of the wrong type.
Our pre-tax losses from credit-card operations came to about $6.3 million before I finally woke up. We then sold our $98 million portfolio of troubled receivables for 55¢ on the dollar, losing an additional $44 million.
GEICO’s managers, it should be emphasized, were never enthusiastic about my idea. They warned me that instead of getting the cream of GEICO’s customers we would get the – – – – – well, let’s call it the non-cream. I subtly indicated that I was older and wiser.
I was just older.
Forget the shareholders.
Imagine how this mea culpa played with Geico’s executives who were originally overruled. Something about seeing the big boss fall on his sword allows everyone to move on.
And I love the pacing of this narrative.
Deeper in the letter he discusses the over supply in the housing market:
There were three ways to cure this overhang: (1) blow up a lot of houses, a tactic similar to the destruction of autos that occurred with the “cash-for-clunkers” program; (2) speed up household formations by, say, encouraging teenagers to cohabitate, a program not likely to suffer from a lack of volunteers or; (3) reduce new housing starts to a number far below the rate of household formations.
The man has a sense of humor and he’s not afraid to use it, a trait that surfaces again in this ditty:
Naturally, our fellows caved in and agreed to this value-destroying deal. “We need to show that we are in the hunt. Besides, it’s only a small deal,” they said, as if only major harm to shareholders would have been a legitimate reason for holding back. Charlie’s reaction at the time: “Are we supposed to applaud because the dog that fouls our lawn is a Chihuahua rather than a Saint Bernard?”
Of course, the letter is peppered with one-line zingers like:
Charlie and I enjoy issuing Berkshire stock about as much as we relish prepping for a colonoscopy.
Even if you’re not a middle-aged man, you get the drift.
Stepping back, what allows the storytelling to come through?
First, Buffet is true to himself. To borrow from the social media world, he’s absolutely authentic which comes through in his narrative.
Plus, he writes with a conversational tone. He’s not trying to come off as the smartest guy in the room.
And finally, he uses an element in short supply in business, humor. I’m not talking Robin Williams nanu nanu humor but the type of that makes you crack a smile.
Note: I penned a guest post on this very same topic that ran on VentureBeat yesterday. In the home-turf version, I drop in large chunks of Buffett’s narrative so you can see how the words are strung together. I suppose this version also goes for an extra-cheap smile (laugh is too strong a word).
Michael Margolis originally penned this post for his online property called Get Storied. It offers a practical framework for applying storytelling techniques in the world of business. He also knows how to turn a phrase: “So while you might be convinced that you’re the Cat’s Meow, if others don’t believe that same story, there’s going to be a huge disconnect.” I appreciate Michael allowing us to republish the post.
Context + Perception = Value
Too often, people try to make the case for business storytelling, by pointing to examples of “who’s doing it”. That type of reductionist answer has always kind of bugged me. Since that only reflects what is, as opposed to what can be. I think we all need bigger frameworks for appreciating the business implications of storytelling. Especially in today’s evolving times. So here goes a simple formula to stir up the discussion: Context + Perception = Value. Three fundamental reasons why storytelling holds value to institutions.
It’s the job of all leaders to paint the picture and frame the bigger conversation.We’re all feeling a little (or a lot) disoriented these days. The point of telling or shaping the larger story is to help people locate themselves. Especially in the midst of change. Obama did it well during his campaign, not so much during his first year in office. Context is king. It sets the stage and defines the parameters. What are we talking about here? People need to see and understand the landscape, before they can even fathom how to navigate. So context building starts with things like – Time, Space, Culture, Identity, and Motivation. Each of these dimensions are hard to describe unless you explore them through a narrative lens. Considering the following prompts:
- Where are we now? (present/reality)
- Where are we coming from? (past/history)
- Where are we going? (future/aspirations)
- What are the implications of our context? (meaning)
- Who are we and what defines us? (identity)
- What do we care about most? (motivations/values)
- What do we choose to believe? (beliefs/perceptions)
- Who do we consider part of our tribe/members/customers? (culture)
The best way to answer these questions and to communicate those answers in through storytelling-based process and techniques. If you want to know and understand your world – start telling stories about it. Watching today’s iPad announcement by Steve Jobs is a masterful example of context setting, setting the stage for why we need a third device beyond a phone and a laptop, and the implications of this technology on our lives.
So while you might be convinced that you’re the Cat’s Meow, if others don’t believe that same story, there’s going to be a huge disconnect. Sadly, there’s always some disconnect. That’s the reality of life, and anything that’s in flux. Especially in today’s age of reinvention. How you see yourself (usually an aspirational picture) is different than how others see you (a historical precedent). Just ask General Motors, Domino’s Pizza, or Amazon’s Kindle (since today’s iPad announcement). Things change, and they change fast. The only way to become more self-aware as a business or organization is through a narrative lens.
- What’s the story people are telling about us?
- How do we listen, gather, and learn from these stories?
- Why would they have formed that impression?
- What do we want to do about it?
- How do we shift the stories people tell about us?
For the last two decades, just about every business school teaches Michael Porter’s framework for “value chains”. It’s a useful model for thinking about all the inputs and outputs of a business through the product development and sales cycle. Except more organizations today, are in the business of “intangibles” - what you’re selling is a service, an experience, or an idea. Whether they are your customer, donor, or member – your audience is buying into the story of what your work means to them. If you want to keep them, you better understand their perception of your value.
How many businesses understand their true value proposition? Most airlines don’t. Neither do most publishers, carmakers, or financial institutions. When it comes to smaller businesses, consultants, coaches, etc…the disconnect is often really huge. I recently ended two working relationships for this unfortunate reason. After deep reflection, it wasn’t clear to me what the “value” proposition actually was. In each case, they were smart talented people. We were involved in all sorts of process and activities, and there was plenty of “progress” being made. Yet at the end of the day, I couldn’t articulate the exact value provided by these vendors. So I couldn’t rationalize my return on investment into a story that made sense to me. What was unique or special to them? When I asked each vendor this same question, guess what happened. They didn’t know how to convincingly answer the question themselves. So how do you compare?
- What is your unique value proposition?
- What do you offer that no one else does?
- How are you different from other alternatives?
- What distinguishes the experience of working with you?
- What makes you indispensable?
Regardless of how confident you might be about your “value proposition”, your success depends on how you tell that story — and whether others believe in that story.
In all fairness, I’m not perfect at this either. I’ve forever struggled with defining and shaping the story of my own work, and making it accessible and relatable to others. That’s why Get Storied evolved so rapidly over the past year, and why I’m creating more educational curriculum and programs. And trying to learn more directly from you. Is this formula (C+P=V) helpful? What about the framing questions? I welcome your feedback and comments.
Any company would prize 20 column inches plus a photo on the front of The Journal’s Marketplace section.
That’s exactly what UPS enjoyed in the article titled “UPS Thinks Outside the Box on Driver Training.”
The piece makes for a good mini case study on the type of storytelling that plays in the business media.
Note the absence of a news release.
This is a one-off feature.
While the writer packages a phantom news hook in the lead graph around what appears to be a recent problem – a large percent of driver candidates wash out of the traditional training – we learn later that the solution to the problem commenced in 2007.
This is not new, and that’s OK.
But the lead graph does illustrate the power of a “negative” in storytelling:
Vexed that some 30% of driver candidates flunk its traditional training, United Parcel Service Inc. is moving beyond the classroom to ready its rookies for the road.
Most companies wouldn’t release a statistic that reflects poorly on its performance, even if it’s in the rear-view mirror.
Yet, UPS recognizes the negative stat creates the door-opener to the story.
As discussed in previous posts, without being open to sharing what’s been done in the past, the reporter has no context to understand the significance of what’s been achieved in the present. The larger the distance between “what was” and “what is,” the greater the drama.
In the case of UPS, the new training has reduced the washout number to 10 percent.
Further showing an understanding of storytelling, UPS delivers (couldn’t resist) access to The Journal reporter so she can see with her own eyes what goes down in a training session.
Again, most companies would take a pass on this technique; i.e., what happens if the reporter, God forbid, sees a mistake?
Well, the reporter did see a mistake:
Mr. Byrnes hopped back in and started up. “Stop! Stop! Ugh!” yelled Mr. Keys. He picked up the cone. “This is a kid who was playing football around your vehicle and went to get his ball.” Mr. Byrnes looked shaken and slapped his forehead. The lesson stuck: At the next stop, he checked for cones.
And you know what? It’s OK.
If anything, it brings a realness to the story.
Of course, The Journal needs to remind folks that it devotes features to topics, not companies; hence, the obligatory paragraph on other companies testing novel training, including UPS archrival FedEx, which offers this amusing comment:
FedEx Corp. says it, too, has moved toward more hands-on learning in the past five years, although it adds the change wasn’t prompted by a high failure rate among trainees.
It’s always a compelling read when a relative unexpectedly throws a dart.
Still, the article quickly reverts back to the topic at hand and leaves the reader with a positive feeling about UPS.
I didn’t conduct exhaustive research, but best as I can tell the last time UPS played the training card was back in 2007 in Fortune when it first introduced Integrad:
On Sept. 17, UPS opened its first-ever full-service pilot training center, a $34 million, 11,500-square-foot, movie-set-style facility in Landover, Md., aimed directly at young would-be drivers and known as Integrad. The facility and curriculum have been shaped over three years by more than 170 people, including UPS executives, professors and design students at Virginia Tech, a team at MIT, forecasters at the Institute for the Future, and animators at an Indian company called Brainvisa.
So while the innovative UPS training does sit in the public domain, the new hard data – 1,629 trainees have completed the program with a 90 percent success rate – allows The Journal to revisit the topic.