Archive for January, 2011

Alexander McCall Smith Offers Quick Perspective On “Word Craft” Post

alexander mccall smith

I know namedropping isn’t proper etiquette.

But I can’t help myself.

Alexander McCall Smith – yes THE Alexander McCall Smith who created Mma Ramotswe and the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series - was  kind enough to send the following e-mail my way:

adjectives alexander mccall smith

If you missed the Word Craft post last week, a little bit of background -

The Wall Street Journal added a column to its weekend lineup called Word Craft in which a different contributor weighs in each week on the words, style and philosophy behind communications.

I happened to zero in on the Word Craft column by Alexander McCall Smith called “Block That Adjective!”

As you might suspect from the title, Mr. McCall Smith espouses what I’ll term “prudent writing.”

I highlighted this paragraph from the “Block that Adjective!” column:

… Concise prose knows what it wants to say, and says it. It does not embellish, except occasionally, and then for dramatic effect. It is sparing in its use of metaphor. And it is certainly careful in its use of adjectives. Look at the King James Bible, that magnificent repository of English at the height of its beauty. The language used to describe the creation of the world is so simple, so direct. “Let there be light, and there was light.” That sentence has immense power precisely because there are no adjectives. If we fiddle about with it, we lose that. “Let there be light, and there was a sort of matutinal, glowing phenomenon that slowly transfused, etc.” No, that doesn’t work.

And added my commentary:

While the “voice” might have had something to do with the power of “Let there be light,” it’s still a wonderful paragraph.

Hopefully, Mr. McCall Smith will permit me that one adjective.

This was what prompted the author to believe I “would use adjectives carefully and to great effect.”

As they say in the sports world, “no pressure.”



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White House Takes “Every Organization Is Media” To The Next Level

Government entities have always recognized the benefit of media-like qualities.

Heck, the U.S. military publishes “Stars and Stripes.”

One could argue the White House jumped on this bandwagon during the Hoover administration when it created the position of White House press secretary.

But the Obama administration takes the ”every organization is media” mantra to the next level, which shouldn’t be a surprise since Team Obama’s secret weapon when campaigning for election was the digital agency Blue State.

The President’s State of the Union address earlier in the week, specifically how the information was packaged for maximum reach and engagement, can hold its own with any third-party media properties.

Toward this end, the President’s digital posse essentially took the concept of the infographic and transformed it into an interactive medium.

state of the union web site

Between links to Q&As, Twitter dialog and Facebook, people can engage with the White House as well as read information.

And look at how they package the information for easy consumption.

No lengthy blocks of text.

The information comes in bite-size chunks with a veneer of levity.

For example, the infographic included the First Lady’s seating chart for her invited guests.

They could have simply listed each person with background.

But that’s not nearly as interesting as showing chairs where you mouse over and get a photo and the low-down on guests such as the following (you can access the interactive version here):

Business partners Kendra Baker and Zachary Davis had a dream of opening an organic, homemade ice cream shop in Santa Cruz, California. With the help of a Recovery Act SBA loan of $250,000, Kendra and Zack were able to open the doors to The Penny Ice Creamery in August 2010. The SBA Recovery Act funding allowed them to not only open the shop, but also to employ eleven people, purchase American-made equipment, and to hire nearly twenty local businesses to design and renovate the space.

state of the union web site

OK, it’s a little over the top when they throw in “purchase American-made equipment.” Heaven forbid if Baker and Davis used ice cream scoopers made in Eastern Europe.

Still, the personal stories add a human touch.

I’ve discussed visual storytelling and infographics many times in this forum.

By embracing these concepts and others, the White House can take its story directly to the target audience, you.

Sidenote: Nancy Duarte wrote an insightful post that contrasted the President’s slides with the GOP’s slides (in response to the President’s speech).

  



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“Word Craft” Column Offers Welcome Addition to Wall Street Journal

I must have missed the memo.

Late last year The Wall Street Journal added a column to its weekend lineup called “Word Craft.”

Lest you find the above sentence on the understated side, consider the October  “Word Craft” contribution, “Block That Adjective!” by Alexander McCall Smith.

If you’re going to pen a column about concise writing, you’d better be … right, concise.

And it wouldn’t hurt to be amusing as well given the austere topic.

Author McCall Smith comes through on both counts:

… Concise prose knows what it wants to say, and says it. It does not embellish, except occasionally, and then for dramatic effect. It is sparing in its use of metaphor. And it is certainly careful in its use of adjectives. Look at the King James Bible, that magnificent repository of English at the height of its beauty. The language used to describe the creation of the world is so simple, so direct. “Let there be light, and there was light.” That sentence has immense power precisely because there are no adjectives. If we fiddle about with it, we lose that. “Let there be light, and there was a sort of matutinal, glowing phenomenon that slowly transfused, etc.” No, that doesn’t work.

While the “voice” might have had something to do with the power of “Let there be light,” it’s still a wonderful paragraph.

Hopefully, Mr. McCall Smith will permit me that one adjective.

I think the Journal is onto something.

“Word Craft” creates a forum for a different contributor to weigh in each week on the words, style and philosophy behind communications.

Rather than serve the English snobberites, the column strives for novel-grade writing with a “let’s not take ourselves too seriously” attitude.

Other columns have included “The Lies of Science Writing” and “The Lost Art of Argument.”

Even our very own Nancy Duarte who graced our stage with her talk on storytelling last year offered up “Avoiding the Road to Powerpoint Hell” in last weekend’s paper.

With Gary Rosen, the keeper of the “Word Craft” flame, showing the way we can expect an eclectic mix of topics wrapped in the beauty of words.

Mr. McCall Smith would never have signed off on such a close.

But “Let there be words” doesn’t quite work.



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Storytelling Techniques Behind Google Announcement on Larry Page Named CEO

Everyone pays attention to Google.

When Google announced that founder Larry Page will take the CEO reins, virtually every media property in the world automatically reported on the news.

The company’s PR machine doesn’t have to lift a toe (even less effort than a finger) to create demand.

With that said, if you reverse engineer the fireworks from last week, one finds Google’s PR team was hardly passive. Its command of storytelling techniques clearly shaped the media coverage.

Let’s examine the core components used to communicate the news in written form: Eric Schmidt’s post on Google’s main blog and the Q4 earnings news release.

The conversational tone in the blog post makes for an easy cut and paste. Even the Wall Street Journal pulled from the content.

But there’s more going on here.

For example, Schmidt reflected on the past 10 years:

This triumvirate approach has real benefits in terms of shared wisdom … 

This word “triumvirate,” which technically defines three people holding authority, ended up in numerous stories no doubt conjuring ”triumph” in the minds of many.

The blog post also included a terrific visual which generated massive pick up.

Instead of capturing the standard photo of three guys straining to say cheese, Google had some fun with the shot (more on visual storytelling: The New York Times Shows Three Pictures Are Worth 3000 Words) .

By providing media properties with a viable alternative to tapping the photo morgue, Google benefits from a visual that affirms the message “all three executives are on the same page with the change.”

Moving to the Q4 earnings release, the executive quotes stand out.

Typically, comments in a news release fall under the corporate drivel category.

But Google doesn’t waste this valuable real estate, instead crafting quotes such as the following from Page that sound like real people talking:

There is no other CEO in the world that could have kept such headstrong founders so deeply involved and still run the business so brilliantly.

By inserting the word “headstrong” which carries a negative connotation, the quote comes across as more genuine and explains why a large percent of stories in media ranging from USA Today to The Guardian to Al Jazeera picked up the quote.

It would be interesting to know if someone from the Google PR team had the chutzpah to make this suggestion to Page or if Page came up with the idea himself.

As a final human touch, Schmidt tweeted after the news was out: “Day-to-day adult supervision no longer needed!”

I could have done without the exclamation point, but using a medium like Twitter provided a nice book end to why Google’s Board pursued Schmidt in the first place in 2001. Again, many articles pulled in the tweet as anecdotal relief to break up the hard news.

Back to the big picture–

Media coverage did touch on less-than-flattering perspectives such as the company’s inability to crack the code in social media, Schmidt’s public image, and the possibility that strife had entered the relationship between Schmidt and the founders.

And sure, there’s no skill in securing media interest for this type of news. As F. Scott Fitzgerald would have wryly noted, ”The tech goliaths are different than you and me.”

Still, the Google PR effort had a huge impact on influencing the narrative that resulted from the announcement.

Perhaps the best symbol can be found in the ReadWriteWeb coverage.

As you would expect, the media property devoted a healthy piece of real estate to the news, 848 words to be exact. Roughly 70 percent of the RWW story came from the Google blog post and Q4 earnings release.

That’s not an indictment of RWW which has a reputation for quality content.

It’s a compliment to Google PR which delivered the components for storytelling that rings true.



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Revisiting The Connection Between Trust And Storytelling

Peter Guber - Tell to WinPerhaps 2011 will go down as the “Year of Storytelling.”

Peter Guber’s much anticipated book “Tell To Win” officially comes out on March 1 (book review in the works).

Plus, I’ve noticed more dialog within the business community on storytelling - more specifically, does it work?

That’s really the ultimate question and one that inevitably surfaces when I’m talking to an executive.

My rationale for storytelling always starts at the same place.

Brands should be using storytelling techniques in their communications for one simple reason -

Virtually every brand wants to sell products or services.

Ultimately, part of the buyer’s decision-making process involves trust.

Do I trust the company to deliver on its promise?

Do I trust the company to make things right if something goes astray?

Of course, the amount of trust required before purchasing a Boeing 787 airplane is going to be different than the trust required to buy a ice cream cone at Baskin Robbins … although I was taken back the other day when I ordered my standard single scoop of burgundy cherry and noticed the lad doing the scooping had less than ideal hygiene.

But here’s where there’s common ground regardless of the type of purchase.

Before you will trust a given company, you need to know that company.

You’re not going to trust someone or a company that you don’t know.

That’s the power of storytelling.

There is no better way for a brand to help the target audience know it than by telling stories.

If you’re interested in more fodder on this topic, check out the post “Storytelling as a Platform for Trust.”



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