Archive for August, 2011

Tag-teaming With Pete Lewis On Storytelling Workshop, Part II

peter lewisPete Lewis and I have created a storytelling curriculum that reflects both journalism and PR perspectives.

As the first the technology editor for the New York Times (personally registered the nytimes.com domain), Pete has some interesting takes on the media landscape and storytelling.

I posted the first part of a Q&A with him last week.

Here’s the rest of the story.


Q: How would you describe storytelling within a business context?

A: Most business communication is created to inform. We made a new product. We made lots of money. We signed a new deal. We sued somebody. Other than the fact that most press releases and memos are horribly written, there’s nothing wrong with these quick information dumps; people in business want actionable information, and often a concise news report is the best way to communicate.

But storytelling engages as well as informs. A good story makes people listen. It connects on an emotional level and inspires them to participate. Storytelling creates relationships. Stories convey information, but in a more enjoyable way, especially if the story contains a bit of humor. Stories are more memorable than the dry recitation of facts and figures. If the story is well told, people will absorb and remember the message. Storytelling sells the message.

Q: Any examples come to mind?

A: One of my favorites is the memo from Nokia’s new CEO, Stephen Elop, to his employees earlier this year. Elop, a former Microsoft executive, easily could have called the troops together for a PowerPoint presentation with graphs and charts. Instead, he wrote a story. I would wager that Nokia employees found it memorable.

Here’s why: The CEO has to lead his employees to places they haven’t gone before, and to accomplish things beyond what they’ve been doing. Bad leaders threaten. Good leaders inspire. They inspire by igniting the imaginations of their employees. And the best way to fire up the imagination is to tell stories.

Q: Do you see “owned media” as having a place in this type of communications.

A: Absolutely. Corporate blogs are often showcases for storytelling, both conventional and unconventional. Cisco does a particularly nice job. One of the things I like about Cisco’s blog is the willingness to experiment with different forms of storytelling. Example: Would you read a memo or whitepaper on “the relationship between FCoE and QCN (Quantized Congestion Notification), one of the documents in the IEEE DCB standard revision”? Me neither. But look at this novel storytelling approach:

cisco comic story

Side note: You can see the full Cisco piece online here.

It all comes down to delivering your message to the targeted audience in the most effective way. It might be print, it might be video, it might be a speech, it might be a Twitter or Facebook or Google+ posting. But almost always, it will incorporate elements of storytelling.

Speaking of Cisco, John Chambers sent his own version of the Nokia “burning oil platform” story to his employees earlier this year. While less dramatic than Stephen Elop’s story, Chambers’s memo was consistent with his personal style and followed a popular storytelling formula: Who I Am, Who We Are, and Where We Are Going.

The problem is that the very term “storytelling” makes CEOs wince. It conjures memories of reading children’s books and fairy tales to their kids at bedtime, not of leading successful businesses. Maybe a term like Disney’s “imagineering” would be more palatable.

Q: Okay, last question. What do you teach your journalism students about working with public relations professionals?

A: I start with an interesting chart from Robert McChesney and John Nichols’s excellent book “The Death and Life of American Journalism.” In a visit to my class at Stanford, Nichols told me that a half century ago the ratio of public relations specialists and managers to journalists was roughly 1:1. Today it is 4:1. Put another way, for every journalist working today there are at least four people working fulltime to influence what that journalist writes (or broadcasts). As professional cynics, journalists presume that their job is to filter out the inevitable spin and self-serving propaganda from these PR professionals. Because so many journalists are lazy or overworked, a lot of this spun material passes through unfiltered, and as a result the public becomes cynical toward the news (and ignorant, and apathetic, and demoralized).

As a veteran journalist, however, I know that I could not do my job without the help of good PR people. My colleagues typically agree. We often develop lasting relationships with PR people who understand the needs and boundaries of journalism, and quickly apply the bozo filter to PR people who don’t learn those needs and boundaries. So, I teach young journalists about healthy professional relationships with PR people, who outnumber them 4-to-1, and I relish the opportunities to teach PR people how to think like a journalist. (Or, to be pedantic, how to think as a journalist.)

Side note: Here’s the chart from “Death and Life” which you can see below. As Pete pointed out, the number of journalists has almost certainly declined since 2008.

death of journalism


That’s a wrap.

If anyone has any questions for Pete and me on the storytelling workshop, just shout.



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Storytelling Can’t Help A Bad Product

mcdonalds international

The Korean newspaper Electronic Times asked me to write a series of columns that looked at business issues through the lens of Silicon Valley. 

One column emphasized that a successful product launch starts by doing your homework: 

Foreign tech companies often don’t take the time to do their homework and figure out how their product can be refined to best appeal to the target audience. Incidentally, U.S. companies are guilty of the same mistake when they enter markets in Asia and Europe. 

But you know what? 

The same point could be made of U.S. companies launching in the U.S. that often rush to market without understanding of the customer. 

Here’s the column. 


Before getting sidetracked by the Google announcement of a new CEO, we were discussing why foreign tech companies often fail in the United States.

Here’s the common pattern. 

Company XYZ launches a product in its home country to great acclaim. Everything goes well. People love the product. 

Embolden by success, Company XYZ now decides to address the bigger revenue opportunity in the U.S. 

But the U.S. media and even consumers write negative things about the product. 

Stung by the criticism and lack of sales, Company XYZ is left to reflect on how this could be. 

What went wrong? 

Often, the core problem lies in the company’s believing that the same product features that commanded such relevance in their home market would hold similar appeal in the U.S. 

At the risk of oversimplifying, consider how global food companies build their brands. The menu shifts from country to country to meet the unique tastes and cultural nuances of each market. 

Take McDonald’s, which got its start by applying mass production techniques to the humble hamburger and essentially invented the “fast food” category. Out of McDonald’s $6+ billion in global revenue, roughly 65 percent comes from markets beyond the U.S. corridors.

McDonald’s does not expect the same food items that are best sellers in the U.S. to cause Koreans to line up at its doors in Seoul. Instead, the menu of McDonald’s in Seoul features kimchi, bulgogi burgers, and red bean pie, items that aren’t sold in the U.S. (even though bulgogi is immensely popular in the U.S.).  

McDonalds Bulgogi BurgerFurthermore, McDonald’s didn’t just decide to sell these items and others in its Seoul stores because the CEO thought they were a good idea. They tested multiple products before finally deciding on the ones that research showed would be most successful.

Which brings me back to the main point - 

Foreign tech companies often don’t take the time to do their homework and figure out how their product can be refined to best appeal to the target audience. Incidentally, U.S. companies are guilty of the same mistake when they enter markets in Asia and Europe. 

For startups and smaller companies, I recognize that the cost of officially testing a product in a new market can be prohibitive. But there are ways to get valuable feedback without spending a truck full of money. 

Just getting your product in the hands of 10 or so people who fit your target audience for their feedback can offer insights. 

If you offer a mobile app or perhaps a web service, getting people to use the product as part of a beta program is another approach to gaining customer feedback. 

We’re currently working with a startup called Zediva which streams new-release movies to different digital devices. The company leveraged Survey Monkey (free) so people who tested the service in beta form could then answer a few questions on their experience. This allowed Zediva to fix the issues which elicited negative remarks before officially announcing the product. 

Side note: Yes, the MPAA has since shut down the Zediva service but that’s a different issue. The company did it’s homework to understand the customer.

Of course, this last sentence gets to the crux of the issue.

Generating constructive feedback isn’t enough.

Listening to the feedback isn’t enough.

You must act on the feedback, which takes time and consumes resources.

It’s all about getting the product right.

Because the right product will generate positive media coverage and product reviews. The momentum can feed on itself because the voice of the consumer has become such a strong factor in a product’s success during a launch.

Don’t get me wrong. Media coverage still carries considerable influence. A David Pogue from The New York Times or a Walt Mossberg from The Wall Street Journal can make or break a product. And the pure online plays like CNET still have clout.

But the consumer now has a way to review products on forums such as Amazon and Best Buy which can mean reaching a mass audience just like the traditional media.

It’s kind of crazy when you think about it. Some average guy sitting in his living room in Tulsa, Oklahoma, can write a review that ends up having just as much influence on buying behavior as a major national newspaper.

Programming Update: Due to technical difficulties, our originally scheduled post, a continuation of the interview with Peter Lewis, will be published next week. Without getting into the sordid details, I’m finding WordPress to be a fussy and our technical expert is on vacation this week. 



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Tag-teaming With Pete Lewis On Storytelling Workshop

peter lewisI’ve known Pete Lewis for some time, going back to his days laying the groundwork for how The New York Times covers technology.

After Pete moved to Fortune to practice long-form journalism – or at least a longer form than The NYT – and later took up teaching at Stanford’s J school, I lost touch.

Until we ended up sitting at the same table at the 2010 Innovation Journalism Conference put on by Stanford and David Nordfors.

It turned out that Pete had conducted training sessions to help scientists communicate their stories. As I learned more about Pete’s curriculum, his work sounded similar to our storytelling workshop.

Later chats at the Coupa Café spiraled into a conclusion -

If we combined our curriculums as well as our expertise – a mashing of journalism and public relations – the result would be a killer workshop on storytelling.

And we’ve been jointly conducting these workshops ever since.

To delve more into Pete’s way of thinking, he was good enough to answer a few questions.


Q: Do you think there’s a greater emphasis on today’s business journalists to entertain as well as inform and educate compared to when you started at The Register in 1980?

A: It’s complicated. The media landscape was quite different when I put out the Farm/Business section at The Des Moines Register. I don’t recall the terms “entertain” and “business journalism” ever being uttered in the same sentence, perhaps because it’s a challenge to be entertaining when writing about pork bellies and soybeans.

Today, three decades later, business news is a commodity just like corn and hogs. People looking for business news have literally hundreds of news sources available 1,440 minutes a day. The basic news is all the same: The Dow rose or fell X points, Company Y reported earnings, Joe and Martha opened a new store. Basic accuracy in reporting is assumed, so news providers need to differentiate themselves to be heard. Some choose speed, some choose analysis, some choose entertainment.

Q: Is there a psychology to this issue?

A: When confronted with seemingly limitless amounts of news and information, human nature is to choose the easiest path. For a distressingly large percentage of citizens, this means celebrity news and passive entertainment. Publishers recognize this and begin pandering to the Click Monster. Our media moguls select and package the news accordingly. That’s why Steve Jobs is regularly on the cover of Fortune, why The New York Times rarely writes about Silicon Valley companies other than Google, Facebook and Apple, and why The New York Post covers the recent stock market turmoil with Page One headlines like this:

new york post

Sidenote: On the positive side, it’s good to see even The New York Post has embraced infographics.

Q: When you reflect on your interactions with public relations while writing for The New York Times and Fortune – hopefully, not a painful exercise – are there a few common themes of PR consistently missing the mark?

A: None that hasn’t been belabored already. I could not have done my job at The New York Times or Fortune without the help of PR professionals to call potential stories to my attention. The very best of them followed my writing, knew the kinds of things I write about, and didn’t waste my time or theirs by pitching too far outside the strike zone. They were prepared and could answer basic questions or put me in touch with people who could. They built a long-term relationship by passing along newsworthy tidbits that had nothing to do with their clients. Horror stories? “I’ll do anything to get this story in The Times, Mister Lewis … anything!” Or, “My boss is going to fire me if this story doesn’t get in The Times.” Or, “Listen, Pete, I’m offering you a cookie … the vice president of marketing wants to give you an exclusive.”

Q: A cookie?

A: Yes, a cookie.


Now, there’s an ominous note to end the first part of the interview.

I’ll post the second half of my interview with Pete on Thursday.



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EE Times Strives to Jump Start the Conversation

Junko Yoshida, EE Times EIC, penned a grab-you-by-the-throat editorial, “To Vendors, Where’s Your Community Spirit?”

She makes the point that “engagement” has become the new black, but vendors continue to be conspicuously absent in the EE Times conversation:

While the guys with all the money continue to spout the importance of engagement, they seem to believe – for reasons unknown (because they’re not talking) that there’s no need for them to get involved in the community and bare their own souls.

It’s either they think they are above it all (Jeez, I hope not), or they’re fearful of the sort of controversial back-and-forth that sparks “engagement” and knits together the “community.”

As I shared with Junko, I think there’s another possibility.

Vendors in the electronics sector often don’t participate in forums because they don’t perceive value. I always counter with how can interacting with a customer or a potential customer not be valuable?

But many still take the position that until we can show the ROI, it doesn’t make sense to put the time into it.

I wonder if it would help if readers posting comments had the option to add an URL which would enable vendors to track the traffic from the different EE Times forums. It’s not exactly a panacea, but it could be a start.

Junko spoke at our offices last May on the direction of EE Times, sharing numbers that reflected the concept of community gaining traction.  

If you believe in the saying “fish where the fish are,” the chart above makes the case that communication professionals should be facilitating their companies’/clients’ participation on the site.

Update: I had a follow-up conversation with Junko who shared additional context. She estimates that vendor comments represent less than a five percent of the dialog on the property’s forums.



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A Story That Once Again Proves Life Is Better Than Fiction

australia atom splitting story

Now here’s a headline that causes one to pause:

Swedish Man Caught Trying to Split Atoms in Kitchen

My idea of a kitchen adventure involves experimenting with Dijon mustard in tuna or trying out the new omelet pan I got for Father’s Day.

A laggard in physics, I can say with a straight face that I’ve never considered exploring the wacky world of charged electrons.

If you’re interesting in watching an understated Australian TV news report on the ambitious Nordic lad, a click here will take you to the video.



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