Archive for November, 2011

Talking Business With The Science Crowd

Writing alone does not guarantee terrific storytelling.

You need to able to dig out that contrarian twist, anecdote or perhaps even failure that sets the stage for later success.

Which brings us to the interview.

Tom McHale, our director of client services based in Beijing, tackles this very subject — emphasizing scientific sources — drawing from years of experience as a journalist (Electronic Business, Computerworld, EDN Asia, South China Morning Post, to name a few).

I continue to believe interviewing expertise is often undervalued in the business world, so I appreciate Tom’s perspective.

By Tom McHale
Hoffman China (Beijing)

For journalists and PR folk, there is nothing quite like interviewing a scientist.

It’s a conversation that at times can feel more like an exercise in translation than a business Q&A. As a reporter, I prepared for the worst as these encounters often ended with me overwhelmed by an avalanche of scientific fact and references to studies I didn’t have the time or interest to track down. During 20 years as a reporter, I often faced scarcely concealed hostility from scientists who felt the meeting was simply a waste of time.

That hostility is not surprising, however.

Many researchers inhabit a closed world, tracking a narrow field of study and talking for the most part with colleagues in the same or related disciplines. Even if they teach at a university, they may be more used to lecturing than to conversation. The reporter is an outsider who threatens to misinterpret the researcher’s work to the public with disastrous consequences.

Like most interviews, conversations with scientists are a bit of a fishing expedition. It’s best to allocate a bit of extra time for the meeting if possible. Give them line to run a bit as you may spend much of the meeting listening to someone unaccustomed to being interrupted, and who has little interest in your questions.

Given room to stretch out in the conversation, and a few warm up questions, however, the reporter may discover a spellbinding human story describing anything from how the researcher landed in that particular field of inquiry, or how unintended results of one study opened a new horizon of research or even an important breakthrough in another field.

Take a recent conversation with a Bell Labs researcher who answered questions with descriptions of development projects that seemed drab, grey and lifeless.

The interview was going nowhere while I struggled not to just say thanks and goodbye.  I soldiered on to try to uncover a human face for the story – a funny anecdote, challenges faced and resolved, human problems, and research triumphs with little hope of success. 

Finally, after my questions poked into a number of blind alleys, the researcher said, “You all know how we got the idea for lightRadio right?”

No, in fact I had no idea. 

That’s when he began telling a compelling story of how the head of his group is a woodworker in his spare time at home. One Friday he left deep in thought about the new wireless technology design that would create smaller cell areas. Monday he returned with a block of wood the size of a rubix cube and a challenge:  the block of wood was the new form factor for the small cell design that would encompass both basestation and antenna. The challenge was eventually met and lightRadio unveiled this year with commercial deployment expected in summer 2012.

It’s not just scientists; for reporters who cover the electronics sector, this is a story that may sound familiar to reporters who routinely interview engineers.

Success in interviewing scientists boils down to clearly setting the stage, explain the aims of your conversation in a much more explicit manner than a marketer would need or expect. Explain why you need to tease out the cost benefits for customers, technology and product differentiation details, dates, but most of all the human back story that details challenges faced, initial failures, problems solved, team interaction, partner information, anything  that delivers a compelling story while delivering the key messages.

The good news is that in these hard economic times, scientists are increasingly aware that they need to market their work and themselves to keep their research on track.

Note: If you enjoyed this post, the human bot identified “Five Interviewing Techniques For Corporate Storytelling” as another post worth the click. 



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Sports Illustrated Roots for Stories, Not the Team

The Thanksgiving break offered relaxation, pumpkin pie and plenty of football (sorry Niner fans).

My personal indulgence involved reading Sports Illustrated cover to cover.

The latest issue showcases long-form journalism at its best, examining the broad issue of sports in America with the piece “In My Tribe.”

While I’ve pointed out that business communicators can take away lessons from the media coverage of sports, this particular article breaks down the storytelling component:

IT’S NOT ABOUT SCORES and stats, it’s about the stories. The players’ skill and athleticism can be mind-blowing, but without the backstories there is no connection. The excitement comes from knowing enough about the athletes to care who makes the shot and who misses.

You can apply this line of thinking to any company regardless of industry.

It’s not about the tractor or semiconductor or software.

The best corporate storytelling comes from bringing out the humanity in a company. Have you shared enough about the people so others will care?

Which requires digging out those backstories across the talent base, not just the executive ranks.

No question, humanity moves front and center when an individual or individuals achieve something perceived as daunting or impossible.

If Villanova beats another good team to win the NCAA championship in 1985, it’s reported the next day and over.

But when Villanova plays “David” in taking down the Goliath” known as Georgetown, the storytelling is so compelling that it ends up etched in history.

Contrast creates drama.

That’s why the chess matches between an IBM computer and world master Gary Kasparov in the mid 90′s captured the world’s attention.

Tough to beat the machine versus man angle.

I recognize such stark contrast typically doesn’t exist in the business world.

Still, framing a story with historical context can often be enough to bring some drama to the table.

As I like to simplify, the greater the difference between “what was” and “what is,” the stronger the storytelling.

Contrast also comes from winners and losers as pointed out by SI:

“We write about the winners and put them on TV and lavish them with money and fame and even put their faces on our cereal boxes. “But here was a searing reminder that competition is a zero-sum game. Much as we all love winners, sports necessarily creates losers too…”

Put on CNBC, Fox Business News, or Bloomberg TV and you’ll hear the anchors talking about winners and losers, stocks that spiked and stocks that tanked, etc.

The middle ground isn’t nearly as interesting.

Note: If you enjoyed this post, the human bot captured the following which might be of interest:



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Digging Out A Story That Plays with the Mainstream Media

Most of our client campaigns include the mainstream media as a target audience.

More than the sheer reach, there’s a certain cachet that comes from landing in Fortune, The New York Times or TIME.

Which brings me to a specific article in TIME with the headline, “Made (Again) in the U.S.A. Why firms like Jarden are bringing work back from China.”

To appreciate the storytelling techniques applied by Jarden, it’s useful to understand a little bit about Jarden’s business.

In short, Jarden manufactures goods ranging from that always exciting product category called sponges to canning jars to football helmets. The products might be labeled by a third party or one of their own brands.

There’s a reason no TV show exists called “Real Executives of Rye, New York.”

That’s what makes cracking TIME so impressive.

Rather than extol the joy of canning your own fruit, the company packaged a story that plays counter to the perception that stuff can get made cheaper in Asia.

In contrast to outsourcing manufacturing for the supposed benefit of cheaper labor, Jarden has started to insource and bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.

Jarden tells its story with numbers:

“This year Jarden will insource $100 million of goods, about 4 million items …”

and with anecdotes:

“That includes worth carbon-fiber softball bats, now in full-swing production in Caledonia, Minnesota,; marine-antenna castings in Greenville, S.S.; Quickie mops and brooms that have swept into Lumberton, N.C.; and a new line of Rawlings footballs that will touch down in Springfield, Mo.”

Naturally, I like the clever verbs.

But the real key to the story lies in positioning Jarden as a symbol of an industry trend.

Consider this-

Only 1% of Jarden’s workforce or roughly 200 jobs have been added from insourcing.

It’s the idea that this could be the start of manufacturing jobs returning to the U.S. - with data quantifying the increasing cost of overseas labor and the increasing cost of shipping – that landed Jarden in TIME.

Trends, not products, resonate with the mainstream media. 



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Tough Times Can Set The Stage For Contrarian Stories

What is your company (or client) doing that deviates from the status quo?

I ask this question after being reminded by a 2009 New Yorker article “Hanging Tough,” that difficult economic times can produce rich fodder for storytelling.

Let’s talk cereal.

The New Yorker piece points out that when the Great Depression hit, cold cereal had yet to put a dent in the breakfast standbys, oatmeal and cream of wheat.

A quick aside -

After weeks of standard dinner fare, is there anything better than a bowl of cereal – perhaps Frosted Flakes if I’m feeling particularly decadent – while ESPN’s SportsCenter blares from the flat screen?

Back to the Gr-r-reat Depression.

The New Yorker piece notes that Post and Kellogg’s took divergent paths:

Post did the predictable thing: it reined in expenses and cut back on advertising. But Kellogg doubled its ad budget, moved aggressively into radio advertising, and heavily pushed its new cereal, Rice Krispies. (Snap, Crackle, and Pop first appeared in the thirties.) By 1933, even as the economy cratered, Kellogg’s profits had risen almost thirty per cent and it had become what it remains today: the industry’s dominant player.

The vast majority of companies cut costs across the entire enterprise.

That’s what happened at Post.

But Kellogg’s opted to zig when conventional wisdom said to zag.

How has your company invested over the past three years?

Take a look at areas such as:

  • R&D
  • Marketing
  • Employee count
  • Revenue from products/services less than two years old
  • Consumption of Rice Krispies

Any one of these variables (aside from the consumption of Rice Krispies) can be an indicator of a compelling story below the surface.

There’s a terrific writing tip from Kurt Vonnegut:

Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

You don’t have to be a sadist.

The economy has already taken care of the dirty work.

All you need to do is uncover those actions that show what your company is made of.

Happy digging.

P.S. A quick thanks to Kari Ramirez for sending The New Yorker story my way.



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Check Out This Pie Chart

I’ve been waiting three years to break out this pie chart.

That’s when we created the curriculum for our storytelling workshop.

In the early stages of the workshop, we discuss the sheer noise level in the market.

I like to pick a random day and aggregate the number of news releases distributed on the various wire services like PR Newswire and Marketwire.

Then, we look at the percent of news releases with relevance to the client’s industry.

It’s always a sobering number.

In working with technology companies, there’s only so many ways to dress up the charts and graphs.

But with an invitation to talk to Compass USA in the food services sector, I finally had my opening.

Some say I’m a sucker for a bad pun.

I prefer to think of myself as a connoisseur of the double entendre. 



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