Archive for August, 2012

Maximizing the Storytelling of a News Announcement Through Timing

I like to reverse-engineer news announcements and study how companies time the flow of information.

Specifically, it’s interesting to scrutinize how companies play the use of an embargo.

As I embarked on such an exercise involving the recent IBM mainframe news. I’m baffled by this riddle.

Look at the date stamp from the Google Search results on The New York Times article:

Google Search on August 27

Clicking on the link brings up the actual New York Times story, but check out the date stamp:

New York Times article on August 28, 2012


How is it possible that the “search” could come before the “story?

If anyone can solve this one, I will be in your debt.

P.S. I plan to dive deeper into this announcement next week.


The Concept of the Story Page (complementing the home page)

Traffic to news sites increasingly comes in through the side doors, that is, from search and social means.

Adrienne LaFrance recently wrote on this very topic for Nieman Lab:

As with newspapers which haven’t so much disappeared as been pushed off center stage few are saying that homepages will disappear completely. But as more people enter news sites sideways via search engines, links they see in emails, or via Facebook and Twitter newsrooms are finding their homepages aren’t the starting points they once were.

Her piece goes on to highlight Google’s Richard Gingras who espouses “more focus on the story page” rather than the home page.

Consider the verdict on the Apple/Samsung legal battle that came down last week. The percent of people that plugged something like [Apple Samsung lawsuit] into Google or clicked a link via social was dramatically higher than those who went directly to their favorite news site. Furthermore, as people search on this topic for months or even years to come, SEO and social will determine who goes where.

Tuning stories like those reporting on the Apple/Samsung litigation to account for this dynamic is what Gingras means by a “story page.” The general concept has relevance to communicators or anyone involved in marketing for that matter.

We’ve been saying for some time that companies can strengthen their online presence by adding “digital doors” that supplement their overall website. A company’s website by definition has to cover so much ground, it’s difficult to tune content for a specific topic so it stands out enough to bring traffic through that side door.

Again, it’s revealing to look at Google, which knows a thing or two about fortifying online real estate.

Rather than hang a section off of for its VC arm,  the company established a separate site at

Google Ventures

This way, the company can achieve tighter alignment between keywords and content.

Google Ventures meta data

Those keywords have no prayer of attracting traffic diffused across, but plug “startup lab” into a search engine, and Google Ventures shows up on page 1.

One final point on the storytelling front

The narrative on the Google Ventures home page used to say:

We are a diverse team of investors, entrepreneurs, and specialists who believe in the power of great companies to change the world.

Their latest iteration shares:

Our hands-on teams work with portfolio companies full-time on design, recruiting, marketing, and engineering. Startup Lab is a dedicated facility and educational program where companies can meet, learn, work, and share. We invest hundreds of millions of dollars each year in entrepreneurs with a healthy disregard for the impossible.

No question, this version is more compelling, applying storytelling techniques and seeing the world through the eyes of a new venture.

Love the phrase, “with a healthy disregard for the impossible.”

Perhaps we should be calling these types of sites “story doors,” not “digital doors.”

Note: For more on “story doors,” check out “Revisiting SEO and the Toyota PR Crisis.”

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Snapshot Analysis: Storytelling in Apple’s Legal Complaint Against Samsung

Apple VS. Samsung

The verdict just came down in the Apple/Samsung legal skirmish.

Apple won ($1,051,855,000 in damages seems like a win to me).

Rewinding the tape, it’s interesting to look back at how Apple initially framed its case. It stands to reason that Apple’s legal team wanted to grab the judge’s attention right from the start in the complaint.

Let’s reverse-engineer that first paragraph of the complaint sentence by sentence:

Apple revolutionized the telecommunications industry in 2007 when it introduced the wildly popular iPhone, a product that dramatically changed the way people view mobile phones.

While we don’t use words like “revolutionize” to avoid the perception of hyperbole, it’s apparently OK in the legal world.

As a disciple of Alexander McCall Smith, I also found the adjectives overdone. I doubt if the judge was going to be more swayed by “the wildly popular iPhone” than “the popular iPhone.”

Reviewers, analysts and consumers immediately recognized the iPhone as a “game changer.”

Worth noting the contribution of Apple’s PR machine to the case in guiding reviewers and analysts to see the product as a “game changer,” a phrase which shows up over 17,000 times in a 2007 Google search on the query [“iphone” and “game changer”].

Before the iPhone, cell phones were utilitarian devices with key pads for dialing and small, passive display screen that did not allow for touch control.

Classic storytelling, contrasting the “what is” (iPhone at the time) with the “what was.”

The iPhone was radically different.

The use of a short line to break the cadence is a nice touch. But again, do we really need the adjective. C’mon fellows, show a little restraint. How would Steve Jobs feel about bastardizing the ad campaign this way?

Apple ad poster with Mohammed Ali

In one small and lightweight handheld device, it offered sophisticated mobile phone functions, a multi-touch screen that allows users to control the phone with their fingers, music storage and playback, a mobile computing platform for handheld applications, and full access to the Internet.

I suspect the attorneys overruled the editing function.

These features were combined in an elegantly designed product with a distinctive user interface, icons, and eye-catching displays that gave the iPhone an unmistakable look.

Once again the heavy hand of adjectives comes to the fore. It’s a pity because they take away from the one deserving adjective, “an unmistakable look.”

I think we can all agree the storytelling techniques in this document leave much to be desired.

Thankfully, if you’re Apple, their attorneys exhibited better court skills.

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Dénouement, Quest for Science in Business Storytelling and The Economist Apologizes for Drinking on the Job

The grab bag returns with a trio of takes.

Dénouement in Business Storytelling

Our workshop on storytelling techniques discusses dénouement, the French word that means to undo or untie the knot.

the hoffman agency classic storytelling

For business storytelling, it’s the time to bring clarity and resolution to the communications at hand.

Even though a business story doesn’t always technically end, you still need to find some way to shape the happy ending.

The Role of Transportation in the Persuasiveness of Public Narratives

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

Not exactly the most catchy title, but I’m always interested in the science behind storytelling so I forked out the $11.95 to access the paper at the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

I so wanted to mine fodder for my why-storytelling-works file, a handy resource in helping clients who often come from an engineering orientation to buy into the concept.

No such a luck.

Maybe the compelling science is there. I just couldn’t work my way through a narrative denser than stale cheesecake.

To net it out, persuasive storytelling works when the reader:

  • Pictures the events
  • Feels some type of involvement or connection with the events
  • Identifies with one of the characters
  • Considers how the narrative could have turned out differently
  • Etc.

Which we already knew.

Irony in Irony

The Economist penned a story earlier in the month, “The Boredom of Boozeless Business” lamenting the end of the three-martini lunch and calling out Bloomberg BusinessWeek as a proof point:

Even famously booze-fuelled occupations such as journalism have felt the puritanical wind: hacks at Bloomberg Businessweek can be disciplined for so much as sipping a spritzer.

Apparently, the “offended” party contacted The Economist because the following correction appears in the August 18 issue.

The Economist August 18 issue

I did get a kick out of The Economist going with fourth-trade syntax in the apology.

This is not true. Sorry. We must have been drunk on the job.

If one can apologize and mock at the same time, this is how it’s done.


Intersection of SEO and Storytelling; Interview with Evan Bailyn

Anyone who writes a book called “Outsmarting Google” has my attention.

Combine this technical expertise with a gift for storytelling and we move to a Q&A.

Meet Evan Bailyn, founder of First Page Sage.

Evan Bailyn - founder of First Page Sage

I thought this passage on Evan from a Forbes feature was particularly revealing:

All I do is I’m able to get people to agree to link from their websites,” he says. “It’s a people skills type of thing.” His ability to persuade webmasters to link to his sites, often through a well-crafted note, has enabled him to earn top ranks for terms like “doll” (for a paper doll site he once owned) and “personal injury lawyer” (for a client).

Even the seemingly mundane task of requesting links can be elevated through language.

Here’s our exchange on the topic and storytelling techniques.

Lou: I assume that webmasters and the like get pummeled with a gazillion requests for links. I also assume they probably take less than five seconds to decide if they’re going to read on. What’s the key to getting past the five-second filter?

Evan: Your assumption is partly correct. Certain webmasters with very public blogs get a ton of requests for links. Many others don’t. However, very few webmasters get high quality requests for links. Therein lies the secret to getting past the five-second filter: write something with a personal hook that shows you know about the website you’re writing to. Picture the person on the other end reading your e-mail and saying “So… what’s in it for me?” Answer that question in your email.

Lou: What do you think is the No. 1 mistake people make in crafting a letter that asks for something?

Evan: Using a barely customized form letter. There are several things wrong with this approach. First, these emails often sound like form letters. Second, it robs you of that “blank slate” moment where you get to decide how you will make a connection with another human being. Without at least a moment of serious thought about the actual person who’s sitting on the other side of that computer, you have a very low chance of getting what you’re seeking.

Lou: Once you have their attention, what type of language cultivates persuasiveness?

Evan: I am a big fan of sincere, slightly emotional language. When I say “emotional,” I don’t mean sentimental or cheesy. I mean something like“ This blog expresses an idea I’ve thought about ever since I was young. I’m hoping that you, too, see how exciting it is.” Another approach I often advocate is talking to the person on the other end like they’re a good friend of yours. Casual language is much more persuasive than formal language.

Lou: Keep it conversational?

Evan: Right.

Lou: Does storytelling play a role in your letters? If yes, can you share an example?

Evan: Definitely.

Lou: For example?

Evan: I might advise a non-profit client to send:

Hi Bill –

My name is John Smith. I came across recently and have become fascinated with your organization. I see that you started your work in South America, which is also where my parents were born. I imagine every new project feels personal to you with all that you and so many others have been through.

I am writing because I have recently taken up blogging personal stories about my travels to Ecuador as part of a project at I believe the readers on your own blog would find our stories close to their hearts. Would you be interested in covering some of our stories on your blog? I would be more than happy to do the same in exchange.

Thanks in advance for your time, Bill.

Notice that in John Smith I have created a character – one with passion and a highly specific and relatable connection to Bill’s website. I also refer to my own blog entries as “stories” since that is more likely to get Bill’s attention. Of course, when writing to webmasters, you have to actually be able to feel what you’re writing – if you don’t at all relate to their site for any reason, you shouldn’t reach out in the first place. Very likely though, if you search yourself, you can find what is most interesting to you about that website.

Lou: Anything else that might be useful for business writers?

Evan: Just that persistence and organization are key. Even a great writer who takes her time and is authentic as possible may slip through the cracks if she doesn’t follow up a few times. Also, keeping a spreadsheet of who you reached out to, whether they replied, and if so what they said, is very important.

Lou: One last question- what’s your national ranking in Scrabble?

Evan: My Scrabble ranking is around a 1260.

hangman game - wiki image

Lou: I bet you’re pretty good at hangman too.

Evan: My wife always kicks my ass at hangman. The Scrabble ability doesn’t translate.

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