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10 Tips on Storytelling Techniques from Novelists.

Business communicators can learn from novelists and their storytelling techniques.

I’ve always been partial to the Kurt Vonnegut advice:

“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.”

It’s never easy for a company to reveal “awful things,” but when they do, they frame a story with humanity and one that cultivates an emotional connection with the audience.

The Guardian recently ran a piece in which they asked a number of novelists and writers for tips on their craft. With a hat tip to the Guardian for handling the heavy lifting, I’ve culled their content for my Top 10 list:

1. Elmore Leonard

Storytelling Techniques in book - Elmore Leonard

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
2. Diana Athill

Storytelling Techniques in book - Diana Athill

“You don’t always have to go so far as to murder your darlings – those turns of phrase or images of which you felt extra proud when they appeared on the page – but go back and look at them with a very beady eye. Almost always it turns out that they’d be better dead.”

Note: Some of us do the beady-eye thing better than others.

3. Roddy Doyle

Storytelling Techniques in book - Roddy Doyle

“Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg ‘horse’, ‘ran’, ‘said’.”
4. Neil Gaiman

Storytelling Techniques in book - Neil Gaiman

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
5. PD James

Storytelling Techniques in book - PD James

“Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.”

Note: Now that’s a scary thought: how does one avoid bad writing? If only Outlook would filter out emails that don’t make the grade.

6. Hilary Mantel

Storytelling Techniques in book - Hilary Mantel

“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.”
7. Andrew Motion

Storytelling Techniques in book - Andrew Motion

“Think with your senses as well as your brain.”
8. Sarah Waters

Storytelling Techniques in book - Sarah Waters

“Don’t overwrite. Avoid the redundant phrases, the distracting adjectives, the unnecessary adverbs.”
9. Will Self

Storytelling Techniques in book - Will Self

“Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.”

Note: Will is old school. Yes, you can capture the idea on a smartphone.

10. Jeanette Winterson

Storytelling Techniques in book - Jeanette Winterson

“Don’t hold on to poor work. If it was bad when it went in the drawer it will be just as bad when it comes out.”

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LinkedIn Encourages Bad Behavior

The underpinnings of any social network revolve around the interactions.

By personalizing those interactions, we share a little about ourselves and make connections.

For all the things that are great about LinkedIn – there are plenty, not the least being pulling other social feeds into one’s profile – it defies logic that LinkedIn encourages impersonal interactions by defaulting to a boilerplate when someone sends a let’s-connect message on the platform.

Here’s an example of the boilerplate that arrives in my inbox 90+ percent of the time.

linkedin default

Not exactly brimming with a personal touch.

If I was Reid Hoffman (not related, but open to offers on, I would simply leave the box blank, prompting the sender to write a personalized note.

What a concept.

In such a scenario, Mr. Gladwell might have written the following:

linked in personal message

How hard is it to start with the person’s name?

Even if you don’t write for a living, crafting such a note takes less than 120 seconds.

120 seconds for a personalized let’s-connect note on LinkedIn.

Seems like a reasonable ROI.


Rationale Behind Sending A Check For $4,865 To A Client

checkThanks to cloud computing, social media, the app ecosystem and 3-D printing to name a few, the barriers to bring new consumer products to market keep getting lower and lower.

For the most part, democratizing the act of inventing and allowing more ideas to see the light of day is a good thing. I think we’ve met with more bootstrapped startup ventures over the past couple of years than in the previous 10 combined.

No matter how tight the bank account, today’s entrepreneurs still recognize the value of public relations giving their product a fighting chance for survival.

Again, this is a good thing.

But I think PR agencies need to play a stronger role in evaluating new products and answering the simple question:

Is the product ready for prime time?

Which means drilling down into questions like this:

  • How’s the “out-of-box” experience?
  • Is the product stable?
  • Where’s the differentiation?
  • Does it bring a smile to the user’s face?
  • Etc.

Increasingly, we’re playing the role of beta testing and taking greater control of our destiny. If we see problems, we’re working with clients to strengthen the product before the official launch. This way, we don’t have to answer pesky questions like, “Why does the app freeze every time I try to attach a photo?”

In a sense, this is the opposite of spin.

But what happens if the product was poorly conceived or suffers from what I’ll call foundation issues?

Such a situation happened earlier this week.

After evaluating the product, the team concluded that a public launch would be akin to walking blindfolded into a swamp while smeared with Nutella.

As is our policy in working with new ventures, we require part of the launch payment upfront to commence work. Subtracting our consulting time from the initial payment left a balance.

And that’s why we just cut a check for $4865 to return to the client.

Note: If you enjoyed this post, you might check out “Storytelling Can’t Help a Bad Product.”


The Worst Customer Service Narrative In The History Of Branding

In facilitating a branding workshop last week, it suddenly struck me.

One of the great myths of branding is the big guys get it right.

Thanks to their ample war chests, they can hire the smartest people, maintain an endless flow of M&Ms during focus groups and stockpile creative types.

It’s just not true.

Worse, bad branding begets bad branding. By that, I mean companies look up to these behemoths as role models and mimic their work.

united airlinesAs proof that the big guys can crash a brand, we’ll pick on United Airlines. Here’s a company that generated almost $9B in revenue last fiscal year. Even with the public dings – the guitar story still gets run on YouTube at 11,622,638 views and counting – people still fly United.

The United website proudly announces the page, “Our United Customer Commitment.”

Sounds promising.

Certainly, the brand stewards find this turf deserving of attention.

Yet, look at how the business storytelling plays out -

We are committed to providing a level of service to our customer that makes us a leader in the airline industry.

Now there’s a warm and friendly opener.

If there was ever a time for communications to focus outward (customer), not inward (company), it would be discussing commitment to the customer. Yet, the very first line talks about customer service “that makes US a leader in the airline industry.”

We understand that to do this we need to have a product we are proud of and employees who like coming to work every day.

Again, the words reflect an inward perspective.

And how the hell did the copy make a wrong turn at Drury Lane, pointing to employees who like coming to work.

Our goal is to make every flight a positive experience for our customers.


The third line finally brings the customer into the frame.

Our United Customer Commitment explains our specific service commitments so that we can continue a high level of performance and improve wherever possible.


I thought that’s what I was reading.

The Commitment explains our policies in a clear, consistent and understandable fashion.

Revealing that United seeks an “attaboy” for communications that are “clear, consistent and understandable…”

We have detailed training programs and system enhancements to support our employees in meeting these commitments, and we measure how well we meet them.

They decided to ask the Six Sigma department to craft the closing graph with a touch of TQC.

Welcome on board United Airlines!

Nothing wrong with the sign off.

It’s the previous words that miss the mark.

The last time I saw copy this bad Toyota was writing letters to its customers to diffuse the uproar over gas pedals sticking.

The big guys don’t always get it right.

It could be that United actually agrees. I couldn’t find the “Our United Customer Commitment” page yesterday, but here’s how it looked last week:

united customer commitment

If you have other jarring examples, by all means share them.

If you enjoyed this post, you might check out “Brand Building Requires Courage.”


Infographic: Storytelling Vs. Corporate Speak

Visual storytelling demands a place in any organization’s business communications.

Photos, graphics, charticles – apparently, when it comes to fish, what happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas – etc. all provide storytelling fodder.

Which brings me to the infographic.

You could make an argument that the infographic is the new black.

Beyond the visual appeal, infographics push companies to communicate at the industry level.

After assisting clients in creating infographics, we’ve created our own on storytelling.

Specifically, we contend there’s often a gap between the content developed by the PR function and the type of content needed by journalists, bloggers and other influencers.

Our infographic strives to capture this disconnect.

Business Communication
<div align="center"><a href="" title="Business Communication"><img src="" alt="Business Communication" style="border:none;" /></a><br /> <small>The Hoffman Agency is a public relations firm that emphasizes storytelling in <a href="">business communication</a></small>.</div>

Please share your ping-pong additions as a posted comment.

If enough ideas come our way, we’ll create “The Return of Storytelling vs. Corporate Speak” (giving proper attribution to all contributors).

Note: More posts on infographics are captured below (powered by a human; i.e., me)

* White House Takes Every Organization Is Media to the Next Level

* Dressing Up the Drab Company Timeline as a Storytelling Vehicle

* Visual Storytelling via the Infographic


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