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Writing Executive Quotes That Sound Like They Come From Actual Human Beings

The executive quote serves as a mainstay of PR-generated content from news releases to prepared statements.

With rare exception, they’re dreadful.

It’s as if each quote goes through the following process in which a conscious effort is made to squeeze out any semblance of humanity:

Executive Quote chart for humanity- storytelling

The upshot —

PR ends up crafting quotes like this one that then get flung to the world.

Typical PR executive quote

The quote does nothing to advance the narrative.

Worse, it’s more dull than an episode of CSPAN debating the merits of wildlife in national parks.

For a role model on doing quotes right, we surprisingly turn to the U.S. Soccer Federation. In fact, the organization goes one step further, essentially creating atomized storytelling that journalists can easily feather into their stories. Putting the heartbreak from yesterday’s loss to Belgium aside (I’m not bitter, but I’ll never eat another waffle), this is worth a drill down.

The Federation puts out what’s termed “The World Cup Quote Sheet” with select players and head coach Jurgen Klinsmann commenting on both recent outcomes and what’s ahead. Quotes such as the following — in-depth commentary allows journalists to pull slices into their stories — were distributed after the match with Germany:


On advancing from the Group of Death:

JK: “It’s huge. We wanted a tie out of this game, but maybe in the beginning we had a bit too much respect [for Germany]. Then, more and more, we got into the game. We should have created a bit more chances. That’s really something we have to improve on, but overall, tremendous energy, tremendous effort from the whole side. It’s huge for us getting out of this group that everybody said, ‘You have no chance.’ We took that chance and now we move on. We really want to prove a point.”

U.S. MNT goalkeeper TIM HOWARD
On getting out of the Group of Death:

TH: “Proud of our group; we have a lot left in us. Today was a tough game in tough conditions. Hats off to Germany, I think they have an opportunity to win the World Cup, that’s how good I think they are. We had a chance right there at the end, but we go again, we get to the Round of 16. It shows how far we’ve come. That we’re not happy just getting there, that we want to progress , and we still got a little bit left in us.”

On Jermaine Jones possibly breaking his nose:

CD: “I guess that’s the way it goes. We have a team that has a lot of heart, a lot of character. We keep going, we keep fighting. I’m sure, if he did break his nose, just like what happened to me, he’ll be ready for the next game.”

These comments do sound like they’re coming from actual human beings.

Equally important, the Federation’s PR team directs the commentary based on anticipating how journalists will round out their stories.

That’s why you have Clint Dempsey who broke his nose in the first match offering up a quote on Jermaine Jones who appeared to suffer a similar fate. Can anyone doubt that the line “I guess that’s the way it goes” really came from the mouth of Dempsey?

As a result, journalists do use these quotes because they add texture to their stories (search on “Klinsmann” and “It’s huge” shows that the phrase found its way into well over 100 stories).

I think there’s room for business communicators to borrow this concept.

At the very least, we should be writing executive quotes that pass the sound test; i.e., does it sound like something a person would actually say?


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For Those Who Tilt Toward Words, Here’s How to Improve Your Presentations

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a senior exec at a Fortune 500 company or manage the A1 Car Wash in Albuquerque, the ability to communicate impacts job performance. For many, this extends to the dreaded presentation.

You can find advice on this topic rivaling how to lose weight and make money selling timeshare condos.

Here’s the problem. These so-called gurus always the say same thing.

  • Use visuals, not bullets (oops)
  • Stop jingling coins in your pocket.
  • Don’t read your slides.
  • If you use enough visuals, you won’t read your slides because there isn’t enough to read.

For those of us wired by words, this is a little like suggesting a tortoise would move faster using a skateboard.

That’s why I found Gavin McMahon’s recent webinar, #PresentBetter, so refreshing. Finally, here’s a roadmap and tips that didn’t require an MFA from Pratt to implement.

I encourage you to take in Gavin’s webinar which is available for playback on SlideShare. In the meantime, here are my CliffsNotes from the session.

Harmonize Words, Pictures and Structure

Gavin McMahon’s webinar on Slideshare

Words on slides aren’t the devil. You just need to use them the right way. Rather than skewer PowerPoint, use the platform to fill in the gaps on the area you don’t do particularly well. For example, if you’re an introverted soul, you might depend on the slide rather than oral communications to express a touch of levity in your storytelling.

I used the slide below in an internal presentation last year that absolutely bombed!

Man-T internal presentation

It’s OK.

Take a chance or two understanding that not everything will work.

Start with the Question, Why Are You Presenting?

There are really only two reasons that people present, either to frame the way people see the world or to move people to action. In either case, recognize that the audience is asking, “What’s in it for me?” The alignment between the answers to the two questions becomes the foundation for your presentation.

Humans Aren’t Rational But They are Great Rationalizers

Gavin McMahon’s recent webinar on how to deliver a great presentation

If you gravitate toward logic – I certainly count myself in this category – it can take a conscious effort to insert emotion into a presentation. Yet, it’s a must. As Gavin puts it, “Reason leads to judgment; emotion leads to action.” Again for introverts, emotive language on the actual slide might be a better approach than trying to channel a Meryl Streep performance.

Looks Count

I won’t numb you with studies from the wonderful world of neurology. In short, the science says If something looks good, we think it’s more truthful.

Create Visuals From Words

I’ve touched on this area before. Even though the vast majority of those in PR come to the profession through words, the right design touch can transform words into visuals (Just don’t expect “a word is worth a thousand pictures” to come to pass).

Look at how Gavin visually depicts what’s behind every presentation.

Gavin McMahon’s recent webinar on how to deliver a great presentation

We’re talking 17 words and two interlocking circles.

Presentation Training 101 squeezes the discomfort out of people by putting them in uncomfortable situations again and again under the premise that they eventually will get comfortable.

Personally, I prefer the Gavin approach.

Then again, I’m an introvert.

Side note: For more on visual storytelling, you might check out “Visual Lessons from BusinessWeek.”

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Do Publications Walk the Social Media Talk? Do They Truly Serve the Reader?

Every publication has embraced social media.

For proof, look no further than the “cutting-edge” journalism of Tactical Knives which connects with readers through Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Pinterest (knives on Pinterest is a story for another time).

Tactical Knives Magazine Cover

But here’s the question I posed to our crack research team: Do publications operate their social channels in the spirit of putting the reader, their target audience, at the center of the universe?

Studies show that the hard sell in today’s digital world is like knocking on a door with a feather. Instead, social media attention gravitates toward the useful, revealing or amusing. And if you can deliver on all three qualities, the trifecta generates an ongoing stacatto of clicks.

To answer the question, we focused our effort on a mix of publications covering both general business and the tech sector:

  • Fortune
  • Bloomberg Businessweek
  • Quartz
  • Mashable
  • PandoDaily
  • The New York Times Bits

Next, we gathered the tweets for each publication over a 12-hour period ( 6 am to 6 pm PT) on February 12, drilling into the data with two specific questions.

First, do the publications’ tweets include links?

They got the memo that links trigger shares. Out of 176 collective tweets from our test group, 176 included tweets.

List of: Tweet provocative stories, includes links, no more sochi tweets

But what are they linking too? Does the reader’s interests rate the top priority?

To dig into this area, we simply identified the number of tweets linking to stories in other publications. No single publications has a monopoly on the best journalism  so it stands to reason that if a publication was striving to serve the reader, it would periodically identify useful/revealing/amusing stories from other sources.

The data speaks for itself:

Bar chart of tweets with links & links to other publications

The New Yorks Times tech blog seems to be the only media property that believes its readers will benefit from journalism found elsewhere.

Of course, Data Science 101 states you can’t extrapolate from one day. With this in mind, we combed through two weeks of NY Times Bits data covering the standard work weeks of Feb. 17 – Feb 21 and Feb. 24 – 28.

Pie Chart of total number of  The New York Times Bits Tweets

It seems fair to say that The New York Times Bits and its social media crew make a conscious effort to serve the reader (WIRED and MIT Tech Review appear to be their go-to sources).

Lest you think The New York Times as a company has got the sharing religion, a review of the publication’s core account reveals 100 percent of the links from this account point to NYT stories.

The New York Times Twitter account

The bottom line–

Publications use Twitter as a one-way distribution channel to shove out their content to the outside world and manufacture incremental clicks.

Even the poster child for switched-on, Mashable, deploys Twitter as nothing more than a distribution channel. Raking through a weeks worth of Mashable tweets supported our initial cut that less than 10 percent of all links point readers to non-Mashable content.

Media properties talk a good game about new business models that cultivate community.

If Twitter is an indicator, they’ve got a ways to go.




The Next Time You’re Crafting Executive Quotes, Consider This

Regardless of your politics, no president has brought out the humanity of the Oval Office like President Obama.

How much comes from President Obama himself as opposed to his advisers?

The question misses the point.

He gets it or he wouldn’t sign off.

As exhibit A, take a look at the statement from President Obama on the passing of Harold Ramis.

Michelle and I were saddened to hear of the passing of Harold Ramis, one of America’s greatest satirists, and like so many other comedic geniuses, a proud product of Chicago’s Second City.  When we watched his movies – from “Animal House” and “Caddyshack” to “Ghostbusters” and “Groundhog Day” – we didn’t just laugh until it hurt.  We questioned authority.  We identified with the outsider.  We rooted for the underdog.  And through it all, we never lost our faith in happy endings.  Our thoughts and prayers are with Harold’s wife, Erica, his children and grandchildren, and all those who loved him, who quote his work with abandon, and who hope that he received total consciousness.

Speaking of Animal House, I periodically channel Otto in Animal House — “Now we could do it with conventional weapons, but that could take years and cost millions of lives.”

Back to President Obama’s narrative and why it works —

First, he sounds like a real human being, not a bunch of handlers haggling over an adjective.

The conversational tone continues with “a proud product of Chicago’s Second City.” Hey, even a president can take pride in his “hometown.”

The zinger comes in the third sentence when he shares that Ramis’ movies inspired them to “question authority.” (No wonder he has issues with Republicans.)

And he even channels Carl Spackler, the groundskeeper in “Caddyshack” in the close.

All in all, there’s a storytelling quality to the statement.

Unfortunately, the PR function continues to generate executive quotes with the stiffness of plywood. It’s such a waste in today’s media environment in which journalists are moving so quickly, they increasingly need a quick way to plug in fresh perspectives in quote form.

Done right, an executive quote should reveal something that doesn’t come across from the facts. Sharing an anecdote that takes the reader behind the curtain or offering a crisp viewpoint can be effective.

President Obama’s statement reflects these storytelling techniques and explains why publications ranging from USA Today to The Washington Post “borrowed” his words.

Storytelling techniques in quotes

storytelling techniques in executive quotes

Yes, I recognize that the man behind movies like  “Caddyshack” – “Cinderella story. Outta nowhere. A former greenskeeper, now …” – will garner more attention than a new tool for software programming.

Still, regardless of the space, a quote that actually says something extends its reach.


Stop Misrepresenting Storytelling!

Bad Storyteller

Judging from the comment in my post, “Can Storytelling Differentiate a PR Agency,” and an email that arrived shortly after (more on this in a minute), I appear to have gotten the attention of the National Storytelling Network.

They’re not pleased with me.

In my defense, I have come clean on numerous occasions making the point that the type of storytelling applied to business communications differs from pure storytelling and what professional storytellers do. Our approach “borrows” the techniques of storytelling to benefit the communications of our clients.

Here’s the email that takes me to the proverbial woodshed (with my commentary naturally):

As a professional storyteller, I continue to be frustrated by the misrepresentation of a very specific, age-old art form.

We’ve got the makings of a classic story arc with frustration serving as the crisis.

Storytelling is telling a story. Simple. Yet not.

No argument on this point. BTW, punctuation adds a nice touch.

For those of us who have honed our crafts, learned stories, traced their origins, polished phrases, worked on gestures and facial expressions all meant to entertain and edify a listening audience, the use of the word “storytelling” to describe any other process or product is just plain wrong.

It seems reasonable to have different types of storytelling. I don’t think anyone confuses oral storytelling or professional storytelling with selling pancake syrup.

PR agents are no storyteller. Ad execs are not storytellers. Novelists and film makers are not storyteller. Yes, what they do is an art form. But so is storytelling.

Advertising is not storytelling? You may convey a min story compressed into 1-2 minutes in order to sell a product. A vignette, perhaps. But not a story.

And certainly not storytelling.

Good to know there’s a time requirement for a story. And really? You don’t think Spielberg is a storyteller?

Our very identity is being hijacked. Our art form is being diluted and misrepresented.

Please, please, find another word. Be specific. About what you do.  About what we do.

No one dislikes a hyjacking more than me. Let’s find the middle ground. I suggest you make an effort to use the phrase “oral storytelling” or “professional storytelling,” and I will be conscious of applying phrases like “storytelling techniques” and “brand storytelling.”

It truly makes a difference.

Check out National Storytelling Network, would you please?  You will be delighted, entertained, educated. perhaps you will understand why this is such an issue to so many of us!

You got it! I’ll check it out!

Kind thanks!

L. Schuyler Ford

At this point, I could say I’ll report back on how this story unfolds.

But according to L. Schuyler, that would be “plain wrong.”

So let’s go with — if this lively debate takes another twist, I’ll be happy to share it in a second post.


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