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!
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.9 comments
Every PR agency touts its storytelling prowess.
When everyone gravitates toward the same shiny objective, it tends to lose meaning. You can start to get a feel for how this plays out through a simple Factiva (massive database of publications) search on the number of stories that contain the word “storytelling” going back 10 years.
I question whether the growing usage of the word makes for a happy ending because it causes the marketplace, specifically those who buy communication services, to perceive storytelling expertise as a commodity; i.e., all PR firms do this.
Yet, I view us as one of the few PR agencies that walks the storytelling talk, evolving the theory into practical techniques that get applied to client campaigns.
But have we baked this attribute into our brand?
The honest answer is there’s work to be done.
Years ago in a Q&A on storytelling, Kathy Hanson asked me, “While your blog focuses significantly on storytelling in business, your company’s website, www.hoffman.com, does not seem to play up storytelling. Is that a fair observation and if so, is there a reason behind not emphasizing storytelling on your agency’s site?”
At the time, I responded:
- That’s a fair statement. We’ve debated how much to emphasize our storytelling expertise on the Agency website. The challenge relates to economics. The amount of money that companies allocate to outside storytelling services is a tiny fraction of what’s earmarked for public relations services. In a world where labels often point the way, it’s important that people searching for PR services find their way to our doorstep.
OK, so I made a “slight” miscalculation, losing sight of this concept called marketing.
We’re now making a conscious effort to accentuate our storytelling expertise as a brand attribute.
If you search on “PR storytelling,” you’ll find that we show up on page 1 and usually in the top-three results (the intersection of SEO and PR).
We’ve also recently created an ad that delivers this message.
Looking to the future, we’ll be bulldozing our company website with hopes of going live with the new site in the April timeframe. We believe the new site affords the best opportunity yet to differentiate our brand, including our storytelling expertise.
It’s all part of our quest to be the cobbler’s kids who have shoes.5 comments
I’ve discussed in previous posts the challenge of bringing the traditional storytelling arc into business communications. Companies don’t have two hours to set the stage, tease out the plot with the requisite twists and turns before the trumpets sound with the happy ending. Often, we’re lucky to get 90 seconds, and even that depends on a clever subject header that hits the mark.
That’s why I was blown away by a video from the Thai telco, True Move, which went live on YouTube last week. Not only does it deliver the classic story arc in a tidy three minutes, the pacing feels natural. If you’re not one of nearly 8 million who have already viewed the video, it’s below:
For storytelling to captivate, you’ve got to have something go wrong or better yet, go terribly wrong. The True Move video jumps right into the bad stuff with a young boy caught shoplifting goods to help his sick mom. The hero, a restaurant owner, steps in to help the boy with the single twist coming 30 years later when the same restaurant owner collapses and the boy, now a doctor, returns the good deed.
I love the humanity in this narrative.
But does the video connect this humanity to the True Move brand? The company strives to make the connection with the closing line in the video, “Giving is the best communications.” I don’t know. It seems a bit forced.
Still, I think the feel-good story does create a halo effect for the company. You subconsciously figure that True Move cares about people.
No doubt, the company will measure the video’s impact on perception. The fact that this is the first video from True Move that includes English captions says the company wanted to raise awareness beyond Thailand’s borders. With millions of views, I’d say mission accomplished.
While I obviously don’t have access to the company’s measurement tools, Wikipedia gives us a “cheater’s” way to correlate the video to general awareness.
You can see from the chart that True Move’s wiki plods along with a 100 or so views per day. The first full day of the video on YouTube spikes the number to roughly 1,600 views and subsequent days show more than 3,000 views.
Hopefully, the success of the video emboldens True Move to double down on storytelling.
I’ll be watching (from afar).2 comments
Virtually every great story encompasses failure or at least a crisis.
Apple flirted with bankruptcy.
J.K. Rowling lived on welfare before Harry Potter came to the rescue.
Everyone told Freddie Patek he was too short to play professional baseball (naturally a favorite).
As Fortune Journalist Patricia Sellers noted in discussing storytelling in business, “If failure isn’t part of the story, I’m not that interested.”
If the failure causes the reader to wince, all the better.
This poses a challenge for business communicators who are conditioned to do the exact opposite. We’re striving to highlight achievements, ever conscious of keeping any semblance of a crisis behind closed – no make that locked – doors.
But business communications can still shape a form of storytelling by using a technique adored by the advertising world: contrast.
While contrast alone won’t tease out drama à la “Shawshank Redemption,” it still makes for a more interesting read/view whether you’re striving to reach journalists or taking your story directly to the target audience.
There’s something about the “before and after” approach that resonates with people. Borrowing from three different media properties, you can see how three different examples of visual storytelling depend on contrast.
- Time Magazine
Even if you don’t read the information, you take away that today’s worker in manufacturing has gone white collar.
Very clever on Yahoo’s part to contrast the difference of the old site design to the new site design in a GIF that flips back and forth. I think I’ll be borrowing this technique down the road.
If there isn’t strong contrast between the traditional way and the new way, the company probably shouldn’t be taking on the status quo.
In short, contrast in business storytelling comes from the difference between “what was” and “what is.” Typically, the greater the difference, the more interesting to the audience.
It all sounds so simple.
Yet, companies often derail contrast in storytelling by deciding to not share the “what was” part. Sometimes, they perceive that the “what was” reflects poorly on the company, so they prefer to leave the information buried in history.
But you need both to create a frame, which in turn delivers the contrast.No comments
Virtually every novel reflects some form of the classic storytelling arc.
Same goes for movies.
As I’m driving to see “Zero Dark Thirty,” I’m wondering how the heck will the movie build drama. I already know how the story ends. Yet, the CIA operative played by Jessica Chastain must deal with stuff going cockeyed again and again to the point that you lose yourself in the story and indeed can feel the tension building.
In the communications business, we don’t have 300 pages or two hours on the silver screen to define characters or advance a plot with the requisite twists and turns that culminate in a payoff and happy ending.
But it’s not just the element of time that poses a quandary for communicators. The intrinsic nature of classic storytelling revolves around crisis, or better yet, the type of failure that causes the audience to wince. That’s what teases out the tension. That’s what keeps the audience engaged.
PR, on the other hand, is conditioned to do the exact opposite. We’re striving to highlight achievements, ever conscious of keeping any semblance of a crisis behind the closed – no make that locked – doors.
It’s this catch-22 that led to creation of “The Communicator’s Spike.”
What gives lift to this narrative comes from the gap or contrast between the old way and the new way. The greater the difference between the old way and the new way, the more interesting the story.
It still requires PR to get out of its comfort zone. Often, we don’t want to discuss the past because it wasn’t flattering. Yet, without the past, the journalist or reader has no way to frame the story, which generates the contrast (between two points in time).
By storytelling fodder, I don’t mean just facts and figures. There needs to be texture, anecdotes and language that demands attention.
You can actually create some drama with this technique.
At the very least, the story packs more punch than your garden-variety PR narrative.2 comments