After being chastised by the National Storytelling Network – “You, Mr. Hoffman, are no storyteller” – I’d like to start with a ground rule on nomenclature.
When it comes to business communications, I consider storytelling to be shorthand for “storytelling techniques.” In other words, PR practitioners don’t have the luxury of 200 pages or 90 minutes on the silver screen to tease out a classic story arc. But we can apply similar techniques in creating content that outperforms the programming on CSPAN.
With that housekeeping out of the way, let’s rewind the tape to 1983 when I landed my first job at a PR agency. Even writing a press release on disk drive with 20 megabytes of storage (please hold the gasp) seemed exciting at the time.
I remember my initial experience observing the senior guys conducting media training for a client. It was all about pummeling the executives into submission to stay on message. While the trainers were having fun – kind of a PR version of a torture chamber –it occurred to me that such a process might generate robotic responses.
But what did I know at 25 years of age with zero experience?
So I followed the lead of my role models and the mantra “stay on message” … for a while. I can’t give you the exact time and date I went rogue. I just remember a few years into my career coming to the realization that prospective customers – much less journalists – never uttered the words, “Wow, that’s a great message.”
Think about this for a moment. Aside from the chatter after watching a focus group, no one brags about a message.
But people do acknowledge good stories. Better yet, they talk about those stories and share them with colleagues and friends.
Stories trump messages every single time.
There’s been much discussion including in this forum on the importance of storytelling techniques in social media.
Yet, the opportunity is bigger than just social media,. So many online interactions lend themselves to storytelling and ultimately fortifying the brand, even those that fall under the “mundane” category.
In fact, you could make an argument that the “mundane,” for example the confirmation for an online subscription, represents one of the best opportunities to stand out, since everyone else defaults to the status quo.
Is there any communication more dull than the out-of-office email?: “I am sorry I missed your email, but am currently out of the office (duh). I will get back to you when I return to the office on November XX.”
But author and customer service guru Marsha Collier crafts her out-of-office email with personality and pinch of levity.
A little bit of stage-setting –
Marsha got married last week.
An email trying to reach Marsha post-wedding triggered this note:
I am currently out of the office for my wedding and honeymoon.
I know I’m supposed to say that I’ll have limited access to email and won’t be able to respond until I return – but you know that’s only partly true. My devices will be with me and I can respond if I need to. And I recognize that I may need to interrupt my honeymoon from time to time to deal with something urgent.
That said, I promised my husband that after the wedding I am going to try to disconnect, get away and enjoy our honeymoon. So, I’m going to experiment with something new. I’m going to leave the decision in your hands:
- If your email truly is urgent and you need a response while I’m on my honeymoon, please resend it to ********** and I’ll try to respond to it promptly.
- If you think someone else at The Collier Company might be able to help you, feel free to email my assistant at ********* and she’ll try to point you in the right direction.
Otherwise, I’ll respond when I return …
In talking to Marsha, she made a point of saying her email was patterned after one crafted by Josh Kopelman. Recognizing storytelling gold is half the battle.
And congratulations to Marsha and Curt on their big day.
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.
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.
After Hillary Clinton won the New Hampshire primary back in 2008, she stood at the podium and uttered the words, “I found my own voice.”
“Voice” is tricky.
It’s always there.
Yet, it can be tougher to find than Waldo in bad lighting. And when you do find it, success is not guaranteed. (Just ask Hillary.)
Anyone standing on a communications pulpit yearns to be described by qualities such as insightful, entertaining, helpful, amusing, witty, pure, empathetic, engaged and committed. Voice goes a long a way toward determining whether others view your pulpit as worth their time.
I’m not just referring to politicians. The same holds true for entertainers, leaders and your garden-variety writers.
After blogging at the intersection of storytelling techniques, digital communications and PR for precisely five years and one day – yesterday, July 10, 2008 marked the publishing of my first post – I’ve been thinking about the journey in shaping my own voice. I gain satisfaction from a sense of discovery, teaching and advocating. If I can manage to conjure a touch of levity, all the better.
Of course, none of this matters if no one is paying attention. Obviously, sensationalism and polarizing voices sell. How else do you explain the popularity of Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh?
Regarding my own voice, I’m sure some have found a post (or two) to be snarky. While I’d prefer to stay out of the snarky quadrant, it’s inevitable that between a strong point of view and a bent sense of humor, I will periodically push things too far. Hopefully, I never come across as mean-spirited.
Even without applause emanating from New Hampshire, I’d like to think 466 posts have honed a voice I can call my own.
It starts with a belief that there should be a fun dimension to business and specifically communications. Bringing forth the absurdity in communications plays into this. And I do enjoy a good language tug-of-war.
I think my mom put it best, “You were a smart ass as a child. I thought you would grow out of it.”
For those who have taken the time to drop by my neighborhood, thank you.
It’s no fun taking a journey by yourself.