In preparation for our storytelling workshops, we request that participants complete some light homework. We often ask them what B2B company does a particularly good job in building its brand and public profile.
With rare exception, GE wins this unaided awareness test.
In a “cement mixer” with thousands of B2B companies, what is GE doing to stand out? How is the company building a brand that people remember?
In reverse-engineering the B2B side of GE’s communications to the outside world, one overriding principle emerges —
GE strives to touch both sides of the brain, the intellectual and the emotional. In analyzing B2B communications over the years, I would say one out of every 100 B2B companies makes this leap … even 1 percent might be generous.
Whether you’re selling bulldozers, semiconductors or lubricants by the barrel, it’s hard to see how a buyer would care about anything that smacks of emotion. Yet, it’s not like these products automatically strip decision makers of their emotions, leaving them in a Spock state.
GE gets this point.
You might be thinking that GE enjoys a unique position as one of the best-run companies on the planet going back to the Jack Welsh days — with the type of marketing resources that only come from being a $146B company. While true, here’s a takeaway lesson from GE that any B2B company can apply to its outbound communications and brand-building efforts —
Use storytelling techniques to educate, inform and even amuse in contrast to the conventional B2B playbook that shouts “Me, Me … and here’s a little bit more about Me.”
The company’s blog, GE Reports, provides a good example of how this plays out in pragmatic terms. The blog executes on the promise to explore stories on innovation, science and technology, as well as GE viewpoints.
Take a post on the Panama Canal.
The storytelling starts with a double entendre in the headline, “Dig This: The Panama Canal is About to Get Busy”
Next, look at the opening paragraph:
The Panama Canal is a full century old, but it’s going through a growth spurt. The 48-mile-long waterway that cuts across “the backbone of the Western Hemisphere” is going through the final year of a massive expansion. When work is completed this year, bigger locks will allow the giant “New Panamax” class of container ships and supertankers to slip through and boost the canal’s capacity by half.
No mention of GE.
But the part I find most revealing involves the visual storytelling in the post. This is a tough leap for most B2B companies, believing that depth of content, not “pictures,” wins the day. Yet, this is one of the best ways for B2B content to wiggle its way to an emotional touch point.
The GE post’s hero image features a GIF with an explosion sure to capture the most fleeting attention span.
More than scrutinize the visual assets individually, it’s also interesting to consider the “look” of the overall post. Just like newspapers have figured out that a page of black type turns off readers, the same principle can be applied to a blog post.
With this in mind, I’ve come up with two metrics that shape the reader’s immediate impression of a post (before reading a word):
- Ratio of words to visual
- Percent of column inches devoted to visuals
GE scores an 81:1 words-to-visual ratio, impressive when the typical post of 300 to 500 words carries one visual. And visuals dress 68 percent of the GE post’s column inches, again far beyond the norm.
The value of visual storytelling also impacts the increasing use of mobile devices to access information. Again, the GE post looks good on a smartphone (two snapshots below).
As I dig – there’s that verb again – deeper in this area, I’ll try to come up with industry best practices for the two metrics on “looks.”
BTW, this post scored an 79:1 words-to-visual ratio with roughly 41 percent of the column inches devoted to visuals.
As a PR nerd, when I read a story in a publication that vacuums my attention, two questions immediately come to mind:
- Was PR the catalyst for the article?
- What storytelling techniques carry the narrative?
Such is the process I went through with the NYT piece, “A Chinese Billionaire Spinning Research into Investment Gold.”
As for the first question, my guess would be yes, PR planted the seeds for this feature. Either that or Zhang Lei’s storytelling acuity scores in the Ira Glass quadrant. Regardless, this doesn’t take anything away from the journalist Alexandra Stevenson who crafts a story that shows — not tells — Mr. Zhang’s verve.
In breaking down the article, four storytelling techniques carry the narrative.
As noted, anecdotes play a role in providing a window into what makes Mr. Zhang tick starting with the lead.
“With an $18 billion war chest, he is one of China’s richest investors. Yet on a recent trip to San Francisco, Zhang Lei and his entourage crammed into a three-bedroom house in the Mission District, rented through Airbnb. He also ordered water from Instacart, the on-demand grocery delivery service. A few days later in New York, he bought food through Google Express. Of course, it is not as if he could not afford luxury hotels and restaurants. Instead, it was research.”
A second anecdote serves as an indicator that entrepreneurism is encoded in his DNA:
“At 7, Mr. Zhang had his first business idea. He rented his comic books to passengers waiting for their trains. Today, that shared-economy concept is the basis for Silicon Valley companies like Uber and Airbnb.”
It still surprises me that most PR functions (internal + agency) develop content bereft of anecdotes. Not only do anecdotes pump life into stories, but they often serve a dual purpose of meeting the journalist’s need for content not in the public domain (or readily accessible).
One of the most challenging storytelling techniques, failure, makes an appearance in the form of rejection when he applied for jobs on Wall Street. Not only did zero job offers materialize, but one particularly harsh salvo came his way:
“One interviewer went so far as to question his intellectual capacity when Mr. Zhang asked whether there was any point to gas stations.”
The third storytelling technique, what I term the unexpected or weird twist, is woven throughout the narrative. Like how Mr. Zhang tried to hire an old friend who said no, but suggested his wife might be a fit. Today, “the wife,” Tracy Ma, holds the chief operating officer position at the firm as Mr. Zhang’s No. 2 executive.
And finally, there’s a contrarian quality to the story such as when Mr. Zhang takes the position that American companies and Silicon Valley can learn from their Chinese counterparts when it comes to innovation:
“I’m seeing an uprising of Chinese entrepreneurs who are able to upgrade themselves versus the relatively slow-moving multinational companies.”
Virtually every company would welcome a 1,432-word feature in The New York Times.
This type of win calls for building out the right content — storytelling elements if you will — that stitch together the Zhang feature.
In short, think like a journalist.
As Mike Butcher, TechCrunch’s European editor put it, “‘The man who bit the dog is far more interesting than the dog that bit the man.”
Update (4/27/15, 2:45 pm): It turns out that the PR function had zero involvement in the story. In fact, the NYT journalist Alexandra Stevenson pursued Zhang for close to a year. I appreciate Alexandra taking the time to share this context.
Thanks to the wonders of Internet and WordPress, any company can rationalize the cost of digital publishing.
What’s more, Google’s decision to communicate the dialing down of activities in China on its corporate blog gave street cred to owned media. Since Google’s act on January 12, 2005, organizations of all shapes and sizes have become much more aggressive in taking their stories directly to the target audiences.
There’s no question that this move lessens dependence on third-party media. Like the investment world’s emphasis on the diversified portfolio, the building of a brand calls for diversified activities.
With that said, the value of media relations doesn’t disappear. In today’s environment where information gets flung about with the care of a ditch digger, one could make an argument that media coverage is more valuable than ever to a brand today.
Yet there’s the rub.
Succeeding with journalists can require NOT publishing. In fact, it can often mean not publishing your best stuff.
It sounds counter-intuitive, but you can see how this plays out with Intel’s recent media relations work to publicize the 50th anniversary of Moore’s Law.
Intel essentially takes on the role of journalist in interviewing Gordon Moore on his famous axiom. Rather than publish the interview, Intel opts to package the content in a tidy PDF downloaded from its newsroom.
In pointing journalists to the content, Intel gains three benefits:
- “Access” to new perspectives from Mr. Moore stands to increase the depth of the stories.
- Inserts Intel’s preferred narrative slices into media stories.
- Controls Mr. Moore’s input (also reduces the demands on his time).
Let’s look at this last point. Even if Intel ponies up Mr. Moore for a day or even two days of press interviews, you’re still going to have a gaggle of journalists indignant that they weren’t the chosen ones.
Some journalists like Don Clark at The Wall Street Journal tried to connect with Mr. Moore: “Mr. Moore couldn’t be reached, and Intel said he wasn’t available to comment.”
Of course, everyone ends up unhappy if Intel manufactures 1,500 words of corporate speak. To this point, there’s a journalistic-like quality to the Intel deliverable with the same storytelling techniques.
For example, this anecdote surfaced in the BBC and The Wall Street Journal:
- “It’s amazing how often I run across a reference to Moore’s Law. In fact, I Googled ‘Moore’s Law’ and I Googled ‘Murphy’s Law’ and ‘Moore’s Law’ beats ‘Murphy’ by at least two to one.”
There’s very much a conversational tone to much of the content like this passage that landed in the San Jose Mercury News and PC Mag:
- “But one could see the trend was going in the direction that this was going to be the cheaper way eventually. That was my real objective — to communicate that we have a technology that’s going to make electronics cheap.”
Back to the point that Intel did not publish the Moore interview. The commoditization of the news release forces journalists to dig deeper for stories and content not in the public domain.
It’s true that the Intel document sits in the public domain (Intel’s press room). Still, by virtue of the packaging — atomized content instead of a complete story — and being “roped off” for journalists, the perception is one of out of the mainstream view.
Did Intel’s approach work?
The question can’t be answered by simply looking at media impressions. The media was going to cover a milestone of that magnitude whether Intel lifted a finger or not.
But given that Intel’s atomized content showed up in so many of the articles ranging from USA Today to CNET to Wired, it seems reasonable to conclude that Intel accomplished its mission.
Since Lee Kuan Yew’s passing, every media outlet in the free and not-so-free world has chronicled his accomplishments.
If you haven’t spent time in Southeast Asia, it’s hard to appreciate the “miracle” of transforming this speck of geography into a world-class economy. It’s not quite Moses parting the Red Sea, but it’s close.
I made my first trip to Singapore in 1994, four years after Mr. Lee had stepped down as prime minister. Still very much a public figure, I saw how his approach to communications deviated from the status quo.
In a region where statesmen strive for vanilla, Mr. Lee achieved chartreuse … in a neon state.
Americans like bluster; Asians not so much. Years ago in a discussion with the general manager of our Korean office, she explained this Asian dynamic with the Korean phrase, 모단돌이 정맞는다. Loosely translated it means, “The nail that stands out gets hammered.”
Mr. Lee clearly understood that communications that stood out would be more persuasive in rallying a nation and gaining peer status with other countries. If this periodically made him a target for the hammer, so be it. He had a job to get done.
In my studying Mr. Lee’s communications over the past week or so, what emerges is a master storyteller. By storyteller, I don’t only mean the ability to tell a compelling story with a beginning, an end and twist in between … though he could do this. What’s more impressive was his natural instinct to apply storytelling techniques to how he communicated in general.
With this in mind, I’ve categorized a cross-section of his quotes by storytelling technique:
“We knew that if we were just like our neighbours, we would die. Because we’ve got nothing to offer against what they have to offer. So we had to produce something which is different and better than what they have. It’s incorrupt. It’s efficient. It’s meritocratic. It works. We are pragmatists. Does it work? Let’s try it and if it does work, fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one. We are not enamoured with any ideology.”
- The New York Times, August 29, 2007
“The Americans are great missionaries. They have an irrepressible urge to convert others.”
- The book “Wit and Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew,” 1992
“The final verdict will not be in the obituaries. The final verdict will be when the PhD students dig out the archives, read my old papers, assess what my enemies have said, sift the evidence and seek the truth. I’m not saying that everything I did was right, but everything I did was for an honourable purpose.”
- The New York Times, September 10, 2010
“Let me be frank; if we did not have the good points of the West to guide us, we wouldn’t have got out of our backwardness. We would have been a backward economy with a backward society. But we do not want all of the West. Let me give you an example that encapsulates the whole difference between America and Singapore. America has a vicious drug problem. How does it solve it? It goes around the world helping other anti-narcotic agencies to try and stop the suppliers. Singapore does not have that option. What we can do is to pass a law which says that any customs officer or policeman who sees anybody in Singapore behaving suspiciously … can require that man to have his urine tested. If the sample is found to contain drugs, the man immediately goes for treatment. In America if you did that it, would be an invasion of the individual’s rights and you would be sued.”
- Foreign Policy, March/April 1994
“You lose nothing by being polite. The answer is ‘No’, but please say it politely and give the reasons … Explain to me why ‘No.’ Don’t change ‘No’ to ‘Yes.’ Don’t be a fool. If there was a good reason why it is ‘No,’ it must remain ‘No,’ but the man must be told politely.”
- at the Victoria Theatre, September 30 1965
Anecdote (on how Americans perceive Singapore)
“They don’t know where Singapore is, they are not interested. They think of only Michael Fay, then maybe caning, chewing gum … strange odd place this Singapore.”
- Book, Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew (March 13, 2013)
To see Mr. Lee in action, check out his interview on “Meet the Press” during the 1960s.
He starts off a tad nervous, but hits his stride around 7:41 with this response after getting peppered with questions on Vietnam:
“ May I say what I mean in my own words. Americans have this friendly habit for helping a person think for himself, and I’d rather do my own composition if I may …”
If you don’t have time to watch the entire video, at least jump to 12:39 where after explaining to the clueless journalist the difference between being Singaporean and Chinese, he shares a prophetic narrative on China.
Needless to say, Lee Kuan Yew didn’t concern himself with staying on message.
In closing, I asked three of our senior leaders in our Singapore office to share their thoughts on Mr. Lee:
“Mr. Lee was a clear-eyed, blunt-speaking economic strategist and an astute observer. He kept the government nimble and small, the economy transparent and effective, and regulation simple, which is why Singapore is the success that it is today. He was also a firm believer in meritocracy. But I will always recall his firm, no-holds-barred authoritarian communication style to the electorate as typified by this quote from 1987 to The Straits Times: “I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters — who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”
- Shawn Balakrishnan, General Manager
“Lee Kwan Yew’s style of communication reflects the kind of leader he is. He tells you straight what you need to do in order to lead a better life. It’s paternalistic and direct. Here’s a video of LKY telling a female PhD student to get married before her child bearing years are over. This clip summarises the kind of person he is and how he shoots from the hip.”
- Idran Junadi, Account Director
“I grew up watching Lee Kuan Yew on TV and at political rallies, and to this day, I have not seen another local politician with the same fire and force of conviction that LKY displayed in the earlier years. Few orators can command the audiences the way he could. He was singularly eloquent, fiercely intelligent and equally comfortable using analogies that ranged from Ozymandias to the brawling pit. He pulled no punches. He was always brutally honest and often controversial. If you were the opposition and facing him at a political debate, God help you. Many local correspondents have shared that no global statesmen terrified them more than our very own Lee Kuan Yew.”
- Maureen Tseng, Director of Client Services
It’s true that Mr. Lee was a polarizing figure.
But I think one thing everyone can agree on is that Mr. Lee showed the power of language in leadership.
I’m not referring to fiction or fabrication.
The question relates to the role of storytelling techniques in the HR function.
The question also happened to be the thrust of my talk at the Alexander Mann Solutions (AMS) conference last week in Hong Kong.
It turns out that one can make an argument for HR more than any other function needing storytelling. After all, the ability to recruit and retain talent often determines the success of a company.
Of course, HR wants to be persuasive in its communications.
In a world in which companies compete for talent with the ferocity of nine-year olds after smashing open the piñata, one would expect HR to lead the charge in applying storytelling techniques to their communications.
Not so fast.
It’s human nature to resist change, and from my unscientific observations, the language of HR still takes its cues from the mahogany row handbook drafted during the Reagan administration. Sure, there are exceptions to the rule, but most of today’s HR communications depend on the same uninspired language.
My talk at the AMS conference zeroed in on the job journey captured in the following illustrations:
Every interaction is an opportunity for HR to influence the candidate’s perception of the company and the actual job.
Take something as seemingly simple as the auto-generated email that confirms receipt of a candidate’s resume or application. Here’s an example of how 99 percent of these emails read:
Just adding a shard of human warmth would improve the note. Ironically, the above words came from a creative services company.
John Ciancutti, who has hired hundreds of engineers in building world-class teams at Netflix, Facebook and now Coursera reiterated:
“Every touchpoint in every phase of your process should drive toward that result.”
With this in mind, here’s the note we recently implemented for candidates to confirm receipt of their application:
We don’t expect our auto-confirmation email to prompt the candidate to channel Jim Carrey with a “So they’re telling me there’s a chance. Yeh!!!”
We do believe that allowing our voice to come through the note helps the candidate get to know us a little better.
And the better that candidates know us, the more likely they’ll sign on the dotted line.
Side note: Alexander Mann hired a graphic recorder to capture each of the talks at the conference. Here’s the “picture” from the talk.