That’s exactly what happened last week when CNN covered President Obama’s intention to veto the Keystone XL pipeline that would transport oil from Canada to Mexico.
Check out the headline.
Obviously, the focus of the story lies on a Presidential decision.
Yet, the pen makes headline.
But we don’t actually “meet the pen” until almost 500 words later at the very end of the story:
That pen is a left-handed Cross Townsend, assembled at the 169-year-old company’s plant in Lincoln, Rhode Island, from components made in China.
“The old saying goes the pen is mightier than the sword, and in these days we don’t use swords anymore, we use pens,” said Bryan Fournier, vice president of operations at Cross Pens.
What’s going on here?
This is a case where the needs of journalism and PR converge as one. I continue to believe that PR underutilizes the anecdote as a storytelling technique, and this is why the Cross Pen example stood out.
CNN is looking for a way to differentiate its news story on President Obama exercising his veto power.
As you can see from the smattering of headlines above, all of them essentially say the same thing.
On the PR side, Cross Pen is looking to “borrow” the news event as a way to shine the national spotlight on its product.
Reverse-engineering the story, all cues point to Cross pitching the anecdote as an exclusive. I say this because the anecdote doesn’t appear in any other coverage. It says something about the power of anecdotes in today’s journalism that they can be pitched this way.
And the end of the story, specifically the clichéd comment from the Cross executive around the “pen is mightier than the sword, points to a pitch.
But the most revealing data point comes from the 81-second video that accompanies the news story in which the pen takes on the lead role. We even get a peek into the manufacturing process and learn that making pens for presidents is indeed cool (her words, not mine).
The video offers another proof point that “sausage making” content — the process and actions that take place behind the curtain — makes for an effective storytelling technique.
Note: Kudos to one of our senior account professionals in our Pacific Northwest office, Kali Bean, who brought the CNN story to my attention. I’ll be making the trek to our Pacific Northwest office later this week to take the entire team through our storytelling workshop.
In conducting our storytelling workshops, the concept of contrast is one technique that always resonates with participants.
I think of contrast as a poor man’s failure. Several posts have highlighted the power of failure in lifting a narrative, but most companies won’t go there. When was the last time a CEO barked “OK, let’s focus on these failures in the coming quarter?”
Yet, the failure story at its core is one of contrast — failure vs. success — a technique acceptable to all companies.
You can always find examples of contrast in the media. After the shocking terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the lights in the Eiffel Tower were turned off out of respect for the victims. In covering the story, The Wall Street Journal could have run a photo like this:
Instead, the Journal ran the following photo on Page 1 above the fold, showing the iconic symbol with and without lights:
As another example from the media, TIME Magazine runs a simple vignette each week that contrasts someone who had a good week with someone who had a bad week:
One of my favorite examples of contrast comes from a Whole Foods thought leadership campaign on the critical role that bee pollination plays in the food chain. To hammer home this point, the campaign contrasted the produce department with bees and without bees eliminating:
- Summer squash
- Green onions
- Bok choy
- Broccoli rabe
- Mustard greens
On the visual storytelling side, the classic contrast immediately comes through:
One of our clients, Alcatel-Lucent, put contrast to good use in communicating its vision as it embarked on a turnaround plan.
If the company merely provides an outline that calls for:
- Focus on IP Networking and Ultra-Broadband specialist
- Four main businesses with different management and P&L responsibility
- Prioritize R&D
- 1 billion in euros in fixed cost savings
- Self-funded and financial sustainability
… there’s no context for the story — thus, the absence of “life.”
Instead, Alcatel-Lucent packaged its vision with contrast:
Even if Alcatel-Lucent weren’t our client, I would say that it took guts to share where it is coming from, obviously not a flattering portrayal.
Often, executives won’t sign up for sharing the “before” part because it puts the company in a negative light. But without this part, there is no contrast. You can’t just jump ahead to the good stuff. Framing contrast with “old way à new way” or “before à after” or “with à without” delivers natural springboards into this technique.
The greater the gap between the points, the more drama or tension in the narrative.
The story of a person who goes from rags to riches regularly appears in the media. You rarely read about the individual who parlays moderate success to riches.
Watching the new AMC TV series “Better Call Saul” — brought to you by the same folks who created Breaking Bad — we find Saul has gone from a lifestyle where no bad suit is out of his price range to working at a Cinnabon. It’s the sizable gap that jars the senses (and amuses).
One final comment —
While not exactly the same thing, a comparison can also insert a fresh wrinkle into a story.
One such comparison that stands out in my mind involved India’s space mission that orbited Mars last year. Narendra Modi, now India’s prime minister, pointed out that the cost of his country’s Mars mission was less than it took to make the movie Gravity. The clever juxtaposition ended up in countless headlines.
Whether it’s contrast or comparison, the technique should be part of every communicator’s arsenal.
When Warren Buffet spoke at Columbia University, a student asked what he could do now to prepare for a career in investing. As reported in the Omaha World Herald, Buffett thought for a few seconds and then reached for the stack of reports, trade publications and other papers he had brought with him.
“Read 500 pages like this every day,” said Buffett, or words to that effect. “That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”
The same concept holds true for communications, although I’m not advocating that you read 500 pages every day. Still, one could make the argument that real reading — setting aside time to read articles from start to finish annotating along the way — holds even more value in the communications industry.
And I’m not talking about staying apprised for industry news from PR Week, PR Newser and the like.
Instead, it helps to venture across an eclectic mix of reading that that both stretches and jars your brain.
A few colleagues recently asked me what makes my nightstand (virtual and the wood version). Here are seven suggestion that deplete my stash of 3M stickers often highlighting storytelling techniques:
1. MediaGazer: Brought to you by the same people behind Techmeme, this property aggregates all things media in one place. If you strive to be a student of media — and you should if your job touches communications — MediaGazer deserves a benchmark.
2. The New York Times: I’m not big on the old media guard, but the best newspaper in the country (yes, my opinion) delivers the goods. I’m constantly pulling content from the NYT for my storytelling workshops. You’ll find some of the best storytelling in journalism every Wednesday in the paper’s Dining section. And the tips on restaurants aren’t too shabby either.
3. Smashing Magazine: I’ve penned a number of posts this year on the importance of PR pros evolving their visual storytelling game. Through sheer osmosis, Smashing Magazine will nudge you in this direction. I find the channel on Web Design particularly useful with articles like “A Journey Through Beautiful Typography in Web Design.”
4. Nieman Labs: The publication’s charter is simple: Help journalism figure out its future in an Internet age. One could make an argument that a similar exercise would benefit the communications profession. While Nieman Labs hasn’t diversified into the PR realm, many of the stories have just as much relevance to communicators. After all, we’re students of media.
5. Moz Blog: As explained in our SlideShare, “The Blending of Digital Marketing and PR,” organic search represents a natural extension of PR. Regardless of your expertise, you’ll find fresh insights and what amounts to mini training sessions on the Moz blog.
6.Asia Tech News Review: For those interested in Asia, here’s a painless way to plug into the scene. Jon Russell, who spent three years as The Next Web’s Asia editor before recently taking a gig at TechCrunch — many many years ago Jon worked for our UK office in the bustling metropolis of Egham — curates the most interesting, significant or simply weird news in Asia from the previous week. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.
7. Bloomberg Businessweek: You’ll notice that I didn’t hyperlink the publication’s title — the reason being you should fork out the money for the print version. It’s in the hardcopy that you’ll discover cool techniques for visual storytelling that periodically border on experimentation.
I wrote a post over a year ago called “Can Storytelling Differentiate a PR Agency? ”
With seemingly every communications consultancy touting its storytelling prowess, I questioned whether those who buy communication services perceived storytelling expertise as a commodity. With that said, it seemed fair to say that no PR agency, including The Hoffman Agency, had baked storytelling into its brand.
We’ve been working on changing that. The recent launch of our new website represents the most visible piece yet of our progress. Some would argue that simply redesigning our website so it looks like part of the 21st century would be an improvement. I wouldn’t disagree.
Still, taking our favorite counsel from high school English — “Show, don’t tell” — we’ve strived to do exactly that with our own site.
Our home page rotates multiple images, immediately bringing visual storytelling to the fore. As advocated in previous posts, it’s the harmony of words and visuals that often accentuates the “show” part:
If we’re going to call out a section titled “Our Story,” we better get it right. Here’s the core piece of this narrative:
In this case, we actually borrow from our lesson on “word visuals” to create the visual above.
The section on global campaigns borrows from a real-world example to illustrate the difficulty of collaboration across geographies in the larger PR agencies.
We’re showing that there can be a fun dimension to business communications without undercutting the serious nature of our work.
Our new website reflects the same storytelling techniques we apply to our client campaigns:
And the list of storytelling techniques goes on.
During an interview years ago I was challenged with the question, “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.
That’s no longer the case.
We believe the intersection of storytelling and PR is so strong that one can’t be extricated from the other.
And we want our website to serve as a tool in qualifying prospective clients who share our point of view.
Here comes the first grab bag post of 2015.
For those new to the neighborhood, these posts consist of three vignettes on storytelling techniques that caught my attention, but can’t quite stand alone.
LeBron James’ TV Credits Now Include the Rehab Addict
It’s hard to believe that LeBron James has been playing basketball professionally for over 10 years. In retrospect, the “I’m taking my skills to South Beach” moment served as a springboard for his maturation process.
Likewise, it’s interesting to observe how the LeBron Inc. brand has evolved. As highlighted last year, Team LeBron takes a global approach to branding with particular attention paid to China.
But when I saw LeBron appear on Rehab Addict (perhaps not the perfect title for a professional athlete) on HGTV, it struck me that Team LeBron is laying the groundwork for a pop culture stature that transcends basketball. You get the feeling LeBron has bigger post-NBA aspirations than hawking underwear.
One final point on Lebron breaking out his hammer on Rehab Addict —
During the initial seconds of the episode when Nicole Curtis welcomed him, I told my wife that LeBron will make a token appearance and then disappear into the woodwork (can’t resist a bad pun).
LeBron was engaged in the building process from start to finish and all the activities in between.
Cal Tech Shows Its Storytelling Side
The marketing of universities tends to fall on the unimaginative side.
While not exactly scientific, it’s still revealing how long it takes to find a university Twitter profile that isn’t dull.
Which is why I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the Cal Tech home page depending on one of my favorite storytelling techniques, contrast.
Nice work with the alliteration as well.
Naturally, I needed to find out if this storytelling mentality extended to the Cal Tech Twitter account.
No such luck.
“Storytelling Your Way to a Better Job or a Stronger Startup”
That clunky headline kicks off a story in The New York Times that asks the deep question:
“Why has it [storytelling] become this year’s buzzword?”
Did storytelling really become the buzzword for 2014?
The data suggests no.
Using Factiva, our crack research term scrutinized U.S. media properties for the word “storytelling” appearing in the headline or the lead paragraph. The data generated the following chart.
Media attention on storytelling didn’t even increase 10 percent from 2013 to 2014.
If you wanted to make an argument for storytelling achieving buzzword status, 2011 would be the year when use of the word spiked roughly 40 percent.