Who cares if Warren Buffett is still getting the hang of this Twitter thing?
The man knows how to apply storytelling techniques to business communications (heard he’s a pretty good investor too).
There’s no better example of Buffett’s storytelling acuity than his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders that came out over the weekend.
The typical shareholder letter is so dry that an action verb comes off as racy. But Buffett treats his letter to shareholders as a platform to bring out his humanity and show he’s just “one of the guys,” no easy feat when he’s one of the wealthiest people in the world with a worth of $53 billion and change. His shareholder letter as much as his regular TV appearances — “Hi Charlie, good to see you again” — is a tool for brand building.
Turning to his 2014 letter, even as he walks the reader through a narrative on the numbers, he breaks up the cadence with an “aw shucks” moment:
In a year in which most equity managers found it impossible to outperform the S&P 500, both Todd Combs and Ted Weschler handidly did so. Each now runs a portfolio exceeding $7 billion. They’ve earned it.
I must confess that their investments outperformed mine. (Charlie says I should add “by a lot.”) If such humiliating comparisons continue, I’ll have no choice but to cease talking about them.
Self-deprecation plays in Peoria. It’s a pattern in all of Buffett’s shareholder letters and one repeated in his most recent composition:
Fortunately, my blunders usually involved relatively small acquisitions. Our large buys have generally worked out well and, in a few cases, more than well. I have not, however, made my last mistake in purchasing either businesses or stocks. Not everything works out as planned
Buffett’s storytelling also makes ample use of metaphors and analogies.
Woody Allen stated the general idea when he said: “The advantage of being bi-sexual is that it doubles your chances for a date on Saturday night.” Similarly, our appetite for either operating businesses or passive investments doubles our chances of finding sensible uses for our endless gusher of cash.
Not every executive can get away with 266-word anecdotes. Still, the following offers a storytelling lesson in how to take the reader behind the curtain with words that ring with realism:
I think back to August 30, 1983 – my birthday – when I went to see Mrs. B (Rose Blumkin), carrying a 1 1/4-page purchase proposal for NFM that I had drafted. (It’s reproduced on pages 114 – 115.) Mrs. B accepted my offer without changing a word, and we completed the deal without the involvement of investment bankers or lawyers (an experience that can only be described as heavenly). Though the company’s financial statements were unaudited, I had no worries. Mrs. B simply told me what was what, and her word was good enough for me.Mrs. B was 89 at the time and worked until 103 – definitely my kind of woman. Take a look at NFM’s financial statements from 1946 on pages 116 – 117. Everything NFM now owns comes from (a) that $72,264 of net worth and $50 – no zeros omitted – of cash the company then possessed, and (b) the incredible talents of Mrs. B, her son, Louie, and his sons Ron and Irv. The punch line to this story is that Mrs. B never spent a day in school. Moreover, she emigrated from Russia to America knowing not a word of English.
If I were going to quibble (I suppose I’m about to do just that) I didn’t see the flawless finesse in the 2014 letter compared to previous years. Buffett has always treated bragging and the “obvious” like a penny stock. Yet, the 2014 narrative includes phrases like “amazing growth” and “another reinsurance powerhouse” and “our little gecko continues to tell Americans how GEICO can save them important money.”
Perhaps Carol Loomis, Buffett’s trusted writing assistant, is delegating down the final polishing these days.
Regardless, Buffett’s shareholders letters could underpin a MBA class on how to bring storytelling techniques to business communications.
What a surprise!
Derek Jeter is not only a hall-of-fame shortstop who makes the time to help the elderly cross Fifth Avenue, the guy also knows how to write.
When I say “knows how to write,” I don’t mean in the literary sense or with storytelling techniques. If my high school English teacher Mr. Harper, got his hands on the letter, I’m guessing a B- with plenty of red ink.
But what Jeter accomplished in the narrative is just as difficult as what comes from any best-selling author –
He wrote from the heart. This emotional truth comes out to anyone reading the letter.
Obviously, a team of advisers guides Jeter on all aspects of business, including image-building. While I’m sure they served as a sanity check for the letter, the energy emanating from the words is so pronounced, leaving no doubt in my mind that Jeter himself crafted the words.
There are few passages starting with the opener worth highlighting (entire letter at the end of the post):
I want to start by saying thank you.
There’s beauty in simplicity.
Last year was a tough one for me. As I suffered through a bunch of injuries, I realized that some of the things that always came easily to me and were fun had started to become a struggle.
In this graph, he cuts to the heart of the matter. Also keeps a conversational tone not allowing the “editor” to polish phrases like “a bunch of injuries.”
This can be a tough, invasive, critical and demanding environment. The people of this city have high expectations and are anxious to see them met. But it’s those same people who who have challenged me, cheered for me, beat me down and picked me back up all at the same time. NY made me stronger, kept me more focused and made me a better, more well-rounded person.
Feels like there’s a cathartic release in this passage, almost a preacher-like rhetoric.
He closes with his plan to:
Soak in every moment of every day this year.
So Jeter periodically talks/writes in cliches. Again, the bar isn’t Hemingway. The bar is realness.
I’d say his letter is as real as it gets (original letter on Jeter’s Facebook page with a copy below).
Note: One of the best open letters in recent memory came from the Groupon CEO Andrew Mason when the Board forced his resignation. As for the worse, hard to top Toyota’s open letter which hit a pothole.
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.