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.
I came across this video “Never Estimate the Power of a Great Story” back in 2009.
Colleague and client Wendy Zajack recently brought the video to my attention again. After giving it another watch – even knowing the ending, the humor still slaps you across the face – I realized the video delivers a pain-free lesson in business storytelling.
Sure, the protagonist manages to escape death several times – machine guns, a cut-down tree, a waterfall that looks like Niagara Falls and a circular saw – but there are some classic storytelling techniques at work:
1. Creating drama calls for bad stuff to happen to the main character: Naturally, companies struggle with this one. Communication professionals are schooled in telling positive stories and when “negatives” do surface, the work goes into how to diffuse, not accentuate, the “negatives.” Yet, without the bad stuff there is no drama.
2. Exaggeration: Whether it’s words or visuals, exaggeration catches the viewer’s attention. I call these “what the hell” moments. When the protagonist in the video is hugging the tree and you hear the chain saw scream to life, you’re thinking “what the hell.”
3. Incongruity: The dictionary defines this word as “strange because of not agreeing with what is usual or expected.” I love this storytelling technique. When the video shows the protagonist down to his boxers being engulfed in some type of wooden box, it’s definitely incongruent. By the way, this technique is particularly effective in the B2B world where elements from every-day life are often incongruent with a given industry.
4. The unexpected: As you wind your way toward the conclusion of the video (second 54), the last thing you expect is our boy rationalizing to the husband how he ended up in the closet.
5. Levity: As shared before, I view levity as the killer app for business communications. Because companies tend to take themselves so seriously, giving the reader/viewer/listener a reason to simply smile is a winning action.
It’s true that the production quality of the Canal+ video also played a role in the narrative. Filming a guy dodging bullets takes serious money.
Still, the techniques in the video hold relevance for business communicators.
Side note: For more on failure in the context of business storytelling, check out the post “Removing the Tension from the Budweiser Puppy Love Video (literally).”
I am an unabashed fan of the anecdote. I’m also convinced that it’s one of the most underutilized storytelling techniques in business communications.
Executives often perceive anecdotes as fluff and put the kibosh on such content before it sees the light of the day. That explains why if you audited the content generated by PR (in-house + agency), you would find most efforts capture little or no anecdotal content.
It makes no sense.
Journalists, the masters of industrial-grade storytelling in business, have honed the use of anecdotal content to an art form. Anecdotes can be particularly effective in dealing with complex subject matter, as was the case in our support of the Bell Labs 50th anniversary for the discovery of the “Big Bang.” Among the mainstream media covering the story, NPR looked to bring out the humanity of the two scientists with anecdotes such as this one trying to eliminate the hum from the signal that they thought might be originating from birds:
“There was a pair of pigeons living in the antenna,” Wilson says. Wilson and Penzias got on their lab coats, climbed inside their giant microwave contraption, and wiped out the pigeon poop. The birds kept roosting in there. Penzias and a lab technician eventually took matters into their own hands: “The only humane way of doing it was to buy a box of shotgun shells,” Penzias says. “So that’s what finally happened to the pigeons.”
As Heisenberg says in “Breaking Bad,” “That covers it.”
In another client example, we landed a Fast Company feature story on Nautilus earlier this year that uses three anecdotes to frame the piece:
- Previous office building nicknamed “Taj Majal” by employees for being grandiose (not a term of endearment)
- Conducted raffle for some employees to join the execs in New York City to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange
- CEO joined the internal kickball league
The mashing of these anecdotes actually creates the headline, “What Happened When Nautilus’s CEO Ditched His Fancy Office and Joined the Company Kickball Team.”
Both examples put a face on the company and do so in a way that takes you behind the curtain with fresh wrinkles to the story.
There’s another reason that anecdotes should be part of your communications arsenal. They bring realness to the storytelling.
If I stand in front of you and tell you that I’m a great dad — illustration below for those who think visually — what do you think?
What is the first thing that pops into your mind?
You’re thinking just the opposite. Such a statement triggers the perception that if I’m saying this, I’m probably not a great dad.
But what if I were to talk about getting up early on a Sunday morning because my kids wanted to try to their hands at a strawberry crepe? Leaving nothing to chance, I even bought a crepe pan from Williams-Sonoma that guaranteed a perfect outcome. Yet, in spite of our diligence in following the recipe, we ended up with a dish that looked more like strawberry mashed potatoes than a crepe.
You still might not nominate me for dad of the year, but you do take away the impression that I’m engaged with my kids.
I read a great line some time ago from Raymond Mar, a professor at York University in Toronto, who conducts research on storytelling: “Everyone has a natural detector for psychological realism.”
That’s the power of the anecdote, helping the reader/listener feel that the story rings true.
Side note: More on anecdotes in business communications can be found in the post, “Reverse Engineering the Storytelling Techniques in a Fast Company Feature.”