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.”
As our communication campaigns increasingly address SEO and particularly organic search, thought leadership becomes even more important.
Here’s what I mean and why it’s important to put yourself out there.
When it comes to organic search, Google and other search engines place a premium on backlinks. They interpret backlinks as “votes” for the content.
Of course, to generate backlinks, you must create content that prompts other digital properties to share your content with their audiences. For the type of content that grades out as shareable, it’s typically not product information or a personnel announcement or an industry award — information we characterize as company-centric. Instead, it’s the type of business storytelling that’s useful or informative and ultimately helps people in their jobs.
In short, thought leadership plays at the industry level, not the company level, ideally offering takes that can’t be found elsewhere.
Such dot-connecting points to blogging as one of the best platforms for thought leadership.
At the risk of stating the obvious, defining the objectives for a company blog goes a long way toward determining whether a blog truly delivers on the promise of thought leadership. I was reminded of this point recently in pursuing an award competition for blogs. I established three primary objectives for Ishmael’s Corner back in 2008 that remain relevant today:
- Cultivate an industry resource for communication professionals
- Bring meaning to the concept of storytelling in business communications, offering pragmatic advice/insights
- Create a halo effect for The Hoffman Agency that ultimately differentiates the Agency in new business and the recruitment of talent
With the first objective setting the stage for thought leadership, I went through the exercise of analyzing 126 posts published within the competition’s timeframe. Would the data support my premise that the blog strives for thought leadership?
It turns out that fewer than 10 percent of posts fell into the Agency-centric bucket. Out of the 139 posts published between May 1, 2013 and June 30, 2014, 126 played at the industry level. It seems fair to say that I’ve managed to avoid the “me, me, me, and here’s a little more about me” trap (though this post does deliver an ironic twist to the previous premise).
Drilling down to the next level, I categorized the industry posts by topic which you can see in the pie chart below.
While posts on storytelling techniques + visual storytelling constitute the largest part of pie at 31 percent, there’s still a healthy spread over a number of macro topics. It might seem odd that I write as much on journalism as social media, but this comes from the belief that communicators should be students of journalism. The best business storytelling in today’s world comes from journalists.
Curious about the riffs on news events, I captured those as well:
- Sense of Humor from U.S. Soccer
- Adam Silver Press Conference
- Omnicom and Publicis Breakup
- LinkedIn Enters in China
- Warren Buffett Shareholder Letter
- Lame Tweets at Super Bowl
- Brands in Sales Mode at Super Bowl
- Eight Predictions for Super Bowl Tweets
- Omnicom and Publicis Proposed Merger
Given my love of sports, it’s no surprise that more than half of these posts relate a sporting news event to storytelling techniques.
OK. Now turning back to the question, are others sharing these thought leadership posts?
Again, the reality matches the theory. Open Site Explorer indicates over 40,000 external links to the blog, roughly doubling the number from two years ago.
Taking our own advice seems to be working.
As for the awards competition, I’ll keep you posted (even though that would qualify as an Agency-centric post).
I wrote a post in June stating that PR’s digital opportunity would come at the expense of SEO consultancies.
Here’s the core rationale —
Virtually every buyer around the world conducts some form of online due diligence, often plugging keywords into Google. As search engines increasingly favor quality of content — not technical acuity — in delivering search results, PR sits in the perfect position to address this.
Media coverage and the sharing of compelling content both generate backlinks in a natural way – emphasis on “natural,” not buying backlinks on a street corner in Bucharest – which turns out to be a top indicator for search engines.
With this in mind, we’ve created a SlideShare deck called “The Blurring Line Between Digital Marketing and PR.” It lays out the dot-connecting logic for emphasizing organic search and why PR should lead the charge … assuming PR shifts to applying storytelling techniques in creating content (more on this in the deck).
We speak from experience that started with an experiment in 2010. Could we take our existing content on the Toyota recall and build a site with page 1 performance for organic search? The answer was a thought-provoking “Yes.” We figured that if we could cut through the noise of such a high-profile event with a rudimentary understanding of SEO, imagine what we could do with real expertise.
It’s been a journey with the requisite twists, turns and naysayers — “If you haven’t descended from Mt. Sinai, you know nada about SEO” – to reach this point.
Today, I no longer have to imagine what we could do with real expertise.
We’re doing it.
BTW, even now if you plug [toyota pr crisis] into Google, our humble experiment shows up on page 1, typically above Mashable, The Wall Street Journal and Business Insider.
Wednesday’s post featured half of the list capturing my top storytelling techniques posts from the first half of 2014, including the American Chemistry Association breaking down the composition of Sriracha.
Today brings the second half.
We’ve been quietly executing campaigns that blend the principles of PR with owned media to improve a client’s organic search. I decided to use my talk at the CIPRA conference in Beijing as the forum to publicly share what we view as the game changer in the communications industry. As search engines increasingly emphasize content — not technical acuity — in organic search, PR sits in the perfect position to take this one on. Unlike search consultancies that must resort to buying links — a definite “no no” in the eyes of Google — natural link-building is part of PR’s DNA.
Explaining the commoditization of the news release as a form of supply-demand economics misses the root cause. When distribution of the news release reached only the domain of the media, journalists enjoyed a free lunch. With little effort, they could write stories based on a news release, and those stories appeared fresh to their readers because they couldn’t find them elsewhere. This advantage disappeared around 1996 when news release distribution services started flinging out news releases to the masses via the Internet. This post includes an infographic that puts it in perspective.
The intelligence community devotes massive amounts of time in trying to decode information from the bad guys as well as advancing their own encryption technology. The communications business — and specifically the client/agency relationship — has its own code. Taking our own advice that levity has a place in business communications, we created an infographic that cracks the client/agency code.
Embed this Infographic on Your Site:
<div align="center"><a href="http://www.ishmaelscorner.com/2014/02/23/the-client-pr-agency-relationship/”title=”decrypting eight code phrases in the client/pr agency relationship"><img src="http://www.ishmaelscorner.com/wp-admin/Infographic For Decrypting the Client/PR Agency Code?utm_source=infographic&utm_medium=main&utm_campaign=infographic" alt=" Hoffman infographic- decrypting the client/pr agency code" style="border:none;" /></a><br /> <small>The Hoffman Agency is a public relations firm that emphasizes storytelling in <a href="http://www.hoffman.com">business communication</a></small>.</div>
This is a starting point.
When I started this blog in 2008, I hoped it would serve as a resource for the communications profession in understanding the concept of storytelling. That’s still one of my objectives; hence, this post reverse-engineers why a national newspaper like The New York Times would write a feature on the City of Chattanooga (above the fold in the print version).
The Internet has commoditized the news release. The three largest news release distribution services sent out roughly 642,000 news releases last year. I’ll bet that less than 5 percent of these missives generated legitimate media coverage. Again, we brought a touch of levity with an infographic that helps one answer the question: Will anyone care about this news release?
<div align="center"><a href="http://www.ishmaelscorner.com/2014/04/17/finally-a-test…a-news-release/" title="Hoffman Agency Infographic- a Test To Guide the Actions and Storytelling Behind a News Release"><img src="http://www.ishmaelscorner.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/04_22_press_release_final_ORIGINAL.jpg" alt="Hoffman Agency Infographic- a Test To Guide the Actions and Storytelling Behind a News Release" width="467" height="1024" style="border:none;" /></a><br /><small>The Hoffman Agency is a public relations firm that emphasizes storytelling in <a href="http://www.hoffman.com">business communication</a></small>.</div>
With Google taking away the benefit of link building through syndicated news releases last year, you can no longer rationalize news release distribution as an SEO tactic.
If you think I left out a deserving post, that’s a debate I’d like to have.
Thanks for reading.
Side note: I also use the blog as a lab to dig into storytelling techniques. No question, the majority of experiments have focused on visual storytelling as our entire Agency looks to accelerate our learning curve in this area.