Is there a task more mundane than doing laundry?
It is the ultimate in dullsville. Yet, a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell called “Laundry Done Right” shows that indeed the story is always there. I first wrote about Gladwell in 2009 when he told a David vs. Goliath type story that used a 12-year-old girls basketball team as the frame.
Reverse engineering the storytelling in the podcast delivers lessons that we can apply in constructing narratives for business communications.
First, Gladwell pegs laundry to a macro issue, the environment and climate change. It turns out that washing clothes in cold water uses 70% to 90% less energy than hot water. Unfortunately, people choose hot water instead of cold water over 50% of the time in handling the 25 billion loads of laundry done each year in the U.S.
Next, the story cycles (couldn’t resist) into weirdness and even a touch of levity in analyzing those pesky stains that can frustrate the best of us. It turns out that stains on clothes fall into one of three categories: the protein stain, the carbohydrate stain, and the gelatinous stain.
We’ve all faced the ketchup stain from the leaking hamburger — the typical culprit. I figured this fell into the carbohydrate camp. Not so fast. This classic stain actually straddles carbs and gelatinous. This stuff is complicated. Each stain type brings its own challenges to the (picnic) table.
Of course, Gladwell wants to humanize the story. Here, he uncovers the perfect anecdote. His colleague interviews a woman who loves doing laundry so much that she hires a babysitter to come to her house and watch over her two kids each week so she can rid herself of distraction and enjoy the pleasures of doing laundry.
And another anecdote — there’s a science to making sure the suds are gone by the end of the last washing cycle; otherwise, washing machines will sense the suds are still there and go through an extra cycle which of course consumes more energy.
Journalists get anecdotes.
PR not so much.
A few years back, we analyzed three months’ worth of tech stories in The Economist breaking down the content type. It turned out that 17% of the content was anecdotal. Yet, if you were to audit the content generated by PR, I doubt if even 3% would qualify as anecdotal.
Gladwell’s use of anecdotes in the laundry podcast both humanizes the story and helps us connect the dots.
I would never listen to a podcast on doing laundry (or washing the dishes or ironing clothing). I listened to this podcast from start to finish because it tells a story. This is exactly how PR should be constructing content. These same concepts can absolutely be applied to our world of technology.
Often company executives believe that mundane content — depending on adjectives and adverbs to describe the action — will open the door with journalists. It’s up to Communications to push those same execs and other subject matter experts into a form of discovery, so we can excavate the right pieces – quantification, a little weirdness, anecdotes, etc. — that will land with journalists. Sometimes, the tidbit or what I’ve come to call a story shard by itself can open a door.
As for me, I’m only washing my laundry in cold water going forward.