I respect people who can keep the scent of the trail.
Fellow storytelling evangelist Brad Marley approached me back in April 2019 to answer a handful of questions on my second-favorite topic. The plot took some twists and turns (naturally), but I answered Brad’s questions a couple of months ago. For those who don’t subscribe to his newsletter — and you should here, here’s the Q&A in blog form.
Q) As far back as 2015, you were extolling the virtues of storytelling when it came to public relations. How do you apply the classic elements of storytelling to business communications?
A) This has been a journey that goes back to the 1980s and my first PR job with an agency. My manager and other senior folks at the agency hammered into my brain that one of the most important things we can do for clients is to keep them on message.
I was 25 with no experience, so figured they knew what they were doing.
My light-bulb moment came at a trade show that no longer exists called COMDEX. I was supporting the huge Dutch company Philips in launching CD-ROM technology. After a day of being at the side of the Philips VP of Marketing, Rob Moes, for press interviews, it occurred to me that staying on message wasn’t particularly interesting. We were essentially coaching our clients to be dull when talking with journalists.
Rob must have come to the same conclusion on his own because on the second day, he went off script and answered questions like a real human being. He told back stories and shared anecdotes. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was my start of getting the storytelling religion.
Fast-forwarding to today, we coach our clients to understand a core tenet of storytelling, that the kid that grows up in a “Leave it to Beaver” neighborhood, stars in football in high school, earns a college degree, marries his high school sweetheart, they have two kids, he becomes a successful salesman and settles intoa house in the burbs is, b-o-r-i-n-g. Perfection dulls the senses.
We recognize that companies don’t want to communicate disasters. Still, there are what we term small “f” failures that can be applied in business communications.
Q) More and more journalists are making the jump to PR since there is demand for their skills and newspapers continue to What does a PR person in 2022 need to do to stay employable?
A) There’s never been a better time to be in the PR business. I’m convinced that what the Industrial Revolution was to manufacturing is how history will look back on this time period for the communications industry.
The increasing number of journalists trying their hand at PR helps the profession. It’s not a zero-sum game.
The core characteristics that shape a successful career in PR remain the same — the ability to not only construct client stories, but also find the raw content that fuels those stories. Today’s PR person would be well-served putting greater emphasis on the discovery process, the research and interviewing that goes into surfacing fodder for storytelling.
Back to communications having its Industrial Revolution moment, PR people need to be students of all media — advertising, social media, blogs, publications, podcasts, any place where people go for information. To say the lines have blurred between media types is inaccurate. The lines have disappeared. Progressive companies are rethinking the structure of their communications, so earned media, paid media and owned media are under the same tent.
Q) With this in mind, what have you found to be the best tactics to use to capture a reporter’s interest when pitching a story?
A) I’ve always loved the line from the TechCrunch editor Mike Butcher: “’The man who bit the dog’ is far more interesting than ‘the dog that bit the’”
Offer the unexpected like the man who bit the dog.
Help journalists tell stories that their audiences will care about and do it in a way that entertains.
The humble anecdote can be an effective door opener with reporters.
Years ago, we analyzed three months’ worth of tech stories in The Economist, breaking them down by content type. It turned out that 17% of the aggregated content was anecdotal. Yet, if you were to audit the content developed by PR, I suspect you’d find less than 3% is anecdotal. That’s a massive miss.
Q) The Periodic Table for Business Storytelling is brilliant, and it does a great job of explaining (in brief) the best types of story How did this come about?
The genesis of the Periodic Table for Business Storytelling came from recognizing that the classic story arc — a beginning, an end, and something going horribly awry in between to generate the drama — is not a sustainable approach in business communications. Companies do not want to talk about the bad stuff. After 30+ years in this business, I have never heard a CEO to say to me, “Well, Lou, what’s the best way to maximize our failures this quarter?”
As mentioned earlier, anecdotes.
Sausage-making — the ultimate back story.
For our clients in the B2B tech space, the mere act of using conversational language advances the cause.
This methodology started as a workshop. I got know Pete Lewis, former journalist for the New York Times and Fortune. We tag-teamed on creating a storytelling curriculum that we delivered for the first time in workshop form to PayPal back in 2011. That became the basis for our Periodic Table.
I consider journalists the best non-fiction storytellers on the planet. They use these techniques. The beauty of developing content guided by these storytelling techniques is there’s natural alignment with how journalists construct their stories. That’s the foundation for why we’re so strong in media relations.
Q) The Hoffman Agency instills a sense of culture across the agency, at least from this outsider’s point of How do you take culture (and the possibility it could change) when going after new business?
A) Our U.S. team just enjoyed a long-awaited holiday party last week.
After over two years of working remote, the meeting of new people and seeing familiar faces generated this amazing vibe of connection.
There’s no question in my mind that our culture differentiates us from other communication consultancies, not only in the U.S., but in Europe and Asia as well. Unfortunately, when most companies conduct an agency review, they don’t deep dive into culture and the workplace. I wish they did.
Once in a while, an opportunity presents itself to share our annual Fall employee survey to make our case. We were one of two finalists for a piece of business in January. I passed on an unfiltered version of the survey which included a slide showing 32% of our staff did not look forward to coming work. I offered the context that the prospect might look at the question on whether staff looks forward to coming to work and think, “danger, danger,” one third of The Hoffman Agency doesn’t look forward to coming to work each morning. We don’t see it this way. Instead, our staff’s input on the “why” gave us the opportunity to proactively address the issue … recognizing that in today’s world there are challenges outside our control as a company. And I pointed out that data points like the 80% of staff who would recommend the Agency, a crazy high number even in normal times, is more revealing about our ability to retain, motivate and inspire our staff.
We won the account.
Q) Finally, the question I ask everyone — what is the best book, fiction or non-fiction, you’ve read recently?
A) I loved the novel “The Shadow of the Wind” by the Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I wish I had paid more attention to Spanish in school so I could have read the book in its native language.