Reverse-engineering the Storytelling in ...


As a PR nerd, when I read a story in a publication that vacuums my attention, two questions immediately come to mind:

  • Was PR the catalyst for the article?
  • What storytelling techniques carry the narrative?

Such is the process I went through with the NYT piece, “A Chinese Billionaire Spinning Research into Investment Gold.”

As for the first question, my guess would be yes, PR planted the seeds for this feature. Either that or Zhang Lei’s storytelling acuity scores in the Ira Glass quadrant. Regardless, this doesn’t take anything away from the journalist Alexandra Stevenson who crafts a story that shows — not tells — Mr. Zhang’s verve.

In breaking down the article, four storytelling techniques carry the narrative.

As noted, anecdotes play a role in providing a window into what makes Mr. Zhang tick starting with the lead.

“With an $18 billion war chest, he is one of China’s richest investors. Yet on a recent trip to San Francisco, Zhang Lei and his entourage crammed into a three-bedroom house in the Mission District, rented through Airbnb. He also ordered water from Instacart, the on-demand grocery delivery service. A few days later in New York, he bought food through Google Express. Of course, it is not as if he could not afford luxury hotels and restaurants. Instead, it was research.”

A second anecdote serves as an indicator that entrepreneurism is encoded in his DNA:

“At 7, Mr. Zhang had his first business idea. He rented his comic books to passengers waiting for their trains. Today, that shared-economy concept is the basis for Silicon Valley companies like Uber and Airbnb.”

It still surprises me that most PR functions (internal + agency) develop content bereft of anecdotes. Not only do anecdotes pump life into stories, but they often serve a dual purpose of meeting the journalist’s need for content not in the public domain (or readily accessible).

Aligning Content With Journalists Needs - storytelling techniques

One of the most challenging storytelling techniques, failure, makes an appearance in the form of rejection when he applied for jobs on Wall Street. Not only did zero job offers materialize, but one particularly harsh salvo came his way:

“One interviewer went so far as to question his intellectual capacity when Mr. Zhang asked whether there was any point to gas stations.”

The third storytelling technique, what I term the unexpected or weird twist, is woven throughout the narrative. Like how Mr. Zhang tried to hire an old friend who said no, but suggested his wife might be a fit. Today, “the wife,” Tracy Ma, holds the chief operating officer position at the firm as Mr. Zhang’s No. 2 executive.

And finally, there’s a contrarian quality to the story such as when Mr. Zhang takes the position that American companies and Silicon Valley can learn from their Chinese counterparts when it comes to innovation:

“I’m seeing an uprising of Chinese entrepreneurs who are able to upgrade themselves versus the relatively slow-moving multinational companies.”

Virtually every company would welcome a 1,432-word feature in The New York Times.

This type of win calls for building out the right content — storytelling elements if you will — that stitch together the Zhang feature.

In short, think like a journalist.

As Mike Butcher, TechCrunch’s European editor put it, “‘The man who bit the dog is far more interesting than the dog that bit the man.”

Update (4/27/15, 2:45 pm): It turns out that the PR function had zero involvement in the story. In fact, the NYT journalist Alexandra Stevenson pursued Zhang for close to a year. I appreciate Alexandra taking the time to share this context.


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