Storytelling in Social Media ...




I spoke at the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing on storytelling a couple weeks ago. The talk triggered interest from a Chinese publication which asked me two questions via e-mail: 

How does storytelling impact today’s traditional media as well as social media? How does storytelling benefit business executives and their respective companies? 

My answers follow.

The media has changed.

I know these four words smack of understatement, but bear with me.

It used to be that the media viewed its mission as to inform and in some cases educate. Today, thanks to the Internet commoditizing all types of information, including news, the media must also entertain as a means to rise above the noise level.

As a proof point, consider the following words that came from a website for journalists:

Don’t limit your inquiry, or your thinking, to the basics of journalism: Who, what, when, where, why, how. Think in terms of story elements: setting, character, plot, conflict, climax, resolution, dialogue, theme.

This captures the essence of how journalism is striving for a greater entertainment quotient.

Public relations needs to align with this dynamic.

This means public relations professionals should be developing content that encapsulates the elements of storytelling, which in turn enables the journalists to write a narrative. Of course, the journalist doesn’t have 200+ pages to air out a narrative like a novel. But PR professionals can still offer the right pieces – access to executives, quantifying key events, anecdotes – that lend themselves to narrative in business and trade publications.

With that said, we’re proponents of applying the techniques of storytelling to all communications (not just media relations).

Three thoughts on these techniques –

First, communicate in conversational language. I don’t know why reasonable and interesting people put on a business suit and all of the sudden their language becomes stiff and boring language. Keep it conversational.

Also, you can create drama by simply showing the contrast between the old way and the new way. The way I explain this in storytelling workshops is the difference between “what was” and “what is.” The greater the difference, the greater the drama.

And third, the power of anecdotes brings life to any communication. More than entertain, an anecdote shows a certain realness in the communication. There’s a great line from Raymond Mar who’s a professor at York University in Toronto who has researched storytelling:

Everyone has a natural detector for psychological realism.

The use of anecdotes helps a communication get through that “natural detector.”

These same techniques absolutely apply to social media.

Look at how 90+ percent of LinkedIn invitations arrive:

So and so has indicated you are a person they’ve done business with at so and so company.

I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.

I don’t think anyone would confuse these words (template from LinkedIn) as compelling.

At the very least, people should take 60 seconds and personalize the LinkedIn invitation with conversational language. Again, this basic technique alone will cause your communication to stand out.

I’d like to end on this note.

People like it when companies have personalities. It makes them feel like there are actual people on the other side of the communication as opposed to a faceless machine.

This might seems obvious and simplistic.

Yet, you could make an argument that many companies actually put energy into activities that squeeze out their personalities so they come across as generic and blend into the background.

Because they’re communicating the same way the vast majority of companies communicate.

It makes no sense.

The vast majority of people have been programmed to think business is serious so their communication must be dry and boring and, yes, serious.

On the positive side, if you can create a personality, it literally becomes a differentiator in this sea of sameness … which is where storytelling comes in.

Storytelling can become a powerful tool in creating a company’s personality.

People tend to think of companies like Apple when it comes to distinctive personalities, but even little things can shape a personality for companies that don’t sell iPods and iPhones.

Here’s one quick example.

One of our clients called Bumptop was just bought by Google. Bumptop created a 3-D desktop operating system which is somewhat technical, but the company shrewdly developed its personality from the start by having fun with language and storytelling. Its website – which unfortunately is no longer live – showcased this attitude with sections like “Love for Bumtop” instead of using a traditional phrase like “Press Room.”

Now, most companies would be downright scared to use a word like “love,” which you rarely see in business communication. But this type of contrarian approach and belief in storytelling played a major role in differentiating Bumptop and building its brand in a relatively short period of time.

Given a choice, do you gravitate toward entertaining people or dull people?

The same holds true for companies; hence, the reason to embrace storytelling.


  • Casey Hibbard

    Hi Lou,

    “if you can create a personality, it literally becomes a differentiator in this sea of sameness … which is where storytelling comes in.”

    Excellent and thought-provoking post about today’s role of storytelling in business communications. Many technology companies still don’t get that you can be interesting over dry.

    Also, interesting insight on the entertainment bent of media today.


  • Lou Hoffman


    Thank you for taking the time to share your perspective and the positive words.

    I was reading in BusinessWeek about a tool that tracks how one’s eyes respond to a given web page.

    If companies took a similar approach in measuring how people respond to their communications, most would find the results sobering.



  • Jethro Jean-Baptiste


    Thanks for expressing your views regarding the social media. I think that it is definitely more difficult for defining a clear strategy when it comes to participating in social media. However, there are great sites like SalesFuel that integrates with LinkedIn, so that B2B marketers and sales reps can use social selling to make warmer sales calls. Try the free trial and connect to 32+ million companies with in-depth profiles.

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  • Alexandra

    It seems as though social media is actually making changes not only by ‘peeling back the layers of infrastructure, data, numbers, demographics, politics, procedures, and all of the corporate red tape that dug trenches between our brand and our customers’, as Brian Solis puts it in Engage!, but also in communicating for business. You’re right, we should use a conversational tone and a down-to-earth style, it make us real, not stiff.

  • Lou Hoffman

    Appreciate your input.

    The more evangelists the better.

    Seems ironic to say that it takes courage to be conversational.

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