Tag-teaming With Pete Lewis ...


peter lewisPete Lewis and I have created a storytelling curriculum that reflects both journalism and PR perspectives.

As the first the technology editor for the New York Times (personally registered the nytimes.com domain), Pete has some interesting takes on the media landscape and storytelling.

I posted the first part of a Q&A with him last week.

Here’s the rest of the story.

Q: How would you describe storytelling within a business context?

A: Most business communication is created to inform. We made a new product. We made lots of money. We signed a new deal. We sued somebody. Other than the fact that most press releases and memos are horribly written, there’s nothing wrong with these quick information dumps; people in business want actionable information, and often a concise news report is the best way to communicate.

But storytelling engages as well as informs. A good story makes people listen. It connects on an emotional level and inspires them to participate. Storytelling creates relationships. Stories convey information, but in a more enjoyable way, especially if the story contains a bit of humor. Stories are more memorable than the dry recitation of facts and figures. If the story is well told, people will absorb and remember the message. Storytelling sells the message.

Q: Any examples come to mind?

A: One of my favorites is the memo from Nokia’s new CEO, Stephen Elop, to his employees earlier this year. Elop, a former Microsoft executive, easily could have called the troops together for a PowerPoint presentation with graphs and charts. Instead, he wrote a story. I would wager that Nokia employees found it memorable.

Here’s why: The CEO has to lead his employees to places they haven’t gone before, and to accomplish things beyond what they’ve been doing. Bad leaders threaten. Good leaders inspire. They inspire by igniting the imaginations of their employees. And the best way to fire up the imagination is to tell stories.

Q: Do you see “owned media” as having a place in this type of communications.

A: Absolutely. Corporate blogs are often showcases for storytelling, both conventional and unconventional. Cisco does a particularly nice job. One of the things I like about Cisco’s blog is the willingness to experiment with different forms of storytelling. Example: Would you read a memo or whitepaper on “the relationship between FCoE and QCN (Quantized Congestion Notification), one of the documents in the IEEE DCB standard revision”? Me neither. But look at this novel storytelling approach:

cisco comic story

Side note: You can see the full Cisco piece online here.

It all comes down to delivering your message to the targeted audience in the most effective way. It might be print, it might be video, it might be a speech, it might be a Twitter or Facebook or Google+ posting. But almost always, it will incorporate elements of storytelling.

Speaking of Cisco, John Chambers sent his own version of the Nokia “burning oil platform” story to his employees earlier this year. While less dramatic than Stephen Elop’s story, Chambers’s memo was consistent with his personal style and followed a popular storytelling formula: Who I Am, Who We Are, and Where We Are Going.

The problem is that the very term “storytelling” makes CEOs wince. It conjures memories of reading children’s books and fairy tales to their kids at bedtime, not of leading successful businesses. Maybe a term like Disney’s “imagineering” would be more palatable.

Q: Okay, last question. What do you teach your journalism students about working with public relations professionals?

A: I start with an interesting chart from Robert McChesney and John Nichols’s excellent book “The Death and Life of American Journalism.” In a visit to my class at Stanford, Nichols told me that a half century ago the ratio of public relations specialists and managers to journalists was roughly 1:1. Today it is 4:1. Put another way, for every journalist working today there are at least four people working fulltime to influence what that journalist writes (or broadcasts). As professional cynics, journalists presume that their job is to filter out the inevitable spin and self-serving propaganda from these PR professionals. Because so many journalists are lazy or overworked, a lot of this spun material passes through unfiltered, and as a result the public becomes cynical toward the news (and ignorant, and apathetic, and demoralized).

As a veteran journalist, however, I know that I could not do my job without the help of good PR people. My colleagues typically agree. We often develop lasting relationships with PR people who understand the needs and boundaries of journalism, and quickly apply the bozo filter to PR people who don’t learn those needs and boundaries. So, I teach young journalists about healthy professional relationships with PR people, who outnumber them 4-to-1, and I relish the opportunities to teach PR people how to think like a journalist. (Or, to be pedantic, how to think as a journalist.)

Side note: Here’s the chart from “Death and Life” which you can see below. As Pete pointed out, the number of journalists has almost certainly declined since 2008.

death of journalism

That’s a wrap.

If anyone has any questions for Pete and me on the storytelling workshop, just shout.

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