Who Moved My Story? ...


Dear “Who Moved My Story,”

I’ve been there.

You’re there now.

Every human being who writes for a company as part of communicating to the outside world has experienced the frustration of seeing his or her copy pruned again and again … and again.

Forget trying to humanize the narrative. You’d be happy if the finalized copy sounded better than an FTC complaint form.

Before going further, I would be remiss if I didn’t address your use of the verb “mutilate.” Yes, the boss has wrecked your copy. One might even say the boss has neutered your copy. But “mutilated” brings with it a premeditated act to mangle beyond recognition. In the spirit of being fair, the action is not premeditated. The boss, however misguided, genuinely believes the changes improve the copy.


Glad we got that squared away.

Moving along –

The dynamic described in your letter is a tricky one. Let’s start with what the pros from the world of TQC (total quality control) would call “root cause”: Why do the stakeholders who approve your copy exhaust so much energy suffocating the conversational language?

There’s no easy answer to this question.

For the over-40 crowd – I’m in this club, so it pains me to say this – many have been grounded in “me marketing,” convinced the narrative should espouse only the virtues of the company.  Some believe audiences compartmentalize, so leave the entertaining to Steven Spielberg and his ilk. Others are simply risk-averse. God forbid you deviate from the corporate-speak handbook, twisting a cliché or crafting a half-way interesting participle. Even a touch of emotion in business communications can scare the beezeezus (and other “stuff”) out of many with sign-off power.

Regardless of your situation, do not feel defeated.

I appreciate this is a tough one. Watching your creative scrubbed week after week after bloody week, it’s easy to tumble into the trap of “delivering what people want” as opposed to what will make a difference. Don’t give in.

The time has come to fight for your storytelling. This doesn’t mean that every line must become the Battle of the Bulge (which didn’t turn out so well for Allied forces). Especially in the early going, pick the spots where you feel very strongly that your path is the right path.

Use these interactions as an opportunity to educate your stakeholders. Share the context that frames your thinking. Even stakeholders from the old school recognize that communicating the same points the same way as your competitors is wrong. Let them read for themselves, again with context, how you’re striving for a differentiated voice.

More than logic, emotion must also be part of these discussions. Allow your passion to come to the fore. Strength of conviction can often be the most persuasive way to win someone over. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been called worse things than obstinate.

That’s half of the equation.

The other half calls for the person who oversees the content creation, the CMO or VP of marketing or perhaps the director of creative services, to champion the storytelling cause with the stakeholders who control copy signoff. He or she should be meeting with individual stakeholders, explaining the “why” behind the storytelling mentality. There will also be times when it makes sense for the content boss to join you in talking with stakeholders, to hear first-hand what you’re up against.

Look, there’s no magic wand that with a single wave everyone lands on the storytelling bandwagon. Like any form of diplomacy, it takes time and a series of interactions – and even then you’ll have one or two stakeholders who refuse to budge.

That’s OK. Don’t allow them to intrude on your happily ever after.

Accentuate the positives.

Celebrate your victories.

Be brave.

Your writing deserves it.




  • Casey Hibbard

    Thank you, Lou! Just what I needed today. It is a constant battle to champion storytelling, especially in selling technology. Then add in 5-6 reviewers (client, partner, customer stakeholders) for each customer case study. It’s easy to lose faith.

    • hoffman

      Casey, I appreciate you taking the time to share the positive words. I don’t know about you, but as a consultancy we’ve also found a strong balance sheet can help address this issue. In other words, if our storytelling mentality (and strength of conviction) doesn’t resonate with client over an extended period of time, we’re probably not the “right” fit.

  • Chuck Kent

    Lou, Over the years, I’ve found it takes more than just being plain obstinate… that’s the best excuse for the non-creative players to dismiss and belittle a writer as a non-business oriented prima donna. I find its helpful to be “obstinate plus.”

    First of all, be strategically obstinate… ground your presentation of the work, of your story, in the agreed upon strategy and defend it with the same.

    Secondly, be “obstinate with options.” Stand your ground not stuck in place but willing and able to pivot… if they muck up the honest story with too much “me marketing,” be ready and willing to counter their arguments with alternate ways to write it that stay true to your storytelling aim, but listen and respond to (while hopefully neutering) their ill-thought objections.

    Will this always succeed? No. But if you’re lucky enough to have that champion
    mentioned above, you’ll be providing ammunition to her/him and progressively increasing your odds of success in the future.

    • hoffman

      Love these points Chuck.


      Especially, being “obstinate with options.” That makes sense. Turn it into a form of negotiation. I suppose the tricky part for some writers will be making changes on the fly.

  • Jim Signorelli

    Thank-YOU Lou! You nailed it!
    A story is not a story without a problem or a conflict.
    Stories reflect life, and life is not always pretty.
    For advertisers to only show the positives is to paint an unrealistic scenario.
    Imagine a story about a main character who has no problems to solve and never has to face any aggravating moments. He just stays happy and satisfied with his lot in life from the beginning through to the end. This is nothing more than boring fantasy. Unfortunately, this happens to be the same structure that many marketers use when communicating to their audiences. To engage audiences, marketers must embrace authenticity. In addition to gaining interest, authenticity also engenders trust. It may seem “safe” to rely on positives exclusively, but it’s really quite dangerous when one considers how much money is wasted when messages are ignored or disbelieved.

    • hoffman

      Hi Jim,

      Always value hearing the perspective from our advertising brothers. As much as it pains to say this, the track record shows advertising recognizes the power of narrative – and importance of authenticity as you put it – more than the PR profession. Now some of this goes back to those with sign-off power vanilla-izing the copy, but I also think the producers of the storytelling have a role in what ends up in the final version.


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