Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Why so little success with corporate storytelling? Here’s what to do instead.

Executive Summary:

Marketers interested in experimenting with storytelling can start with a low-risk, low-cost piece of collateral: the customer case study. Use narrative structure to engage prospective customers. Add resonance to your value proposition.

Key Points:
  1. Social media is inviting marketing executives to take a second look at narrative structure, which is standard in top-tier business press but missing from most marketing collateral.
  2. A customer case study can be repackaged to show a hero (your customer) overcoming obstacles (with your products and services) and achieving market success (your customer's aspiration).
Sound Bite:

"Your social media guru and PR team usually are not equipped to write in narrative form. Senior PR people -- in the VP, SVP and EVP levels -- may have the skills, but they don't write case studies. An ex-journalist on your team is your best bet."

Read the whole article:

With little success, I’ve been trying for 10 years to teach storytelling principles to PR practitioners. Workshop and class attendees understand it and enjoy it, but the few who try to apply a narrative structure to their work get bogged down in the approval process.

I rarely recommend it these days as a workshop component or class. My own PPTs and handouts are dusty.

The only time I teach it now is within the context of a class on writing award submissions. This seems to be the one type of document where the marketing department is willing to let go.

I wonder if this will change.

Scary for old-school marketers: audience that "talks back"

If you read trade press for the advertising industry, you’ll recall that the sudden rise of social media and the audience’s new ability to “talk back” in public prompted substantial fear. This was about five years ago.

Generation gap

Since then, I’ve noticed a generation gap in marketing approaches. In my own mind, I’ve come to divide marketing executives into two groups – new school and old school. For a while, the old-school guys were in positions of authority and making decisions that struck me as anachronistic. Meanwhile, the new-school guys were too low-ranking to exert influence and lacked necessary business insight.

Humpty Dumpty

In 2010, it appears to me that a balance is being struck within some companies. I picture the old-school guys as Humpty Dumpty, fallen and cracked but alive and powerful. Their strength: They understand business. But they’ve lost their creative mojo and know it, so they yield to new-school concepts and hire people whose skills are unfamiliar to them.

Twitter, FB, etc.

But will storytelling become part of the new mix? Will videos, websites, blog posts and short-form posts (Twitter, Facebook) adopt the narrative structure that turns novelists and movie-makers into millionaires?

Sam Whitmore of Sam Whitmore Mediasurvey, who gives media advice to the tech PR industry, last week sent his clients a report raising a similar question. He pointed out significant obstacles. The details are proprietary, so I can’t share, but I can say that I concur, for reasons of my own.

Start with case studies: affordable way to break the mold

Nonetheless, if companies are interested in a small, affordable way to begin breaking the mold, I can offer one highly do-able suggestion: Start with case studies.

This is the easiest ground to give and likely to produce immediate results.

Here are my contrarian teachings:

(1) Give away the punchline in the opening paragraph. Tell the end of the story at the very beginning. In other words, take a sentence or two from what would have been the results section at the end, and move it into the lead.

(2) Don’t keep the “situation,” “problem” and “solution” in separate sections. Mix them. Instead use this framework: a heroic figure whom we care about overcomes obstacles and gets what he wants, learning lessons along the way.

In a case study, the heroic figure is your customer. The obstacles he overcomes are common to prospective customers, some of whom didn’t recognize the problem as clearly you have articulated it or didn’t know it could be solved.

In the course of overcoming obstacles, the customer uses your company’s tools. But picture the customer as MacGyver, the resourceful TV show character who could engineer his way out of any jam with scotch tape and a tin can. This means the emphasis is on the customer (MacGyver), not particularly on your tools – although the story cannot be told without your tools. Go light. Don’t sell. Just tell.

Your subheads could like like this:

Executive summary – Here you mix the “problem” (beginning) and “results” (end) in one or two sentences – briefly -- just enough to tell “a story of transformation.”

  • Show change, not the “situation analysis” or “background.” Customer X had a problem common to your prospective customers; now he has business success. Ignore the middle of the story for now. That comes in the next section.
  • Use your best stats in the executive summary. Don’t save them for the “conclusion” at the end, especially since most readers won’t get that far, anyway. Even if all they do is skim the first graf, the readers will walk away with the most important idea.

Problem/solution – Here you tell the middle part of the story. This is your customer overcoming obstacles they have in common with your prospective customers, with your tools in hand.

By juxtaposing problem and solution, you gain tension. When you separate them, you have static facts. Tension keeps readers reading.

Ideally, the customer is learning along the way. What lessons can he share? What would he have done differently from the start, knowing what he now knows? What can other businesses learn from his experience? What’s replicable about his success?

When you mix the problem and solution, you are telling a story. When you separate them, you are writing a conventional case study. Which do you think will get higher readership?

Results Here you amplify the phrase or sentence you pulled out for use in the executive summary. You list business results, if possible, that were outgrowths of the problem’s being solved. You give more stats, while reminding the reader of that super-great one stat you included in the executive summary.

Why adopt this storytelling framework for case studies?

  1. An image of business success will now be associated with your company's products or services, even if the reader was a skimmer who quit reading after the first graf.
  2. A skimmer is less likely to stop after the first graf because you’ve added an element of suspense (the missing middle), and rewarded him from the start. It’s silly to think that a reader will patiently wade through static facts in hope of a possible reward at the end. Give him confidence from the start that you aren’t wasting his time.
  3. People remember stories more readily than they remember facts.
  4. Your reason for writing isn’t to tell the world about your customer; it’s to draw in prospective customers who will recognize themselves and their problems in the story. Your customer is a stand-in for your prospective customer, who can now visualize himself succeeding, thanks to the concrete specifics of your story.
Breaking the mold takes courage. You might consider trying it a couple of times and watching the response. If it works, keep it. If it doesn't, toss it. It's a just a case study, right? A tiny piece of your marketing collateral. No big deal. Case studies are not costly in time or money. They aren't high-profile. There's little to lose and readership to gain.

Caveat: Your social media guru and PR team usually are not equipped to write in narrative form. Senior PR people -- in the VP, SVP and EVP levels -- may have the skills, but they don't write case studies.

An ex-journalist on your team is your best bet. Or, if you've got a member of junior staff who successfully pitches top-tier business press, give them a crash course (30 mins) and let them learn from experience. Top-tier business press often write in narrative form.

The advent of social media and questions about the rise of business storytelling give you soft ground for experimentation. The conventional powers that be as well as the audience are now in a forgiving mood. Risk for this type of experiment has never been lower.

For more how-to posts, check out:

Saturday, June 19, 2010

For PR peeps: Quotes advice & AP style visuals

Have you seen these two SlideShare prezos?

Writing quotations for press releases

The first has been popular. It's guidance on crossing the chasm between a conventional PR quote and one that journalists will find useful and credible. My advice: Try to strike a balance.

Learning AP style with visual reinforcements

The second isn't eye-opening; it's meant for reinforcement. When you're learning AP style, it helps to expose yourself to visual representations of correct style. Better still, if you do a lot of editing or writing of press releases, that experience is a valuable way to acclimate yourself. This prezo puts right and wrong on the same slide, with visuals to reinforce which is good/bad.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Counterintuitive tip for PR clients & other corporations: Hire a pet journalist

Addendum posted 6/4/10: A U.K. publication makes essentially the same point, saying PR is sidestepping trad'l media to go straight to the public. Great article. Disclosure: Edelman is in the story and is also my employer.

A smart move for old-school companies adapting to new-media dynamics would be to hire a journalist.

Could you pick up one of the former stars at a reputable publication like BusinessWeek to write a weekly column on your company’s Web site?

Nowadays, yes. Ten years ago, no. Even two years ago, no.

New business models, newly available talent

Counterintuitive opportunities are emerging in the collision of free online distribution platforms and the end of journalism as we know it. The best moment to act is now. Seasoned talent is newly available and newly receptive to new platforms.

Well-known examples include former technology news reporters Steve Hamm, now writing for IBM, and Steve Wildstrom, now writing for NVIDIA.

But why stop there?

Your PR agency could assemble a team of experienced journalists (for example, as needed: reporter, photographer, videographer, infographics designer or metadata/SEO expert) who temporarily coalesce around a project related to a social cause. Does your company have a corporate responsibility or good purpose budget? Does your marketing department engage in social media campaigns?

What not to do: ghostwrite a blog

By contrast, many companies' response to new-media opportunities has been limited to re-purposing content for a corporate blog or looking for a ghostwriter for a CEO blog, which can be questionable for a variety of reasons.

Before getting into why, I need to disclose where I’m getting the inspiration for this blog post. It’s not coming from me.

Multimedia entrepreneurs emerging now

I’m fresh off a two-day conference where the most successful entrepreneurs in new media gave a crash course to photographers, videographers, print and broadcast journalists, data designers, university instructors, PR pros and others looking for unexpected opportunities in emerging multimedia capabilities. (I'll write more about it in future posts.)

I’d been hearing Sam Whitmore of Sam Whitmore Mediasurvey (an expert in technology news media who sells advice to PR agencies) say this for the past six months or more. I believed him before, but now I’m on fire about it.

Below, I’ve included a list of the brilliant minds who spoke to us at Visual Journalism Bootcamp on Whidbey Island, Wash., last weekend. The event was sponsored by Fusionspark Media, which itself pioneered the journalist-for-hire idea a good 10 years ago when it did environmental reporting paid for by Toyota and Epson.

Why it's different now: Portal doesn't matter

Meanwhile, here’s the pivotal dynamic of the moment, and where it’s headed in coming years: Niche is king.

The economies of scale we associated with giants like CNN, BBC, The AP or The New York Times don’t matter as much as they used to. The refinement of search engines (still barreling along with no slowdown in sight) and no- or low-cost sharing platforms mean “the place” on the Internet doesn’t matter anymore.

You can go anywhere easily.

[For a deeper, broader perspective on “the portal doesn’t matter,” listen to Harvard business professor and "Innovator's Dilemma" author Clayton Christensen talk to Chris Hill of Motley Fool (10/14/09) on disruptive innovation, his investing philosophy, and his take on, Apple and Google.]

Two caveats: transparency & editorial freedom

Whether a reporter with a sterling reputation and huge following is at the Wall Street Journal or Acme Corp.’s website matters less these days. As long as transparency and editorial freedom are priorities, either works.

When companies try to hire ghostwriters for CEO blogs, it’s usually because someone in the marketing department said, “Hey, blogs are big. Let’s add blogs to what we’re already doing.” But that’s missing the point.

You don’t want “a blog.” You want a quality reputation. You want a following.

Hire someone who's already got those things in abundance. Give him a new kind of job.

Let your corporate journalist write about (or photograph or make videos of) compelling issues in your industry. Set parameters, but leave him the freedom he'll need to be a success.

To learn more about multimedia journalism from a PR perspective, you can contact my colleagues Elizabeth Powell and Terri Nopp in Edelman’s Seattle and Portland offices, both of whom attended the event.


Speakers at Visual Journalism Bootcamp last week:

Brian Storm, MediaStorm

Tony Deifell, Managing Director, Q Media Labs

Hanson Hosein, Director, Master of Comm., Digital Media Program

Brent Friedman, Electric Farm Entertainment

John Gauntt, Media-dojo

Russell Sparkman, Fusionspark Media

Dan Lamont,

Leif Utne, Board Member, & VP of Community Development, Zanby

Paige West, Studio Director,

Solo rock CD as multimedia communication: Meet Paul Lesinski

Reprinting an e-mail from my longtime coworker Paul, who does PR for Adobe and is a musician.

In the spirit of the Visual Journalism Bootcamp I attended last week (top quote from Brian Storm, primary instructor at the bootcamp: "Audio is the spine of multimedia."), I'm declaring Paul a multimedia journalist. It's a stretch in that we normally don't think of rock music as journalism, but I'm re-thinking a lot of things these days, so why not.

In fact, Paul's got a journalism background, too, so it's doubly fitting. Viva creativity and self-actualization! Go, Paul!

You can listen to his music for free. Click on the first link in his note below.

From Paul, 6/2/10:

You may be aware that over the past year I have been working on recording my first ever solo CD. Well, today is the big day and the release, called A Fear Of Flashing Light, is now available for download at

Recorded from April 2009 through May 2010, the 12 song CD spans various genres including straight ahead rock and roll, progressive rock, and some acoustic-based tunes as well. There is also a fancy 13 page digital booklet with lyrics and artwork so your eyes can be as jazzed as your ears.

Various talented musicians joined me on this CD, most notably all of my bandmates from colorfield as well as all four former members of my touring band from 1990-1995, The Strangers. In fact the tune Walkin’ (track #5) is a veritable Strangers reunion of the original band.

I am making the CD available as a free download but am also offering the option to pay a suggested $5 to help offset the cost of recording and mastering. Physical CDs will also be available via snail mail in about a month, and I will let you know about that when the time comes.

Thanks, and ENJOY the music!