Cross-posted from Ishmael’s Corner
By Lou Hoffman
Storytelling is the new “black” when it comes to business communications.
To understand the plight of storytelling, consider the chart (above) put together by our crack research group using Factiva to search on the number of articles containing the word “storytelling” in general and business publications.
The data doesn’t exactly quantify the communications profession embracing storytelling. Still, there’s no denying that the word and associated concept is trending up and to the right with velocity.
Every time you turn a corner, there’s someone on a soapbox evangelizing the powers of storytelling for fixing the ills of your content.
For those who prefer to stay tethered to their desks, a slew of webinars, TED Talks, workshops and Dale Carnegie classes all promise that in exchange for opening your wallets, you too can be a master storyteller.
But here’s the pachyderm in the room no one likes to talk about it —
How often does an interaction under the business communications umbrella lend itself to a full-blown story, the type with a beginning, an end and something going amiss in the middle that must be overcome? Maybe 10 percent of the time, and that’s probably high.
That’s why we use the term storytelling techniques in describing how the concepts of storytelling can be applied to business communications. It turns out that within the classic story arc, those who entertain like novelists and movie directors depend on certain techniques to bring their material to life.
I’ve captured my favorite storytelling techniques framed for those who toil in PR, corporate communications and marketing:
Five Proven Storytelling Techniques
ANECDOTES HIT THE AMUSING CHORD
Even one anecdote can transform drab copy into something that resonates with the reader. Journalists, the masters of storytelling in the non-fiction genre, use the anecdote as a key building block to both entertain and bring realness to the story.
A recent New York Times story on recruiting talent in Silicon Valley included this killer anecdote:
“The recruiting is not confined to the best engineers; sometimes it spills over to nontechnical employees too. Two of the chefs who prepared meals for Googlers, Alvin San and Rafael Monfort, have been hired away by Uber and Airbnb in the last 18 months.”
A single anecdote can make or break a story. Consider the news of a Navy squadron rescuing a family of five lost in the Pacific Ocean for seven days. The family apparently survived on rain water and what the ocean served up.
A college buddy of mine, Mike Wendelin, happened to work for the Navy squadron doubling as its public affairs rep. He pitched the story to the local media with no success. As a last resort he posted the story on the squadron’s Facebook page.
As you can see, one of the Facebook viewers asked what type of device caused the flash of light that grabbed the Navy pilot’s attention. Mike didn’t know, so he took the time to check with the rescue team. It turned out that a bottom of a soda can served as the “signal mirror.”
Thanks to the anecdote, a local Jacksonville, Florida, TV station decided to pursue the story with the headline, “Local Navy Pilots Save Family Stranded at Sea with Help of a Cola Can.”
The story eventually catapults into USA Today with the anecdote again front and center, “With the help of a gleaming cola can, Navy pilots of a C-130 spot a family stranded in the Pacific Ocean.”
Observing how a single anecdote can impact journalism, it’s a great reminder for communicators to embrace the same technique.
HUMANITY UNDERPINS COMPELLING STORYTELLING
Showing one’s humanity is a sure-fire way to bring a storytelling dimension to communications. Yet, most executives do the exact opposite. They make a conscious effort to hide their humanity.
We’re told early in our careers that business is business, personal is personal, and the two shouldn’t overlap.
It’s a missed opportunity.
The simple act of opening up can strengthen business communications, again giving oomph to what otherwise would be vanilla information.
Let’s define this concept of opening up in business communications. It means being willing to reveal a little something about yourself. Transition lines such as “That reminds me …” or “Let me share a quick story …” can serve as springboards into opening up.
Politicians certainly get this humanity thing with President Obama as the poster child. Take a look at the home page for Whitehouse.gov and the three areas highlighted:
Natoma Canfield’s letter on health insurance or the President listening to “Paradise” by Coldplay or knowing the President’s schedule is not going to solve the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Yet, these forms of “opening up” allow people to feel like they get to know the president.
For business role models, look no further than Warren Buffet who has perfected the storytelling technique of opening up. He doesn’t want the world to perceive him as one of the richest men in the world who always gets his right pinkie in the air at the perfect angle when lifting a cup of tea. Similar to President Obama, Mr. Buffett strives for ways that the average person can feel part of his circle.
Of course, the profile of the individual has a say about the frame of opening up. For the President Obamas and Warren Buffets of the world, buying an ice cream cone is a photo op. For an executive at an enterprise computing company, the opening up needs to have relevance to the topic at hand, which requires getting out of the weeds.
Trying to conjure up a personal story with a tie to “greater density in a solid state storage device” is likely to be a futile exercise. Instead, it’s about finding an experience with common ground between the personal and the technical.
Also consider your customers as potential sources to tease out the humanity in a story. That’s what Caterpillar did in this video on a new roadway that physically united the country of Madagascar.
If you don’t have the budget to send a film crew halfway around the world, consider the simple act of putting a face on a company also puts a company’s humanity on display. Along this line, Intel ran a campaign that showcased employees with Intel tattoos:
Once again proving there’s more than one way to skin a tat.
CONVERSATIONAL LANGUAGE IN TALKING AND WRITING
It’s one of the great mysteries of the world. Take dynamic people who could moonlight doing improv. Put them a business setting, and all of sudden their language becomes stiff as plywood. The same goes for those whose writing allows what’s considered business norms to squeeze the life out of their copy.
Some of the worst offenders can be found in company job descriptions which often read like they came from a robot who knows how to use a thesaurus.
Take a look at how Medium starts the job description for a test automation engineer:
“Medium is seeking an inquisitive, tenacious, and thorough engineer who loves to break things in order to keep us honest about what we’re shipping.”
If Medium can be conversational and have fun with language describing the role of a test automation engineer, you can do the same for all forms of business communications.
One final point —
Trust your ear. Read out loud the words on paper. Your ear will tell you whether it rings true or not.
LEVITY, THE KILLER APP IN COMMUNICATIONS
Notice I said “levity,” not “funny,” which is a much higher bar. With levity, eliciting a mere smile from the target audience is a win.
Still, it often takes guts as much as creativity to bring levity to business communications.
Our advertising brothers have a history of deploying levity to great effect.
There’s nothing amusing about hair shampoo. Yet, this French ad for hair products does amuse.
PR can take a lesson from advertising and look for ways to bring levity into campaigns, not only for consumer brands, but for B2B companies as well.
Like the coiffed hair of the lion in the French ad, the following Qualcomm video shows how the unexpected inserts a dose of fun into a technical topic:
I love this example. If a company can bring levity to an integrated circuit, you can bring levity to anything.
Even something as mundane as 404 page where broken links go to die can be an opportunity for levity. Our recent redesign had some fun with our 404 page:
Again, if it brings a sliver of amusement, that’s a massive upgrade over the status quo.
CONTRAST FOR VISUAL STORYTELLING
In conducting our storytelling workshops, the concept of contrast is one technique that always resonates with participants.
The old way vs. the new way.
Before vs. after.
With vs. without.
All deliver a form of contrast that resonates with the human brain.
I think of contrast as a poor man’s failure. As pointed out earlier, the opportunity to share the classic story arc in which something goes terribly wrong has limitations in business communications. And even when the opportunity presents itself, most companies won’t go there. When was the last time a CEO barked “OK, let’s leverage these failures in our PR program this coming quarter”?
Yet, the failure story at its core is one of contrast — failure vs. success — a technique acceptable to all companies.
Again, advertising has always used contrast as a standard building block as illustrated in the iconic Rolling Stone magazine campaign.
Journalists also use contrast in their storytelling. After the shocking terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the lights in the Eiffel Tower were turned off out of respect for the victims. In covering the story, The Wall Street Journal could have run a photo like this:
Instead, the Journal ran the following photo on Page 1 above the fold, showing the iconic symbol with and without lights:
While the examples of contrast to this point have depended on images, the effect can also be accomplished with words. When Alcatel-Lucent (client) shared its turnaround plans, it threw down the gauntlet with contrast, an honest assessment of its current position and aspirations.
Contrast in business storytelling comes from the difference between “what was” and “what is.” The greater the difference between the two points, the more interesting for the audience.
But companies often derail contrast in storytelling by choosing to not share the “what was” part. They view the “what was” part as a negative and one that reflects poorly on the company. Yet, you need both to create a frame, which in turn delivers the contrast. Back to the Alcatel-Lucent example, if the company did not articulate its current position, its aspirational narrative appears as empty platitudes.
HONING YOUR CRAFT
These five storytelling techniques can be applied to any type of business communications. Better yet, you don’t need to be the second coming of Hemingway or Spielberg to insert them into content development.
If you’re looking for a low-risk way to experiment, consider your LinkedIn profile and other personal social channels.
And when you read something that grabs you by the scruff of the neck, reverse engineer the content to identify the storytelling techniques.
These two actions by themselves will help you hone your craft.