The word “storytelling” has been trending in the communications industry for several years. Virtually every communications consultancy touts its storytelling expertise short of saying: “Hey mister, step into our tent and see how storytelling can change your life.”
There’s just one not-so-little detail that no one talks about. When it comes to business communications, storytelling by its classic definition — a narrative with a start, an end, and something going horribly astray in between — often can’t be applied.
Whether it’s content on a corporate website, a presentation or talking with a journalist, telling story after story doesn’t make for persuasive communications. Plus, inserting failure into narratives isn’t exactly a natural act for companies.
With that said, given a choice between dull or interesting, people will gravitate toward interesting every time (our informal research showed 37 out of 37 people preferred Breaking Bad over CSPAN).
That’s the genesis of this Periodic Table of Business Storytelling and this microsite.
By borrowing the same techniques found in storytelling, fiction and nonfiction alike, business communications become more interesting and thus more persuasive.
Equally important, these storytelling techniques offer a repeatable process to improving content development. You don’t have to be Ernest Hemingway to tease out an anecdote in the copy.
We’d like this microsite to serve as an industry resource. Consider this Rev 1.0. We know there’s room for improvement and welcome your input. Feel free to email us at email@example.com.
Anecdote Takes Center Stage in a National News Story
Obviously, the focus of the story lies on a Presidential decision.
Yet, the pen makes headline.
But we don’t actually “meet the pen” until almost 500 words later at the very end of the story:
That pen is a left-handed Cross Townsend, assembled at the 169-year-old company’s plant in Lincoln, Rhode Island, from components made in China.
“The old saying goes the pen is mightier than the sword, and in these days we don’t use swords anymore, we use pens,” said Bryan Fournier, vice president of operations at Cross Pens.
What’s going on here?
This is a case where the needs of journalism and PR converge as one. I continue to believe that PR underutilizes the anecdote as a storytelling technique, and this is why the Cross Pen example stood out.
CNN is looking for a way to differentiate its news story on President Obama exercising his veto power.
As you can see from the smattering of headlines above, all of them essentially say the same thing.
On the PR side, Cross Pen is looking to “borrow” the news event as a way to shine the national spotlight on its product.
Reverse-engineering the story, all cues point to Cross pitching the anecdote as an exclusive. I say this because the anecdote doesn’t appear in any other coverage. It says something about the power of anecdotes in today’s journalism that they can be pitched this way.
And the end of the story, specifically the clichéd comment from the Cross executive around the “pen is mightier than the sword, points to a pitch.
But the most revealing data point comes from the 81-second video that accompanies the news story in which the pen takes on the lead role. We even get a peek into the manufacturing process and learn that making pens for presidents is indeed cool (her words, not mine).
The video offers another proof point that “sausage making” content — the process and actions that take place behind the curtain — makes for an effective storytelling technique.
Note: Kudos to one of our senior account professionals in our Pacific Northwest office, Kali Bean, who brought the CNN story to my attention. I’ll be making the trek to our Pacific Northwest office later this week to take the entire team through our storytelling workshop.
Executives often perceive anecdotes as fluff and put the kibosh on such content before it sees the light of the day. Which explains why if you were to audit the content generated by PR (in-house + agency), you would find that most efforts capture little or no anecdotal content.
Journalists, the masters of industrial-grade storytelling in business, have honed the use of anecdotal content to an art form. You’ll often see feature stories in business publications kick off with an anecdote as a form of stage-setting like the start of the Bloomberg Business story, “How Goldman Sachs Lost $1.2 Billion of Libya’s Money” which reads like a novel:
Moammar Qaddafi’s Libya was a miserable place for a business trip. In 2008, a few years after renouncing its nuclear and chemical weapons program, the desert nation remained a menacing and ugly place, with cratered highways, awful restaurants with no booze, and Qaddafi’s leathery visage everywhere, staring balefully down from billboards. The dreary capital, Tripoli, sat at the edge of the Sahara, in the least barren sliver of a country defined in the West by dictatorship, terrorism, and billions of dollars’ worth of oil.
I had to turn to my trusty online dictionary for the definition of “baleful,” which turns out to be the perfect word. And thought the phrase “awful restaurants with no booze” added a nice touch in spite of being superfluous.
While Goldman Sachs getting in bed with one of the top bad guys of the 21st century lends itself to this type of storytelling, anecdotes can also lift the mundane. Take last week’s story in The New York Times on the U.S. government requiring its contractors to provide paid sick leave. We can safely say that Michael Lewis doesn’t sniff a book in this topic. Yet, the NYT journalist feathers an anecdote into the story as a way of humanizing the issue:
Paola Angel was working as a security guard in New York City when its paid sick leave law went into effect. Before the law, she typically had to leave one of her two school-age sons at home when they got sick because she could not afford to forgo a day of pay or to put her job at risk.
Anecdotes can be particularly effective in dealing with complex subject matter, as was the case in our support of the Bell Labs 50th anniversary for the discovery of the “Big Bang.” Among the mainstream media covering the story, NPR looked to bring out the humanity of the two scientists with anecdotes such as this one trying to eliminate the hum from the signal that they thought might be originating from birds:
“There was a pair of pigeons living in the antenna,” Wilson says. Wilson and Penzias got on their lab coats, climbed inside their giant microwave contraption, and wiped out the pigeon poop. The birds kept roosting in there. Penzias and a lab technician eventually took matters into their own hands: “The only humane way of doing it was to buy a box of shotgun shells,” Penzias says. “So that’s what finally happened to the pigeons.”
As Heisenberg says in “Breaking Bad,” “That covers it.”
Previous office building nicknamed “Taj Majal” by employees for being grandiose (not a term of endearment)
Conducted a raffle for some employees to join the execs in New York City to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange
CEO joined the internal kickball league
The mashing of these anecdotes actually creates the headline, “What Happened When Nautilus’s CEO Ditched His Fancy Office and Joined the Company Kickball Team.”
Both examples put a face on the company and do so in a way that takes you behind the curtain with fresh wrinkles to the story.
There’s another reason that anecdotes should be part of your communications arsenal. They bring realness to the storytelling.
If I stand in front of you and tell you that I’m a great dad — illustration below for those who think visually — what do you think?
The opposite comes to mind. Such a statement triggers the perception that if I’m saying this, I’m probably not a great dad.
But what if I were to talk about getting up early on a Sunday morning because my kids wanted to try to their hands at a strawberry crepe? Leaving nothing to chance, I even bought a crepe pan from Williams-Sonoma that guaranteed a perfect outcome. Yet, in spite of our diligence in following the recipe, we ended up with a dish that looked more like strawberry mashed potatoes than a crepe.
You still might not nominate me for dad of the year, but you do take away the impression that I’m engaged with my kids.
I read a great line some time ago from Raymond Mar, a professor at York University in Toronto, who conducts research on storytelling:
“Everyone has a natural detector for psychological realism.”
That’s the power of the anecdote in business communications — helping the reader/listener feel that the story rings true.
On a charitable day, I would characterize most company videos as dreadful.
Consider what happens when you go to an event, meet a new person and that person launches into a soliloquy of “me, me and in case you missed it, here’s more about me.” Right. You walk away. Why would a company video be any different?
Of course, the moniker “company video” by definition means the video spotlights the company. It’s just that shaping a company video that tells an actual story from the outside looking in — as opposed to the typical inside looking out — has a fighting chance to grab the audience’s attention for 180 seconds or so.
This video on Philz Coffee created by Northbound Films does exactly that.
It feels real.
Humor and fun language lift the storytelling.
The narrative even shares a slice of Philz’s past that some would perceive as negative,
“He sells the country’s cheapest milk, beer and cigarettes.”
For a look behind the camera, I spoke with Jordan Ching, co-founder of Northbound and the director of the Philz video. It turns out that Jordan is a self-taught film maker, having studied business in college before landing in cube land as a procurement specialist. How one goes from procurement and filled spreadsheets — I’m sure there’s a less creative function; I just can’t think of one at the moment — to the blank canvas of video-making is a story for another time.
LH: So many corporate videos fall flat because they emphasize chest-beating. How did you move Philz away from this pitfall?
JC: We got extremely lucky with Philz because they let us have total creative freedom. We approached them with a concept in mind and they were open enough to run with it.
LH: Did you establish a certain vibe you wanted from the video before the shooting commenced?
JC: Yes, we wanted to bring a quirky and fun feel to the Philz story. We saw there was a lot of video on Philz out there, but nothing that really captured what Philz is about.
LH: I love the opening of the video with San Francisco circa 1970s. Even though it’s only a few seconds, it establishes a bigger narrative than just a coffee company. How did this come about?
JC: We were inspired by another piece that did something similar. San Francisco itself has a lot of character, so we wanted to establish the “foundation” of where Philz was born. I don’t think Philz could’ve been born anywhere but here.
LH: Where’d you find those pictures?
JC: At the Mission Cultural Center. They were great in letting us scan images in their archives. Those images have since been moved to Stanford, so we got lucky in being able to find exactly what we needed.LH: I also thought it was clever to weave in the vignette, “He sells the country’s cheapest milk, beer and cigarettes” early in the video. Any initial resistance from Philz in introducing what some might perceive as a bit negative or not relevant to business today?
JC: No resistance. Phil himself bought into the concept of showing his journey and how he got his start. It’s all part of his story.
Lou: It’s only a few seconds of the video, but it brings texture to the storytelling.
LH: Along a similar line, it’s not easy to bring touches of levity — like the running count of hours/time spent studying coffee or sitting at the table like a plant — to a company video. Was this something you set out to achieve, or did it occur on more of an improv basis?
JC: I wish we could say that we have everything planned out to a T, but the creative process doesn’t necessarily work like that. We knew once we had shot that particular VO, we had to create a scene to bring it to life, and thus the plant scene was born.LH: All in all, the video really brings out the humanity in Philz. Was this the overarching goal of the video?
JC: Yes. The story of why Philz is so special gets lost in verbal communication, so we wanted to create a piece that took care of that problem.
LH: It would be great to hear your guidance on how companies can avoid the typical traps that produce bad company videos.
JC: Let the creatives be the creatives, and take chances!
LH: Be Brave.
JC: Right. Be brave. I don’t know how many times the Dollar Shave Club video has been referenced to us, but when it comes down to it, the client does not want to go there. If your company is truly that quirky or out there, go with it. Safe is so boring.
LH: The Dollar Shave Club serves as the poster child for great company videos. The exaggeration makes it work. But it takes guts to sign up for exaggeration.
JC: I agree. As you put it, it takes guts to create a video based on exaggeration because you can never have 100 percent certainty that it will work. The Dollar Shave Club video ended up going viral with millions of views, but at the conceptual stage, you don’t know.
LH: Any closing thoughts?
JC: Good things happen when people push the envelope. Try something new, don’t settle for ordinary, and hire a production company/agency who can take you there.
Lest you think that Northbound Films works only with consumer companies, check out this fresh video for a supply chain software company.
When it comes to buying services under the communications umbrella — whether it’s video creation or public relations or whatever — there’s something to be said for hiring consultancies that care.
I’ve always thought that’s part of our own secret sauce, and I see the same quality in Northbound Films.
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.
To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, we’re told early in our careers that business is business, personal is personal, and never the twain shall meet.
It’s a missed opportunity.
The simple act of opening up can strengthen business communications, giving lift to what otherwise would be vanilla information.
Before going further, let’s define this concept of opening up in business communications. In short, 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.
It’s worth noting that opening up should come in moderation lest you end up in the TMI category. No one wants to hear that your kid refused an SAT tutor, smokes pot and is going to end up at the local community college.
Politicians certainly get the concept of how to open up.
The recent Republican and Democratic conventions provided ample examples of politicians opening up as means to connect with their constituencies.
Staying in the political sphere, one of my favorite examples of “opening up” comes from President Obama who every year appears on ESPN to share his college basketball picks for March Madness.
Does the President’s ability to predict Arizona State upsetting Michigan — didn’t happen by the way — give the American public greater confidence in his ability to address the threat of terrorism or shepherd health care reform? Of course not. He does this so his target audience can identify with him and perhaps feel a connection with him.
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 participating in March Madness, Mr. Buffett strives for ways that the average person can feel part of his circle. Using his Annual Report for more than reporting financial performance, we find passages such as the following on activities at his shareholders’ meeting:
“To add to the Sunday fun Ariel Hsing will play table tennis (ping pong to the uninitiated) from 1 pm to 4 pm against anyone brave enough to take her on. Ariel, though only 11, is ranked number one among first under 16 in the U.S. I played Ariel, then 9, thinking I would take it easy on her so as not to crush her young spirit. Instead she crushed me …”
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, they can tap areas like a college basketball tournament or a ping pong prodigy that have zero relevance to their core platform. If you’re an executive at an enterprise computing company, what you share opening up needs to have relevance to the topic at hand.
This 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” makes for a futile exercise. Instead, it’s about finding an experience/feeling that provides common ground between the personal and the technical. Maybe a sense of achievement underpins the personal story as a way to accentuate the sense of achievement with the new storage device. Or perhaps the development of the storage device hit unexpected obstacles that could be tied to a personal saga of pushing through barriers.
One final point —
As you open up, you’re going to experience a feeling of vulnerability.
Take a deep breath and stay the course.
Like any push out of one’s comfort zone, it does get easier over time.
This can be a tough one for PR professionals where words have always ruled. Yet, visuals can serve as shortcuts to the emotional touch points of a story. Which explains why 500 million photos are shared on social platforms each day, a number expected to double next year.
But there’s a more fundamental dynamic at work. How do you rise above the noise and get a “listen?”
I came across a chart – yes, it happens to be in visual form – which as much as anything quantifies the noise and the why PR needs to bring visual storytelling into business communications.
Thanks to social media, blogging tools … and the list goes on, all of us recognize that the amount of digital content keeps going up.
Makes perfect sense.
But I didn’t understand the velocity behind this phenomenon until absorbing this Kleiner Perkins chart.
First things first, I needed to get my arms around this measurement of digital storage called a zettabyte.
When I purchased the Agency’s first personal computer back in 1987, it came armed with 20 megabytes of hard disk storage. Today’s desktop computers often come with 500 gigabytes of storage, a gigabyte being 1000 times more than a megabyte.
A terabyte is 1000 times larger than a gigabyte leading us to the infamous exabyte, 1,000,000,000 times larger than gigabyte. Quick aside – the people responsible for the nomenclature should have inserted some levity into the proceedings with a measurement called a “bubbabyte” (think of the possibilities for the NASCAR crowd).
But I digress.
Gargantuan doesn’t begin to describe a zettabyte. Here’s a comparison that framed the context for me. One gigabyte can store roughly 16 hours of music. If your iPod came with a zettabyte of storage, you would be set with 2 billion years (not a typo) of music.
Returning to the KPCB chart, you can see that the amount of newly created digital information will double from 2013 to 2015 to eight zettabytes.
If the customer feels crushed with information today, think about the world in 2015 with twice the amount of digital information raining down.
That’s why visual storytelling demands a core spoke in any communications program.
The basis of visual storytelling can come from words.
I call these “word visuals.” They’re perfect for PR folks who can struggle with bringing a visual dimension to communications. Words as a design technique play to our strength.
These “word visuals” come in four flavors:
Clever words that stand on their own: The words, sometimes in hand-written form, completely carry the day. Little or no design goes into this type of visual storytelling.
Speech cloud from a celebrity: I get a lot of mileage from this technique which is particularly effective for B2B companies where you don’t expect a Conan O’Brien to surface.
Replace the words in an existing visual: Take something that already exists and replace the words with your own.
The words carry a simple image: The Game of Thrones image with our friend Tyrion that kicks off this post offers an example of this approach. The words on top of elementary design give hope of a chuckle.
Clever Words That Stand on Their Own
One of the best examples of this technique comes from Douglas Wray who broke down the essence of social media platforms with the help of a donut.
Again, a third grader could design this visual. The power comes from the cleverness in the words.
The imperfection of the handwriting actually adds to the visual appeal. Check out what happens if we take the same content, but package it with typography:
Using type results in a less interesting visual. There’s a certain beauty to the rawness of handwriting.
Even a few words can create a powerful visual. Business Insider wrote a feature on Ben Silbermann, Pinterest CEO, that included the Venn diagram below.
Just three words with two overlapping circles and voila — a touch of levity has been added.
Speech Cloud with a Celebrity
I noted earlier that I deploy this technique on a regular basis.
When Jolie O’Dell, a journalist at VentureBeat, bitched about PR professionals accompanying executives in press interviews, I served up the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld:
As a second example, a post lamenting the lack of budget information in RFPs riffed off of Jay Leno and his diction during his monologues when he hosted the Tonight Show.
Replace the Words in an Existing Visual
Literally anything with writing on it becomes a candidate for this technique:
Even a soda can (more on this in a moment)
In a post that examined anecdotes in business storytelling, we found a photo of a person holding a sign at a football game and took the liberty of changing the sign to cheer on the Anecdotes (GIF toggles between the two):
I mentioned this technique can even be applied to a soda can. Playing off New Coke, we inserted Twitter predicting that a new version of the social tool would come to the market.
Again, these types of visuals depend on words to do the heavy lifting.
Equally important, you can create them with minimal design expertise, though mimicking a typeface on a soda does require someone at the controls of Photoshop.
Word visuals at their best can trigger that “what the heck!” moment from the reader.
Virtually every novel reflects some form of the classic storytelling arc.
Same goes for movies.
As I’m driving to see “Zero Dark Thirty,” I’m wondering how the heck will the movie build drama. I already know how the story ends. Yet, the CIA operative played by Jessica Chastain must deal with stuff going cockeyed again and again to the point that you lose yourself in the story and indeed can feel the tension building.
In the communications business, we don’t have 300 pages or two hours on the silver screen to define characters or advance a plot with the requisite twists and turns that culminate in a payoff and happy ending.
But it’s not just the element of time that poses a quandary for communicators. The intrinsic nature of classic storytelling revolves around crisis, or better yet, the type of failure that causes the audience to wince. That’s what teases out the tension. That’s what keeps the audience engaged.
PR, on the other hand, is conditioned to do the exact opposite. We’re striving to highlight achievements, ever conscious of keeping any semblance of a crisis behind the closed – no make that locked – doors.
It’s this catch-22 that led to creation of “The Communicator’s Spike.”
What gives lift to this narrative comes from the gap or contrast between the old way and the new way. The greater the difference between the old way and the new way, the more interesting the story.
It still requires PR to get out of its comfort zone. Often, we don’t want to discuss the past because it wasn’t flattering. Yet, without the past, the journalist or reader has no way to frame the story, which generates the contrast (between two points in time).
By storytelling fodder, I don’t mean just facts and figures. There needs to be texture, anecdotes and language that demands attention.
You can actually create some drama with this technique.
At the very least, the story packs more punch than your garden-variety PR narrative.
Look at the construction of any major feature story in Fortune, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Atlantic, Wired, take your pick.
What element is likely to underscore the narrative?
Here’s a hint. It starts with an “F.”
Failure (if you guessed frickinmess, you were in the ballpark).
Something going terribly wrong — the bigger the “train wreck,” the better. Forcing a company to experience pain in resolving the debacle makes for a good read. Patricia Sellers, a journalist at Fortune, articulated the appeal of this formula in an interview with the Stanford Business School. If you skip to 1:31 in the video, you’ll hear her frame the components of a compelling narrative.
Her closing comment (2:01), “If failure isn’t part of the story, I’m not that interested,” puts the kibosh on most PR pitches. It’s been a long time since I sat down with a client CEO to discuss last quarter’s failures as potential fodder for PR.
But contrast offers an effective option for PR storytelling.
If you think about it, the failure story at its core is one of contrast, failure vs. success. PR can apply the same technique in its communications. While contrast won’t deliver the drama of the failure vs. success story, it absolutely lifts the narrative.
The advertising folks get this.
One of my all-time favorite ad campaigns involved positioning the Rolling Stone Magazine as a good home for all brands, not just the radical fringe.
Contrast continues to be a go-to technique for advertisers like this ad for pistachios I just came across in Time.
And journalists have been shaping stories with contrast since the first copy editor screamed “don’t do dull.”
Last month I highlighted this example on CBS Sports.
The contrast delivers a twist to the story since you don’t expect a “lowly” caddie to make more money than Mr. Woods.
Even if the contrast doesn’t jar, simply providing context can make for a more interesting read. For example, many of the stories on Alibaba’s performance during China’s Singles Day contrasted the numbers with Black Friday and Cyber Monday in the U.S.
Other times, the contrast can actually serve as the core story.
Consider this chart depicting the growth of PR jobs in the U.S. over a 10-year horizon.
Naturally, publications covering the PR industry would jump on this data, but would a mainstream publication like The Washington Post report on this story?
Of course not.
But check out the same data only this time with the addition of jobs for reporters/correspondents which in turn brings contrast comes to the fore.
Think of contrast in business storytelling as the difference between “what was” and “what is.”
Other contrast frames include:
Old way vs. New Way
Before vs. After
With vs. Without
Regardless of approach, the greater the difference between the two points, the more interesting to the audience.
One final thought —
Companies often miss opportunities for contrast in storytelling by deciding to not share the first component of the frame. They perceive the “what was” part as reflecting poorly on the company, so they don’t want to communicate this part.
Yet, this is exactly what often produces the “greater difference” (between the two points), which in turns shapes a fresh read.
It’s rare for a magazine to examine the power of storytelling in business. This particular article comes compliments of the trade book One +, which caters to more than 30,000 meeting planners.
Before you scoff, consider the plight of meeting planners in matchmaking an organization with a venue. No doubt, if you’ve seen one convention center, you’ve seen them all (only the dimensions change).
Enter storytelling as a means to grab the audience by the scruff of the neck.
Writer Jason Hensel bravely kicks off the piece with a cliche that works as a stage setter:
One upon a time. Need I go further? You know you’ve entered a story. Perhaps you prefer something a little more straightforward: “Call me Ishmael,” “I am an invisible man” or “Mother died today.” The simple act of telling a story demands attention whether it starts with the fantastical or the concrete. It’s the difference between academic and business-speak and barroom banter.
He had me at “Ishmael.”
Hensel spoke with Pat Lencioni, author of several popular business books including “Death by Meeting.” Hard to argue with the writer behind “a cure for the most painful yet underestimated problem of modern business: bad meetings,” who shares:
I think that people today are more distracted than ever. People are looking for something that captures their attention and provides an enjoyable experience.
Splattering a screen with a mind-numbing array of charts and graphs is not an enjoyable experience.
I was also pleased that my perspective on the importance of context in storytelling found its way into the narrative:
“Take the movie Rudy. If you jump to the end of the movie and see Rudy finally going into the game to play for Notre Dame, this has zero meaning. Instead, one needs to understand he originally got rejected, parlayed a [junior college] stint into admissions, walked on to the team as an undersized player, etc.
This is a big part of storytelling and especially relevant in markets of complexity like technology. Too often companies want to jump right to the innovation instead of providing context of how this was accomplished before. It’s the delta between what was and what is that delivers the drama.
And I like how Hensel puts a bow on the piece in closing:
The stories may all begin and end differently, but they all have the same core—we are one. The human story is the only story there is, and when you understand that, you’ll be able to move freely in any world, from barroom to boardroom.
Business communicators can take lessons away from all forms of storytelling.
One of my favorite go-to exercises for our storytelling workshop leans on the movie, “500 Days of Summer.” A voice with James Earl Jones-like command delivers a narration that sets the stage for the movie and what proved to be Zooey Deschanel’s coming out party.
Let’s examine the words, which I’ve broken down into four passages:
“This is a story of boy meets girl.”
Opening with a cliché isn’t exactly from the Creative Writing 101 handbook. It works here because the cliché is about to be turned inside out.
“The boy, Tom Hansen of Margate, New Jersey, grew up believing that he’d never truly be happy until the day he met the one. This belief stemmed from early exposure to sad British pop music and a total misreading of the movie ‘The Graduate.’”
The line doesn’t TELL us that Tom Hansen has the mind of a romantic. Instead, viewers hear a few vignettes about Tom and reach the conclusion on their own that this boy is an incurable romantic (probably parts his hair like Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate”).
“The girl, Summer Finn of Shinnecock, Michigan, did not share this belief. Since the disintegration of her parents’ marriage she’d only love two things. The first was her long dark hair. The second was how easily she could cut it off and feel nothing.”
The narration quickly establishes conflict. In contrast to Tom, Ms. Finn of Shinnecock, Michigan, isn’t the happily-ever-after type. In fact, it turns out that she purposely generates unhappy endings just to prove that they don’t make her to cry. Borrowing from Foreigner, the writer doesn’t tell us, “she’s cold as ice.” It’s the showing that leads us to this conclusion.
“Tom meets Summer on January 8th. He knows almost immediately she is who he has been searching for. This is a story of boy meets girl, but you should know upfront, this is not a love story.”
With paths of Tom and Summer intersecting, we know a train wreck will ensure. This is also when the opening cliché gets turned inside out with the closing line, “This is not a love story.”
I encourage you to take a listen to the narration which only lasts 93 seconds.
Business communications — and particularly PR — often fall into the trap of telling the audience, not showing the audience.
For example, every company wants to be perceived as innovative, so the communications effort typically shouts to the world that “We’re innovative.”
Adjectives don’t win over the audience much less shape perceptions. Stories do, which brings us back to “showing” a company’s innovative approach.
In the kick-off narration for “500 Days Summer,” I’ve highlighted the adjectives and adverbs.
This exercise reveals that adjectives and adverbs have a place in narrative. They add texture (not showy). But it’s the story, the showing, that should do the heavy lifting.
One final point —
In business communications, there’s a tendency to jump to the point as quickly as possible, which can mean cutting out what might be viewed as superfluous details. Yet, these same details can help shape and bring a certain realness to the communications.
In the “500 Days of Summer” opener, what happens if we eliminate the hometowns of Tom Hansen and Summer Finn? The story still holds together. It still shows us how each individual is wired. But we lose a touch of realness in the fiction transport.
Even though business communications by definition is non-fiction — let’s save the issue of “spin” for another day — the cynical nature of today’s audience means that they don’t automatically believe everything they read or hear. That’s why the details are important. They deliver cues to the audience that they should believe the communications.
Scrutinize any feature story in business publications like a Fortune or Fast Company, and you’ll discover that such details make the final cut. Journalists want readers to believe their stories as well.