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Storytelling, Corporate Communications and Brand

16 Jul

There’s a funny dynamic in my business these days. I’m starting to see it as a push and pull between my business as “communications consulting” and “writing”.

In my mind, I’ve always seen it as the same thing. A consultant is inherently a communicator — a writer — who must advocate his own ideas, analysis and strategy, and outfit the client do the same.

And a writer is a consultant. To do more than skim the surface of business story, you need to bring more than simply curiosity and a way with words.  You need an ability to recognize both what makes a good story, and what that story has to do for the organization — the goals the story has to support for the organization to be successful.

There’s a reason that I (and others) use ‘storytelling’ to describe the heart my business.  First, I like the word. It evokes something basic and simple that hearkens back to childhood – sitting in the circle listening to lessons and fables and stories of enchanted kingdoms and plucky young Jacks and princes and foxes and rabbits.  And storytelling perfectly encapsulates the art and action of communications – the creation of ‘story’ – or message or brand – and the ‘telling’ of it – the strategic and pragmatic task of finding people who want to hear a story and pass it on to their friends.

On the other hand, these days we like to say that brands don’t “tell” their audience anything – they have conversations. They listen and they communicate and they respond and they act.

Sure. But a brand isn’t simply the creation of the crowd, or even its customers.

And have you ever heard a good storyteller? I mean a really good one. The kind that holds the rapt attention of a gaggle of unruly kids? The kind that hears the unscripted shout from kid in the the back with glasses and the attitude and makes him part of the narrative? The sort that listens to the beat of story as it is spoken and can quickly take up new rhythms from the night and the audience as inspiration and slip them into the story as casual as you would in your backyard lawn chair over lemonade and beer?

That’s the dynamic I see in corporate communications and marketing today: You want to create a space where you can sit in the center of the circle with the people inside and outside the organization who make it go.  Telling, asserting, advocating — expressing your vision – and listening, adapting, and moving.  And setting them free to tell the story to their circles – letting it grow stronger in each retelling.

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Numbers, Recommendations and Unforseen Connections

11 Feb

Two blog posts caught my eye today. They touched on a similar theme — how to do you get a computer to account for taste?

The first was Stephen Baker’s BusinessWeek blog post with a take on the Apple iTunes Genius recommendations.  His initially incendiary claim (apparently unresearched beyond his own iTunes collection) is that the Genius recommendations — are rigidly race-based. Asking iTunes to make a playlist based on Aretha Franklin, he says, generates a playlist composed entirely of black R&B musicians because the database was compiled with that category rating highest. Taking a step back from his first blog post, Baker writes: 

“When I do a search on Aretha, the system starts with what it knows about her: R&B. And it lines up an entirely R&B playlist. How does it know she’s R&B? Many of the commenters say that the analysis starts with no groupings provided by the programmers, and that it is based entirely the study of user behavior. (Ie. What other artists do we group with Aretha on our playlists, and what other music do Aretha buyers purchase?)

“Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m sticking my initial guess: The programmers started out Genius by putting the artists in their boxes—R&B, Folk, Classic Rock, World music, etc. It’s a little crude, but you have to start somewhere.”

Then there was a post by George at Fast Horse on the Idea Peepshow blog. George reports on the challenge NetFlix faced building customer recommendations based on the movie Napoleon Dynamite.  Apparently, it is almost impossible to create an algorithm to predict accurately what movies you’d like based on a high rating of the movie Napoleon Dynamite.  NetFlix has gone so far as to offer a $1 million prize to anyone who can improve their movie recommendation engine, and much of the challenge is accounting for taste in quirky movies.  The common thread: the drive to get computers to understand our behavior well enought to predict what we’ll do next — or at least what we’ll buy. 

It’s nothing new, of course. Much of Amazon’s initial success came from a recommendation engine based on collaborative filtering — the idea that population of people who purchased the one book might be interested the other  books that same population has purchased. The techniques have continued to grow in sophistication. And they have continued to    please and confound marketers–seeking the perfect pitch–and consumers–simply seeking something new.    

Baker says that this is the goal — to put us in categories to see how we are similar in what we buy, what we choose to do    and even what our risks might be for disease.  He writes:   

“Traditionally, marketers and politicians have organized us along traditional demographic lines: Income, ethnicity,    neighborhood, etc. But with more data about our activities, they can start to create new “behavioral tribes.” The old    boundaries break down…In music, I imagine the same thing will happen. Once the data comes in, Aretha and others will break    out of their boxes.”   

Maybe so…more likely, they’ll break out of the old boxes only to hop into new ones.       

But there is a lot of fun in all this.  Search and social media are helping people find like-minded partners-in-crime in ways  no one could have predicted back when I was in college in the latter half of the 80s, wondering why I could never hook up with fellow Neil Diamond-listening sci-fi fans.   

On the other hand, the more we seek and find people and experiences “like us”, the more we yearn to be surprised.  The reason Napoleon Dynamite fascinates, Boing Boing is a wonderful blog, Super Bowl ads disappoint, and why print news media may well live on is that they give us something we didn’t ask for.  Something we didn’t specify in our search terms, preferences or    previous actions. Something we didn’t even know we wanted.  

Crunching the numbers is worth the effort — the better they get, the less money will be wasted on marketing to the wrong    people at the wrong times. But breakthroughs happen when you surprise people.   I’d make sure there’s a seat at the table for creativity, ingenuity and intuition.  You never know what’s going to happen … and that’s the point.

On Writing and Writers

27 Mar

I’m a communications consultant. I’m a brand positioning strategist. I’m a media relations expert.  I’m a public relations pro, with 15+ years at top agencies.  But first and foremost, I’m a writer.

As a writer and consultant, I counsel clients from the perspective of someone who filters every public and business communication I encounter — from product solution sheets, technical whitepapers, websites, op-ed articles, blogs or social media pages — from the point of view of, “how does this play?” I’m noting who is writing it, and who is going to read it.  How will they react? How could they have done it better?

Now, everyone writes.  My clients write clear memos. Their brochures demonstrate how their products meet a customer need. Their PowerPoint presentations successfully get their sales people and executives from point to point.

When I was with a big internatinal PR agency, my wife would sometimes ask me why clients paid all this money for something that, frankly, everyone can do themselves.  The simple answer is that business people are focused on other things.

Writers are different. We are focused, in the words of the construction trade magazine publisher where I had my first internship, on “making it sing.”  And like a good song, good writing does more than communicate — it sparks ideas, instigates converation and spurs action.  Good writing moves people — and that’s good business.

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