3 Story Toys

An old Celtic saying, or possibly one of Confucius’ depending on which part of the Internet you trust, warns: “Never give a sword to a man who can’t dance.” I would stretch the original metaphor for corporate communicators, and the businesses who rely on us, to say “Never give your pen to someone who doesn’t know how to play.” The pen is, after all, “mightier than the sword” (a phrase coined, ironically, by the infamously bad novelist Edward Bulwer Lytton who also brought us “It was a dark and stormy night…”). Whether first uttered in Gaelic or Chinese, the clear implication seems to be that the only good fighter is the one who knows what to do when there is no fighting to be done. In other words, for both the warrior and the communicator, engagement must not be an end unto itself but rather a means to strategic success. When the campaign is over, it is time to take stock, evaluate success and plan for the future.

In the world of corporate communicators, however, it is all too easy to lose sight of the “why” when facing the constant urgency of the “what,” to focus on swordplay when really the fiddler is warming up for his next set. All communication professionals, whether in-house or in an agency, face the same pressure: how to demonstrate and measure the value of brand communication to managers or clients trained to value the quarterly earnings report above all other metrics. Every marketing director or head of public relations knows all too well the intangible worth of an engaging brand, and the tremendous headache of translating that worth into something more tangible for the board, shareholders or investors. Especially in the current media market, where traditional print journalism is dwindling, newsrooms are consolidating and social media platforms are exploding as primary news-discovery tools, it is all too easy for even seasoned communication professionals to respond rashly to that pressure, confusing the quantity of their coverage with the quality of their service to the brand. After a while, when all that counts is growth over last quarter, then all that starts to matter is the next announcement, and the next, and the next in an endless cycle of generating “hits.”

Or “friends.”

Or “followers.”

Or “retweets.”

Or whatever next year’s widget of personal engagement turns out to be.

When this happens, a communication practice of telling stories strategically devolves into a mere exercise of collecting as many hits/friends/followers as possible, rather than of evaluating what any one of them is worth.

This is not a blog about taking up arms for the measurement fight. There are plenty of far superior resources to draw from already for seasoned advice on social media analytics, from writers as diverse as the thinkers of the Altimeter Group to my own colleagues at Edelman Digital, to name just a few.

No, this is a blog about learning first how to dance or, rather, to play.

Business competition depends on storytelling, and storytelling is an aspect of play. The capacity to “make believe” as a child is only a step removed from “suspending disbelief” as a reader or “connecting with an audience” as a writer, a speaker, a manager, a CEO. Business leaders must be storytellers if they are going to connect their company and its solutions to the real needs of others. That takes more than a barrage of accolades in impersonal press releases. It takes the ability to imagine what those needs are, to answer them with a convincing narrative communicating value, and to prioritize the messages and audiences in such a way as to build not just awareness of one’s company or service, but sustained interest and involvement with it. To resonate with stakeholders, whether customers (consumers, B2B, enterprise), channel partners, investors, NGOs, regulators or legislators requires an ability to imagine the world as the other sees it and  to present your value in the framework of their priorities. In other words, dress up and play house.

While assembling a number of my son’s new birthday gifts last week, I observed how they outlined a spectrum of play. Some toys captivated right out of the box, but quickly lost their charm in light of “the next big thing.” Others sat on the sidelines for a day or two awaiting assembly at a better time before becoming new favorites. At first glance, it seemed somewhat arbitrary which playthings resonated with the four-year-old mind over the long term, and which merely diverted in the moment. But the more I thought about it, the simpler the explanation appeared:

The more engaging the toy, the more complex a story it supports.




Exhibit A: The Press Release

“Hot Wheels” Announcements – Consider this Hot Wheels race track, for instance. My son could not wait to get this out of the box. Of the many generous gifts he received from friends and family, this was the one he chose for the launch. After all, it has a loop! It has jaws of death! It has a really cool car! It reminds me a lot of the stereotypical press release, and the kind of last-generation approach to public relations that relies entirely on releases to drive attention to one’s company and client based on standalone achievements without context for news value. It is a common mistake, especially among start-up firms, to confuse the technology with the story. Such companies assume that simply putting out news releases announcing their latest/fastest/best/most efficient accolade will see the press beating a path to their door.

The problem with such toys and such strategy is that the focus is on a single achievement (i.e. getting the car through the loop, announcing a big name corporate partner, etc.). It lacks a narrative needed to sustain interest. It is a one-trick pony. After a few plays, the audience is left asking “okay, but what have you got for me next?” If the answer is simply “rinse and repeat,” then it fails to create relevant value for the stakeholder. Yes, it may offer something truly innovative and exciting, but does it combine with anything else to create an ongoing conversation? Once the trigger is pulled, does it help the audience apply this innovation to attack a specific problem and deliver a measurable value? Or is the content of the communication simply about the mechanics of navigating the loop? The press release, like the race track, is essentially a launch tool. But what happens after the launch? Does this announcement/achievement establish some element in a larger business story and help set up a strategic conversation to come, or is it simply shooting the car through the course to get as many eyes on the stunt as possible? The communication strategy built on nothing more than a series of disconnected announcements is like a novel that is nothing more than a list of characters or settings. There is no action, no consequence, no sense of who is important, or what is at stake.




Exhibit B: Multi-Faceted Engagement

“Tonka” Engagement – For a more multi-faceted engagement model, consider the analogy of this Tonka play set instead. At first glance it seems to follow a similar concept with similar limitations: run the car through a track built to perform a single stunt. However, something was different about this toy. Once assembled it proved more versatile. For one thing, the car is a character too. Unlike Hot Wheels, Tonka’s “Chuck & Friends” vehicles are anthropomorphic and have faces with personalities. Moreover, the car can pass through the course in more than one direction, under its own power, inviting repeated play. The packaging also makes it clear that this play set is one in a set of four, each with its own individual stunt and character, all of which can be played with independently or interconnected for a complex system. Last, and to me most interesting, is the fact that the toy comes with a picture book illustrating the characters interacting with each other and with the playset in an imaginary adventure. This creates an imaginary context in which the child can visualize the toy. Handy the Tow Truck isn’t just climbing over a plastic track. He is trying to cross an impassible chasm to save a friend on a rickety bridge that tips him to the other side as it starts to collapse beneath him!

Communication that follows this model of engagement does not merely fire off press releases like artillery to pepper media and search engines with irrelevant, unasked-for corporate information. It saves releases for what they do best: launching new products and inviting further discussion, while expanding the brand in between announcements with more diverse opportunities for engagement. Promoting carefully chosen customer referrals helps establish a connection with strategically important audiences by giving your brand a face they can recognize (their own). Harnessing your service or product to timely market trends for executives and even customers to speak about as subject matter experts without pushing product establishes impartial credibility and promotes trust. Establishing dialogue with potential customers and partners through social networks or sponsored award programs can help them imagine your offering in the context of their own business. Create and pitch business case studies, white papers and bylined content for strategic placement to create a context for understanding your technologies or solutions through the real-world problems they address. The imagination born of play helps turn the business problem around, from “how can we get our company into the news” to “what conversations are our customers having, where are they having them and how can we join in to share our expertise?”




To the Batcave!
Exhibit C: Positioning for Sustained Storytelling

“Batcave” Positioning – At the far end of the spectrum was the toy my son chose for himself: a Super Friends Batcave he bought with birthday money and gift cards he received. There is a lot here to catch the eye. Batman and Robin! A Batcycle! Elevators and turntables and secret passages! A great big bat symbol on the front! Once assembled, however, it was not so much a toy as it was a self-contained environment where my son (and I) could play for an hour or two at a time. Moreover, by being more of a playspace than a plaything, it allowed my son to continue expanding the story as he saw fit. As you can see, one of Batman’s earliest cases involved an army of Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars, half the cast of Pixar’s “Cars” and a daring rescue of Scooby-Doo and the gang using the Batmobile and a preschool art project. The key, I realized, was in the toy’s ability to foster sustained storytelling. This capacity is quite consciously built into the product itself, as evidenced from the promotional copy used on the box:

Imagine a world of action and excitement where you decide what happens next! Sword fights, jungle safaris, daring rescues and more. Whatever world you travel to, it’s a whole new adventure every time you play!

Like the picture book included with the toy above, it grounds the plaything in the world of storytelling. But unlike the picture book, it does not prescribe the action. The toy itself just gives it a place to unfold.

In the world of public relations, this is the effect of grounding one’s communication strategy in a well defined positioning platform. Positioning goes beyond the individual tactics used in multi-faceted engagement campaigns. It is the research-based thinking your communication strategy should consistently reinforce at every point of contact with every relevant audience. Positioning isn’t a tagline, or a specific set of messages to be communicated. It is a carefully defined attribute that speaks intuitively about your brand and the value it can deliver. Reactive, opportunistic public relations lets the market… or worse, the competition, define your brand for the sake of exposure. But as we discussed above, if there is no strategy guiding your media exposure and networking, then it is ultimately self-defeating since it fails to resonate. Strategic public relations invests the time, budget and research, before a single press release is drafted or a plan developed, to define brand attributes that will not only communicate unique value in a changing market, but clearly differentiate a company from its closest competitors by speaking to pains they ignore or fail to address. Positioning outlines key attributes that must be reinforced at each point of contact, from sales calls to marketing collateral, advertising campaigns to media interviews. Every media or social networking opportunity has a reference point. With a positioning platform, a company has a story to tell about the problems facing a troubled market, the failure of the competition to solve them and the hope you bring to customers/investors/partners through the innovation that you and you alone have to offer. Instead of merely generating exposure, strategic public relations is about communicating your position, literally “telling your story” rather than just “getting your name out there.” A clearly-defined positioning platform creates a safe place for sustained storytelling, a conceptual Batcave that all your engagement activities can inhabit.

True, every business needs a competitive edge in order to survive in the marketplace. Whatever the industry, in a crowded market teeming with close competitors, it takes more than fiscal performance or technological innovation to establish oneself as the de facto market leader. In a trying economy, everyone is struggling to beat analyst expectations. Moreover, especially in the world of Silicon Valley, everyone can stake a claim to innovation. Such factors are critical to success, but on their own they fail to deliver a competitive advantage. To truly differentiate itself, a company needs more than a pipeline full of technology accolades and funding announcements. It must develop a multi-faceted engagement strategy, grounded in a well-researched and relevant position that speaks to concerns beyond those of the investor community alone by having the best story to tell, a story that relates clear value in simple, relevant ways to answer the real needs of an intended audience. To do that, strategic business communicators must be able to do more than compete. They must also be able to play.

© Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Professional Blarney

My Idea of the Blarney Stone

As a boy, I had always imagined the Blarney Stone to be a kind of Irish Stonehenge. The name invoked images of an imposing moss-covered boulder or standing stone, somewhere on a lonely heath, surrounded by sheep and peat bogs under  a cloudy sky. The legendary act of kissing it to receive the “gift of the gab” would be accomplished only by a Bronte-esque pilgrimage across a rugged Irish landscape. In my imagination, it was a thing unto itself, silent, eternal and unquestionable.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

It is in fact a worn piece of masonry of dubious origin, installed at the top of Blarney castle. Far from being isolated, it’s on the edge of Cork, Ireland surrounded by a bustling tourist road-stop well stocked with souvenirs. When I made my “pilgrimage” in late 2003, I arrived on the noon wave of tour buses.

It's On Top of That

Not exactly the natural wonder I was hoping to encounter. Somehow, all those years I had completely missed the fact that it was part of a castle. Since castles are hard to come by in the San Francisco Bay Area, I resigned myself to the odd ritual out of sheer curiosity. I quickly embraced the campy tourist within to become one of the millions of people who had leaned backward over the parapet, held at the waist by a stranger to kiss the underside of the rock in hopes of receiving “the gift of the gab.”

Whatever that may be. As it turns out, there is a bit of wooly thinking around that as well. To some it means the stereotypically Irish ability of spinning outrageous yarns. To others it means being skilled at flattery and insincere persuasion. I am even told the French believe it bestows an ability to lie successfully for seven years. I prefer a more rudimentary telling: the gift of convincing eloquence.

I find the same woolly thinking surrounds the world of public relations, a dividing line clearly marking people who work in corporate communication from those who do not. Just as the benefits of Blarney shift from one stone-kisser to the next, a similar disconnect surrounds the profession of “PR.”

To most outside the practice, “PR” is about “spin.” It is about getting paid to find nice words to make something bad sound better, or something untrue sound true. It is, in short, professional blarney.

See if you can spot where I have switched the words “blarney” for “PR” and “gab” for “spin” in the following sentences.

“This has gone on long enough. It’s time we started getting some good [blarney] for a change.”

“Can’t we [gab] that some other way?”

“Get the [blarney] guy to put some positive [gab] on that.”

This is important, both for practitioners as well as the clients who hire them. When “spin” comes up in a professional conversation… especially in a client conversation… it is a marker pointing out a significant fork in the road of unspoken expectations. At best, it is recognition that PR counsel can be someone who helps organizations use language to their advantage. At worst, it can indicate an unchallenged assumption that public relations is the not the art of relating transparently to the public, but rather of lying for a living. Clearly, that is not the most desirable position to hold… or to hire!

Actual communication professionals don’t talk… or think… like that. In fact, in the decade-plus  I have worked in public relations, I have yet to hear even one of my peers, colleagues or managers use the word “spin” on the job. What I do hear is seasoned conversation about “telling stories with purpose,” “strategic thinking about business,” “redefining attributes needed for success” and “creating context for understanding.”

Honing My Communication Resume (or "Shouldn't you buy me dinner first?")

It is that last phrase I want to explore in this post. It is especially important, and something that anyone working in PR should think strategically about. It is about defining the new or unknown in terms of the known or familiar. It is what all good storytellers can do without thinking. It is where the blarney comes in.

Perhaps you had a favorite grandparent, or uncle. You know, the one who (Irish or not) was clearly gifted with gab. No matter the situation, they always had something convincing to say, usually starting with “That reminds me of the time when….” And so would begin an unlikely narrative, leapfrogging far from the topic at hand, moving from one mundane topic to the next. Sometimes the final destination was a practical call to action:

“And that’s why you should never, ever feed a pigeon.”

Sometimes it was a complete flight of fancy:

“And that’s why you should never, ever stop on a lonely road to pick up a pigeon.”

But in either case, while the story was told, you felt you were along for the ride without ever being taken for one. It was the sheer amount of convincing detail that made the difference. The narrative was not merely a list of instructions and warnings, but a tour through a fully populated landscape of interconnected ideas that could lead the rational listener no other place but to the obvious conclusion that pigeons would make especially murderous hitchhikers.

So, in a positive step toward the liberation of PR professionals and their clients everywhere, I am reclaiming the negative and calling it what it is: Good PR is built on a load of blarney.

By that I mean it isn’t about clever wordplay and “spin.” It is about convincing detail. It is about world-building. It is about creating a context for understanding.

One place this dynamic comes to life is the brainstorm. I often participate with colleagues and clients alike in exercises to generate ideas for creative outreach. Sometimes this means trying to find compelling language that can express a client’s value in a new way or to a new audience. This can be especially challenging for technology companies, especially venture-backed firms in early stages of development. The entire culture of the company and its founders can be so invested in their signature technology that it can be challenging to separate the original compelling idea from the in-house layers of spin without an outsider’s perspective.

“The client really likes the concept of [technical blarney,]” we might be told. “Can we help them find a new term for [blarney innovation] that can help them connect better with the needs of CIOs/millennial consumers/investors/mommy bloggers/other desirable stakeholders?”

The problem with this seemingly reasonable request is that it confuses sounding different with thinking differently. It is a mistake that is easiest to make when you live day in, day out with a problem. Where seasoned communicators can try to add value from the outside is by professionally counseling the client that no single choice keyword or phrase magically sparks resonance and moves markets. Rather it is about having a clearly defined idea supported by an ecosystem of language rich enough to support a story.

That is why in brainstorms like this I counsel peers and clients to think of words like a quarry full of stones. It is not how great each stone looks, but whether they can support enough weight together in enough layers to build a tower. For instance, in the case of a technology company, it is not enough to simply come up with a single transplant phrase for their signature innovation, no matter how compelling. That is only one stone, albeit an important one, in the tower. It is just as important to develop language that fleshes out the rest of the story, including:

Context, Like A Tower

1) Basic Activity – Is there a word for the kind of company they are (or want to be)? What part of the economy do they participate in?

2) Category of Production – Within that sector, where does it add value? Is this a unique value? What makes it so, and how can we visualize the difference?

3) Process – How can we characterize the client’s essential intellectual property to illustrate the difference from other players in this category, and demonstrate its value to the desired stakeholder?

4) Technology – Very often, the client’s “secret sauce.” Their signature technology is often where they are most comfortable speaking, and it is important to stretch that comfort zone for the good of storytelling.

5) Product/Solution – What is it the client actually introduces to the supply chain? To the service sector? Is it differentiable from other offerings produced by traditional methods?

6) Goods/Services – Does the client’s technology result in any consumer-facing goods or services down the line? Is the value of that technology evident to the end-user, or does it merely offer an upstream advantage to the manufacturer/distributor/retailer?

Clearly these are only a few considerations, and they will not always be relevant to every client in every industry. But I find it a good starting point when presented with a need to replace [technical blarney] because it forces the group to think beyond the technology itself and about other values sitting further up and down the food chain.

In most cases, once we stop looking for the one “perfect stone” of a word or tagline, and start looking for the many verbal building blocks that can make a tower, we realize we have all the alternatives we need up on the white board already. It is simply a matter of giving them the right priority, and assigning them to the right level of the tower we are building. With stones at each conceptual level, it becomes much easier to string together a story with consequence.

In corporate communication, the value of blarney is not the ability to sell scuba tanks to dolphins. It is about using context to create consequence. With relevance born of context, organizations can tell stories that resonate. Without it, they remain stuck in the spin cycle. At the end of the day, no matter how compelling the technology, unless it can communicate human or business value, it fails to establish relevance for anyone but the storyteller.

© Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.