What’s in a Story? 50 Tips to Bring Sense to the Static

Moon child

Storytelling is hard work. It’s intricate, nuanced and can be expensive. But we crave it, know it and hold good storytelling and storytellers close to our hearts. After all, we all have books that we’d fight for.

But in this world of digital media, simple tools for content creation, video production, worldwide publishing and distribution, we are confronted by so much fog. Static. Unimaginative or unengaging material. There are words but fewer stories that we can get our teeth into.

When I was a child, I would voraciously read short history project books. They were text books for children much older than I, but they set out a world that was familiar but strangely different. I read about Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth as they explored the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney. I read about Leichhardt and the heartbreak of Bourke and Wills. I read about bushrangers and the fear they spread through the isolated parts of New South Wales and Victoria. And on long car trips, I would look out the very same landscape that these people lived in. We would visit the towns that they passed through, and stood in the places that they too, had stood.

Australian history is, after all, a shallow pool. And there are echoes at every turn.

The amazing thing about these stories, is that they have stayed with me always. They resonated deep inside me. And these days, with all the static filling our digital communications, we need to remember and re-craft the type of story that goes deeper. For ourselves and for our audiences. And this great collection of insight from Adam Westbrookwas collected by Martin Couzins – and may just provide us all with a direction worth following.

Moon child Michał Koralewski via Compfight

Breathing New Life into PowerPoint with SlideDocs

The book

I have always been a fan of storytelling. But not everyone is keen to be a story reader. Or a listener. For in our time crunched lives, our own attention is our most limited resource. Accordingly, communication has been concatenated, shrunk, manipulated. We’ve got our 30 second, 60 second and elevator pitches down pat.

But a picture is worth a thousand words

As someone who loves language I have always bristled at the notion that a picture is worth a thousand words. Sure a picture might be worth a thousand words, but they’d be indifferent words. They’d be rushed, debased, uneven. Or so lean that they lose the humanity, beauty and creativity that inspired them.

Fortunately, like so many things, words are a kind of fashion, and it feels like they may just be coming back in vogue. Witness the popularity of longer form writing like Snow Fall. And the growing popularity of newish text driven platform Medium.

From PowerPoint to SlideDocs

Nancy Duarte’s new Slidedocs book provides a great framework for us to reconnect with our love of text, storytelling and technology. And it does it using that old nemesis, PowerPoint. You can look through and download the book, interrogate its construction and authoring and apply it to your own needs. Sound like a plan? I’m hoping it’s the start of a whole new chapter.

The bookCreative Commons License Dave Heuts via Compfight

What Facebook’s Year in Review Reveals About Us

facebooktrendsAus.png

facebooktrendsAus The promise of big data is that it can reveal to us the truth in our behaviours, not just our beliefs.

Just think, for example, about your internet use over the last year. Or month. Or even week. What did you do? What sites did you visit? What did you click on? Why did you share a page or two, a link or a video? Now, imagine if we did the same thing for your friends – if we knew what they looked, liked and loved?

facebookstories2 And if we did the same with their friends, and their friends’ friends.

If we could overlay that in some way to create a visual tag cloud, we may just get a sense of what is important to our communities. We may garner some magical insight into what it is like to live in this rapidly changing world.

Well that’s what Facebook Stories is doing. Of course, it works best if you are a heavy Facebook user (I’m not), but it’s an interesting experiment that shows everything from your own personal timeline stories through to the trends that impacted us by country and by category.

But, for me, the most interesting thing that Facebook Stories reveals is where the pulse of our humanity lies. Take a look at some of the trends – you’ll see what I mean.

Your Best Posts of 2009

Last month, as 2009 stumbled towards its own end, I asked you to share those posts that you felt were your best. I was interested in what you wrote, what you thought – and what you were prepared to share.

In response, I received emails, tweets and comments, showcasing the touching, funny and emotional aspects of our lives. This, in turn, revealed what I consider to be substantial social transformations that are currently being manifested via social media – the most important of which, I believe, continues to be “the rise of storytelling”. Each and every one of these posts resonated with its audience (and its author) for a simple reason – the power of its story to touch, engage and connect us. Let’s take a look in more detail …

We are hard wired to connect. Steve Woodruff shared the story of his son’s graduation from the US Marines. There were pictures, videos, ongoing updates – and a whole bunch of comments. The most interesting thing is that the comments were not specifically for Steve, or for the post, but for his son, David. Now, most of the commenters have never met David, but this did not stop them leaving very personal comments. Given the chance and the right context, we will share deeply personal beliefs and concerns in a very public sphere because we are hardwired to connect.

Why work harder when you can work smarter? Martin Shanahan’s schoolboy reminiscences made me smile. While this post looks literally at the way a bit of spit and polish can give your boots a long lasting sheen, sometimes you need to use a bit of nous, and the knowledge handed down from someone who has “been there and done that”. If you are an entrepreneur (or want to be), you could learn plenty from Kim Wingerei’s generous explanation of what CAN go wrong in the world of a startup. Clay Hebert shared some anecdotes from the life changing experience of being mentored by Seth Godin. Many of us think that we have to experience our own failures – but learning from the failures and experiences of others can allow you to catapult yourself forwards. As Clay suggests, sometimes you have to lean in.

Bravely embrace the future. It’s easy to say “no” to new things – to new challenges and opportunities. But Paulo Henrique Lemos suggests (along with Steve Jobs) that we can only connect the dots when we look backwards – and that the uncertain future is where we make our reputation, our mistakes and achieve our greatest triumphs. Interestingly, Trent Collins’ post about becoming a father captures this tension rather eloquently.

Where we rush towards the future, we also hunger for the past. Roger Lawrence reminds us that when “social” takes over, social media is nowhere to be found. During a 25th school reunion in South Africa, the running string of festivities meant that, for those attending, the rest of the world ceased to exist. Roger shares anecdotes, photographs and his experience of “return” – and photographs of the underside of the desk where he and his mates carved their names seems to take on a special significance – for while social media and technology propels us forward, faster, we are also anchored by our personal histories – and there is a richness to be found in the tension between the two.

The important story is the story you tell. Sometimes people wonder what story they should tell about their business. They wonder whether, if they start a blog, whether they could sustain it. The worry about running out of content. Or ideas. But Sornie shows that the truth sometimes gets in the way of a good story – it happens in fiction (which is why it is called fiction), and it happens in marketing too.

Stories need connections. Marketers often have trouble pulling together different strands of a story. They get caught starting – or in the middle – and forget to link each piece together. Rich Nadworny highlights the importance of pulling all your narrative threads together – making sure that the connections are made, that the hero wins and that there is sufficient drama to carry us all along for the ride. And Leo Hillary shows just what happens when we get a story just right – beautiful!

It’s time for business, PR and social media to grow up and get along. Craig Pearce sheds some light on the culture of public relations and  Sean R. Nicholson weaves personal and professional experience together to show how some of the fears around social media make us look like ostriches (with our heads in the sand). And on the same topic, Stuart Foster demonstrates exactly how some brands and businesses are using storytelling as part of their experiential marketing strategy. But then Stefano Maggi provides the insight into HOW you do this – building and curating content within a social ecosystem.

Learn and iterate. We can learn from everything that we do – but sometimes, in our rush for the next, new thing, we forget to reflect on our successes and what made them work. Scott Mendelson has a great, in-depth article looking back at the Batman movie – what made it unique and how it set the scene for all that followed. And yes, it was over 20 years ago.

Complexity breeds resilience. Not only are we experiencing vast amounts of change in our lives – from society and culture to the workplace and politics – the rate of change is accelerating. But rather than hiding from this, Mike Chitty urges us to embrace the complexity. While we may get a buzz out of collaborating with “like minds”, in working with those who are vastly different, we will be exposed to opportunities that would never otherwise arise.

The devil is in the details. If you are like me, you pride yourself on your big picture ideas. But I also have a secret – something that my bosses seem to have all known – that I am actually all about the details. Dennis Price points out that in any business there are only a handful of people who really NEED to be big picture people – and that you (and I) are unlikely to be one of those people. It’s a great post that reminds us all to keep our eyes on the prize – but attend to the details because, as Heather Rast reminds us, that’s where the gold lies.

Everything is personal. No matter how hard we try to hide behind our professions, our roles as parents or children or our place in a community, at the end of the day everything is personal. And what makes something stick – what makes a story remarkable and an experience memorable – comes from this understanding. Heather shows that sometimes you need to bump some heads to get your point across, while Tim Berry brings a much needed personal perspective to the world of business, with some excellent practical advice. And Jasmin Tragas shows just what can be achieved when you put your creativity, passion and energy into a worthwhile cause.

Sometimes a story can stop you in your tracks. Mandi Bateson’s post Remember Ruby, is the pure telling of a story – a tragic and powerful story; while the searing honesty of this story from Zana literally knocked the breath from my body. It’s the story you read for which there are no words. It’s called Stop – and I did.

Paid or Earned Media – Making Gravity is Hard Work

Whether you are walking down the street, watching the TV, surfing the net or even driving a car, you are the subject of some form of advertising. From the branded cap on the boy walking down the street to the billboard behind him – marketing is hard at work trying to capture your attention. Constance Hill and Bruce Henry suggest that we see around 3000 marketing messages each day. But no matter whether we see 100 or 10,000 messages – clearly we are exposed to a significant number. But how many do you recall? How many seep into your unconscious, adding a negative or positive neuron to your thoughts around these brands?

Now, add into this mix the dozens or even hundreds of blogs that you read and the tweets that you view on Twitter each day. Combine this with podcasts, music streams via blip.fm, videos on YouTube and email – and suddenly you have an abundant media stream that can appear overwhelming. As Sean Howard says, “In today's world everyone is a publisher, everyone has some level of influence, and everyone has a network of influence that is difficult to define let alone measure”. It makes the life of the media consumer rather complex.

As a marketer, however, you do have a specific objective. What you are aiming for is MAKING GRAVITY. With paid media you are using your marketing budget to have your content inserted into spaces that your audience inhabit. It is an expense which you measure in terms of how many people you have reached with your communication.

Earned media (or what Craig Wilson calls engagement marketing), on the other hand, is both different in nature and in measurement. Rather than being an expense, it is an investment. Its effectiveness is directly related to what you DO rather than what you SAY, and the value that is exchanged is not currency, but trust. As I have explained previously – it is about changing behaviours:

Every time we forward on a link, retweet a message read on Twitter or any other type of social network interaction, we are CHOOSING to act. We are not just using our network of connections to FILTER the noise, we are using it to SHAPE our experience. It is a choice. And understanding this distinction places us in a context where STORYTELLING emerges as vitally important?

Paid media has been an effective marketing approach for hundreds of years (if not longer). But it thrived in a time where attention was abundant and our media consumption choices were limited to a set number of channels. These days, media is abundant but our attention (and maybe more importantly, our respect) is scarce. Graham Brown has an excellent five minute piece on the challenges presented by these changes.

But the fundamental difference with paid vs earned media is the refocusing of effort. No longer do you spend your creative energies (and budgets) on producing executions that gain attention – you spend it on building trust and creating Auchterlonie Effects (stories that can be easily shared). Indeed, in the best traditions of storytelling, earned media propagates itself – becoming promiscuous in the process.

The reason that promiscuous ideas are important to your brand is that you WANT them to be shared. In social media, every shared idea, link or concept creates an exchange of value within a PERSONAL network – so the act of sharing is a recommendation of sorts. Over time the person who “adds value” to their network builds an abundant store of social capital. It is like branding – we can’t necessarily point to a PARTICULAR item – but to the recurring and ongoing sense of positive exchange relating to that person.

When YOUR brand story or content is the subject of that exchange, you are effectively providing a reason for connection between people in a network. And as these connections grow, as they are passed from person to person, you are creating points of gravity around your brand ecosystem. Your challenge then is to work with a continuous digital strategy to “share the message” but “own the destination”. The thing is, gravity can only be earned. And while you can employ paid media to complement your earned media – you need to make sure you have a compelling story to tell and to share.

Do YOUR Products Live Up To The Type?

“Advertising is the price you pay for having an unremarkable product or service.” – Jeff Bezos (via Ruth Mortimer)

I was reminded of this quote by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos whilst reading Alan Wolk’s excellent rant on VW’s decision to fire Crispin Porter Bogusky:

You see the problem with VW isn’t the advertising, it’s the cars themselves. At a time when most people’s first stop in the car buying process is Google (or Bing) it’s clear that what VW needs is not better advertising, but better cars.

AnciennesAlan then goes on to list various problems identified by a quick search on various car forums and blogs. But the same is likely to be found for any other car brand – you can find my own rant about Tim Jackson’s ill-fated Saturn here. Simply do a search on the name of your next (or current) car and add the word “problem” or “lemon” and you will see page after page of owner gripes, rants and issues.

This is something that advertising is simply not going to fix. It’s actually not possible. You see, it no longer takes a big budget and a sexy image to reach an audience. Anyone can start a blog for free and begin corralling opinion. And you know what? It is all captured by Google. Every word, every rant, every unsubstantiated comment (and every truth) is indexed by Google, assessed for inbound links, page rank and a number of other elements and then presented as fact to the unwary web surfer.

For brands, sticking your head in the sand is no longer an option. Consumers are increasingly turning to online opinion, blogs, social media, ratings and reviews as a way of framing their own purchase decisions – and if your voice is not part of the mix, then you are leaving your brand entirely in the hands of others. Is this a bad thing? It can be. It can also astoundingly positive.

The challenge now is not JUST good products and services – these are the new cost of entry into the market. What you need now is love, sweet love. You need the love of your fans. You need products that live up to the TYPE – to the words and stories of your consumers. For without that, no amount of advertising will permanently buy you the front page of Google.

Books, Sex and Why Publishing Still Matters

I remember reading John Naisbitt’s Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives years ago and being struck by the concept of high tech/high touch. That is, the more high tech our lives became, the greater our demand for high touch elements. This could account for everything from office design through to the interest in gadgets, and surprisingly, books. And everywhere I looked I could see evidence.

Then, as eBooks began their steady march forward, there were many who suggested that the book publishing industry was on the brink of collapse. We now know this is not true – and that book publishing may well be in the healthiest shape that it has been in for decades. BookExpo America indicates that there were over 130,000 active publishers in 2008 – an increase of 27%. And virtually all this growth occurs in the small publisher category. Clearly it would take something seismic to destroy a $40.3 billion industry.

BookExpo America — Book Industry TRENDS 2009

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But despite the growth of blogs and other forms of social communication, books continue to hold a prominent position in our culture. Think about the recent conferences you have attended – how many of the keynote speakers are authors? Think about the way we still continue to revere books. Perhaps it is the lure of storytelling or something more primal. Bruce Temkin suggests that part of our biological makeup, fundamental to evolutionary success, is the way that stories transform our brain’s responses:

People relate to stories because it is part of their evolutionary makeup. Stories cause our mirror neurons to fire at similar experiences, helping us remember and relate.

In my own experience, as the author of The Dialup Guide to Blogging, and more notably, publisher and contributor to The Age of Conversation, extreme care is taken whenever a word is laid out in print. We take more care with words when they are perceived as more PERMANENT than the digital variety, and we pay more attention to their context when they are given physical presence. Yes, a potential employer may Google your name before an interview, but they may throw a quote back in your face. Words really can eat you.

But on the consumption side – as a reader – books are also becoming status symbols. Up until recently, our book collections or libraries signalled our own tastes, follies and predilections to a private audience – those who are invited into the inner sanctums of our homes. (I don’t know about you, but when I visit a friend’s house, I scour their bookshelves for insight and maybe even scandal.) These days, however, we wear our libraries as badges of social honour – with sites such as BookTagger.com, Amazon and Shelfari bringing our reading list into the social networking space.

Nowadays, books are indicators of our conscious attention decisions – when we choose to read a book, we choose to immerse ourselves in its world and the imaginings of the author. Kyle Mitchell, agrees:

Reading a book on the NYC subway is the ultimate declaration of refusal to be distracted by anything around you

But books go beyond this too. When we read a book, we are making a statement to others as well as to ourselves. We invest in an unwritten contract where the rewards on offer can only be reached via our own commitment. As readers, we delay our gratification until the very last page. It’s like a slow dance with an uncertain ending. It’s like sex – or more precisely – like seduction.

There is much that marketers can learn from publishing in this regard. How do we capture the inbuilt Auchterlonie Effect provided by books (allowing others to tell their story about OUR story)? How do we mimetically reproduce that high tech/high touch aspect that is bound up in hundreds of years of publishing history? I think Jeremy Lebard, creator of BookTagger.com points us in the right direction:

Reading provides a quiet solitude seldom found in our busy world. It invokes in me a quiet chamber of the mind that shuts out external distractions and focuses on the story at hand. From that quiet room I get the best view of the world no matter where I am. The view is like no other; I watch a story unfold through the eyes of the author. The author’s words become the script and I the producer and out springs a living breathing story within the walls of my imagination. I am forced to interpret that with which I am unfamiliar. Every story I read takes my imagination for a workout. Reading forces you to become a producer that even with the merest budget it takes to buy a book you can compete with the latest commercially produced multi-million dollar production. Don’t believe me? Just listen next time a book is turned into a movie. More often than not you’ll hear “It’s not as good as the book”.