Jon Buscall Q&A
I discovered Jon Buscall when one of the search alerts I have set up began informing me that he had written on his blog about storytelling. I was especially intrigued that he is a Brit who hasn’t lived In England for 20 years and currently lives in Stockholm. I believe he is the third of my Q&A subjects who hails from beyond North America.
Bio in his own words (Buscall’s Web site): Since I quit my job as a university lecturer back in 2004, I’ve been scribbling away from my base in Stockholm, Sweden.
I juggle copywriting, journalism, translation and (whisper it) creative writing, and have come to view myself as a bit of a hackwriter providing a variety of text services for Swedish and Norwegian companies selling to English-speaking markets.
A keen blogger, I’ve moved increasingly into digital marketing and copywriting as I’m passionate about the way first class writing online is essential to connect businesses, people, information and knowledge.
Q&A with Jon Buscall
Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?
A: As an undergraduate I was drawn to fiction and writing. In the late 90s I managed to publish College.com, a novel about campus life in the UK. Although British newspaper The Times declared it was “essential reading,” it didn’t become the best seller that I hoped and I didn’t get to retire to the south of France. Nevertheless, on the back of this and a PhD in imaginative writing, I ended up teaching fiction and writing at universities in the Nordic region for the best part of eight years.
I found it incredibly powerful to help other fledgling writers get started, but increasingly I grew weary of juggling teaching and my own attempts at writing. A second novel, Being Helle, almost finished me for good, but I made a drastic jump one day and walked out of academe to go it alone and start a basset hound kennel.
Faced with having to feed myself and my dogs, I kept writing: I turned to journalism initially but also corporate blogging. I found that the skills I’d learned as a fiction writer helped me craft stories for corporations who were struggling to get their message across.
I got a kick helping to transform the ideas and notions people had about their business into a narrative form that helped build their brand, but also clarified for employees what journey they were on. If everyone in the organisation understands the story of who they collectively are, it can help employees pull together, market, and build your brand.
So the long answer to a short question is ultimately that I stumbled into corporate storytelling out of necessity, armed with a hotch-potch of writing skills garnered from teaching and writing and surfing the web.
What I love most about storytelling away from publishing houses is that stories tells us who we are and what we think we’re doing. Applied to a business, this can be incredibly powerful.Q: The culture is abuzz about Web 2.0 and social media. To what extent do you participate in social media (such as through LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Second Life, blogs, etc.)? To what extent and in what ways do you feel these venues are storytelling media?
A: I like social media and participate through blogging and Twitter, but I’m not a fan of Facebook. I think I almost burst a blood vessel the day I got an invitation to be “friends” from someone that used to bully me at school. Still, it’s a useful way of keeping in touch with the friends I do have.
Blogs and Twitter are incredibly important, though, to the work I do, and I do think they are storytelling media. Each post shows your audience who you are; it helps you tell your story step by step, one post at a time.
I started out blogging back in 1999 on LiveJournal. It was anonymous and a way of sharing my diary with a small group of friends. As I readily embraced the Net, however, I moved more and more of my writing online. As part of a creative writing program I ran at Stockholm University between 2000-2004, I encouraged all my students to blog regularly.
Looking back I can see that we used those blogs to encourage each other in our writing journey but also as searchable online notebooks. This wasn’t storytelilng. It was a way of building a resource for “real” writing.
Nowadays I see blogs as having a variety of uses and one of them is storytelling for businesses. Blogs are wonderful ways of giving an insight into who you are and what you do. Even for companies, organizations, schools, etc. I helped a local senior high school, for example, turn to blogs to promote themselves and generate interest in who they are.
I also blogged the story of a litter of basset hounds, posting a picture each day at www.bassethounds.nu. This brought me into contact with buyers but also has led to things like an invitation to participate in a podcast about dogs. My long-term ambition is to combine more of my writing with my love of dogs so this has been very useful in helping me grow that side of my business.
Twitter is a much newer phenomena and one I’ve readily embraced in the last six months. Very quickly I’ve found it’s a way of entering into a dialogue with people. I don’t like the spammy aspect of it and don’t believe that regularly offering or promoting your services on Twitter works. But I’ve found that talking about the story of my daily life — whether that involves translating, journalism, breeding basset hounds, or consulting with businesses — has led to work. So, yes, I do see how Twitter can be a storytelling medium, one tweet at a time, building a variety of narratives, showing people what your story is.
In real terms I can say that in 2008 blogging and Twitter landed me three major deals that helped me grow my business.
I encourage any small business to embrace blogging and Twitter, but you have to be in it for the long haul. It takes time to build relationships and grow your online public story. People buy or hire your services when they get a sense of who you are and what you do. If your story fits theirs.Q: If you could share just 1 piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/narrative with readers, what would it be?
A: Write regularly. Just like going to the gym, you have to keep in (writing) shape. Writing regularly is the only way of maintaining and growing your story-telling skills. I find that a lot of customers get excited about, say, blogging initially but they don’t post frequently enough after that initial kick-off.
Software like Eastgate’s Tinderbox (Mac only) makes it very easy to collect stacks of notes and ideas that you can subsequently edit and craft and ultimately publish. This is how I’ve managed to keep producing material over the years. I have all this boxes of notes (to match the paper notebooks I used to keep).
Q: You live and work in Stockholm, Sweden, though you are originally from England. To what extent do you notice differences in the way story is used in Sweden compared to how it is used in England or other places in which you’ve spent time? For example, you cite IKEA as a company that effectively employs storytelling. Have you seen different cultures using who story differently?
A: Yes, I’m originally from the UK but I haven’t lived there for over 20 years, and I rarely get back, so I would find it quite hard to compare Sweden to England. What I can say, though, is that Swedish companies (like IKEA) are good at using stories to make their brands familiar.
ICA, the supermarket chain, has been running a TV ad which is like a soap opera about the staff in an ICA store for years. Stig (pictured at left) and the rest of his crew have become familiar features of Swedish daily life. This is an incredibly subtle way of using a story to engage the audience in a brand. The ads are humorous and frequently updated and as each new “episode” emerges, the ongoing story brings ICA and its audience closer.
Several companies have tried to follow this technique, notably Findus who produce ready-made-meals, but ICA have been the most successful.
Sweden is very web-orientated, and we have led the world in terms of Internet access and mobile phone adoption rates for years. However, it’s only recently that businesses have started to grasp the idea of storytelling being related to business. It’s coming, but slowly.
Q: Your “About” page on your Web site notes: “I love helping people communicate more effectively in English, particularly if that involves the web.” You also say that you particularly like helping people communicate in business. In what ways have you brought storytelling into your interests in business English communication and the Web?
A: One of the things I try to do is get Swedish businesses to use storytelling as a way of reaching out to new audiences. I recently did a lot of work for Stockholm University in building its international profile. This involved writing 30 or so profiles of key researchers and international students. The aim was to give international visitors to the website a better flavour of what is going on in Stockholm and encourage students to study there and academics to make links with the university.
Although we used journalistic articles to “promote” leading research at the university I was very cognizant that each article was part of an ongoing story: that Stockholm University is an innovative, forward-thinking, internationally minded university. So I wasn’t just reporting on research initiatives, I was helping academic departments redefine and tell their story in a public setting. Of course, being a former academic myself, I know how cautious you have to be with the press. So I did a lot of work talking to professors, helping them get a story across that would benefit them as well as the university. For example, several people I interviewed wanted to increase their international network and collaborate with more people. I made sure that the articles I wrote on them reflected this.
I think companies need to realise that old-school press releases just don’t work anymore. You have to tell your story in an engaging narrative that will hold an audience. One of the knock-on effects of the Net has been that people graze text on the web. They read incredibly fleetingly. So it’s important that web writing holds the reader’s attention. Through stories and narrative techniques that hold an audience, you can help businesses get their message across.
Convincing managers is the difficult part, though. I find that often people in positions of power underestimate the power of the web and storytelling. I recently tried to convince a CEO that he needed to change the way he communicated in writing email to employees. Each time he wrote anything it was telling a story of how authoritative and unfriendly he was — although he was, in person, actually very amenable.
This came about because his emails were so archaic and blunt. He continually addressed people as “Mr” or “Ms” in emails and the whole tone of them was like some archaic Dickensian missive. This resulted in him effectively coming across as cold and authoritative. Archaic, even. Middle-managers in the company, many of them Swedish, adopted the same rhetorical strategies, following his lead in English, and this led to a lot of bad feeling behind the scenes. Simply because people copied the CEO’s style.
I tried to get him to understand that each email told the story of how people should communicate with each other. It also said a lot about their relationships.
The whole concept of “show, don’t tell”, which I used a lot when teaching creative writing, was very useful here in getting him to change the way he wrote.
It doesn’t matter how much you tell someone that you are friendly if you show them that you are cold and arrogant with the way you write.
So in this instance I helped him develop strategies to show, through his writing and emails, that he was friendly and pleasant. This in turn led middle-managers to change their own tone and things in the company improved. You have to be careful in Sweden because many Swedes copy the English strategies they see native-speakers (or senior staff) using. This can lead to no end of problems.
The same thing can be applied to web copy. Translations of Swedish copy often don’t have the same cultural nuances as the source text. It’s better, often, to write the text from scratch in English. A lot of businesses haven’t grasped how important this is yet. Unfortunately, there are a lot of businesses out there in Sweden who think that because international customers haven’t complained about their English, they must be doing okay. I try and tell them that, well, those customers probably aren’t their customers anymore.
So it’s a bit of an undertaking to persuade some Swedes that if you’re going to tell your story in public in English, it should be done so in a manner that really nails the brief. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of corporate waffle out there that goes for copywriting simply because managers have underestimated how important it is to tell your story effectively in the target language.