Lou Hoffman Q&A
I’ve known about Lou Hoffman and his blog, Ishmael’s Corner, since probably the early days of this blog. To be honest, I perceived him as really, really important, running a big, important agency, so I never imagined he’d want to participate in a Q&A on my little old blog. In the past year, though, Lou and I have both become a part of an ad hoc group of story bloggers that includes Gregg Morris, Cathryn Wellner, Trey Pennington, Michael Margolis, and others. Thus, I realized what an accessible and friendly guy Lou really was. I invited him, and I’m ecstatic that he accepted.
Bio: Lou Hoffman launched The Hoffman Agency in December 1987 after six years in journalism and public relations. Since that time, he has transformed the agency from a Silicon Valley player into a global communications consultancy. While the firm initially focused on the technology sector, its clients now come from what he calls markets of complexity.
Hoffman enjoys counseling clients in areas ranging from brand building to the “art of storytelling.” He blogs on the topic of “storytelling through a business prism” at Ishmael’s Corner and conducts varied workshops including one that combines storytelling with corporate blogging. His writing has appeared in publications ranging from VentureBeat to BusinessWeek.
He lives in Silicon Valley harboring the belief there’s one book in him … somewhere.
Q&A with Lou Hoffman, Question 1:
Q: While your blog, Ishmael’s Corner, focuses significantly on storytelling in business, your company’s (The Hoffman Agency) main Web site does not seem to play up storytelling. Is that a fair observation, and if so, is there a reason behind not emphasizing storytelling on your agency’s site? Also, your agency has been around since 1987. Has storytelling been a strong focus from the beginning, or did it evolve? (You bio suggests an article you wrote in 2003 may have been the starting point of your storytelling focus.)
A: That’s a fair statement.
We’ve debated how much to emphasize our storytelling expertise on the Agency website.
The challenge relates to economics.
The amount of money that companies allocate to outside storytelling services is a tiny fraction of what’s earmarked for public-relations services. In a world where labels often point the way, it’s important that people searching for PR services in the tech sector or markets of complexity find their way to our doorstep.
With that said, our expertise in storytelling represents a vital differentiator. We’ve created other digital properties beyond www.hoffman.com like Ishmael’s Corner and SlideShare with a focus on storytelling. We call this lily pad marketing, establishing other digital doors to bring prospects to our main site. By developing content for these digital doors that’s honed to storytelling, we gain SEO (search engine optimization) benefits which hopefully bring relevant buyers, not just more buyers, to us.
For example, the title field of our blog reads “Storytelling Techniques For Effective Business Communications.”
That’s what we’re about.
If someone is looking for information on foreshadowing or help pumping energy into Johnny’s college essay, we’re not going to be the right resource.
Since founding the Agency in 1987, storytelling has always been part of how we support clients. A couple variables gained enough mass around 2003 that prompted us to move storytelling into our core service offering.
First, our clients, even technical B2B companies, increasingly wanted visibility in mainstream media ranging from daily newspapers to BusinessWeek.
In addition, we could see that the Internet was commoditizing news, particularly product announcements, which at the time constituted much of our work.
Taken together, we started evangelizing to clients that it’s no longer enough to inform and educate and sell. Your communications need an entertainment dimension to stand out.
At the time, I was a columnist for an Adweek sister publication, Technology Marketing, and wrote a piece called “Heard a Good Story Lately?” which in a sense became our storytelling manifesto.Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?
A: I was interested in storytelling before I even knew it.
Here’s what I mean.
I’ll always remember one particular Chanukah my family celebrated when I was around 15. I couldn’t contain my excitement because I had bought the absolute perfect books for each of my three siblings.
When it came time to exchange gifts, my brother and two sisters tore the wrapping paper off their books and looked at me, each trying to muster enough enthusiasm to mask what could kindly be described as disappointment.
That’s when I realized my passion for reading and writing — didn’t think of it as storytelling at the time — was different from others.
Given one can’t make a living reading — unless you were “el lector” (the reader) in the late 1800s, reciting stories out loud to workers in Cuban cigar factories [see photo at right] — I pursued a career path in writing and specifically journalism.
I landed my first job at one of two bilingual newspapers in the country at the time, The Independiente. Assigned the police beat, it quickly became clear to me that I wasn’t cut out for the rigors of daily journalism. I lasted about six months.
After a couple years of aimless but productive wandering, I ended up at a public-relations agency supporting Philips and its CD-ROM business. In preparation for a slew of media interviews scheduled for Philips in 1986, I walked the VP of marketing Rob Moes through the messages and how he should answer anticipated questions. That was what I was trained to do.
The first interview unfolded according to plan.
The second interview found the reporter getting more and more agitated as Rob parroted back the party line. The reporter repeatedly pressed for market projections, which frustrated Rob to the point that he finally blurted out, “Trying to figure out the number of units that will ship in the future is like asking Mrs. Magellan how many lunches to pack. Who the hell knows?”
Needless to say, this answer wasn’t one of the key messages.
The response completely altered the dynamic of the interview. Rob essentially shucked the script and had a conversation with the reporter, answering the questions in his own words with anecdotes pulled from personal experiences.
Observing the exchange, I couldn’t believe the difference between pre-outburst and post-outburst.
That was my “aha! moment.”
Stories trump corporate drivel.
Why were we pummeling executives into submission to stay on message?
Instead, we should be helping our clients apply storytelling techniques in their communications.Q: What people or entities have been most influential to you in your story work and why?
A: I’m always learning from Malcolm Gladwell.
He’s a wonderful writer and storyteller.
His storytelling doesn’t follow the classic definition of zeroing in on a protagonist who must overcome a Job-like disaster to achieve a happy ending.
Instead, he takes conventional thinking and turns it upside-down.
One of my favorite Gladwell articles is “How David Beats Goliath,” which appeared in The New Yorker.
More than recount an underdog story, he digs out a fresh narrative:
“David’s victory over Goliath, in the Biblical account, is held to be an anomaly. It was not. Davids win all the time. The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. Arreguín-Toft was analyzing conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful — in terms of armed might and population — as its opponent, and even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time.”
Why does this passage grab our attention?
Because it’s unexpected. It causes us to stop and wonder how this can be.
There’s also simplicity in the story. Rather than numb us with a multitude of facts and figures, his premise pinwheels off one statistic, that the Goliaths only win 71.5 percent of the time.
These storytelling techniques can be effective in business communications where complexity too often weighs down story.
I also admire Warren Buffet’s storytelling.
His annual shareholder letters offer lessons for anyone involved in communications.
Write with a conversational tone and don’t be afraid to bring humor or at least a touch of levity to the story.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my wife, Heather. When I think or see things that don’t fit under the status-quo umbrella, she’s always the first one to say “trust your instincts” and nudge me forward.Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?
A: I do have a view on this with the caveat that I have zero background in psychology or anthropology.
People have a desire to connect.
I’m convinced when Curly was asked about the meaning of life in the Billy Crystal movie City Slickers, that’s how he was going to answer before he passed away.
Living in Silicon Valley since ‘81, I see how this accelerating emphasis on the virtual world with e-mail, IM, texting, etc. means we’re talking to more people more often than ever before in the history of humankind.
But we’re not connecting.
Storytelling nourishes genuine connections.
I have this theory that high-touch services associated with the idyllic 1950s are going to make a comeback.
Imagine a brave soul knocking on the doors of venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road trying to raise capital to resurrect the “milk man” business for home delivery of dairy products.
Now that would be a story, capturing the expressions of the VCs trying to understand why anyone would pay a premium to have something delivered to their doorstep when the same goods can be had from a five-minute drive down the road.
What they don’t get —
People are paying for the “connection.”
That half-gallon of two-percent milk is simply the vehicle.Q: How important is it to you and your work to function within the framework of a particular definition of “story?” (i.e., What is a story?)
A: Frameworks don’t have much relevance to our work.
We’re not focused on a journey or redemption or reflecting society, although such elements can play a role in our approach.
At the macro level, we’re using storytelling techniques to help our clients show their humanity.
People like it when companies have personalities. It shows the outside world that there are actual people on the other side of the communication. This concept might seem like common sense. Yet it eludes the vast majority of companies.
In fact, I’ll go a step further and say most companies actually work at hiding their personalities with vanilla communications which appear shaped by the Six Sigma police.
Sometime in all of our lives we were taught business is serious.
Certainly, if you’re evaluating a semiconductor for a medical device or a law firm for a legal entanglement, I appreciate both are serious matters. But the buyer of the semiconductor or legal service still gravitates toward the company that stands for something and has a “face.”
The right communications help put a face on a company. More than a story, the communications can be a vignette or even a single comment.
For example, we recently helped a client launch a new product that marries the news-gathering process with social media. As part of the creative process we examined the history of CNN, which pioneered the 24x7 news cycle. Our research showed that CNN hadn’t kept pace in pulling real-time information (social media) into its breaking news process. The irony of CNN falling behind in this area provided amusing anecdotes and a good door-opener into our client’s story.
Sometimes, we’re simply helping our clients communicate in a more entertaining fashion.
That alone has value.Q: The culture is abuzz about Web 2.0 and social media. To what extent do you participate in social media? To what extent and in what ways do you feel these venues are storytelling media?
A: It would be fun to rewind the tape and ask the oral storytellers of the second century AD how they felt about the invention of paper.
I’m sure the concept of paper caused consternation among some; i.e., “This is horrible. How can I get ‘dread’ across to the audience if I can’t lower my voice and slow down the cadence? You can’t just insert this type of feeling into words.”
The point is, vehicles for communications are always evolving and changing.
The emergence of social media offers yet another platform for storytelling. Think about the options for telling stories through film 30 years ago. Either you were on the Spielberg career path with USC the likely springboard or you were shooting Suzie the Clown at birthday parties for living-room premiers. There wasn’t much in between. Now thanks to platforms like YouTube, your video can literally reach a million plus people.
Blogs, videos, SlideShare, and the like can all serve as vehicles for storytelling.
I consider myself a student of storytelling techniques. That’s what I try to do with my blog Ishmael’s Corner. I enjoy having fun with language. I believe reverse-engineering communications can deliver useful insights. As my mom will attest, I can still be a bit of a smartass at 52. All these elements come together in the blog.
Even a platform like Twitter fits into this picture. While you’re not going to replicate F. Scott Fitzgerald in 140-character chunks, anyone can channel Will Rogers or Studs Terkel and serve as an observer of society. And if you offer fresh takes packaged in compelling language, thousands of people will tune in. If you’re lame, no one will care.Q: What future aspirations do you personally have for your own story work? What would you like to do in the story world that you haven’t yet done?
A: I’m keenly interested in the science behind storytelling.
So many of our clients play in what we call markets of complexity: technology, energy, telecommunications, water, medical systems and financial services. As you would expect, the executives typically come from engineering or technical orientations. Their world revolves around hard data.
For these people, storytelling can come across as fluffy and counterintuitive.
Winning these folks over is not for the weak because there’s an intangible quality to effective storytelling that doesn’t resonate with the technical mind.
Take a book like Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Imagine you have five minutes to explain to a Java programmer what makes this book so powerful. It’s not about charts and graphs. It’s about understated narrative. There’s the building of psychological tension interrupted with subtle humor. Technical professionals can struggle to understand such abstractions, much less support their use in business communications.
That’s why I hope to find more time to explore the “why” behind the effectiveness of storytelling.
Scientific American published an article a couple years ago called “The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn.” [Full version of article requires purchase.] It touched on storytelling’s neurological roots and hypothesized that the enjoyment of a good tale is probably tied to crucial parts of our social cognition. If I could find the data that changes the word “probably” to “definitely,” it would be useful in convincing our clients to embrace storytelling.
In the meantime, we rake the academic world for studies that serve our agenda.
For example, we came across research led by the University of Pennsylvania that examined how different types of content influence people when it comes to charitable giving. In an experiment that allowed people to donate up to $5, one pitch personalized the need around a little girl in Africa and the second pitch outlined all the facts behind the need. No surprise, humanizing the need generated roughly twice the amount of money as the case made with statistics.
There was also a hybrid approach that included the little girl combined with some factors and figures. The engineering mind assumes the best of both worlds should increase the giving, when in fact the opposite happened.
I’d like to build a library of this type of information.Q: If you could share just one piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/narrative with readers, what would it be?
A: The story is always there.
I truly believe this.
Like discovery in the legal sphere, communicators need to dig for the story. I find mining to be an apt metaphor. As we poke, probe and cajole, a stream of information goes through a “sluice box” which ultimately leaves the storytelling gold.
I always point to one of our campaigns for a type of semiconductor called an EEPROM (electrically erasable programmable read-only memory). On the surface, not exactly a topic that conjures drama and the media spotlight.
In going through our discovery exercise, we found the chip was being used in keyless locks for cars. This led to the insurance industry and researching auto theft. One of the insurance organizations pointed us to an auto museum that included a history of auto security devices. It turned out one of the earliest theft-prevention devices for cars was a blow-up man that one would place in the driver’s seat so potential thieves thought the car was occupied.
You can’t make this stuff up. Armed with this anecdote, we were able to package a story for the EEPROM that played on a number of broadcast outlets including CNN.Q: Your bio notes that you developed “a training curriculum designed to help companies embrace the art of storytelling in their communications.” Can you describe some high points in delivering that curriculum to companies (perhaps a use of the curriculum of which you’re especially proud)? And how has the curriculum evolved over time?
A: These workshops are designed to help companies apply storytelling techniques in their communications.
When we say communications, we’re not just talking media relations. The techniques have relevance to corporate blogging, internal communications, new-business development and even the info pack that goes to job candidates. For example, we conducted a version of the workshop for one of Sony’s channel sales teams.
The curriculum is in a constant state of change because each workshop is customized to the specific company. Plus, this never-ending search for the science behind storytelling means we’re always fitting new material into the curriculum.
One element of the workshop that always elicits considerable discussion and seems to flip the spiritual light switch involves reverse-engineering an article with relevance to the company.
You can see this reverse-engineering technique in a diagram (view/download it here: Economist Diagram.pdf) taken from a story in The Economist about wireless sensor networks.
While I wouldn’t exactly call this science — subjective decisions come into building out this diagram — we’re talking to people from technical backgrounds in their “language” by presenting the information in diagram form.
A visual depiction of the different types of content that come together in a mainstream article appeals to the intellectual side of the brain. For example, once they absorb that a significant part of this type of writing consists of anecdotes, we can move into a deeper discussion on anecdotes.
Perhaps it falls under the category of cheap parlor tricks, but we like to end the workshops showing the following:
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 …
When asked if anyone knows where this came from, the answer is always no.
It turns out this passage was penned by Warren Buffett in one of his shareholder letters.
It serves as a good example to recap many of the techniques addressed in the workshop: conversational language, self-deprecation, the unexpected, etc.
In short, if one of the richest people in the world can show his humanity, certainly you can.