Ben the Bear: Ann Wylie and online storytelling


PETA photo

“The bear, known only as Attraction #2, lived in a cage the size of a child’s room.”

That is one possible lead for a story about Ben the Bear, said Ann Wylie. She was speaking at a PRSA Puget Sound workshop on writing for the web called “Get Clicked, Read, Shared and Liked.”

Wylie described Ben’s story in a classic story template.

  • Introduction: Make the lead concrete, creative or provocative. What is a  critical moment or interesting fact that will draw people into the story and encourage them to keep reading?
  • Problem: Describe Ben’s dismal life in a North Carolina roadside zoo. Paint a picture for readers.
  • Solution: Talk about how your actions (by your company, nonprofit organization, agency program or other) improved the situation. In Ben’s case, PETA and other organization filed a cruelty-to-animals lawsuit that eventually got Ben out of the zoo, and FedEx transported him to his new home. Don’t use too much detail to describe your actions. Other people don’t care about those details. They want to know what happened to the story’s hero or protagonist.
  • Result: Ben now lives in a bear sanctuary, where he has green grass and his own pool. Happily ever after.

Stories are a powerful way to communicate online. Stories that involve human (or animal) interest and personal stories are more likely to be read.

To find stories, look for where your company, agency or program touches your customers. What have you done that is “aw”-inspiring?

Storytelling is half research and half structure. You need both for good stories.

Watch for more from Ann Wylie and her co-instructor Shel Holtz in future posts.

Empowerment marketing and the VW Beetle

Volkswagen Beetle

Volkswagen Beetle ads with headlines like “Think Small” flew in the face of inadequacy marketing approaches. Route 66, photo.

In a previous post I talked about inadequacy marketing. This is marketing that reinforces our insecurity and tells us that if we just buy a certain product, we will feel strong, safe, secure or sexy.

Here’s another idea. What if marketing helped us realize our potential, tapped our better instincts or engaged us with something more than self-interest? In Winning the Story Wars, Jonah Sachs calls this approach empowerment marketing.

I grew up in Michigan, a state whose economy was based in the auto industry. I remember my parents (and my friends’ parents) buying a new American-made car every two years. They were supporting the industry, but they were also influenced by automobile advertising.

Auto advertising was a great example of inadequacy marketing. The ads said that your status, taste and social acceptance resulted from the car that you drove. My father’s car was very important to him. He babied it, washing it every week so it gleamed.

The Cadillac was THE status symbol. According to Sachs, Cadillac ads “sold a whole set of values–values about happiness, identity and the good life.” Owning a Cadillac showed that you had made it, you were on top.

But that sense of achievement only lasted until the next year’s model–bigger and better–rolled out. Then your car was no longer the height of fashion. It might look small and worn out. Do you think people were feeling anxious and inadequate?

Then in 1959, full-page newspaper ads began to appear with a simple image of the Volkswagen Beetle. The headline said “Think Small.” The ad copy talked about the car being modest and efficient. The antithesis of a Cadillac ad.

People found the ads funny and honest. They flew in the face of traditional advertising approaches, allowing people to celebrate something small and clunky rather than a fashionable status symbol.

“Live Below Your Means” was the headline of another Beetle ad campaign. It celebrated the fact that the car’s design had not changed for almost two decades. New model year, what model year?

Fifty years later the VW Beetle ads are “still widely considered the stand-alone best marketing campaign of the twentieth century, number one on the Ad Age list,” according to Sachs. The Beetle became a symbol of the counterculture revolution. It celebrated not the suburban dream, but freedom and the open road.

The Beetle ad campaign was creative, but it was also powerful because of its values. As Sachs said, “While Cadillac was celebrating an endless quest for status and wealth, VW celebrated joyful modesty of material desire and truth in the face of insincerity.”


My latest video: connecting people to CarbonWA

Here is my latest video, which I produced for the activist group Carbon Washington. CarbonWA is gathering signatures for an initiative. They would like the state to have a revenue-neutral carbon tax. The video is a key part of their crowdfunding campaign.

CarbonWA’s goals for the video included:

  • Connect people to the organization and its people: positive, energetic
  • Get them excited about what CarbonWA is doing: concrete, cutting edge policy
  • Have them feel optimistic about climate change
  • Encourage them to donate money and time to the cause

I hope you watch the video and visit their website to see what this young, enthusiastic group is doing. CarbonWA was started by the “stand-up economist” Yoram Bauman and others who were excited about the positive impacts of British Columbia’s revenue-neutral carbon tax.

Puffery: The fourth deadly sin of storytelling

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

We all know this unforgettable line from “The Wizard of Oz.” Oz makes himself out to be godlike. But inevitably he is exposed as the small man he really is.

We commit the sin of puffery when we issue commands or proclamations from on high, said Jonah Sachs in “Winning the Story Wars.” If we want to tell good stories, we can’t adopt a puffed-up posture. Our audience needs to be able to relate to us as people like them.

Insincerity: The third deadly sin of storytelling

What's the universal element of your story?

What’s the universal element of your story?

The wolf in sheep’s clothing: that’s the essence of the sin of insincerity. Don’t try to be something that you’re not, said Jonah Sachs in “Winning the Story Wars.” Don’t try to please your audience so much that you lose your core identity.

While Sachs doesn’t use the word “authenticity,” he’s talking about what makes your story authentic. What are the values or the moral of the story you’d like to tell? How does that relate to your audience as human beings, not as a targeted demographic?

“Great stories are universal because at their core, humans have more in common with each other than the pseudo-science of demographic slicing has led us to believe,” Sachs said.

He points to the example of Pixar. They are aiming to tell stories that connect with a human audience. Stories that are creative, inspired by core values that everyone can relate to, not just kids. Maybe that’s why I have found myself on the edge of my seat more than once in the “Toy Story ” movies.

Authority: The second deadly sin of storytelling

Girl and puppy on lawn

Make an emotional connection. People don’t trust experts and their data. They need more.

We all know the story of the emperor’s new clothes. The emperor trusted experts who told him he had a fine new garment, even though he couldn’t quite see it himself. He paid them lots of money for the fabric and construction. It took a child to tell the truth: the emperor was wearing nothing.

Our belief in our own expertise causes us to commit the sin of authority, according to Jonah Sachs in “Winning the Story Wars.” We believe that the facts speak for themselves, that the data are persuasive. We forget to make an emotional connection.

The problem is that in today’s world, facts aren’t enough. The public no longer believes experts. Scientific opinion changes. Are eggs bad for your cholesterol, or are they a good source of protein? What about cigarettes or DDT, lead paint or leaded gasoline?

When I worked on reducing pesticide use, we turned to the potential impacts of pesticides on children. We knew that parents loved their children and would be concerned about harm to their children’s health. We thought their concern might get them to act.

One of our strategies was to send postcards like the one above, with compelling messages about children and pesticides and a few tips for alternate ways to deal with garden pests. A follow-up survey found a high recall of the postcards. Those who remembered the cards were more likely to change to a less harmful garden practice.

Sachs singles out people working on climate change for the sin of authority. He talks about NASA scientist James Hansen, who spent 40 years dispassionately publishing his findings about the role of CO2 in climate change.

Now Hansen has become an activist. He protests outside of coal-fired power plants and participates in climate rallies with His own story of scientist turned into activist gives him an emotional authority.


Vanity: The first deadly sin of storytelling

We can’t tell great stories if we fall prey to the five deadly sins, said Jonah Sachs in “Winning the Story Wars.” This is the first of five posts about these sins.

The story needs to be about your audience, not about you.

The story needs to be about your audience, not about you.

Sin #1: Vanity

You are not going to convert people to your brand or cause by telling them how great you are. Your own opinion isn’t enough to convince your audience or community.

You need to connect with their stories. People really want “to see their own reality and values reflected in a message,” Sachs said.

According to Sachs, one of the reasons that John Kerry lost and George W. Bush won the 2004 presidential election was the difference between their stories. Kerry’s story was about his issues and his credentials. Bush’s story connected with American voters.

Here are excerpts from the first few minutes of their acceptance speeches at the respective national conventions: [Read more…]

How telling better stories can change the world

I just finished reading an intriguing book about storytelling, “Winning the Story Wars: Why those who tell—and live—the best stories will rule the future,” by Jonah Sachs.

Sachs takes a different route than most of what I’ve read about storytelling. His book is about myth making. The real story wars in today’s world, according to Sachs, are about how we interpret the world and ourselves. They’re about values and morals, archetypes and heroes.

To give you an example, let’s talk about Annie Leonard and Glenn Beck.

I bet you have seen Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff,” a 20-minute video about, well, STUFF: the things that we buy, use and turn into garbage. Leonard turned abstract economic theory into a simple story, populated by stick figures, that’s easily understood. (Sachs’ studio produced “The Story of Stuff” for Leonard.) Here’s the video. [Read more…]

Translation is not your friend

Indian-woman,-one-finger-up,“What does this mean?” asked Ha Na Park as she held up one finger in the air. Park was speaking last Monday at Social Marketing SPARKS 2014. 

  • If the question is what number, it means “one.”
  • If the question is which direction, it means “up.”
  • If the question is which part of the body, it means “finger.”

It all depends on the context. It’s important to keep context in mind when translating English words into another language.

[Read more…]

Why your brain loves good storytelling

Here’s a link to an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review. It says that character-driven stories turn on oxytocin, a brain chemical that enhances empathy.

In order to activate oxytocin, the narrative must first sustain people’s attention by creating dramatic tension. In other words, the character must meet and overcome a difficult situation.

As the article says, this blows the typical PowerPoint presentation to bits. You can make your communications much more effective by adding human-scale stories to let people know why they should care.

You can read the full article here.