Hey writers! In case you don’t feel smug enough today, you might after Weird Al preaches all the grammar rules you already know.


“Why is everything so expensive?” Marge asks a store manager in an episode of The Simpsons. The manager replies, “Our product’s philosophy is that–” Marge cuts him off with, “Oh, we’re not rich enough to afford any product with its own philosophy.”

That’s brand storytelling done poorly, with the tangy aroma of pretentiousness.

When it’s done well, brand storytelling evokes customer emotions that enhance their perception of your worth. Duke Greenhill explains this in his Fast Company article, “The Real ROI of Brand Storytelling.” He cites an example of a snow globe that was bought for one US dollar. Writer Blake Butler then wrote a story about it, and the snow globe sold on eBay for fifty-nine dollars.

brand storytelling, perception, perceived value

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, tell the beholder a beautiful story.

That’s My Story, and It’s Sticking to Me

Brand storytelling should not be read as an invitation to lie about your product. Don’t call the vinyl seating “rich Corinthian leather.” The goal is to tell the truth — while highlighting the human, emotional sides of your company or product. Okay, yeah, you might sell more cookies by saying elves baked them in a hollow tree. But most audiences want a more realistic tale.

Storytelling 101: We won’t remember “leather.” We’ll remember “rich Corinthian leather.” But don’t call it either one, if it’s really vinyl.

Chip and Dan Heath explain business uses of storytelling superbly in their popular book, Made to Stick. In 2007, excited by the Heath brothers’ tips, I brought the book to my superior in the marketing department. She read it and said, “Nice idea, but you can’t use storytelling in real life. There’s nothing applicable in here.” She pictured marketing as an endless series of spec sheets and competitive matrix check boxes and pricing decisions. Granted, storytelling requires effort and imagination. You have to proactively look for ways to apply it, and reject stories that don’t interest your audience.

Is the effort of finding and telling brand stories worth it? Of course. Unlike other innovations that spruce up your brand, telling your brand story doesn’t require redesigning the logo, changing the product, buying another business, or invading a new distribution channel. Like any great fable, storytelling is conceptual — it only needs to exist as ideas in the customer’s mind. But a good idea can seal the deal:

  • What is extraordinary about Toms Shoes? In my candid personal opinion, nothing. But Toms gives a pair of shoes to an underprivileged person when it sells a pair of shoes to you. Toms has built its entire brand around this powerful story, and reaped success and enviable awareness for it.
  • Have you ever bought an organic or natural personal care product that didn’t really work very well, yet you bought it again? Why did you? Because you want to participate in the story of good people saving the earth.
  • Haven’t you ever looked at products that seemed roughly equal, and selected one because it was made in your country? That sale was a tie, until story provided the tiebreaker.

Think You’re Boring? Think Harder

You might think that your product has no human story worth telling. But I promise you, you do have a unique, interesting story to tell. No company spontaneously generated itself, which means humans made it. Humans are story factories. Whenever we act together, we generate stories of commitment and sacrifice and conflict and failure and little deaths and resurrections. Besides, your company is still in business, right? Every purchase represents someone finding compelling value in your product.


if an organization has humans, it has stories.

Did your founders start the company on a dare? Did R&D fail numerous times before discovering the breakthrough that powers your product? Does your company have a statistically anomalous number of long-term employees? Is your organization the “only” or the “first” or the “longest-running” or “the underdog”? These examples may not apply, but the stories in your organization are there somewhere. You just have to look for them. Then you figure out how to tell them.

Depending upon your corporate culture, trying to get senior management to buy into brand storytelling can feel risky. Some bottom line-driven executives get squeamish as soon as you go beyond numbers, to the soft squishy humanities. But in times of limited resources for companies, storytelling costs you nothing. And customers aren’t buying your spreadsheet. They’re buying your unique value proposition, a very fancy term for “your story.” If you’re skillful, brand storytelling can turn a dollar into fifty-nine dollars.

Can it do the same for you? You’ll never know, until you try. End of story.

Who cares about saying what you mean as briefly as possible? You do, if you care whether anybody hears you in today’s crazy arcade of voice mails, emails, tweets, text messages, status updates, comments, and forums. Your audience is at least as busy as you. The longer your point takes, the more interruptions hit them.  The more you say, the less they hear.

If you bore us, this is the only way you’ll hold us. (Photo by Sidious Sid)

We once thought the Internet’s limitless space allowed us to write disregarding length. Oops. Today, when even “Too Long; Didn’t Read” has an acronym (TL;DR), concision means more than ever. Pithy is the new deep. Have a hard time fitting your message into 140 characters? Wait until you label the buttons and menus on your web site.

Brevity packs a punch. Per Strunk & White, “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words… for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

I’ve taken this message to numerous audiences. Usually, it befuddles workers, who apparently believe adding extra words makes their emails importantier. But sometimes they merely need examples illustrating the point. That’s why I compiled this chart from real-life contributions to a corporate newsletter. It helped my colleagues stop padding their prose with turgid, useless bureaucratese.



 on a weekly basis  weekly
 has completed the development of  has developed
 Interim Report document  Interim Report
 over the course of the coming year  over the coming year
at present

at this time

at this present time

at this point in time

as of now

at this current juncture

for the time being

in this day and age

 at a later date  later
 for the purpose of  for
 as a result of  because
 is working to implement  is implementing
 in the event that  if
 which are of interest to the group  which interest the group
 provided a briefing  briefed
 produced a draft  drafted
 taken into consideration  considered
 was a participant  participated
 ensure the synchronization  synchronize
 includes a proposal  proposes
 issued a statement  stated

Let the Verb Be the Verb

The table above contains one blank line. The examples under it illustrate a problem I’ll call “nouning a verb.” You weaken your prose when you turn the verb into a noun, then add a “helper” verb to replace the real verb. Why say the chairperson “provided a briefing” to the Board? She briefed the Board. The opponents didn’t “outline a proposal,” they proposed. Let the verb be the verb. When you select the right verb, your prose has a stripped-down, muscular quality that busy readers appreciate.

Similarly, question all unnecessary “helper” words. Does it make a useful difference in the reader’s mind if the meeting began “a bit late” instead of “late”? No. If the session was “rather noisy,” just let it be “noisy.”

Nouns First

When you see the word “by,” that’s an indicator that — doh, I’m nouning a verb — that indicates you’ve taken the long path to your point. “By” is fine when you mean “near” (“the office by the mall”). Otherwise, a “by” cameo shows you can save words. Long way around: “This book is loved by parents.” Stronger: “Parents love this book.” Long and weak: “the report that was written by the committee.” Stronger: “the committee’s report.”

Writing short, clear, direct sentences? You rebel!You see this brawny, direct style every day in news articles. I once tried to explain the difference between active voice and passive voice to a social media coordinator who could not fit her sentences into tweets. I plucked a random news magazine off a nearby table and opened blindly to an article. It began, “Rebels took control…” Not “Control was taken by rebels…” Anyone can do this: Put the subject first, verb second, direct object last. Or, in lay terms: [Someone] [did something] [to something else]. This format yields clear sentences with solid impact.

If that clarity and brevity makes you feel squeamish, be a rebel. Rebels take control. Omit needless words.

Many small-to-medium businesses have not embraced marketing through social media, and here’s why: it’s as if someone gave you a live microphone in an empty arena and told you, “Go on! Talk until you fill the seats!” Great platform, but what the heck do you say?

On Facebook, you fill those metaphorical empty seats by getting Likes. If you’re a small business struggling to get some social media attention, there’s an easy and cost-free technique for getting attention on Facebook. It works reliably for all types of businesses, non-profits, and institutions.

Before I took over social media policy and implementation for ICANN, they already had a Facebook page. It generated anywhere from 0 to 8 Likes per week. When I implemented this technique, ICANN’s Facebook Likes shot up to more than 100 per week.

I’ve been advising on social media strategies for a local business, GoodSide Studio, that produces superb training videos. When they implemented this technique, their Likes on Facebook equaled in two weeks the number they had garnered in the previous two years.

The secret that makes this technique devastatingly effective will never change, because it’s built on human nature.

What is this “powerful secret” that turns your cobwebby Facebook page into a social media hotspot? Well, it’s so obvious. you’ll laugh when you read it.

It’s built on this simple principle: if someone hands you a group photograph, and you’re in it, where’s the first place you look? Answer: at yourself.

So here’s the cheap and easy way to drive up Facebook Likes for your business: use the Photos tab, and post as many faces as you can. Clients. Employees. Prospects. Convention speakers. Anyone who is relevant in your vertical niche. Doesn’t even matter if the picture is recent; find an excuse to post it.

Then use your other social media platforms, especially Twitter, to mention the fact that new pictures are up.

That’s it in a nutshell. When you try it, you’ll find ways to refine the technique and improve it specifically for your business. If you build it, Likes will come.

Use Your Community as Your Opening Act

Because the technique is so simple, you might scoff. If so, you’re not entirely wrong. Likes are not money. When you score Likes, you haven’t converted anyone to a customer; you haven’t scored a prospect’s e-mail address; you haven’t monetized a thing. But to do any of that, you have to have an audience. If you haven’t got much of one, this technique is golden for getting one.

World's first rock band?Back in my youth, we cavemen would sometimes get three or four of us together and form something called “a band.” We’d howl and bang rocks together in rhythm, and pretend it was music. (Rock music, we called it.) Then we wanted people to hear our rock music. The main way we gathered an audience was to put on a show and cunningly select some “opening acts.” The opening acts had friends who would come to see them, and then the friends would accidentally see us. If they liked our rock music, they became our fans. Now Og smart and popular! In essence, posting faces on Facebook is using your community as your opening act. Each face has its own audience draw. More faces equals more draw.

Another intangible benefit of this technique is implicit in the word, Like. Faces make your business relateable. For example, ICANN coordinates global policy around domain name services and IP zzzzzz. Sorry, I just fell asleep typing that sentence. Compare that to the image of ICANN you get from this joyful picture.

Another example: it might sound boring to you that GoodSide Studio makes training videos. But a photo from behind the scenes evokes some of the cool creative vibe of a video shoot.

As with most techniques in social media, this technique doesn’t work in a vacuum. You should support it with relevant content and coordinate it with other marketing efforts for better synergy. But it sure provides a lot of attention for very little effort.

Want an audience on Facebook? Want people to feel like they can relate to your company? Have a budget right around, oh, say, zero dollars? Post faces on Facebook. (Hey, now I get it: Facebook!) Use your other platforms to let people know they might see themselves on your Facebook page… then enjoy the Spike of Like.

Corporate directors and managers can learn something from this summer’s popcorn movies, specifically: everybody arcs.

In writer jargon, “everybody arcs” means that, in a good story, each character changes. The story circumstances transform him or her, perhaps a little, perhaps a lot. The ultimate character arc is probably “caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly.” You’ve seen this theme in everything from Cinderella to the Gospels to The Matrix.

Part of the reason The Avengers dominated worldwide box office is because the characters arc. The Avengers gather as incompatible super-egos that gradually become a team. They start as rivals, but learn respect for each other due to their sacrifices for a common cause. According to Box Office Mojo, the Avengers has earned $615 million against a budget of $220 million.

On the flip side, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a tedious, lifeless movie because Abe hates vampires at the start and he hates vampires at the end. No character arc. In five weeks of release, Abe earned $36 million against a budget of $69 million — a flop. Even if explosions deafen us and special effects dazzle our eyes, if a story has no character learning and evolving, on some level we feel “nothing’s happening.”

How does this relate to managing in a corporate environment?

Poor Abe looks ashamed…. whether of his movie, or his dead-end department.

Sadly, too many managers hope that the people reporting to them don’t arc. Focused on daily emergencies, the manager doesn’t think about helping people grow and has no plan for them to do so. The attitude seems to be, “My team is trained to do what I want. Let’s freeze them like this for years!”

But humans don’t work that way. And employees especially don’t “work” that way.

When you consider it personally, who has inspired you to give more? The boss who treasures her own convenience over yours, and tries to hold you in stasis, forever filling the same role? Or the boss who genuinely cares about you and treats your current relationship as one stop on a curve of continuous development?

Well, duh.

Helping your team arc calls for the best in a supervisor. It takes both a long-term view, and caring about your employee’s well-being as much as your own. You have to be creative enough to occasionally reassess where the company’s good and the employee’s good overlap.

“I know you want more responsibility, but I just want a TPS cover sheet! Mmkay?”

Once, a young lady reported to me in a largely administrative role. In our periodic talks about her development, she confided that outside of the office, she was interested in voiceover work. This was an area she wanted to grow in. She had even taken an expensive class. Unfortunately, on the surface that had nothing to do with the company’s technical and policy mission. After some thought, though, I put her in charge of the company’s audio podcast – which she rocked. This simple move was a win for everybody: I had a happy employee, the employee had more job satisfaction, the company got a fresh slant in its social media tactics, and customers got information they wanted in a format they liked.

This simple example demonstrates that when you align employees with what they prefer to work on, magic can happen. Giving everyone his or her favorite assignment isn’t always possible. But it’s possible more often than you might think. It’s worth actively trying to engineer it.

The more you try to hold employees “as is,” the more they want to escape. Your team becomes the Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter of departments: despite lots of sound and fury and action, on important levels, “nothing’s happening.”

If you care enough about your team to hold them loosely, encouraging them to grow from strength to strength, more people in the company want to work for you. When they know you are helping them grow, they perform for you like super heroes.

Mixing metaphors between movies and corporations, let’s assume you’re the director. Will you force your actors through a checklist of imposed plot points? Or will you let this story’s challenges transform them, even if that means they might outgrow their current role?

Before you choose, consider the lessons from this summer’s popcorn movies. In a successful story, everybody arcs.

Ten years into the era of permission marketing, the vast majority of marketers understand that engaging with customers on line requires that a company offer a stream of content. In contrast to the late 1990s, the delivery mechanism has migrated from emails and podcasts to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube — but after a brief obsession with crowdsourcing their content, marketers realize afresh that in-house content is once again king.

Great. Until you try it.

Posting and sending tons of content that seems to find no audience? Perhaps you’ve fallen into one of these three commonly seen problems. Photo: Beatrice Murch

I’m writing to you if your company has faithfully updated Facebook only to receive fewer than ten Likes per week, and systematically tweeted merely to scrape together a paltry Twitter following. (If you’re not updating your content systematically and predictably, well, there’s your problem.) As a marketer who has advised on many companies’ lackluster social media offerings, I can tell you the three most typical reasons why your content marketing isn’t working.

1. Inside-out content. Within your organization, you have a message you burn to impose upon the world. You blog it and tweet it and Facebook it, and the only Likes are from employees and your mom. What’s the problem? Relevance. The one thing you want them to remember is nothing they care about. (BTW, this is also why online display ads always flop.) Rethink your content from the outside-in perspective.

2. Monotonous hard-sell content. If you generally write (or video) about your product and what’s on sale, you’re simply duplicating your web site or print catalog. Readers began supporting blogs because blogs promised to convey a behind-the-scenes, authentic look at brands of interest. Facebook and Twitter users expect even greater intimacy than blog readers. Show off your expertise and your vision more than your inventory. (Dun & Bradstreet explain more reasons Why You Should Write More and Sell Less.)

On line, you may have to dole out the big picture one kernel at a time. Photo: Little Zey

3. Wrong-sized content. On this point, quality is not the issue — time is. We’re all busy. If your DVR is full, then you understand: people will fail to watch the best content in the world if they simply don’t have time for it. At the top of the sales funnel, a blog entry should not exceed 800 words. A video needs a truly compelling reason to exceed two minutes. Your Facebook sales campaign must be dead simple, not require several minutes to grasp it. Length kills.

Embrace the fact that you can’t tell your audience everything in one go. Learn how to tease out content so that readers eat it like popcorn — each delightful kernel leading them to the next bite, until they’re surprised at how much they’ve consumed.

My three tips really boil down to one concept. Your content marketing plan must stand on a foundation of adding value for an audience you sincerely care about. Social media is about building relationships, and doing it well requires you to empathize with the other guy’s viewpoint. Gilad de Vries of Outbrain triggered this blog entry because my heart leaped in affirmation at his quote about content marketing:

It’s not going to be about you, it’s going to be about them and what’s interesting and important for them and can you solve their problems or not. If you keep that as a lighthouse of sticking to things that they’re interested in and not what you’re interested in them knowing, I think you’re going to be in a good spot.

If your customer doesn’t dominate the heart of your company culture, content marketing is merely a multi-platform, multi-delivery, time-intensive method for proving, at length, that you don’t care. I guess you can hope for sarcastic Likes, but that hardly constitutes a strategy. The fix doesn’t require a bunch of money. Think about who you follow on line. The odds are, it’s someone who comments with expertise on a topic you care about, published periodically so you know when to expect fresh content. Give your customers the same, and watch your popularity grow.

Today ICANN revealed 1,930 potential new generic top-level domains (gTLDs), each a possible competitor to familiar TLDs such as .com and .org. The list of what was applied for, and who applied for it, makes interesting reading and stirs speculation. Here are my first impressions. (I apologize to regular readers of this blog, who know I generally comment on marketing communications and fiction techniques. I spent three years at ICANN and simply can’t resist commenting on the new strings.)

Most Contested Award. Thirteen companies each arrived at the idea that .app would make a great gTLD. Eleven of those companies must be disappointed to learn they’ll be slugging it out with Google and Amazon.

Runners-up for Most Contested: .home, 11 applicants; .inc, 11 applicants; .art, 10 applicants; .llc, .book, .shop, 9 applicants for each; .design, .movie, .music, 8 applicants for each.

Why Bother? Award. Admitting my utter ignorance of their respective business plans, I question the revenue possibilities of .web. That strikes me as a backwards-looking extension with a 90’s feel and no community that feels passionate about it — yet 7 companies will vie for it.

Battle of the Titans Award. It’s startling to see how many TLDs Google and Amazon will contend for. Examples include the aforementioned .app, plus .book, .buy, .dev, .mail, and several more. Since ICANN evaluators are not going to disqualify Google and Amazon on technical, financial, or criminal grounds, many of these strings will go to auction. I assume each company has a business plan that specifies how much they are willing to spend on each string to outbid the other, and I fully expect the totals to go into the millions. Surely, though, Amazon would not spend as much to defend .smile as it would .kindle.

Thus, for centrality of brand, I think the cut-throat battle to watch will actually be Google versus Microsoft for .docs. I don’t think either side will want to yield on this one.

Voice of the People Award. Three companies will contend for .sucks, a potential “defensive registrations” goldmine. Only Ruby Moon, LLC had the foresight to apply for the more positive .rocks. But for best contemporary resonance with the way my friends talk, I think the coolest string of these is Atomic Pipe’s application, .fail.

Zag When They Zig Award. This is the award for out-thinking the competition so that you have no competition. For example, 8 companies applied for .music — but only 2 had the insight to apply for the related .band. Many have spoken about the potential battle between .eco (4 applicants) and .green (4 applicants). For slipping away quietly with half the audience while everyone else was arguing, this award goes to Afilias, the sole applicant for .organic.

Conspicuous By Their Absence Award. I expect tech companies like Google and Amazon to fully grasp what gTLDs can mean. Many have commented on how odd it seems that Facebook and Twitter sat this round out. But I think the weaker move is from Apple, who applied for nothing but .apple. How will they feel when someone else wins .app? Amazon is the sole applicant for .tunes; can Apple live with that?

You Go Grrl! Award. Most companies without a technological product ignored gTLDs. Clearly the SC Johnson company got it, but their applications look defensive (can they seriously have a business plan for .AFamilyCompany while also applying for .scjohnson?). The company that looks to me like it gets it and means business is L’Oreal. By my count, they applied for at least 13 TLDs, ranging from brands (.garnier, .lancome, .maybelline) to categories (.hair, .makeup, .salon). With none of their competitors in sight, L’Oreal’s foresight just might let it own the beauty space on line.

Good Luck With That Award. Under ICANN’s evaluation rules, an applicant can gain priority over other applicants by proving that a clearly defined community stands behind their application for a TLD meant to serve that community. Among the 9 companies applying for .shop, 2 have claimed community priority. How on earth can there be a clearly defined community of people who shop when every person on earth shops, and when every other mom and pop runs a shop? Good luck with that!

LOL Award. Among the TLDs I had not heard of prior to today’s publication were a few that made me smile because they were unexpected and yet in retrospect, predictable. This includes .hiphop and Google’s application for .foo. (I’m disqualifying .lol and .wtf because I’d heard of them before Reveal Day.) The TLD that gets the award, though, because I’m still wondering about the revenue model hours after reading it: .unicorn.

“Reveal Day” promises to provide a treasure trove of interesting stories as the contention battles begin. I look forward to commenting on Reveal Day every year — assuming I live on Jupiter.