The adventures of an analog engineer and digital storyteller who studies emerging networks and their impact on the great game of business.

I’ve come to hate the word authentic. My animosity has grown through eight years of helping companies adopt social media/content marketing. I cringe whenever I hear it, because it’s frequently used with a qualifier such as:

  • “We need to seem authentic…”
  • “We need to be more authentic…”

Just writing those two fragments increases my already heightened blood pressure.

Authenticity is like a poisoned well; it is or it isn’t. You can’t be more or less authentic. And although you can make the well seem less poisoned, the very act requires deception–which by definition isn’t authentic at all.

True storytelling must come from authenticity. It can’t be added later. If your company wants to use the power of storytelling, rather that trying to be authentic, start there instead. It’s easier.

Oh, and if you wanna elevate my blood pressure to stroke levels, just add the word “viral” to the same sentence as “authentic.”

Nov 3, 2014

Recent articles from Harvard Business Review (Storytelling That Moves People,  Good Companies Are Storytellers. Great Companies Are Storydoers, The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool) Forbes (How to Use Storytelling as a Leadership Tool), Fast Company (The Simple Science to Good Storytelling),and LinkedIn (This Will Be The #1 Business Skill Of The Next 5 Years) have narrowed-in on the importance of business storytelling. And although such drum-beating is raising interest in the concept, resistance remains. Most people understand the importance of story from an intellectual perspective, yet few believe, even fewer know how to do it, and fewer still can do it well. The question is “Why?”

do_it_wellPart of the problem is a misconception that comes from a very unlikely source: elementary school teachers, who’ve encoded our deepest memories with the concept of “Story Time.” For better or worse, the word story is stained indelibly with images of children gathered around teachers reading from picture books. And that image is then reinforced by well-meaning evangelists who just can’t help themselves. If I see one more PowerPoint slide adorned with clip art of kids sitting around a campfire, I’m gonna scream.

The problem with approaching storytelling from the perspective of a child is that it devalues its impact. Storytelling isn’t kidstuff. When executed well, it’s a powerful force. Put into the hands of a dissident like Václav Havel, it has the power to change nations. Wielded by leaders such as Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy, it can change race relations and put a man on the moon. But, as with all forms of power, story is also morally neutral. The same force that can incite an oppressed people to seek freedom can also be used to inspire terrorism (Al Queda, ISIS), genocide (Hitler), and mass suicide (James Jones).

Understanding the power of storytelling is easy. Doing it well is hard. Putting the power of story into the hands of untrained communicators is like giving a guns to babies. Without a fundamental understanding of the craft, they’ll not only damage the brand, but they’ll simultaneously kill the future of business storytelling before it has a chance to thrive.

How did you do that?

A few months ago, a friend described a presentation that he was preparing. He had gathered all of the information, crafted some slides, but just couldn’t figure out how to string them together. The book that he was reading, Resonate by Nancy Duarte, told him to tell a story. “But, how do I do that?” he asked.

Luckily, I’m familiar with his industry, so I had a pretty good understanding of his material and his audience. I rattled off the storyline as I saw it.

That’s when he asked me a question that stumped me. “How did you do that?” he asked.

“Do what?”

“Put that story together so quickly?”

I didn’t understand the question. I’m a storyteller. It’s what I do. Asking how I tell a story is sort of like asking me, “How do you breathe?”

platoFor the next few weeks I thought about his question. I wondered, where do corporate communicators turn to learn the craft of business storytelling? It only took a few Google searches to find a slew of newly-minted business storytellers and agencies who would love to be storytelling surrogates. But, who is teaching the craft of storytelling? Who are the Robert McKees of business storytelling, experienced storytellers who don’t gloss-over “tell a story,” but break story into raw elements, examine the nuances of each, and use business language to explain them?

The more I thought about it, the more I saw a need. The core of all storytelling is the same. The rules for each genre, however, are different. For example, the genre of business storytelling comes with unique set of constraints, most importantly: time-constrained audiences. Unlike screenwriters who have the luxury of writing for an audience that paid ten bucks to sit in a darkened movie theater with their cell phones set to vibrate, business storytellers must communicate with overly-stimulated customers floating in a sea saturated with distracting messages.

My friend’s question set me on a quest to define a business storytelling process. For the past couple of months, I’ve been trying to document how I breathe, by developing a step-by-step method to help business communicators tell their own stories.

Over the next few months I’ll be sharing my work with you, so keep an eye on this space for further developments.

Filed under: storytelling

Those who follow this blog know that I like all sorts of data. Whether it be tracking the tweets of a company dealing with a public relations issue, or analyzing the social media posts of a public utility company during a blackout, I love finding stories in data.

For the past three years, I’ve been collecting social media data for the top 13 contestants on the television show, American Idol. I wanted to know if social media data could predict who was going home every week.

I started by capturing both Facebook and Twitter data. It didn’t take too long to see a correlation between contestants’ Facebook numbers and those being sent home each week. Although the results weren’t perfect, the accuracy of these Facebook-derived predictions proved more accurate than simple chance. For example, in Season 11, when the television audience voted to chop the Top 24 to the Top 10, the data predicted 8 of the top 10. And during the course of the next 13 weeks, the data successfully predicted 18 of 25 bottom-three (bottom 2 in week # 13) candidates, for an accuracy of 72%.

By the end of the first season, I had come up with a theory that the correlation to America’s voting had less to do with the total number of Facebook fans and more to do with the number of fans gained the night immediately preceding an elimination show. This method worked in all three seasons with one major caveat: it’s accuracy dropped with the number of contestants. The larger the pool, the easier it was to choose both the bottom three and who was likely to go home. However, as the talent pool got smaller, the method faltered, as proven by the fact that it chose the wrong winners in two of the three seasons.

Now, with three individual seasons of data under my belt, I thought it would be fun (yeah, I know) to compare the Facebook data from the top three performers from each season, side by side. I created the interactive bubble chart above for you to play with.

Note: Because American Idol ran for different lengths of time each season, I needed to find a way to align the data between seasons. Since all three data sets had the “last 11 weeks of data,” that’s the information that I used. Once the chart was built, however, I could see a flaw that needs to be explained. In its default configuration, Facebook Fans are on the x-axis, “Talking about” on the y-axis, and a number (1901) on the slider. Unfortunately, the Google Motion Chart wants that bottom number in years, yet in my data is actually weeks (1 through 11). So, when you animate the graph, note that 1901= week 1 for all three seasons, 1902 = week 2 for all three seasons, and so on.

One of the things I did expect to see was a year-over-year reduction in the number of Facebook fans, since supposedly the show’s television ratings are falling. The past three years of Nielsen ratings verifies that story:

2012 (Season 11) Finale: 20.7 million
2013 (Season 12) Finale: 13.3 million
2014 (Season 13) Finale: 10.4 million

So, when we compare the top three from each season, it’s no surprise that the total number of their Facebook fans have dropped:

2012 (Season 11) Sum of the Top 3 FB Fans: 574,531
2013 (Season 12) Sum of the Top 3 FB Fans: 153,586
2014 (Season 13) Sum of the Top 3 FB fans: 114,567

Not only is the number of FB fans per contestant is dropping, but the season-over-season differences are significant. For example, Season 11’s second-place contestant, Jessica Sanchez, accumulated almost as many Facebook fans in her first week (43,799) as Candice Glover, Season 12’s winner gained over her entire season (45,219). And except for the socially-popular Angie Miller from Season 12, Season 11’s 3rd place contestant, Joshua Ledet, had more fans than all four finalists from Season’s 12 and 13 (Kree Harrison, Candice Glover, Jena Irene, and Caleb Johnson).

But, as often happens, the data did reveal something unexpected. Although the total number of Facebook fans fell from season to season, the overall engagement of those audiences rose. Season 13’s final three (Alex Preston, Jena Irene, and Caleb Johnson) lead all nine contestants of in “talk-to-fan” ratios (Facebook’s “Talking About” metric divided by the number of fans). The data suggests that today’s America Idol fans, although down in viewership, are talking bout their favorite contestants more.

Dwindling television viewership may not be the only reason why Facebook numbers are down. The social media landscape is different. For example, Instagram may have drawn some audience from Facebook since it came onto the scene in 2010. The chart above shows the number of Instagram followers for all nine contestants after Season 13 ended. Both Alex (Season 13’s #3) and Caleb (Season 13’s winner) had more Instagram followers than they did Facebook followers.

So, what did I conclude from this three year experiment?:

  1. The number of Facebook fans gained the night between the performance and elimination night is a good indicator of who is going home for the first five weeks. But as the pool of contestants dwindles, so does the accuracy of the method. The method is ineffective in choosing the winner on Finale night.
  2. Although the number of Facebook fans is down year-to-year, today’s fans are talking about their favorites more than yesterday’s.

Someone who’d been following my experiment asked if I was disappointed that social data could not help predict the outcome of the contest. Absolutely not! In an age of big data, it’s comforting to know that humans and freewill still rule.

Probably the most important knowledge that I gained during these past three seasons was the ability to use motion charts. If you want to play with the motion charts for each season, you can view them here:

Season 11 American Idol Contestants Motion Chart

Season 12 American Idol Contestants Motion Chart

Season 13 American Idol Contestants Motion Chart