End of story? | June 2010

“The internet has evolved a new species of magpie reader,
gathering bright little buttons of knowledge,
before hopping on to the next shiny thing.”
— Ben Macintyre, writer at large for The Times

End of story?

The news of storytelling’s death has been greatly exaggerated

“Brothers and sisters, we are gathered here today to mourn the death of Story. As you may have heard, it’s kaput — or, at the very least, terminally ill, wracked by videogames, wikis, recaps, talkbacks, YouTube, ADD, and the rise of a multiplatform, multipolar, mashup-media culture. … Beginnings, middles, and ends are headed for the attic, next to the box marked VCR Rewinders/Beastmaster Franchise.”

— Scott Brown, Wired columnist, in “Story Bored

Brothers and sisters, let’s let Scott Brown mourn the death of Story. We have more interesting things to do — like figuring out the beginning, middle and end for our next blog posting.

For the record, I’m a congenital worrywart (a gene passed down on my mother’s side). And I’m not troubled at all about the demise of storytelling.

Because storytelling is doing fine.

Sob story

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had my concerns. On the day I found out about Twitter, I had to lie down and put a washcloth over my eyes.

“Really?” I sniffed. “Are we really going to do this in 140 characters or less?”

Luckily for me, that happened to be the same day that a quarter of a million kids lined up around my block. They were there to be first in line to buy the 652-page Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince when my local Barnes & Noble opened at midnight. (And those were the poor folks who weren’t among the 750,000 to preorder the book from Barnes & Noble alone.)

Storytelling dead? Folks, she doesn’t even have the sniffles.

Tweet me a story

And technology’s not about to kill her. Consider:

  • iPads and other e-readers actually kindle more linear, narrative reading.
  • Some of the best nonfiction stories I’ve ever experienced are on the “This American Life” podcasts I listen to on my iPhone.
  • And the cleverest among us — and by that I mean the folks at the FBIPressOffice — have figured out how to write mini-narratives in 140 characters or less. Three of my favorites:

“Gotcha!: Bad Cops Caught, Part II: Five cops go bad in Memphis, Tennessee, and the FBI worked with polic.. http://bit.ly/d4M1h

“A DANGEROUS BETRAYAL: The Case of the Cash Hungry Contractor: An undercover sting helped prevent a federal energ.. http://tinyurl.com/lzvnrp

“CANINE CRUELTY: Five-State Dog Fighting Ring Busted: A year-long multi-agency investigation results in approxima.. http://tinyurl.com/mffmh6

So friends, let’s not waste another instant kvetching about the death of Story. Instead, let’s invest that time in mastering the art of the storyteller.

It’s an art we’ll be able to use for a long, long time.

Master the Art of the Storyteller

Want to put the most powerful form of human communication to work in your very next piece?

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“I didn’t know what Facebook was, and now that I do know what it is, I have to say, it sounds like a huge waste of time. I would never say the people on it are losers, but that’s only because I’m polite.
“People say ‘But Betty, Facebook is a great way to connect with old friends.’ Well at my age, if I want to connect with old friends, I need a Ouija Board. Needless to say, we didn’t have Facebook when I was growing up. We had phonebook, but you wouldn’t waste an afternoon with it.”
— 88-year-old actress Betty White, hosting “Saturday Night Live”
after months of campaigning by the 507,000-member
Facebook “Betty White to Host Saturday Night Live (please!?) group

Get your share on Facebook

Three scientific ways to get your fans to spread the word

Dan Zarrella does it again.

The social and viral marketing scientist who brought you the science of retweets has turned his attention to what makes blog postings and articles go viral on Facebook.

Here’s what he’s learned:

1. Keep it simple.

The lower the reading grade level of the article headline, the more likely it is to get shared on Facebook, Zarrella’s research shows. For instance, headlines written at the:

  • Fifth-grade level got shared 15 percent more often than average
  • Ninth-grade level got shared 10 percent more often than average
  • 15th-grade level got shared nearly 20 percent less often than average

2. Numbers count.

Publication headlines with numbers sell stories. That’s because they promise quantity and value. (Oddly, odd numbers sell better than even ones.)

The same thing’s true in social media. Add a numeral to the headline for your blog posting, and it will make the rounds more widely on Facebook.

“In a wide range of marketing arenas, digits have been shown to perform very well,” Zarrella writes. “They tend to help conversion rates in the form of prices. And on social news sites like Digg, ‘Top 10’ style posts have always done well.”

In Zarrella’s research, blog posting and article headlines:

  • Including the numerals 1 through 9 got passed along 1.25 percent more often than average
  • Without digits got shared nearly .75 percent less often than average

3. Publish on the weekend.

People post fewer articles on Facebook on the weekend. But the stories that do get posted on Saturday and Sunday get shared more often, on average, than those that get posted during the week.


One reason is that more than half of U.S. companies block Facebook, so people can only use the social network at home, Zarrella says. Also, the mainstream Facebook audience doesn’t use Facebook for work.

Zarrella found that pieces posted on:

  • Saturday get passed along nearly 40 percent more often than average
  • Sunday get shared more than 15 percent more often than average
  • Weekdays get shared about as often as or a little less often than average

“If you want your article to be shared on Facebook,” Zarrella says, “try posting it on the weekend.”

Check out Zarrella’s Facebook-sharing research methodology.

Write for social media

Would you like to learn how to write blog postings, tweets and other status updates that expand your reach and influence online?

If so, please join me at PRSA’s July 22 teleseminar, “Writing for Social Media.”

Social media is more like a cocktail party than a press release. Write status updates that sound like they were produced by a corporation — or even a public relations pro — and you’ll soon find yourself socializing with the chips, not attracting new friends and followers. In this session, you’ll discover how to make your social media pieces more relevant, valuable and interesting to your readers.

Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

  • Use the 70-20-10 rule for engaging your followers, plus other tips for making sure your status updates are welcome guests, not intrusive pests.
  • Pass the “who cares?” test and four other techniques for becoming a resource, not a bore, on social media.
  • Get retweeted. Five steps for expanding your influence and reach on Twitter.
  • Tweet like the FBI. Write dramatic, compelling status updates that draw followers and get clicks.
  • Make your posts personable. There’s a reason they call it “social” media.
  • Tweak your tweets. Get your message across in 140 characters or less. Plus, learn how to make 140 characters go further — and when you must come in under the character limit.

Learn about my other upcoming teleseminars.

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“No more Jack London novels. We need to be USA Today.”
— Mark Hume, PR pro at Verizon Wireless

Say no more

Write a message statement in 23 words or less

My friends at TELLABS write brisk, interesting message statements — in 23 words or less.

Using message map guidelines from Tripp Frohlichstein, president of MediaMasters, they write one key message and three supporting points, like this:

“Tellabs innovates to help customers succeed — by cutting costs, generating revenue and improving the user experience.”

The resulting 23-words-or-less message translates into about seven seconds when spoken, says George Stenitzer, vice president of Corporate Communications for TELLABS. That’s the length of an average sound bite in the news media.

I thought of this formula when I read an airline’s 27-word strategy and core business message:

“AIR FRANCE KLM’s strategy can be expressed as: one Group, two Airlines, and three Core Businesses. KLM’s core businesses are passenger transport, cargo shipment, and aircraft maintenance.”

Short. Sweet. Neat.

How could you improve your message statements by adhering to a tight word count?

Cut Through the Clutter resources

Want to master the art of making all your copy clearer and more concise?

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“Inventing the Web was actually rather straightforward. It was the sort of thing you could do on the back of an envelope and code up in two months. But explaining to people that it was a good idea — helping them get over all their misunderstandings of what it was supposed to be —
was very difficult.”
— Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web,
quoted in the USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review

Perform communication triage

Allocate your efforts based on the benefit to the organization

I remember the good old days at Hallmark Cards, when I was responsible for the company’s gorgeous, glossy employee magazine.


Yup, I wrote and managed one quarterly publication.

Occasionally I’d pitch in to help a colleague who produced the daily employee newsletter. I’d write a book chapter or brochure now and again. I believe I remember making a horrible video once.

But the gist of my job was to produce four magazines a year. That came out to about 20 publications over the course of my five-year career at Hallmark.

I know folks now who produce that many pieces a week.

Overwhelmed by assignments

And that’s one of the problems with communication today. (Oh, my A-Rod, did I just type that? What am I, 90?)

But it’s true: One of the problems with communication today is that communicators have far, far too much work to do to do anything well. That leaves us with two options:

  • Resign ourselves to lives of mediocrity. Oh, we’ll get everything done, all right. But none of it will be very good. And that will make us very, very sad. (Not to mention exhausted and cranky.)
  • Perform communication triage.

(Here’s a tip: Choose No. 2.)

Communication triage is actually pretty easy to perform. Conveniently, it takes three steps:

  • Prioritize. Sort projects into A, B and C pieces — or essential, nice to have and frankly, doesn’t deliver much value.
  • Allocate resources. Invest in A projects, develop templates and other tools to streamline B projects and let C projects die (or kill them).
  • Sell your plan. Planning and metrics are excellent alternatives to your third option, which is doing daily battle over priorities and resources.

Improve approvals

Want to master the art of managing the approval process?

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“The only real voyage of discovery consists
not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
— Marcel Proust, author, Remembrance of Things Past

Take a hike

Need to kick-start creativity? Try a change of scenery

I think it’s time I came out of the closet: I am not an enormous nature lover. Never have enjoyed being outside. After all, there are gnats out there, and weather.

For 51 years, my idea of the great outdoors has been the space between front door and car door.

While my sister, Lynn Wylie, has entertained herself exploring caves, jumping from airplanes into kayaks and trekking through Lady Gaga only knows what kind of wilderness, I’ve enjoyed a civilized life. A life involving air conditioning and wine. A life spent studying Lorrie Moore’s sentence structure, Rick Bayless’ ginger margaritas and Maksim Chmerkovskiy’s abs.

So when I asked Lynn what I could get her for her 50th birthday, I was a little surprised that her wish list contained only one item: She wanted me to go hiking with her. And I’m not talking about my traditional use of the word “hiking” — aka exploring the Louvre. She wanted me to tromp around outside in the Utah desert.

What was she thinking?

OK, to be fair, Lynn was suggesting a spa. A very nice spa: Red Mountain Spa, just outside Zion National Park. Plus a lodge near Bryce Canyon situated just yards from the renowned restaurant Hell’s Backbone Grill.

Reader, as it turns out, I LOVE nature! I just don’t want to sleep outside or relieve myself behind a tree. And I do think five-star meals should be part of every vacation experience.

Why didn’t anyone tell me about the pleasures of trekking through postcard settings, breathing the clear desert air on a cool spring morning, seeing the world from the tops of mountains you’ve climbed all by yourself (Lynn calls these particular mountains “rocks,” but still … )? I felt like I was living the lyrics of a John Denver song.

And guess what? Turns out this sort of thing is fabulous for creativity.

Get out of your own backyard

I have long preached the gospel of getting out of your comfort zone when it comes to nurturing creative ideas.

Find inspiration outside your company, industry or geography, I’ve counseled. Otherwise you risk practicing what marketing guru Dan Kennedy calls “creative incest.” Like real incest, he says, the product of creative incest just keeps getting dumber and dumber and dumber with each generation.

Turns out, as it so often does, that the choir I was preaching to should have been me: You can also enhance creativity by trying something new — learning a new language, experiencing a different culture or letting go of the remote and heading for the hills (or rocks).

How can you get out of your office — and out of your comfort zone — to kick-start your own creativity?

Open the Creativity Toolbox

Want to kick-start your creative process?

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“This has been the most helpful (and most relevant) session of any conference I’ve participated in.”
—Adam Denison, assistant manager, Chevrolet Communications, GM

Where in the world is Ann?

Cut your training costs when you piggyback your program

Save money when you piggyback your workshop by scheduling it when I’m already “in the neighborhood.” Book your program the day before or after another organization’s and split my airfare and ground transportation with the other group.

Ask about piggybacking on my upcoming engagements in:

  • Anchorage: Sept. 22
  • Boston: July 13
  • Chicago: July 7-9
  • Columbus, Ohio: July 20-21
  • Hershey, Pa.: Oct. 7
  • Lake of the Ozarks, Mo.: June 16
  • Portland, Ore.: Aug. 5-Sept. 13
  • San Francisco: June 17-22
  • Tacoma, Wash.: Aug. 11
  • Toronto: June 9
  • Washington, D.C.: June 30

Save even more: Ask about my communication association discounts and second-day fee reductions.

Contact me to discuss piggybacking.

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Ann’s touring schedule

Polish your skills at one of these events

Alas, I can’t invite you to the in-house seminars I present for private organizations. But everyone’s invited to these upcoming public seminars in:

  • Anchorage on Sept. 22. “Write for the Web,” a half-day workshop and luncheon session for AEMAA/PRSA Alaska
  • Hershey, Penn., on Oct. 7. “Think Like a Reader,” a half-day workshop for PRSA Central Pennsylvania
  • Lake of the Ozarks, Mo., on June 16. “Reach Readers Online,” a half-day workshop at the Missouri Hospital Association Summer Forum — Missouri Association for Healthcare Public Relations and Marketing
  • Portland, Ore., on Aug. 12. “Get the Word Out With Social Media,” a half-day workshop for PRSA Portland
  • San Francisco on June 18. “Web Writing Boot Camp: How to write Web pages, blog postings, tweets and other status updates that get the word out online,” a one-day workshop for PRSA
  • Tacoma, Wash., on Aug. 11. “Writing for the Web,” a half-day workshop for PRSA Puget Sound
  • Toronto on June 9. “Six Secrets of Persuasion: How to move readers to act,” an All-Star session for the IABC World Conference
  • Washington, D.C., on June 30. “Think Like a Reader,” a half-day workshop for IABC DC Metro

Would you like to attend? Please contact meeting planners directly for details.

Can’t make these events? If you’d like to bring me in for a workshop at your organization, contact me.

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Let’s connect

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Keep up with Ann’s calendar

Find out when I’m coming to your neighborhood, learn when you can sign up for one of my programs and otherwise keep up with my calendar.

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… about my seminars, publication consulting or writing and editing services, please contact me or visit my website.

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