Improve your storytelling abilities or become ‘marginalised’, Lou Hoffman warns PRs

PR agencies risk being “marginalised” in the marketing landscape unless they get better at storytelling, according to industry veteran Lou Hoffman.

In a session at Mumbrella360 Asia Hoffman told the audience many PRs are failing to grasp basic storytelling techniques, and are slipping into bragging and telling audiences how good they are, rather than showing them.

Lou Hoffman: “If we don’t get better at the content side over time we’ll be marginalised”

“If you meet someone new and they end up talking about themselves on and on and on, we try to extract ourselves from the situation and move onto someone more interesting,” he said.

“Why do companies think this dynamic is any different? It doesn’t make sense.

“Try to avoid boasting and bragging, let’s give people the content that leads them to the solutions that we are innovative and great, rather than banging them over the head with it.”

And in a warning to the PR industry he said: “If we don’t get better at the content side over time we’ll be marginalised by digital agencies, ad agencies and other types of advertising services”

PRs claimed a lack of research was the biggest thing holding them back from quality content

A study conducted by The Hoffman Agency of in-house and agency PRs across Asia found while 44% admitted their content misses the mark, most blamed a lack of research for their failures, and they thought anecdotal content made up between 5% – 7% of those releases.

However the agency’s own analysis of dozens of press releases showed anecdotal content made up just 0.033% of those releases, while publications like The Economist having 17% or so of their content as anecdotal.

The Hoffman Agency’s analysis of press releases found a tendency towards telling people rather than showing them about a company’s qualities

He pointed to the fact these releases contained many more adverbs and adjectives to describe products and services, which Hoffman described as being “a bit of a crutch – they end up being braggy and telling the audience not showing them how good the company is”.

Hoffman stressed that anecdotal content was a key thing PRs can do to start getting their content to cut-through with their storytelling.

He pointed to a recent experience he had seen with a friend who had pitched a story about a US Navy team rescuing a family of four who had been adrift in the Pacific Ocean for six days, which was initially ignored by the media.

But when it was re-pitched with the angle the family were saved after being spotted by signalling an air patrol miles in the air with the shiny bottom of a Coke can “and suddenly everyone wants the story.”

Hoffman said more companies should be braver in talking about their failures, as that allows PRs to craft a story arc that will be more interesting in cutting through.

“There is a way around it,” he explained. “You can think of failure as a form of contrast. The contrast comes from success and failure.”

Hoffman used the example of a new product launch, saying “it can be a great way to talk about what wasn’t working so well, and then the new way.”

He explained that contrast requires context to frame it, adding: “A lot of times companies don’t want to talk about the old way – they may view it as negative. But you have to anchor the contrast as without that you have no contrast for what you are talking about.”

Clients can also be a barrier to clear writing, he admitted, saying some would not take advice on how they could improve their communications.

“I would not want to leave anyone in this room to think we’re high and mighty and have cracked the code on this, we haven’t,” he admitted.

“There’s a pragmatic side to consultancy, and if that’s what the client wants to do, we do it.”

In a bid to improve their standards Hoffman said the agency will not hire people who cannot pass a basic writing test, with 50% of College graduates in the US failing that test.

He said: “It’s not a high bar. I feel like that has to change. We have a fair amount of internal training and hold our folks to a high bar, and it comes to courage and get ourselves in terms of fit and working with clients who value good writing.

“In defence of the communications profession sometimes it’s internal stakeholders who hurt the writing. People feel they can keep adding to it, and it just adds to the meat grinder.”


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