Heard the one about the scientist and the start-up?

A new enthusiasm for science and innovation stories is good news for corporate digital communicators, Jason Sumner says.
 

Scientists are being widely encouraged to use the ‘tools of narrative’ to grab the attention of general audiences and communicate findings to their peers, according to a recent piece in the Guardian.

Stories are also enjoying a renaissance in the world of entrepreneurs and disruptors. The Harvard Business Review has taken start-ups to task for wanting the world to understand their brilliance, while at the same time weighing down press releases, brochures and online articles with jargon and technical language written by PhDs.

McKinsey made a similar point recently to the entrepreneurs it works with – ideas need an engaging storyline to get noticed.

Our clients in corporate digital communications are also increasingly asking us how they can communicate the message ‘we are innovative’ across the corporate website, social media and other online channels; which is really about telling good stories in the first place, and then promoting them effectively.

GSK, with its ‘Behind the Science’ online magazine, is an example of a company doing this well. Abbvie has some gems, including this feature about one of its chemists. PMI has a well-produced and engaging video about why its scientists choose to work in the tobacco industry.

Many more companies are failing though, not for a lack of interesting stories to tell or even a desire to tell them, but because of ingrained cultural barriers and outdated approaches to public relations. One big problem is that risk-averse large companies rarely want to publicise the elements that make for good drama – such as conflict, complications, or a ‘hero’ trying to accomplish something difficult.

Danaher, an American medical and industrial diagnostics giant, is an example. It must have many, many good stories lurking in its laboratories, and the management certainly wants people to believe the company is innovative. We know this because the corporate website repeatedly makes unsupported claims to being innovative; without taking the risk of telling a good story to demonstrate it. Its ‘Feature stories’ in the news section are really glorified press releases. This closed ‘tell don’t show’ approach is unlikely to convince many people.

The pieces from the Guardian, HBR and McKinsey which I’ve cited above are worth reading even if they are targeted towards scientists and entrepreneurs – there are some good ideas that could be adapted to the corporate environment. An example is McKinsey’s categories of stories to look for – ‘serendipity’, ‘perspiration’ the ‘underdog’, etc.

More importantly, if the idea that good stories are worth investing time and money in gains broad acceptance among scientists, engineers and technical experts working in big companies, it can only be a good thing for the people often tasked with creating them – digital corporate communicators.

- Jason Sumner

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