How NOT to Tell a Story
I’m re-running an article I wrote fifteen months ago about a full page advertisement in The New York Times.
The reason why is this article from Bloomberg Businessweek, How Hampton Creek Sold Silicon Valley on a Fake-Mayo Miracle, that ran on September 22, 2016. It details the company’s buy-back campaigns to artificially inflate its popularity and short term financial success.
Essentially the company funded a wide net of dedicated followers (coined “Creekers” who took the do-gooder positioning of the company at face value) to go into grocery stores and buy its products so that it could use industry trusted data to influence its appeal to investors. The Creekers emptied the shelves of Hampton Creeks’ “Just Mayo” at Whole Foods which induced Whole Foods to report vibrant sales data and re-order. “Just Mayo” was soon the #1 selling mayonnaise at the chain.
My read from the Businessweek investigation is that the primary purpose of the Hampton Creek is to attract marquee investors to fund it to a billion dollar valuation. That valuation would pose such a threat to one of the major food conglomerates (Unilever in particular which owns Hellman’s Mayonnaise) that it could induce them to acquire the company at an inflated value.
If the Businessweek piece proves correct, this buy back approach is even more cynical and unethical than those who pay third parties to go to bookstores and buy up their books so that they’ll hit bestseller lists. And that’s saying something.
All of this chicanery aside…what’s important for us as writers and entrepreneurs etc. is to remember that having a comprehensive understanding of story structure is not just helpful for us as creators.
It’s an indispensable analytical tool to save us from charlatans.
When we understand story structure we are empowered to see through the hype and directly question the motivations of the messenger. Here’s the post again to walk you through why this advertisement set off my story alarms.
A full page advertisement on Page 7 of the Sunday June 21, 2015 edition of The New York Times—in the main news section a full page requires 126 column inches at a retail price of $1,230 per inch ($154,980)—ran as follows:
Dear Food Leaders,
I’ve had lots of successful folks give me advice about you. Advice on whether to work with you (be wary), on how to grow with you (go slow)—and the good we can do with you (very little).
We built a movement, and the fastest-growing food company on earth, around intentionally ignoring all of it.
We started Hampton Creek because we believe in the goodness of people—in the goodness of you. And you, the same folks who created a food system that often violates your own values, have validated what all of us knew: It turns out that when you create a path that makes it easy for good people to do good things—they will do it.
I know we’re all buried in the to-do list of the day. But you should know, that as of 5:33 AM EST on Sunday June 21st, our movement includes:
The largest food service company in the world
The largest convenience store in the world
The two largest retailers in the world
The second largest retailer in the US
The largest natural grocery retailer in the world
The largest grocery retailer in the US
The largest retailer in the UK
The largest grocery retailer in Hong Kong
The largest coffeehouse in the world
Two of the top ten largest food manufacturers in the world
Two of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women (Forbes)
The sovereign wealth fund of Singapore
A former Republican Senate Majority Leader
The world’s leading virologist
The Co-founder of Facebook
A Medal of Honor recipient
The leading experts in machine learning
The Godfather of hip-hop
4,121 public schools
And many of your kids
Just three years ago when we started, I thought you were the problem. And I was wrong. You have always been the kinds of folks who know what the right thing to do is. You have names. And families. And you, just like all of us, want your kids and friends and loved ones to admire who you are. And you, just like all of us, are just trying to figure it all out.
Did you know that our manifesto was written by you?
And that our 2015 impact is driven by you?
1.5 billion gallons of water saved
11.8 billion milligrams of sodium avoided
2.8 billion milligrams of cholesterol removed
You should feel insanely proud.
Josh Tetrick, CEO & Founder
PS: You can reach me anytime at (415) 404-2372 or email@example.com
First of all, I read this advertisement because I’m interested in the food industry. I’ll spare you my thoughts about big agriculture and of processed edibles and instead just cast my jaundiced editorial eye upon the literal text above.
But before I do, I also need to point out that I do not know Josh Tetrick. And my criticisms of the words that make up his advertisement and my references to “the letter writer” are in no way a commentary on him as a human being or his company. I simply have no opinion of the man or the work he does. I don’t know enough to make a judgment. I only have the words in this advertisement that appear above his name.
Because I write and publish my work publicly here and at www.storygrid.com, I understand that my words are fair game for third party criticism. I know the sting of others ridiculing something I’ve written and it’s, to say the least, unpleasant. So in the past I’ve taken the approach that it’s better to praise the masterpieces of story than to criticize those wonderfully flawed works of artists in training (the rest of us struggling to get better). I prefer to praise than to condemn hardworking artisans.
And I’ll continue to take that tack when I storygrid future works of fiction and nonfiction. I’m currently in the throes of storygridding Malcolm Gladwell’s seminal work of Big Idea Nonfiction, The Tipping Point, a process that’s teaching me a boatload about the power of an idea.
But when I’m presented with a block of text the purpose of which is to induce me to purchase a product or sign on to support something (an advertisement), I have no problem pulling on the critical boxing gloves.
I hope that my admittedly severe nitpicking below can teach something about the importance of Story. And of how telling a Story poorly is far worse than not telling the Story at all.
Let’s begin with the format of this advertisement.
Why would a food company’s CEO use the epistolary style genre to tell his and his company’s Story? For an explanation of my big picture Genre theory, click here.
The company Hampton Creek…from what I understand after doing some searching…produces an egg-like substance from plant material and uses it to create two retail products, Just Mayo (a mayonnaise substitute) and Just Cookies.
What it makes and even how it makes it isn’t exactly the stuff of narrative drive. How do you get around that?
One way is to share a heartfelt letter. Because letters connote intimacy.
This is why we keep the old love letter from our first girlfriend tucked into our high school copy of The Catcher in the Rye. Letters make us feel connected. They provide comfort or… proof. Proof of love, of betrayal, etc.
There is a reason why every civil lawsuit begins with the discovery process. All letters and emails etc. must be turned over to the court so that the “truth” can be parsed from the trail of intimate conversations of the parties involved. The understanding is that letters and emails reveal the authentic feelings of their authors.
We have an expectation of sincerity and truth, at least the writer’s version of the truth, when we sit down, open and read a letter.
So when a storyteller chooses to tell his story with a letter, he’s taking advantage of a powerful genre, one that immediately pulls the reader in for an intimate experience. The reader has the expectation from the very first word that the writer of the letter is going to “open the Kimono” of their true self.
Once the storyteller has chosen the epistolary style, his next choice is who to address the letter to.
- He can address the letter to a single known reader or a global group of known readers. “Dear Shawn,” or “Dear People of Earth,” for example.
- He can address an unknown single reader or a group of unknown readers. “To Whom it May Concern,” for example.
- He can address a specific group or organization or corporation and share the open letter with the public as a means to affect a very specific, time sensitive change in the behavior of that group. An example would be the “Authors United” letter criticizing Amazon.com in their dispute with the Hachette Publishing Group in August 2014.
Now for anyone who’s followed my stuff, you’ll know that I’m always looking for the inherent structure of a Story. I want to figure out the Beginning Hook, Middle Build and Ending Payoff. Because these three parts are indispensable in a story, no matter the length.
The addressee is the Beginning Hook part of the epistolary story.
Remember, a well-told story is like a joke. It promises a specific type of payoff (a specific kind of laugh) with its beginning hook. And after the progressive complications of the middle build, it pays off that hook in an unexpected, but inevitable way (a bigger laugh than we anticipated).
Let’s go to the text of the ad:
Josh Tetrick’s letter begins “Dear Food Leaders,” which is choice Number 3 from above. And the Number 3 variety’s beginning hook implies a “call to action” payoff. That’s the obligatory element. What that means is that we as readers subconsciously expect the letter to end with the writer asking something of the addressee or of us. Or both the addressee and the reader.
The Authors United letter wanted the readers of the 900 writers who signed the document to email Jeff Bezos and ask him to settle Amazon’s dispute with Hachette. Obviously, the 900 writers didn’t expect the general public to check to make sure that they’d read one of the books those writers wrote before considering the call to action.
They used their impressive group number to influence anyone interested in the writing life to email Jeff Bezos. Publishing the letter in The New York Times made sense because chances are that people who read the newspaper also read books.
Now, when I first saw the “Dear Food Leaders” ad in the paper last Sunday, I was hooked. I like these kinds of letters/stories.
I’m interested in what agricultural insiders have to say to “Food Leaders.” If Joel Salatin shared a letter with readers of The New York Times that began “Dear Food Leaders,” I’d know that he would pay off the letter by calling for action from them or directly from me the reader. And I’d want to know what that action was.
Plus I know that a full-page ad costs a lot of money, so the fact that it’s in the paper means that whatever this ad says is really important to the person who signed it.
So I’m willing to give this unknown author my attention just with that opening. That’s the hook.
I’m thinking that the author is obviously going to fill me in on who these “Food Leaders” are, right? Just as the Authors United clearly identified Amazon.com and Hachette and its major imprints in the very first sentence of their letter.
But no, instead the author leads with this:
“I’ve had lots of successful folks give me advice about you.”
As difficult as it is for me, I’ll let the letter’s deliberate homespun colloquial tone slide for now.
Sorry, I thought I could, but I can’t let it go without comment.
The use of the word “folks” smacks of such an obvious attempt of the letter writer to make himself come off as just an “aw-shucks ordinary Joe” that my immediate reaction is “this writer is full of BS…he’s playing a game…don’t believe a word of what he writes.”
Seriously, the very first sentence alienated me. And while I’m unique, I don’t think I’m the only one who finds that kind of forced “simple talk” grating.
What’s even worse is that there is absolutely no transparency about what the letter writer wants or what he was even looking for in the past that solicited advice.
“I’ve had” is a Present Perfect verb tense. You use it to refer to an experience or action that happened at some time in the past, when the specificity of time is not important. “I’ve had benign mosquito bites,” is an example of an appropriate use of the Present Perfect.
And just who are these “successful folks” who gave the letter writer advice at some unspecified time in the past? Specifically? Are they Warren Buffett? Jimmy Buffett? Kanye West? Adam West? Who gave the advice?
We never find out. Which begs the question: Why isn’t the letter writer telling us?
And, who is “you,” the Food Leaders? Monsanto? Sysco? Aramark? US Foods? Tyson?
We never find out. Which begs another question: Why isn’t the letter writer telling us?
Who is “I?” for that matter? I don’t know the writer of this letter. Why is he assuming I care about what some nameless successful folks have told him about some nameless Food Leaders?
What the Hell is going on?
I can only infer that the letter writer is someone who works in the “Food” world wishing to get something from its “Leaders.” He’s making his statement public (at great expense) in order to convince someone like me “not in the Food World, just a reader of the The New York Times” that what he wants from these Food Leaders is worthy of some action on my part.
I’m completely on guard now. But I’m still curious what his “ask” of me will be. So I read on.
The letter writer then talks about the subjects of the advice that he received from the nameless successful folks. Whether he should work with unnamed Food Leaders. How he can “grow” with unnamed Food Leaders. And lastly what “good” “we” can do with unnamed Food Leaders.
Now, the letter writer has shifted from first person singular “I” to the first person plural “we” without ever telling us who he is or who he represents as part of this new “we.”
It’s been my experience that writers change the point of view so suddenly from “I” to “we” to hide inside a group.
Hey, it’s not just me…it’s a whole group of “us” who think this way.
This First Person Singular to First Person Plural mid-stream shift is a way of protecting the writer from opposing views by warning the critical reader that there are a whole slew of others (again unnamed) that stand behind the writer’s previous and future statements. It’s a preemptive strike against dissent.
And it ain’t a good idea. It reminds me of schoolyard playgrounds when some loud mouth takes it upon himself to tell another kid that everyone else wants him to scram…
Here’s a bit of advice. If you are the only signatory to a letter, write in First Person Singular. If a whole group of people signs a document you’ve written, use First Person Plural.
The subtext for me from this early mess of sentences is that the writer is trying to tell me that he is in possession of such a remarkable product or idea that “Food Leaders” long to be in business with him. He is also in a social circle of smart and rich folks in the same arena who have advised him not to rush into business with these anxious door-knocking Food Leaders. The reasons given why he shouldn’t quickly align with these Food Leaders are mysterious. Why be specific now?
The next sentence is even worse.
“We built a movement, and the fastest-growing food company on earth, around intentionally ignoring all of it.”
Who is “We?” What “movement?” What’s with this crazy hyperbole, “the fastest-growing food company on earth?” Why would you, sorry “we,” ignore the advice of “successful folks” so cavalierly?
Oh, okay, in the next sentence comes the explanation of what the Hampton Creek movement is all about:
“…we believe in the goodness of people—in the goodness of you.”
WOW! They believe in the goodness of people! And in the goodness of Food Leaders too!
Of such pandering inanity are pseudo egg dreams made.
This reminds me of the motto of fictional Faber College in Animal House: KNOWLEDGE IS GOOD.
The rest of this letter/advertisement is so opaque and loaded with false modesty and treacly sentiment that if I hadn’t gone online to research the company, I’d have thought it was a gag ad written by someone like John Cleese.
Needless to say, there never is a call to action. The hook doesn’t pay off. There is no middle build. It’s not a Story. I’m not sure what it is.
One last thing that really strikes me as just crazy Chutzpahdik is the cynical attempt to lodge the letter writer in our minds alongside the modern era’s patron saint of irrepressible entrepreneurship (Steve Jobs).
Here is the last sentence before the letter writer’s saccharine sign off of “Talk soon”
“You should feel insanely proud.” (Italics mine)
What this ad represents is nothing to be proud about. It’s an insanely great example of how not to tell a Story.
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