The New York Times Storytelling Techniques for Brands | Graham McDonnell


okay thanks guys thanks for everything
here today I’m gonna start by doing a quick experiment now everybody hates
audience participation but can I ask you all to just stand up please,
what take two seconds, all the groans okay come on stand up okay come on it’s
not that bad you can you can go back to your phones
and laptops afterwards we’ve got a microphone set up but for this
experiment to work we need to make a lot of noise so can you just all stop
clapping or like making noise but it needs to be really loud there needs to
be higher a bit higher loud as you can like keep it going keep it going keep it
going okay upload to Instagram just finished awwwards
even got a standing ovation thanks guys see you later,
no joke okay Graham McDonnell the New York Times this is my dad okay my dad is 82
years old he’s actually fit than me can run faster than me believe it or not but
I guess like most of us in this room he doesn’t have a clue what I do for a
living okay so like I say oh you know he knows I work for the New York Times
who’s like so you’re a journalist and I’m like no like I technically
advertising but we do tell stories it’s just more on the creative side so we saw
okay so you you designed the newspaper no I mean we still do quite a lot of
print and it’s still a big part of our business but it’s more digital it’s more
interactive it’s more technical and he’s like so you build the website and I
might no no you’re not really getting it and I thought fair enough like my role
is kind of like broad isn’t exactly black-and-white you can’t really sum it
up in one image but I thought if I were to sum up in one image it probably
looked something like this now I would love to be a sort of international spy
but what I’m really talking about is this okay
product placement okay so I don’t know how familiar you are with branded
content but branded content is essentially content that sits within the
platform of a publisher that looks like sounds like and should like feel like
the native content that it sits around so it’s essentially product placement in
journalism okay so the same way that Aston Martin reap the benefits when
their cars are in it in a James Bond movie a brand can feel the same sort of
effects when they’re aligned with someone like the New York Times or any
other publisher out there the problem is there’s a really really common trap that
you can fall in when you’re doing something like this and it usually goes
something like this let me get you some help
true man there we go you’re not well why do you want that baby to me you can’t
stand me that’s not true why don’t you let me fix you some of this pneumo cocoa
drink all natural cocoa beans from the upper slopes of mountain occur agua no
artificial sweeteners what the hell are you talking about who are you talking to
I’ve tasted other Coco’s this is the best tell me no sure a few of us had a
sort of odd experience like that and it’s something that we you know we try
and avoid it’s really trendy at the moment to sort of talk about being a
disrupter but people forget just how frustrating it has to be disrupted and
this is really interesting quote it says we need to stop interrupting what people
are interested in and be what people are interested in because people’s sort of
capacity for bullshit is just the mission diminishing you know we’re
constantly trying to maximize the signal and minimize the noise and our
willingness to sort of be you can see inconvenienced or it interrupts cities
is dwindling this is a really really good add that that sums it up for me and
in a perfect world branded content it’s content that like said early it looks
like sounds like and it even feels like what the native content and it’s it’s
around the only difference is it’s paid for by a brand to sort of promote
products or service in some way obviously this is a really simplified
view of it but in a nutshell it’s essentially what we do at the studio now
a lot of clients come to us saying you know like we want VR or or like we want
a podcast we want augmented reality we go back to them with the same answer
every single time because it’s really really important to figure out the story
first and then how to tell it afterwards because even in the word itself story
comes before the telling so it’s really really important before you start
thinking about the execution like what is the message we’re trying to say
everybody loves a good story okay it’s built into our DNA I’ve got another talk
I do and some of the other speakers earlier touched upon it about this idea
of generalist versus specialist like I said earlier my career started out music
I moved into film eventually moved into design I’m not the best at any of those
kinds of things and you know the guys earlier the experts will talk a lot
about that but what I find that it’s common throughout all of those things is
storytelling you know you could go way back to sort of cave paintings
hieroglyphics everything is it’s a vital tool for communication research is
actually shown that the chemical makeup of your brain actually changes when
you’re listening to this store a story and it can cause you to align your views
and opinions with the person that’s telling the story so let’s watch a quick
story hopefully this audio gets me every time that video so I can’t
take the credit for that I wasn’t in New York Times film but I chose it for a
number of reasons and that is one of them like it wasn’t dumb buyers I didn’t
want this talk to be too much of a brand akan 10th experience for you guys
number two is you’ll notice it didn’t have any words at all so it’s actually
like an ad for a Spanish lottery who’s ran a couple years ago and I think you
know we’ll all agree did a pretty good job at telling a good story what this
what this story did really well is it creates a journey and it made it
relevant it didn’t focus on how many millions you’d win if you won the
lottery involve the character realizing the other family and it’s relatable now
when you take any story ok it usually follows a very similar pattern and it’s
a really really simple equation when you think about it first thing you do is you
introduce an element ok so this is probably someone the audience should
like at the very least it’s somebody they should be emotionally invested in
you sort of care what happens to this person and this is the hook that used to
get people in the second thing you do is you present a problem this is some sort
of hurdle of some kind it could be a challenge it could be a bad guy in our
case it was the loneliness of our security guard and this is why a lot of
corporate stories a lot of brand new stories fail it’s because they like the
one element that makes a good story which is conflict and then the third
thing is you reveal the outcome so this is the pot of gold at the end some kind
of reward some kind of physical or emotional sort of payoff and this sort
of the attention and the payoff leads us to sharing the emotion with the
characters of the story and like say next time you read a book you watch a
movie you tell a joke nine times out of ten it’ll follow these three steps so I
know got quite a young crowd in but just quick show of hands who how many people
have got kids okay now keep your hands raised if you have trouble getting
kids to eat vegetables yes and pulse before okay there’s a really really
simple trick to getting kids to eat something that they don’t like and
that’s to hide it in something they do like right so this is a slight twist on
a really really good presentation by a guy called Doug Stevenson and he
introduces this metaphor basically the brand is the thing that you want the
audience to digest okay so this is the message now they don’t want to they
don’t like the taste of it they’d rather be consuming something they do like so
what you do is you hide it in something they do like to digest and this is
usually the story okay sounds kinda deceitful but it’s not really because
the the audience is still getting what they want and the brand is still
injecting this brand messaging in it’s much more digestible if it’s in
something they like and a good example of this is a story we told for Volvo a
couple years ago so Volvo got this vision that they don’t want any deaths
or serious injury in Volvo cars and they asked us to help so we sent a team to
Gothenburg to try and figure out how we discovered this amazing story where if a
Volvo car crashes within 50 miles of the the Gothenburg headquarters they’ve got
this amazing crash response team that go out and get to analyze the crash figure
out what happened how they can make things safer and this is the story
should tell is it’s much much more human and relatable when we look back to the
equation from earlier all we’ve really done is switch to first two points
around so the first thing is you present the problem
this is cars need to be safer and again it’s something that the audience need to
care about of course I don’t want to be injured when I’m driving then you
introduce the element this is usually the brand this is the thing that helps
the brand helps the audience achieve or get past that hurdle and again the the
outcome is no more deaths or serious injuries within Volvo cars this is much
much better than an ad that you know we could have ran an ad that just said oh
they’ve got these new seat belts they’ve got usually brakes but this is much more
human much more easier to digest and again if we go back to our smoothie and
the thing that the brand wants to give to the audience is Volvo has a really
safe car but it’s hidden within this story a really cool story about a crash
response team and it paints their client in a really good light this was a really
good quote content market is like a first date if you only talk about
yourself there won’t be another one so like I say with the Volvo example we
could have easily just gone Volvo’s really safe look at all these great
things but telling this human story is much more effective instead it’s really
really tempting as a brand to position yourself is the hero of the story but
this is actually a big big mistake the audience should be the ones see
themselves as the hero of the story the protagonist should never be the brand
the protagonist of this the brand should be the reason that the protagonist
succeeds okay so basically as an audience member I want or its digest in
any story I want to see myself as the hero but as an intended by-product we
come to see the brand as the reason why I can achieve my goals and get to the
end so let’s assume we have our story okay how you tell a story is just as
important as the story itself an execution is just as good but it can
never be a substitute so sometimes it’s easy to think we’ve kind of got a story
we don’t really know if it’s right it needs some work but don’t worry because
we’re gonna do it VR and it’s gonna be great everyone’s gonna love it that
doesn’t work okay so you really have to take your time and obviously there are
millions of ways to tell stories and I can’t stand up here and say this Way’s
right this way is wrong there isn’t a silver bullet really but what I will say
is take your time to figure out the best vehicle for the story you want to tell
again I keep picking on VR but vias a really hot topic and the reality is that
the majority of VR films would probably work better dish the standard videos but
that being said execution and how you bring the story to life can be a really
really powerful story sorry powerful tool to enhance a story
if it’s used in the right way we recently launched a really big program
for shell last year and this was around their commitment to achieving Net Zero
emissions by 2070 so this is just a little snapshot of what we did for those
guys so yeah you can see in that example
there’s a lot of different executions the main thing about that is not one of
those formats which chosen to tell that story because of a novelty value so each
we used we had augmented reality we had 3d you know films and stuff
each former enhanced the story wasn’t just the experience in itself the
problem is a lot of those formats require a lot of investment if you want
people to use them and the reality is people are really really good at gauging
whether this investment is worth the payoff so a while back we used to do
lots of lots of like really interactive digital stories on the New York Times
what we found is it’s really hard to get the user to do anything when it comes to
storytelling other than scroll and if you make them click or filter or you
know interact something spectacular has to happen because getting attention is
not that difficult but sustaining it is okay there’s another really good quote
that said something along the lines of there’s no such thing as an attention
span because it’s only the quality of what you’re consuming so you know if
you’ve given them reason to stick about there isn’t the attention span doesn’t
exist when information is cheap attention becomes expensive so that
really sums it up and this whole sort of university course is dedicated to the
theory around retaining engagement we’ve got huge data teams that the New York
Times that sort of look at the smallest elements to see what improves engagement
and and we’ve got audience development teams to see how things are changing and
everything else again the guys earlier on in you guys were all designers and
you’re all into this so it’s I won’t go into too many details but there’s a few
really really simple things that can help you along the way the first one is
the most obvious thing okay make it visual going back to that
investment payoff scale we see content as a smaller cognitive lift it it’s
easier to digest try and really hard not to say the words snackable right now
because everyone seems to be saying that but when you look at the stats it’s
really convincing you know visuals are processed 60,000 times quicker than
words it takes a tenth of the second to – the midget digest a visual compared to
2000 rupees it pages with visuals draw 94% more views and 65% of visual
information is retained sometimes whole sections of text can be replaced with
just one image the newsroom run a really good thing a couple of months ago when
Apple hit the one trillion dollar valuation how much is a trillion dollars
it’s really really difficult to understand what they did and I think
this video should work it’s basically just trying to put into perspective how
much a trillion dollars is they compared it to other companies and it was a much
much more powerful medium to tell this story if they use visuals second thing
is to make it move again sounds simple but it movement attracts attention as
human beings were genetically engineered to sort of highlight differences in our
visual field again this Kemba comes from like you know a genetic thing primal
thing like scanning the horizon for dangers or anything else again the
newsroom ran a really really good example when not read um set on fire
this was launched the day after so they put it this together really really well
but this could easily have been executed as just a sort of infographic or you
know static what they did here the movement and the interaction worked
really well to communicate the message the third thing is make it interactive
now this is a tough one because getting a reward and sort of leveling up and
getting feedback or achieving something gives you that dopamine rush right but
as we saw before getting users an audience to interact with something is
really really difficult and it usually comes down to three things number one
motivation do they what do they think they can get out of this is this worth
my time to get to the end the second one is ability is it within their capability
to to complete this task and the third one is triggers so are there any cues
are there any signals or reminders to sort of encourage them to take that
action and the sense of achievement they get when they complete this is a little
hit of dopamine for achieving a goal this is a really clever example trying
to get stop people peeing on the floor right okay so they be gamma fide the
peeing experience right and it works wonders again going back to the the
three steps it’s the payoff is good you get score of all the triggers are really
easy and you know it’s it’s easy to understand what you have to do this is a
little example of what we did for a program for Phillips awhile back again
on the right what you have to do is sort of clean the tooth but it is the
motivation is they get this fact but also it’s quite fun to interact on the
page the ability obviously it’s really really easy to do this and the trigger
is that just the cursor change alone into a toothbrush you instinctively know
what to do and that leads us into a fourth thing which is make it obvious
now there’s lots of UX designers in the room I imagine everyone’s heard the
phrase UX design is like a good joke because if you have to explain it it’s
not very good you need to make it instinctive about so that users know
exactly what to do the way I like to put it is to create a blabbering and not a
maze so when you think of a maze you’ve got all of these different options and
where to go these lots of dead ends it’s loads of sort of different cognitive
kind of challenges where you have to go through a labyrinth might be just as
long as the maze but there’s one clear path that you guides you through to the
very end you don’t even have to think about it you just go from start to
finish and it’s instinctive a really good example of this was a piece that we
launched for all birds recently follows all of the rules it’s very very visual
and I think we have a video yeah its moves is slightly interactive but
doesn’t require too much input and essentially all it is is text and nice
visuals but what it does is it tells a story and it ends up being much much
more engaging so I’m not saying that again I’m hating on VR a little bit here
but I’m not saying VR is bad or never do animation what I’m trying to say is the
magic combination of a good story executed in the right way is the
experience that we should all be aiming for so do what’s right for the story and
do it well so just a key little quick recap on on what we’ve covered hide the
vegetables okay so nobody wants to hear your CEO talking about how amazing the
product is you need to hide that in something that the audience likes to
digest take them on a journey so follow the narrative arc take those three steps
we like to take the New York Times that we want to create experiences that
people lose their lunch hour to you know how many times have you been on online
or whatever and all suddenly like wow over the last 10 minutes gone you know
and then keep them engaged so like I said earlier getting attention is not
difficult but sustaining it is so just to sum it up you hear time and time
again that content is king and this is true but if it is true then execution is
the castle because you could have the best content in the world but it won’t
be very effective if you don’t find the best way to bring it to life thanks for
having me guys

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