The power of detail in story

As the Australian government is embroiled in a tustle for leadership, it’s been interesting to watch the two contenders battle it out to get their stories across.

Listening to a radio interview with Kevin Rudd, our ex Foreign Minister (and ex PM…but that’s another story!)..I was reminded of the power of small details to make a story believable. And make it stick. He was asked about a meeting he had with journalists a while back in a place called The Stag Hotel. The venue was just a mention in the interviewer’s question but Rudd seized on the possible interpretations that a listening audience might make. He wanted to clarify that the hotel was not a macho watering hole but a respected venue that often hosts government events. He drew a picture of the hotel for the listeners and suddenly we had context for the question; good details of time and place.

Next he went on to describe exactly a meeting with journalists that without the detail, appeared covert and planned. Rudd gave a discursive answer to the challenge from the journalist that he had met with the journos to make fun of the PM’s speech.The story went like this. He explained that a group of journos were gathered at a table, sharing a drink after a speech by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.  Rudd took his time to convey the mood at the table and the conversation already in place and so created context for what happened next. He then described where he was in relation to the group.  He described his path from the venue, that he was walking along a concourse with his advisors when he was stopped by the journos and invited to join the lively discussion.

In that spirit of an already amusing conversation, he said he contributed his own take on the speech which then became part of a bigger conversation. And was exaggerated.

Rudd’s attention to  detail around how the meeting took place, resonated with me and invited understanding. We have all been in situations where we have become participants in an existing conversation with a direction and tone all its own.

It was a deft and persuasive answer to a limited and pointed question. The story insisted that reality is always more complex than might first appear.

Rudd used only clear and conversational language, consistently stopping to include the interviewer and call on the interviewer’s own experiences of situations like these.

Rudd may not win first place in the leadership battle today but he consistently takes the gold for  story: he las learnt not to avoid questions with defensive politic gobbledegook but to use story to provide details to create a context that is human, believable and resonant. Incidentally, Rudd has over one million Twitter followers, so he’s obviously reaching his audience!


Don’t forget that I am launching my new story consultancy The Story Doctor on March 14th and from that date, I’ll be blogging from there! New twitter handle is @StoryDr and web address Sign up now on that page for our blog feed and news of good story practice around the globe. Join me!

Vegemite: a lesson in brand story chutzpah!

How’s this for a perfect example of a brand connecting with and celebrating a bigger story.

Down under, we celebrate Australia Day on January 26 with a national holiday. This year,  I was eating breakfast and doing a bit of lazy jar reading (as you do!) when I noticed this message on the Vegemite label. (For the uninitiated,  Vegemite is an iconic Australian breakfast spread)

Didn’t have a clue what they meant but duly, turned the jar and saw this…

I hadn’t even noticed the change in label when I’d picked that jar off the shelf. (It normally looks like this..)

And baboom, I got it. Big smile, big connections: both for my history  with this brand as an Aussie and for the sheer, wonderful chutzpah of a lowly breakfast spread hitching a ride on the good feelings and memories that come with a national  holiday.

Love that. And love the witty tagline Australia: Proudly made from Vegemite since 1923)

I posted these pics with my Aussie Day greetings to all my pals and connections: effortless marketing I say!

Happy breakfast all!

By the way, don’t forget that I am launching my new story consultancy The Story Doctor on March 14th and I’ll be blogging from there! New twitter handle is @StoryDr and web address Join me!

Brand human: great design builds brand story

Not long ago, Clive Jones (our designer here at OH)  wanted to re-design our business cards. I resisted the move at first but he convinced me that it placed the real story of Only Human, front and centre. (And confirmed our ‘artistic’ aesthetic.) Since the change I’ve had to ask myself (more than once), ‘Damn, why are designers right so often?’ And also, ‘Why don’t I listen to him more!!??’

The new design has provoked a lot of great questions and oohs and ahhs both from long-standing clients and new contacts alike: people love it and it gives me a chance to explain the heart of our brand. It provokes conversations around the things about Only Human that are important to us.  I thought it might be worth a blog post to elaborate on the story.

Our company came to life back in 2005 when the name Only Human (Communication) popped into my head. Suddenly, all the bits of my thinking about the essence of my still imaginary company came together.  I remember that I was sitting at my desk after registering the URL ,  and feeling pretty damn good about myself, when my husband Ross Nobel came home. As I regaled him with all that I thought the name would bring, he grabbed a post it note and drew this image.


In a minute or two he had encapsulated our story brand: the listening, the respect and the quiet simplicity. The added bonus was that the cartooney figures reinforced our playfulness too. Designer Clive, ‘got it’ immediately. We decided cartoon figures would be a feature of design across all our collateral and because Ross is a musician (and didn’t suddenly want to become a cartoonist), Clive came up with a series of ‘humans’ that he drew on the computer and that could be put together easily for lots of different purposes. (For example, see the splash on our home page)

Our first business card is a good way of seeing where the thinking took us. It helped me to clarify our different services and reminded me always of the twin values, playfulness and sincerity, that are at the centre of us.


Over the next few years, as the company developed, we didn’t need to remind ourselves of who we were so often so we moved to a simpler design. Our computer drawn zen men became our logo and our calling card.


I thought it was working fine until Clive knew it was time to take the leap back to our authentic story beginnings . He took Ross’s original drawing, with all its post-it note imperfections and let it simply say who we are. He trusted it.

This is the front  of our cards now.


It breaks a few rules. For example, this image is not exactly the same as the computer drawn zen men that is our logo and in terms of brand recognition, some people might say that’s a no no: The brand name is conspicuously absent from the image and only on the flip side too. But the response to the card has been overwhelmingly positive and so confirms what we already know. There are no rules.

A defining characteristic of Only Human is that all our humans maintain lives as practising artists across a range of media: film, publishing, design, photography. And they bring that experience to our approaches for commercial strategies. The card appears to be subtly confirming this side of us.

Are you listening to your designer?


How to tweet to diverse audiences

I’m a (very) recent convert to the tweethood (@onlyhumanblog) and  as always when I adopt a new technology,  I have lots of questions about how to customise it… to make it work best for me. And Only Human. And also humans in general…with their complex needs, interests and identities. (If humans were simply brands: with a core focus and offering, I would have less questions!)

As you will see if you scoot about our site, the humans at Only Human and our clients are really an eclectic bunch. We have government and welfare clients, commercial clients, tech heads, design buffs, story fanatics, arty types and humans who just want to have a good time! So this is my question: How do I keep diverse followers happy?

Yesterday, I was representing Only Human at a national broadband forum in Canberra. It was a meeting of Australia’s arts communities: all gathered together to discuss how to put regional arts on the agenda in our new national broadband project.(#artsbroadband) It was a room full of tweetaholics and we had a webcast going for interested humans around the country. So I was tweeting the proceedings of course..and happily too..until I had this thought. What will my (very) new followers be thinking if they are not so interested in this niche topic of mine..and their twitter feed is getting clogged with messages from me that don’t relate to them?

As new followers, will they decide, @onlyhumanblog is not their thing? Will they unfollow me? Will they make assumptions about how interesting my tweets will be for them in the future? Have I missed something really obvious about the big picture of how twitter works?

I have been doing a lot of reading around how to make twitter vibrant and useful for us. And not just another contributor to cyber noise. (A friend of mine calls twitter “the CB radio of the 21st century”!!) I have really enjoyed for example The Tao of Twitter by Mark Schaefer. But in all my reading and conversation, there’s lots of talk about targeting followers but not a lot about how to keep followers, following.

I can’t be the only one thinking this so what’s your solution? Multiple twitter accounts? Does this dilute and censor the richness of your twitter crew?

Please join the conversation by commenting here. Or tweet. @onlyhumanblog.

Singapore is hip now?

Last time I was in Singapore I was 19 and on my way to Europe from Australia for the first time. It was a student travel flight, chock full of flares, platform shoes and 1970’s hairstyles. I remember the hairdresser from Sydney University Hair salon was on the plane too: and in the final hours before landing, the guys lined up to get their long hair pinned up and under: so it didn’t go past the collar. In those days, Singapore was very uncool (though they had great duty free transistor radios!) There was no way a guy could get past customs with hippy hair…that is, anything that crept over his collar. The customs officials would cut it off. Imagine that now…?

Anyway many years later, here I am posting this in Changi Airport. I’m waiting for the sun to come up before I catch a cab into town. (I’m here for the Origins conference organised by Patrick Lambe and Shawn Callahan)… and things have changed. This is a very cool airport now….  like there’s free wi-fi throughout. (Just ask for the password from the information desk). This is making me so happy this morning…and hey, I’m writing to you! Remind me why this isn’t the case at every airport? Wanting to communicate when you’re away from home is only human..isn’t it??

Love to hear any of your stories about a place or organisation that has loosened up to  become human friendly? Even the smallest change can do the trick..

Serious is good: funny is even better

In a past life, I was a fiction and comedy writer. I wrote regular columns in the Australian press and when my kids were small,  I did a great line in ‘motherhood stories’. I would dredge up the pitiful stories of life between the drips and spills as a ‘working mother’: the tragio-comic reality of having a Simone de Beauvoir aesthetic  and  a two-kids-under-two reality.

Looking back now from a strategic-story perspective, I’m starting to see that I probably underestimated the value of those stories. I thought they were just a laugh on Saturday morning but anyone reading them would have got a good glimpse of the chaos of young family life. And perhaps that would have led to a bit of understanding, empathy and compassion amongst people who could make a big difference to working parents. Their employers, service providers, bank managers, neighbours, decision makers and so on. (And I thought I was just having a moan!)

I wasn’t the only one to underestimate the stories though. I remember there was real resistance from editors and ‘serious’ readers  about ‘lightweight’ material.  I ended up writing one sort of column for the woman’s magazines and a totally different tone and subject for my work with the Sydney Morning Herald.

That was ten years ago. Recently I read a column in The Australian newspaper where writer Emma Tom complains about the same community resistance to her own real stories about working and parenting. She wrote that she often receives hate mail from readers who “claim such topics don’t belong in a weighty organ such as The Australian.” This article struck a chord because it reminded me how easy it is to underestimate the power of humorous and domestic stories: it’s as if being funny makes something less worthwhile.

Real human stories often seem small but in fact, they are usually the most powerful and lasting. When I’m crafting written stories I’m always looking for those small details that remind us that we are all human: details that create empathy by allowing us to see ourselves in the picture.

So let’s not shut our stories away because we don’t think they are going to be received well: as inappropriate, trivial, unpleasant or just not relevant.

The fact that people DON’T think the details of everyday life are important… is probably precisely the reason we should be telling them!

Read one of Moya’s past columns here

Don’t forget: moya will be posting from from March 14, 2012. Sign up for newsletters. Follow me @StoryDr now

Young Mums Story Project

A few weeks ago, we launched Come Together, a new book of stories and DVD from young mothers in a NSW coastal town. (Read about the project here)

At the launch, I could only take about 90 seconds of video footage  (mainly because I was squished in the corner of the tiny pre-school room and yes, I only had my pocket camera with me)  but despite all that, I couldn’t NOT cut it into something to send to the girls. Take a look: it’s the best evidence of how story works to benefit not just the commissioning organisations(and they are very happy too!) but also the participants.

It makes an old story gatherer proud!