Why You Need a Person to Tell Your Tech Story

There’s a reason the basic elements of a news article — who, what, when, where and why — begins with “who.” People like reading about people and empathizing with them. The universal human experience, the hero’s journey, the rags to riches story… it all starts with a person.

This principle doesn’t change just because the story comes from a company. Content creators and marketers for technology companies still need to lead their stories with people, not products. This seems counterintuitive to many marketing departments who may want to stay on message. I would argue — and advertisers from Apple to Dove would agree — that showcasing humans over things can make a bigger long-term impact.

Take a story as seemingly straightforward as funding news. Every day journalists struggle to make funding announcements sound interesting and unique in a dime-a-dozen VC market. I have a great example from a writer who does this well. When she was a reporter at The Wall Street Journal’s Venture Capital Dispatch, Lizette Chapman wrote this article: Framebridge Secures $7.7 Million for its Custom Framing Service. Most funding stories are formulaic and focused on the dollar amount. Lizette took a different approach. Here’s her lead:

Susan Tynan purchased four National Parks posters during a vacation, but getting them custom framed to hang on her wall turned out to be hard work.

She discovered that each of the $25 wall posters cost $400 to professionally frame. Ms. Tynan said she proceeded with the project, but working with a custom framing shop was a bad experience that left her feeling intimidated, pressured and unhappy with the high cost.

“It cost more than my couch,” said Ms. Tynan, adding the salesperson kept suggesting more expensive materials. “I thought there’s got to be a better way.”

A tech executive who had worked at several startups, including deal site LivingSocial Inc., Ms. Tyson approached New Enterprise Associates and other investors to seed Framebridge Inc., a startup she founded to solve the problem. Now, less than a year after launching, the startup has framed and shipped more than 20,000 pieces and has secured $7.7 million in funding to expand operations and redefine what has been a mostly offline industry.

Lizette not only gives us color on who the startup founder is but also shows, not tells, why VCs would want to invest in Framebridge. (Who hasn’t dealt with the hassle and cost of getting art framed?) She doesn’t mention the company or the funding news until the fourth paragraph, and by then the reader is sold on the story.

When I counsel clients who are trying to tell a story in a column or seeking to pitch a story to journalists I ask if there’s a person who can embody the story. I also advise them to highlight the “why we care” angle. Often, the two elements are intertwined. As a story, technology tends to be conceptual and theoretical. It begs for an explanation of who uses it and how.

Bateman Group has a number of cybersecurity clients whose technology can often feel abstract. Servers and malware aren’t interesting until you connect them with people and consequences.

This is well illustrated in Nicole Perlroth’s New York Times article The Chinese Hackers in the Back Office. It’s an article about startup Area 1, a client of ours that has a technique for protecting companies from phishing attacks. The article is accompanied by a photo of a server used by cybercriminals to conduct phishing attacks, and which now helps to stop them. The black box is a clever stand-in for the hackers. Nicole’s intro talks about the people who own the server and describes the bucolic setting of this cyber tussle between the forces of good and evil:

BELLEVILLE, Wis. — Drive past the dairy farms, cornfields and horse pastures here and you will eventually arrive at Cate Machine & Welding, a small-town business run by Gene and Lori Cate and their sons. For 46 years, the Cates have welded many things — fertilizer tanks, jet-fighter parts, cheese molds, even a farmer’s broken glasses.

And like many small businesses, they have a dusty old computer humming away in the back office. On this one, however, an unusual spy-versus-spy battle is playing out: The machine has been taken over by Chinese hackers.

The hackers use it to plan and stage attacks. But unbeknown to them, a Silicon Valley start-up is tracking them here, in real time, watching their every move and, in some cases, blocking their efforts.

“When they first told us, we said, ‘No way,’” Mr. Cate said one afternoon recently over pizza and cheese curds, recalling when he first learned the computer server his family used to manage its welding business had been secretly repurposed. “We were totally freaked out,” Ms. Cate said. “We had no idea we could be used as an infiltration unit for Chinese attacks.”   

She had me at “farmer’s broken glasses.” The level of detail and intimacy suck the reader in, as does Ms. Cate’s emotion. This is good storytelling and ironic use of art.

Marketers should be able to find customers and other people who can help tell the story about a product, service, technology or company from a human perspective. Here are some questions writers, PR people and content marketers can ask to help surface these stories:

  • Who is the person who uses the technology?
  • What is their typical day like?
  • Is there a special challenge or problem the technology solves?
  • Can you describe that scenario?
  • Is there a counter-intuitive angle, such as someone who found an unexpected use of the technology?
  • How does the person feel about the technology?
  • How has it changed their work, day, life?

Think — and interview — like a reporter: lead with a human story; don’t just focus on product specs. Products exist to make people’s lives better. So, let people tell stories and avoid just stating facts.