PR as Storytelling: What Flash Boys Teaches Us About the Art of Technology Storytelling

By Justin Hoch at (_MG_2932)

I’m a huge Michael Lewis fan. And like countless other readers, I’m eagerly devouring his latest book, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, which rocketed to the top of the New York Times best-seller list immediately after its publication.

Lewis is a gifted storyteller who excels in bringing previously obscure topics to life, as he did with the arcane world of baseball statistics (Moneyball), Michael Oher’s journey from the streets of Memphis to NFL offensive lineman (The Blind Side), and how subprime mortgages and Wall Street greed fueled the Great Recession (The Big Short).

Lewis has a particular genius for explaining and making us care about topics that were previously unknown to typical readers: think on-base averages in baseball, or real-estate derivatives. But he’s outdone himself this time: Flash Boys shines a much-needed light on the dark side of Wall Street and how insiders have gamed the system through high-frequency trading systems, creating an unfair advantage that’s measured in microseconds – about 1/200th of the amount of time it takes to blink your eyes.

It’s storytelling at its best, complete with heroes, villains and mind-boggling technology. And like the most important stories of our time, it’s touched off a national debate (complete with lawsuits and a U.S. Department of Justice probe).

At its heart, Flash Boys is a technology story. And for all of us who make our living in high technology PR and marketing, it offers important lessons in the art of telling compelling, believable stories. What can we learn from Michael Lewis’ latest best-seller? Here are a couple of principles to keep in mind.

Keep it simple. As technology PR pros and storytellers, our job is often to write about topics that are difficult to understand. We have to resist giving in to buzzwords and techno-speak, instead focusing on explaining features and benefits in everyday words that any business editor or reader can understand. Many years ago an Austin American-Statesman humor columnist poked fun at a press release I wrote in one of his columns, taking me to task for using one tech buzzword after another. True, he wasn’t the target audience (he grabbed the release from a business writer), but the lesson has stuck with me ever since: keep it simple.

Simplifying complex topics is part of Michael Lewis’ genius and one of the reasons he’s such a popular storyteller. As one reviewer notes, “When it’s Michael Lewis doing the writing, previously incomprehensible topics become clear as day. That’s dangerous stuff for financial types who fare best when their activities are dense and misunderstood, and perhaps a tad threatening to the rest of us in the writing trade who wish we could be in Lewis’ league. Even Grandma can read Flash Boys, understand it and be entertained by it.”

Keep it credible. Keeping it simple is only part of the equation; as PR pros, we also need to remember to keep it credible. That means stripping out the excess adjectives and adverbs; for a press release, is company XYZ really the “leading provider of (fill in your favorite tech phrase here)?” The best writing strips out unnecessary language and gets straight to the point, without the fluffy language or over-the-top adjectives that create a barrier to credibility.

Focus on your heroes. Flash Boys turns an obscure band of Wall Street brokers and technologists into heroes. Brad Katsuyama, the highly principled, mild-mannered trader who is the central figure in Flash Boys, comes alive as an ordinary person who asks tough questions when his computer systems start behaving differently during routine trades. And now, he’s seemingly everywhere: from the cover of the New York Times Sunday Magazine to 60 Minutes. He’s the hero at the center of the debate over high-speed trading, proof that every good story deserves a great cast of characters.

It’s a reminder to all of us that if your CEO or client has a unique or particularly inspiring storyline, put him or her at the center of the story. But what if you’re dealing primarily with a technology rather than a person – which is so often the case in technology PR? Then look for ways that the technology touches people in everyday ways they can easily relate to. Do everything possible to personalize it. Does the technology make people’s work routines easier, or allow them to work better, faster or more accurately? Then say it, as simply and cleanly as possible, using examples to drive home your point.

Even better, if your company or client has customers that are willing to talk, make them the focus of your press releases and PR outreach. After all, nothing is more believable than seeing how companies and individuals put technology to work in the real world. We may not be writing about the next Flash Boys, but as PR professionals, we’re charged with telling great stories. And writers like Michael Lewis can inspire us to do our very best.