‘Ultimately, You Want People to Be Invested in Your Central Story’; a Master Storyteller Offers Advice

“In science, as in other fundamentally human pursuits, we would do well to remember that we are only truly at our best and most equipped to tackle grand challenges when we put our differences aside and work together.”

That is the final sentence of the 2020 Silver EXCEL Award winner for Best Feature Article—“Tracking the Journey of a Uranium Cube” by Timothy Koeth and Miriam Hiebert of the department of materials science and engineering at the University of Maryland, for the American Institute of Physics’ Physics Today. It is a dramatic ending to a riveting story about Germany’s failed attempt to build a nuclear reactor during WWII. We are taken through the panels of history that was ignited for the authors by the delivery to them of a small uranium cube in 2013.

So many things work about this article—the language, the historical heft, the arc of the story—but what stands out for me in reading it now is the ending and the place they eventually took the reader. It reminded me of a quote I read from the brilliant storyteller, performer and filmmaker Mike Birbiglia.

“People always say with stories: There needs to be a beginning, a middle and an end. I disagree slightly. I feel like there just has to be an end… and it has to be definitive, and you need to indicate to the audience that eventually you’ll get there. Because if it doesn’t end, people will be furious. They want to go home, they have plans, they have parking arrangements. They just want some ballpark indicator of how long this is going to be. The key thing is starting with your ending and then building it backwards from there.”

Birbiglia was speaking about his excellent live show, The New One—which I was fortunate to see in 2019. Of course, we know that all facets of a story are vital. But that idea of starting by knowing your ending could apply to many of our feature stories these days, in multiple platforms. We hear the importance of storytelling emphasized so much today, and what’s interesting is that even when a story is just 300 words or a video is just a minute, they still need a beginning, middle and end.

How’s this for a beginning of a story: “In the summer of 2013, a cube of uranium two inches on a side and weighing about five pounds found its way to us at the University of Maryland.” And how’s this for a middle? “…the revelation of the existence of the additional [uranium] cubes makes it clear that if the Germans had pooled rather than divided their resources, they would have been significantly closer to creating a working reactor before the end of the war.”

There’s a moral here—as writers for associations, we need to imagine where we want our readers to be at the end of our content. Have we brought them to a better place of understanding or knowledge? Have we given them ideas so they can do their job better? Have we increased their connection to the subject and to the association, or at the least, further engaged them? In this article, the authors have given the reader an incredible amount to think about, and that reflects very positively on AIP and Physics Today.

Here are four more tips from Birbiglia about storytelling:

Be as inclusive as possible. The New One—which centers on he and his wife wanting a baby—started out to be just about that and nothing more. Birbiglia said that was fine for audiences his age but drew silence at a college. “So I needed to come up with a metaphor of something that people can all relate to. And I started thinking about what I was like when I was in college and about how me and my roommates brought home a couch from the street, and then I was like, ‘Oh, that’s sounds like a great metaphor for the whole thing.'”

Be careful of your detours. “With any digression, it’s really about whether it serves the purpose of your central story.” Don’t get too far from your main point, he advises. You might lose people. “Ultimately, you want people to be invested in your central story… If you go too far from that, you can lose people’s investment in the equity you’ve built up…”

Establish eye contact (so to speak). I’m adding this one from a talk I went to by Brian Grazer, the Hollywood producer (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind). Birbiglia said to imagine that you are talking to someone one-on-one at a party. If you digress too much in your story, you might lose them. Grazer, whose latest book is titled Face to Face: The Art of Human Connection, agrees and is very big on making eye contact. The editorial equivalent of that is to engage someone early and stay on point. Don’t let them turn away.

Be as authentic as can be. Let your passions and foibles come through. “In comedy or storytelling, it’s amazing when you figure out how to be yourself,” Birbiglia said.” It’s so hard to do, and it takes years and years. I still struggle with it. To this day, I’m always trying to be more myself.”

Ronn Levine is editorial director of SIIA and can be reached at rlevine@siia.net.

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What Price Events? Value, Not Pandemic, Should Dictate Your 2021 Pricing.

While publishers and media companies worked hard last year to provide similar and even more value for their virtual events, one element that varied was pricing. Low-priced—and even free—registration became the norm. But a pricing consultant wants you to now remind your audience that 2020 was an outlier due to the pandemic, and you have to return to a sustainable model, especially as hybrid models get closer.

“I think discounting and knee-jerk reactions to make everything free need to stay in 2020,” said Michael Tatonetti, a consultant who specializes in organization pricing, in an excellent article on Associations Now. I understand that for 2020, we wanted to get the right education to our members. That’s noble, but moving forward, it’s not sustainable financially. It can undervalue you if you eventually decide to do hybrid [events] or if we go back to in person.”

No one had definitive answers on virtual event pricing in 2020. Attendance fees ran the gamut from free to $600, and no one seemed sure about their strategy—at least until after the fact. ASAE—after starting with a fee to attend—and The Atlantic both made their major annual events free, but with several sponsors.

I just checked CES which begins next week—it was $149 up until yesterday and now jumped to $499. That’s actually interesting; I would guess that they are trying to price against the major trend that people sign up very close to the start for virtual events. (Can be a bit nerve-racking, especially for a big event like that.) Will be good to check with them afterwards to see how that strategy works.

“Sit back and ask, what is the value? What are we charging? What is the strategy?” Tatonetti said. “When we get into conversations about value, we are actually having a conversation about innovation because we are saying, what else can we do? How else can we serve? What new things should we be doing? What should we stop doing? Is there anything that is no longer of value that we can sunset?”

Here are some pricing examples from last year:

Charge for access. The Financial Times put their value on special access and on-demand networking. For their FT Live event in October, they offered three tiers: The Knowledge Pass ($299) gave you access to the live talks and the Q&A and polls. The Professional Pass ($599) added meet-the-journalist sessions and that networking—and video—on demand. The Group Pass ($3,000) multiplied everything by six people.

Price low, aim high. On the lower end, Christine Weiser, content/brand director, Tech & Learning, a Future plc division, said they charged just $25 for a big virtual event they put on—with good value—and more than 1,300 people signed on! “We had no idea,” she said. “Will they pay more? For education they do have professional development budgets.” She said if you do price low be ready for late signups.

Add value. “We feel that people are getting a lot more value [this year],” Jared Waters, training director for BVR, said about their Virtual Divorce Conference. “We can do a lot of things to add value to an event. So we figure a price point—[they charged about half of last year]—and then throw a lot of value on it. It really is a great deal for our attendees.” That value included pre- and post-conference bonus sessions and a $200 credit on their registration to a future in-person event.


Waters will be delivering a webinar for us on Jan. 21 titled Pricing & Product Evolution from Single Sale to Multi-headed MonsterRegister here – free for members.


Keep pricing similar but deliver more value. “There had been, at least back in March, a sense that virtual should be cheaper,” Heather Farley, COO of Access Intelligence, said at SIPA 2020 in June. “But people are starting to appreciate the value of what we bring [virtually]. It still has the value of live, and [brings] the experience to connect buyers and sellers. The connections that you’re bringing aren’t all of a sudden cheaper. And the same amount of time that goes into [putting together] live events goes into virtual events. We have to make sure we don’t give deep discounts.”

Cut prices but get more sponsors. TechCrunch’s Disrupt 2020 cut ticket and exhibition prices roughly in half. Individual ticket prices started at $350, down from $695 in 2019, while exhibition passes went from $1,000 to $445. There was also a Disrupt Digital Pass for $45 that offered access to one stage of programming, but did not include CrunchMatch. (It’s amazing how many names there are for virtual networking now.) Sponsorship revenue was actually up, thanks to more expensive packages (by about 6%).

When you do decide to raise prices, Tatonetti advises communicating the value you’re still providing to your audience. “As we do come back to some level of normal, now is the time to introduce some new things, and try some new things, and reprice a bit because it’s almost expected,” he said.



Remind Registrants, Do Dry Runs and Give Attendees a Clear Guide Are Just a Few Virtual Event Lessons

As The Economist recently pointed out, late flights, noisy conference halls, time away from the office, bad coffee, and too much swag gave way in 2020 to a “new set of clichés: Forgetting to unmute. Arcane sign-up processes. Over-complicated technology platforms. Connectivity snafus.” Needed kids and pet breaks. Welcome to the not-so-new normal.

Having looked at virtual event life from both sides now—as an attendee and as part of the team putting it on—I can offer at least a partial list of lessons, good and bad, as we push forward to 2021. A move to hybrid events will hopefully follow by the fall, but in the meantime we are still in virtual event mode.


Put as much energy into attending as into registering. This may be one of the biggest differences. Yes, a couple people may have opted for the beach when our BIMS event was in Fort Lauderdale, but most had paid and traveled and were coming downstairs for the sessions. But now, with registration fees much lower or often free and Zoom fatigue hanging over us, we need to remind attendees why they registered and that our event looks even better now. This should go all the way up to the event. I’ve seen analytics where an email 10 minutes in gets a good amount of clicks.


Conduct a dry run. The Economist agreed on this one. “Invite presenters and exhibitors to tech-check sessions to introduce them to your chosen platform’s idiosyncrasies, and check network links, cameras and lighting. Ask presenters to use exactly the same set-up they will be using for the live event.” This may not always be possible, but if it is, it will help alleviate some things that the 15 minutes or less that a speaker joins you on the event day doesn’t allow time for. There’s just so much more that a dry run will do for you than the explanations of the best platform organizer.

Give as clear instructions as possible for attendees—and then go over them. This is all still pretty new, and as technologies get better, much will still be new. “Let participants know what is happening and when, with easy-to-navigate event schedules. If your event contains multiple tracks, make it easy for attendees to compare what’s happening in different tracks at a given time.” We get frustrated so easily these days—I’m put off when the toaster goes wrong. So your extra attention will be appreciated—especially when you want more networking. Set up a helpline to assist attendees and provide a separate “backstage” helpline for presenters.


Schedule breaks, anticipate shorter attention spans. We had a running joke here after the very content-strong SIPA 2020 event in June. One session went right into another with hardly time for a break, if you know what I mean. So lunch, bathroom breaks, checks on the kids and pets meant missing session time. It’s certainly a balance—you want to provide value above all else. But there’s just so much we can absorb now. Of course, also emphasize the on-demand-ness of all the content. “If it doesn’t work for you now, come back and consume at a time that does!” But again, this needs reminders and easy access as well.


Try not to panic in your marketing. People register late for virtual events—often in the last week. It’s just a fact. See what the analytics are telling you about your early emails. What are people looking at? Have a strategy and adjust to what seems to be getting eyeballs. And definitely keep at it until the end.Give extra focus to that last week.


Be okay with—and maybe even encourage—recorded sessions, as long as there are live Q&As. I’ve always been a proponent of live talks, but what’s gained from the spontaneity and “this is live” button can be made up for in the Q&A. And there will just be so many other things that you have to worry about, that if by recording sessions you can reduce that list, do it.


Diversify your speakers, in every sense. Our FISD Division just had a special event day in December, and for one particular session, I recall seeing perhaps five of the six speakers were women. For an international financial services group, this has not always been the case. It was just so impressive seeing this, and a big audience followed. Spend a little extra time reaching out. Diverse experts are out there; they may just be a little under the radar and not in your rolodex. Reach out on LinkedIn or in other places where you might find new speakers. The Plug is one new site focusing on Black entrepreneurs that our BIMS keynote, Sherrell Dorsey, founded and runs.


Networking is needed and wine tastings are being duplicated for a reason. At BIMS we had an excellent sommelier lead us through some great wine questions. People asked, they chatted and spoke to each other, they smiled and they sipped a bit as well. We had ours a couple hours after the last session, around 4:30. If you do this, send reminders.


And three more from The Economist:


Set clear expectations for presenters on technical standards, dress code (how casual?), and whether you expect them to use a virtual background or a real one. Ensure they have a decent webcam, microphone and lighting setup. Ship equipment to presenters in advance if necessary, particularly for keynote speakers. Provide a ‘how to prepare’ document that summarizes all requirements in one place.


Give every session a moderator, even those with just a single speaker. Don’t ask a presenter to be a host, manage chat sessions, or decide whom to answer during the Q&A. Speakers have enough going on. (One added tip—encourage communication between those moderators and the platform people, so they know exactly what will be taking place.)


Think about providing transcripts. Pre-recording sessions means event organizers can arrange for text chats, closed-captioning, even ASL interpretation. Even if you do the presentations live, providing transcripts later is enthusiastically welcomed. And there is now a wide range of AI tools that can provide accurate transcripts.

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Tips for Increasing Your Subscriber Base

“Be thoughtful about what you’re giving away for free and why. Freemium and free trials are all the rage, and virtually every digital news organization has some content that’s not behind the paywall. Great. But make sure you understand the return on this investment. A free trial is a taste of something to prove it’s as good as you said and to help someone new to understand what it ‘tastes like.’ But once they’ve tasted, they don’t need to taste it again. Too many readers game the system, clearing cookies and rotating through devices and news sources each month to avoid paying.”

That quote comes from best-selling author and speaker Robbie Kellman Baxter—she even keynoted a past SIPA Conference—in an article she wrote for the site What’s New in Publishing titled What Publishers Can Learn From Other Sectors.

A recent report from the Shorenstein Center at Harvard and Lenfest Institute agreed with her. Most publishers are too generous and need to stop more readers to force conversion, the report said. It spoke about the importance of having a high stop rate—the percentage of all digital users who are “stopped” by a subscription prompt, a paywall or a meter limit. The report found that the organizations that are stopping more people have stronger digital businesses.

Here are more audience and content tips from Kellman Baxter and others:

“Don’t hide the cancel button or lock-in membership,” writes Kellman Baxter. “Netflix takes this to an extreme, in the best way. You can only subscribe monthly—there is no ‘annual’ option, and every time they change the model or raise prices, they remind subscribers that they are free to ‘cancel anytime.’ Why? Besides being the ethical approach, members who feel locked in will eventually break free. When they do, they will loudly share their story, and they’re unlikely to return. Make it easy to leave and easy to return.”

Make your content valuable and affordable. “If [one of your customers] doesn’t want to buy your content because [she] says it’s too expensive, then maybe you need to do some soul searching in your content,” said Grey Montgomery, president, data & research division, Farm Journal. “My audience in a lot of ways can’t afford it but they do because we also pitch back, for example, ‘If you follow all of our hedging strategies with your size crop, this is how much you would have made. Therefore by investing the $500 you’ll make $5,000.'”

Work on your welcome message. “30% of onsite digital subscriptions originate from ‘welcome’ messages that provide an introduction to new readers, and ‘warn’ messages that serve as reminders as the reader approaches the meter limit,” the Shorenstein report said. They urge you to test multiple strategies to determine the most effective marketing messages. “Browser overlays and customized warnings have proven effective, particularly those that underscore meter limits for individual users and offer customized options for unique subscriptions based on the reader’s profile and viewing history.”

“Start with customer experience and work backwards to the technology,” Steve Jobs told a large audience in 1997. “You can’t start with the technology and figure out where you’re going to sell out. I’ve made this mistake maybe more than anyone else in this room… And as we have tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple, it started with, ‘What incredible benefits can we give to the customer? Where can we take the customer?’ Not let’s start with sitting down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have and how we’re going to market that.”

“Be willing to cut even as you add,” writes Kellman Baxter. “Many publishers are organized based on what was (and maybe no longer is) the best bundling of value for readers. For example, a regional paper might have a little world news, a little national, a little politics, and a smattering of lifestyle, sports and business. Today, [audiences] have so many choices, and the freedom to get deep expertise in the areas that matter most. If you can’t provide differentiated content worth paying for in every department, consider dropping that content.”


Delegating and Hitting ‘Pause’ Can Both Provide More Valuable Time

A year ago, Fast Company posted an article titled How to Redesign Your Days to Give You Back a Few Extra Hours Every Week. The author listed five categories where we can make changes:

Quit Something
Limit Something
Pause Something
Delegate Something
Add Something

Contemplating these five areas is a good way to start the new year. Let’s take a closer look.

For Quit Something, they wrote “Quit a recurring meeting. Quit a committee. Quit Facebook. Quit Candy Crush.” Facebook and Asana (which was founded by a Facebook co-founder) both have a company-wide policy of no meetings on Wednesdays. You can also quit a poor habit or policy. Diversifying your speakers might be a good place to start. Take some extra time to do research to find new speakers for your next webinar, podcast or event. With those new speakers might just come a new audience. I visited an art exhibit yesterday titled The Outwin 2019: American Portraiture Today. And you can just see how the diverse content attracts—and engages—a diverse audience.

For Limit Something, how about email? Almost 85% percent of the people surveyed by Adobe Insights check their email before they get to work, and nearly a quarter take a look before they even get out of bed in the morning. People text or check personal email while watching TV (60%), talking on the phone (35%), working out (16%), and yes—I see it more every day—driving (14%). “Why is email so ingrained in our lives?” Kristin Naragon of Adobe Campaign asks. “One reason may be that it’s so manageable—we can sort, file, filter, and generally get things done.”

For the Pause Something, they wrote: “[Go] on a walk in the middle of the day. [Give] yourself permission to run an errand during your lunch break. Stopping for a moment to assert your ability to do the non-urgent reduces the sense that everything has to happen at a frenetic pace, and that there’s no time to slow down.” Writes prominent author and speaker Daniel Pink from his book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing: “Research shows us that social breaks are better than solo breaks—taking a break with somebody else is more restorative than doing it on your own.” A trip to the office kitchen—where there is always someone—stimulates my thought processes. Or, if you’re home, finding a community at the coffee shop.

Delegate Something might have the most potential of any category. I’m guilty of this myself. I run a couple local Meetup groups for the arts and volunteering here in the Washington, D.C. area. One is quite large and the other much smaller, so naturally I spend much of my free time on the larger one. A woman messaged me and said she noticed there isn’t much activity on the smaller one. Could she help?

My first reaction was, “Oh I have this plan for that group and I will implement it soon. So I will tell her that and say thanks.” And then I recalled that I was saying this six months ago and nothing has happened. I have continued to just pay attention to the bigger group and only think about what I want to do with the smaller one.

Someone was offering to help me, nothing was getting done, and I had to think about it? “As you plan your day, ask yourself: Is this something that I really need to do myself, or could someone else do this instead?” Fast Company wrote.

For Add Something, are you doing push alerts? “Push alerts show up in spaces where the interruption is hard to ignore: your phone’s locked screen while you’re trying to fall asleep, your smartwatch while you’re in a meeting, a popup while you’re answering an email,” writes Rachel Schallom, deputy editor for digital at Fortune Media, in NiemanLab’s excellent Our Predictions for Journalism 2020 series. “Long story short: If someone doesn’t want to receive a push alert, they’ll change their settings. An underrated metric in measuring an alert strategy’s success is simply the number of subscribers a push notification list has. Editors can also look at the lifecycle of an alert subscriber: How long do they stay subscribed? How often do they change their settings?”