The La Marzocca Problem

By Patrick Thomas. Issue 003.

Welcome to The Story is the Strategy, a weekly newsletter about becoming a world-class business communicator. My mission is to help you become a remarkable storyteller and significantly increase your professional impact. Learn more here.

New Writing

No new blog posts this week, as I’ve been busy working on several different speeches in my day job. I do have a couple nearly finished draft posts ready to share soon. The first looks at Mark Zuckerberg’s awkward attempt at humor during Facebook’s F8 Developer Conference last month. I’m not sure it was just a bad joke that bombed; it may provide some interesting clues about how Facebook thinks about privacy.

The second is a more workmanlike post about how to use empathy to convey impact to busy people (like the senior leadership in your company). This will be useful to everyone as a foundation for good storytelling. But it’ll be especially helpful if you work in a big company, doubly so if it’s in the tech industry (hey, they say to write what you know).

I’ll publish both. But if either of these sounds more interesting to you, let me know and I’ll prioritize accordingly!

Put it to Work

Naming a problem can be a powerful way to compress the problem space into a memorable term. This is great because you’re giving your audience a new way to quickly describe a complex topic, which is really valuable in business communication. And, even if you aren’t the first to identify the problem, your audience will remember your term and (hopefully) associate it with you.

The trick is not to go overboard. It only works when you take a complex problem and make the name simple and catchy. Here’s a real-world example. There’s a famous memo that Howard Schultz, former CEO of Starbucks, sent to his leadership team detailing his concerns about the iconic brand. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here’s the relevant part for us:

“For example, when we went to automatic espresso machines, we solved a major problem in terms of speed of service and efficiency. At the same time, we overlooked the fact that we would remove much of the romance and theatre that was in play with the use of the La Marzocca machines. This specific decision became even more damaging when the height of the machines, which are now in thousands of stores, blocked the visual sight line the customer previously had to watch the drink being made, and for the intimate experience with the barista.”

Howard Schultz has done the heavy lifting with a brilliant observation about how little efficiency changes can slowly kill the magic of a brand. You could call this the “La Marzocca problem.” Now, whenever you reference this phenomenon (small efficiencies undermining an overall brand experience), you have a little anecdote and a compact and memorable phrase to describe it to your audience.


Story basics. Here’s an old and fun Twitter thread from Emma Coats (now a Googler who’s the Editorial Lead for the Google Assistant’s Personality). She used to work at Pixar, and she shared tips on “story basics” she learned during her time there. My favorites:

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Getting started with empathy. You’ll know from Storytelling 101 that empathy is a foundation for good storytelling and business communication. Design thinking also embraces empathy as a starting point, and this article is a great way to help refine your own thinking about it.

As always, feedback is a gift. I’d love to hear your thoughts about anything in this newsletter, good or bad. I reply to every message I receive. Thank you!