For millennia, humans shared stories in order to stay alive. It’s how we earned trust, forged relationships and passed on knowledge. Since the beginning of our time, sharing stories is how we learned to live with each other and the world around us.
There’s a lot of hype around storytelling these days, largely driven by myriad new modes and outlets for sharing stories. The hype is ridiculous. How many headlines have touted storytelling as the new solution for connecting with customers? Some even read like Onion headlines, tantamount to: New study shows oxygen improves CEO’s respiration!
Storytelling is what makes us unique in the animal kingdom. It has been around since the glow on our faces was from fire, not liquid crystal, and it will be around as long as there are human beings on this beleaguered planet. What is new about storytelling is the way it’s embodied in marketing innovation, digital transformation, and other relatively novel concepts related to business success.
If we accept the assumption that sharing stories is what makes us human, then we can strip away some of the hype and confusion surrounding the way digital influences our existence — as people striving to live meaningful, happy lives, and as communications professionals seeking to inspire action.
Factors like placement, timing and visual execution affect the likelihood of a story finding its intended audience, but none of that matters if the story doesn’t adhere to three vital principals.
A story must be unique to earn attention. To get noticed, a story must rise above the media maelstrom to puncture the "total noise," as David Foster Wallace put it. That doesn’t mean being sensationalist to grab attention. It doesn’t mean amplifying the volume to eleven. And it doesn’t mean repackaging tired platitudes to catch the back side of a hype wave. The story must express an original point of view in order to warrant a second glance out in the wild.
Take this Airbnb video, which evokes the myriad charms and delights of Paris using a zoetrope. Or this Honda spot that transforms cut paper into an animated history of the company’s innovations. You don’t have to employ archaic animation devices, but you do have to express a novel attitude, offer fresh insight, or provide an innovative juxtaposition that helps the audience understand an idea in an unexpected way.
There may be nothing new under the sun — especially in this age of internet immediacy — but there will always be new ways to share old ideas.
A story must be genuine to be believed. Dare to share a story that reveals something illuminating about the human condition — something genuine, something real in a marketing industry chock full of insincerity. It’s the personal, not the general, that has the potential for creating meaningful connections. In his book 'Storytelling for Sustainability', Jeff Leinaweaver writes, "What backfires is when people realize the hero was actually being disingenuous or inauthentic … People don’t want to be sold a story."
When crafting the North American Eagle story for Satya Nadella’s keynote at the Microsoft World Partner Conference this year, we started with an unguarded moment that captures the danger involved in attempting to break the land-speed record — a quixotic endeavor that would feel hollow without addressing the risk involved. In our initial interview, intrepid driver Jesse Combs admitted, "I don’t want to die, but I’m not afraid of it." In a single sentence, she reveals her honest emotions, and the story leaps to life.
A story must be compelling to change behavior. Think how many Super Bowl ads cause water-cooler babble without managing to communicate which brand paid $1 million plus to entertain us for 30 seconds. The spots might have been unique and genuinely interesting, but they didn’t connect the story to action — they failed to compel us to do anything after the chuckle or sigh.
The best stories make us feel something, and then offer a catharsis for that feeling with a path to resolution. In this PSA, from Ireland’s Road Safety Authority, the charm of a quotidian afternoon is ruptured, but the payoff makes it clear how we can avoid such tragic consequences by changing our behavior.
I’ll close with a challenge and call to arms: Don’t add to the noise — tell stories that matter to you, and they’re more likely to matter to the rest of us.
Rob Dalton is executive creative director at Wire Stone.