The plot quickens

Voyager 1's Golden Record.
Voyager 1's Golden Record.

The best way to communicate is through the heart, not the head; by stirring passion and emotion rather than appealing to reason and logic. Enter the art of storytelling

If you had to write an ad for the human race, what would it be? This was the problem confronting NASA in 1977 when it dispatched the Voyager 1 space probe on its journey beyond the solar system. It carried aboard a Golden Record containing an assortment of mankind’s proudest achievements. NASA didn’t regard it as an ad, of course, but that is essentially what it was.

The scientists at NASA — under the guidance of Carl Sagan — filled it with things that make the heart soar. Mozart, Beethoven and Blind Willie Johnson. Louis Armstrong and the Budapest String Quartet. Chuck Berry.

As all good advertisers do, they sold the sizzle, not the sausage.

Forty thousand years from now, the people of the star system Gliese 445 will be boogying on down to Chuck Berry.

The rocket scientists also included a recording of a human heart. It might well be the last one ever heard in our galaxy. This addition pleases me greatly. As someone who has devoted a lifetime to the business of communication, I have not the slightest doubt that the heart is the seat of our emotions, the location of all our love and joy. And if we want to move people, we have to touch their hearts by telling great stories.

Not many scientists agree with me. For them, the heart is just a pump. For the past 200 years, the tendency has been to privilege the head above the heart, reason and logic over passion and emotion. But for most of human history, it has been the other way round. The ancient Egyptians had no respect for the brain at all. When you died, they scooped it out through your nostrils and threw it away. The heart, on the other hand, was considered sacred.

With the revolutionary advance of social media, this is no longer an academic distinction. It is central to everything we do. These days, we can’t afford to be dull or we will get clicked to death.

Storytelling is still the greatest means yet devised for getting information into someone else’s head and getting them to remember it. The reason we don’t appreciate stories is obvious. We think they belong in the nursery. So how can they have a place as serious business tools?

Another problem is that we enjoy stories. So, just like with chocolates, we assume they can’t be good for us.

Watching a PowerPoint presentation is like eating our greens. Listening to stories is like eating chocolates. It makes us feel guilty.

No, they can’t be serious business tools!

We prefer to think of ourselves as logical, rational beings. We have been brought up to think the way to persuade people is through facts and logic. That’s what they teach us in school. But it is wrong. Facts and logic are essential in many walks of life. I don’t think I would like to step on a plane designed by someone who had no regard for them. But they are pretty poor persuaders. They don’t move you. We find them hard to remember.

Think of all those dates they made you learn in history. How many can you remember now? Think of the Trojan War. What year was that? But we all remember the story of the Trojan Horse.

Or think about the most extreme case of all. Imagine you are on trial for your life. If you get it wrong, they give you a last cigarette and send you to Old Sparky. What do you do? You hire a professional storyteller.

A trial lawyer. Does he give the jury a bullet-point list of dates, phone logs and forensic evidence? No, he weaves the facts into a compelling story about the night in question.

It is no coincidence that there are so many riveting courtroom scenes in movies. It is pure drama.

Yes, when a person’s life is at stake, we naturally turn to story. And yet, quite often, we are reluctant to trust it in business. We prefer things we can measure, don’t we? Because we have been told that is the grown-up way. The scientific way.

This view is a legacy of an advertising pioneer from the '20s named Claude C Hopkins, who wrote a book called Scientific Advertising. For Hopkins, the apotheosis of the scientific method in advertising was the coupon. Something that could be examined and measured in the lab. Something that could be handed over to statisticians.

For Hopkins, the cardinal sin for ad­vertisers was to be entertaining: "Ad writers… forget they are salesmen and try to be performers. Instead of sales, they seek applause."

Showboating. Of course, advertising cannot be purely entertainment; it is a business, after all. But Ogilvy & Mather was founded by a man who knew the value of both. He started out in life at about the same time as Hopkins. He earned his spurs selling Aga cookers door to door in Scotland during the lean times of the Great Depression. He learned all about the bottom line. "If you don’t sell," he once said, "you don’t eat."

If you read his famous sales training manual, "The Theory and Practice of Selling the Aga Cooker" (and you will be richly entertained if you do), you’ll see he also knew how to tell a great story. He was entertaining. Urbane. He had charm, in fact.

And charm can get you a long way. In those days, salesmen in the US notoriously used to wedge their foot in the door to stop the housewife slamming it shut. Well, that is one way of making a sale. But isn’t charm better?

To really move someone, you have to tickle the toes. And touch the heart, not the head.

In recent years, this view has received support from an unlikely quarter: the neuroscientists. They tell us that our brains are hardwired to understand the world through story. Man is the storytelling ape. It is the software that runs on the brain. Think of all the raw sensory data flooding into your eyes and ears and nose every second of the day. Think of it as Play-Doh. The brain doesn’t show you the Play-Doh. It takes it and shapes it first, then it shows you.

This is quite a profound discovery. The world you see is an interpretation. It’s like the brain takes all the information and makes a movie out of it. And it edits the movie using the grammar of storytelling.

The whole thing involves a lot of guesswork. In one part of the brain, you get visual input. You see a cat, a dog, a radio and a parrot. The dog opens its mouth, the cat leaps away. Elsewhere in the brain, you get the input from the ears. You hear a "woof."

Your mind creates a story from this. It tells you the dog woofed and the cat jumped. But it really is only a story. There’s no way of knowing the bark came from the dog. It could have come from the radio. Or the parrot.

When you listen to a story, you enter an altered state, like a trance. Authors call it the fictive dream. And this is the point. When someone gives you a list of facts to convince you of something, you tend to be sceptical and demand proof. When someone says the words "Once upon a time," your skeptical side dissolves and you become childlike and gullible. You trust and believe.

If someone tells you he has just met the most beautiful girl in the world, you laugh.

If you read "Once upon a time, there was a queen who was the most beautiful in all the land," you don’t challenge it. A different part of your brain takes over.

For these reasons, information imparted in a story is more easily absorbed, you find it easier to recall, you remember it longer, and you are more likely to trust it.

Stories are emotion delivery vehicles. That’s how they weave their magic. It’s why we pay good money to cry at movies. Emotion is the engine that moves people — just ask any fascist dictator. They don’t waste time giving the crowd facts and figures about the country’s GDP. No, they rouse the mob to a fury with a story about the paradise that awaits them all once they have killed the enemies of the state.

Passion – which, of course, is just emotion on overdrive – makes people do terrible or wonderful things.

But the beauty of story is the way it gives us all a thrilling ride in the safety of our armchairs.

This emotional experience is what people seek when they watch a film or a TV commercial. It’s what makes the best ads so memorable and social media so addictive. It’s no coincidence that videos featuring cute animals go viral.

You can sleep with Helen of Troy or George Clooney, die in battle, travel to the stars or back in time, and scream in terror while knowing that you are perfectly safe. It’s as if the story unfolds in a walled garden of the mind. Inside, you believe it. Outside the garden, you know it’s only make-believe.

The job of storytellers and admen is to keep the reader or listener locked in the walled garden. Seasoned storytellers do it the way drug dealers do it: by keeping you hooked on pleasure. The drug of choice is dopamine, the brain’s pleasure hormone.

The various tricks of the storyteller’s trade – such as twists, turns, reversals and cliffhangers – are all methods of getting the brain to secrete a little squirt of dopamine. It’s the reason you can’t stop checking your Facebook status. If someone has "liked" you, it gives you a little dopamine hit and, five minutes later, you are checking again, hoping someone else likes you.

That, in a nutshell, is the power of social media. It’s why people walk down the street staring at their phone. Why they check Facebook while having sex. Everyone does that, right? Well, apparently more and more people are doing it.

In this age of social media, a brand’s very survival depends on the ability to tell a good story. With the un­precedented power and opportunity opened up by social media, we should perhaps call today the Titanium Age.

The late, great David Abbott once said young creatives tend to use humour because they don’t trust their emotions. It’s true. A lot of ads use humour to great effect; we all love to laugh. But it’s even better if you can make people cry. This is what O&M’s work for Dove did. The platform for the "real beauty" campaign was built on a truth that genuinely moved the women who took part, some even to tears.

As befits an article on storytelling, I will conclude with a "happy ever after," but one with a twist. It concerns arguably one of the most powerful ads ever written, for Sport Club do Recife, which inspired 50,000 people to carry organ-donor cards. The creative team could have chosen any number of conventional routes, but they were more ambitious. They looked for something huge. They told a great story that touched the heart. And they used social media to amplify the message. Look what happened.

Something literally life-changing.

They made it possible for some people to live happily ever after, even after they die.

Tham Khai Meng is the worldwide chief creative officer at Ogilvy & Mather.

This article first appeared on

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