Why Your Organization Needs to Embrace the Art of Story

If Seth Godin is right, and I believe he is, we now live in a post-industrial, “connection economy.” It thus behooves your organization–business, school, volunteer group, parish, what have you–to learn the language of connection.

Think about it: what do you connect with? What makes you feel like you’ve really established a bond with a person or an organization or a brand? 

For me, it’s the sense that I’ve been listened to and understood.

The sense that I’ve been valued.

The sense that someone is “speaking my language.”

In business, it’s the sense that a product or service or event taps into my most cherished interests and desires–followed by an impatience to share the experience with others.

But for a great connection to happen, there must be great communication. Someone has to speak or otherwise convey the understanding and the appreciation and the excitement that creates a bond. 

This usually doesn’t happen in a PowerPoint presentation. Or a white paper. Or a memo. Or a speech. Or a boilerplate newsletter. Or a banner ad. Or standard web copy. 

Perhaps sometimes, but not often. 

So where does it happen? 

The customary medium of great communication is that of a story.

Tell Us a Story

In a story, as screenwriting guru Robert McKee defines it, idea is wedded to emotion and a connection is made between two or more human beings. 

Godin argues that what drives the connection economy is “art.” Works of “art,” broadly defined, are works that communicate ideas that connect to our most cherished, most human interests and desires. 

And what’s the paradigmatic human art? Storytelling.

So this is my syllogism:

We live in a connection economy.

Connections are best made through great stories.

The connection economy requires great stories.

So how are you and your organization adjusting to the connection economy?

Are you relying on conventional advertising and conventional website presentation to spread your message, or are you really trying to connect to your audience through the power of great storytelling? 

In what ways is it possible for you to incorporate great stories in your media? Consider one famous example. 

1984

Drones in baggy grey uniforms stomp in formation as a weird techno-beat pulsates around them.

On an enormous video screen, a grey Big Brother pontificates about unity, ideology, and blah blah blah.

Suddenly a woman, chased by security guards, breaks through the crowd. She is a shock of color with her blonde hair, orange shorts, and white t-shirt. And she carries a sledgehammer.

Perhaps you remember the voiceover as we watch her race toward the video screen:

“On January 24th Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.” 

Finally comes the iconic moment when the woman spins around and heaves her sledgehammer into Big Brother on the video screen, and the screen explodes in a flash of light. 

Yes, this is the famous television ad for the Apple Macintosh, a commercial which first aired in January 1984 during the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII. Created by Lee Clow and his team at the Chiat/Day advertising agency, and directed by film director Ridley Scott, who had just made the hit movie Blade Runner, the Macintosh ad created a sensation. As Walter Isaacson reports in his biography of Steve Jobs, that very evening all three major television networks and fifty local stations carried stories about the ad. Eventually, TV Guide and Advertising Age would hail it as the greatest commercial of all time. And meanwhile, it helped make the reputation of the world’s most famous personal computer.

Why did the Macintosh ad create such a sensation?

Because it showed us a dramatic world populated by intriguing characters.

Because it compelled us by conflict.

And because it brought that conflict to a riveting climax.

In short, the Macintosh ad told us a story.

And it did it in less than 60 seconds.

What would you rather experience? Sixty seconds of “Buy my new computer!” Or 60 seconds of a short film?

I thought so. 

This is why your marketing needs to become enthralling, memorable storytelling.

Stories as Ethical Persuasion

But telling great stories involves more than knowing how to plot and create characters. These are essential ingredients, but more is necessary. For storytelling to be insanely great, it also has to be effective as ethical persuasion

What does that mean?

The word “ethical” comes from the Greek word ethos, which most literally means  “accustomed place” or “habitat.” One’s ethos is where one lives–not only physically, but also morally, socially and psychologically. Stories are forms of persuasion in that, through word and image and sometimes music, they try to convince us of the truth about something. As forms of ethical persuasion, stories try to convince us that a certain space or outlook should become our true “accustomed place.” 

With the Macintosh ad, Jobs didn’t just want to create a TV commercial; he wanted to draw us into an ethos.  

As Isaacson writes: 

the concept of the ad had a special resonance for [Jobs]. He fancied himself a rebel, and he liked to associate himself with the values of the ragtag band of hackers and pirates he recruited to the Macintosh group. Even though he had left the apple commune in Oregon to start the Apple corporation, he still wanted to be viewed as a denizen of the counterculture rather than the corporate culture.

But the Macintosh ad resonated with so many, not because everyone who saw it was persuaded that he belonged to the hippie (or former hippie) counter-culture–though no doubt many who saw it were so persuaded. The ad resonated with so many because it hit upon a fundamental truth about being human, namely:

That human beings are not made to be drones in service to Big Brother–political or corporate.

That a truly human life prizes creativity and individuality over mindless compliance to those who would seek to control us.   

Who doesn’t want to be a shock of color in a grey world? 

The Macintosh ad was successful because it compellingly tapped into this truth about our “accustomed place” as human beings. And the Macintosh itself was successful because it delivered on its promise to be a powerful instrument of creativity and individuality. 

Interestingly, too, the resonance of the ad depended to a great extent on the connection with George Orwell’s novel, 1984. The Macintosh ad manifests the techniques of great fiction, but it also pays deeper respect to the craft of storytelling by playing upon the themes of a great novel. Someone at Chiat/Day knew their literature, and that knowledge became a huge payoff for the Macintosh campaign. 

Now, what story do you want to tell? 

Why I May Not Be Able to Help Your Organization Tell Its Story

The use of storytelling techniques in branding and marketing is not anything new. (Hey friends from the ’80s, remember these?) Brand storytelling has been around for some time. Nevertheless, it’s currently enjoying a surge of interest. 

From those offering to teach storytelling techniques, some valuable things can be learned. For example, about the beauties of the Pixar Pitch. Or the need for even a blog post to have a beginning, middle and end. Or about the importance of making the visitor to your site feel like the hero of the story you want to tell them.

Yet the shortcoming with these sorts of approaches is this: storytelling is not reducible to a set of techniques. Harry Potter went from being a series of children’s books to becoming a worldwide pop culture icon not merely because J.K. Rowling learned that “if you want to hook your audience, you have to keep them in suspense.” 

The Harry Potter books became a sensation, in large part, because in writing them J.K. Rowling struck some deep chords in our shared humanity. Ultimately, Rowling wanted to persuade us of the truth, goodness and beauty of a certain ethos, one in which sacrifice for those we love–even to the point of death–is the highest expression of human nature. This ethos is not a set of techniques. You don’t pick it up like chess or cupcake baking. An ethos, again, is an “accustomed place,” the place where one lives not only physically but psychologically, morally, spiritually. It is a way of being in the world. 

And that is why I may not be able to help you with your brand marketing. Because while I want to talk with you about how storytelling can be an invaluable asset to your organization, I also want to talk with you about telling stories that will resonate with us as people, and not just customers, clients or leads. Some may not be interested in doing this much work. Others will only be interested in an ethos which panders to our less noble appetites.

But for those who wish to explore storytelling as ethical persuasion, as a way of speaking to the deepest motives of our shared human nature, then I just might be able to be of service to your organization.

COME REVEL IN THE CRAFT OF STORYTELLING (IT’S FREE!)

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