Rob Dalton / October 7, 2015

Don’t be fooled by the ridiculous hype around storytelling

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.

Our current “digital age” is the width of an eyelash on that sweeping arc of history. In the past century, we have largely severed our connection to the natural world, and the sudden onslaught of electronic communication has engendered a paradigm shift in human relations. Everything has changed, and the evolution is just getting started.

Many let themselves get pushed along by shifting media currents, with little critical thought about the technology that shapes every minute of our lives. It has become accepted behavior to walk down the street while staring at a small glowing rectangle. It has become commonplace to favor brief, inconsequential communications delivered by our holy devices at the expense of being present for the “real world” around us. Sustained eye contact is becoming a lost art.

Collectively, we seem to have already chosen the blue pill.

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: 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.

How do these modern constructs relate to the fundamental human needs that remain constant, despite the sea change around us?

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. Whether it’s a tweet, website, app, or video, you must share a coherent, authentic story to connect with an audience.

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 Honda spot, for example, 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 is the personal, not the general, that has the potential for creating meaningful connections.

“What backfires is when people realize the hero was actually being inauthentic… People don’t want to be sold a story.”

Dr. Jeff Leinaweaver

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 Jessi Combs admitted,  “I don’t want to die, but I’m not afraid of it.” In a single sentence, Jesse 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 $1M+ 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 sincere sigh.

The best stories make us feel something, and then offer a catharsis for that feeling with a path to resolution. In this lyrical PSA, the charm of a quotidian afternoon is ruptured, but the payoff makes it clear how we can avoid such a tragic consequence by changing our behavior.

How would life be different if we all shared stories of substance?

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.